Let’s Talk About the Slippery Slope of Fitness

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In 2004 I discovered Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I weighed 155 pounds. I was a rookie cop. My workouts were mostly running and nautilus machines. Anyhow, I overcame my social anxiety and went to my first BJJ class. Then my second. Third. I kept going regularly. It was half an hour of conditioning and then an hour and a half of drills, skills and sparring. As the months progressed, my 5’08” frame dropped to 145 very lean, sinewy pounds. That same year I took a body fat test at my work. I scored between four and five percent. I was pleased to hear this for all the wrong reasons.

I looked in the mirror. I saw my body and I still felt fat. I saw none of the fighter’s physique I had built, only imperfections. I still sucked in my non-existent gut when shirtless. I still tried to make sure I sat in the position when at the beach that would minimize unsightly stomach rolls. This was, all of it, insane.

The warm-ups we did in jiu jitsu class were from our “mother gym” in Santa Cruz. Some rumored, mad genius was running a conditioning class there. He was said to have been fired from a Globo-Gym for having a spin class that made people vomit. His programming was totally brutal, they said. MMA fighters flocked to the programming, they said. “They” were correct. It was brutal. And people from the MMA/BJJ scene flocked to it.

People like me, people who looked in the mirror and saw nothing but the flaws in our bodies flocked to this scene as well. I found the website. I followed the programming. I died for points, for a faster time than the next guy, another rep on some movement squeezed out at the last second. I always felt on the low end of the bell curve when I read the results of the Supermen on the daily workout comments, but the sore muscles I had at all times were badges of honor. I did workouts with women’s names and went to BJJ – and eventually MMA – class for two hours about four days a week. But I still felt fat, so I counted my calories religiously.

I tried to follow the prescribed diet. It was called “The Zone”. There were scales involved. I didn’t want to do the scales (I am lazier than this sounds) so I just made sure I didn’t eat too much and as few carbohydrates as possible. Carbs were bad, I was told. Lean protein with a formulaic addition of approved fat was good, I was told. There were “do” and “don’t” ideas about eating. Eating was treated as an unfortunate thing one had to do to stay alive, mere race-octane gas for the athlete, not a thing that a person should take any real measure of joy in partaking in.

Flashback to age 15. Flashback to puking in the toilet. Flashback to puking in the sink and bathtub. Flashback to looking in the mirror at my 135lb frame seeing a fat kid. This was, all of it, insane.

Despite all this training and focus on health, I really didn’t sleep well. My depression worsened exponentially over the years of this lifestyle. Granted, work was a major contributor to my mental health issues. But exercise, BJJ, MMA, killing myself to get a better “Jane” or “Bianca” time, these were all supposed to be my healthy outlets for the stresses I had at work. Yet, general muscle soreness turned to injuries that would sideline my training for days, a week, and then I would stress that I was going to get fat.

About a year into my induction into this exercise scene, I cut way back on martial arts and focused primarily on the sport of exercise. I began to run a conditioning class before my shift, teaching these workouts and movements to coworkers. They all lost some weight. They all got somewhat fitter. They experienced the same descent from aches and pains to actual injury. And I assured them it was normal and healthier in the long run to keep going balls out at all times.

One day before a shift I attempted to perform a sub-seven minute workout consisting of deadlifting 225lbs forty-five times and doing the same amount of handstand pushups in three rounds. I was about 155lbs at the time. At deadlift rep forty-three, something pulled in my back. I felt immediate pain. But I wasn’t done with the workout. I was so close and on track to meet my goal. I picked up the barbell again, yelped and fell to the floor.

I went home on sick leave. My wife at the time had to put my shoes on my feet for over a week. I needed help getting out of bed. I did my best to walk the dogs but they pulled on the leash sometimes and it hurt. I shuffled around the house. I ate as little as possible. I had to be leaner, I was convinced. I had to maintain visible abdominal muscles to have a healthy back. I was sure of this. I heard all this advice about having a strong “core”. And there was no way to build a strong core with movements like Pilates or yoga or any of that hippy-dippy crap and what nots. Weeks later, I was healthy enough to go back to work. I delved back into the sport of exercise.

In 2007 I was transferred to the gang investigations unit. I began to live the detective’s life. I was only able to work out about three or four days a week. I stopped going to BJJ and MMA entirely. My weight sky-rocketed to an insanely fat 163lbs on a 5’08” frame. Panicked, I killed myself in the gym when I could make it there, trying to maintain my workout benchmarks. I didn’t want to be any slower at these workouts than I was as a patrolman. I lightly strained my back a few more times. I developed tendonitis in my elbows from kipping pull-ups, endless kipping pull-ups. My neck locked down a few times from bad jerks or snatches. My shoulders hurt constantly from overhead squats. I stopped deadlifting completely due to fear of another long stint on the proverbial DL. I rarely lifted anything heavier than my bodyweight. My one-rep max squat hovered at around 225lbs. I was afraid of that movement also.

One night, in early 2010, I got called out to a shooting. When I arrived, there was a dead body and a pool of blood where the second, still living, victim was taken from. There was locked door of an adjacent apartment the patrol guys told me the shooter went into. My partner and I were in disbelief that the sergeant at the scene was waiting for the SWAT team, allegedly, but failed to establish a perimeter. So Danny, the partner, and I made an impromptu entry team to breach the door and look for the murderer.

This door, it was a goddamn fortress. I booted it ten times or so. It only gave a tad. I picked up the ram tool from my trunk. I hit it another ten times. Patrol guys stacked up behind us. Eventually the door gave in around the time I became truly embarrassed. I threw the ram down inside the entryway and went in. The place was empty and the back door open. Fortunately, we identified the suspect from the property he left behind. (Eventually, he was arrested in Oregon, but not before he killed another guy.)

The next day, on minimal sleep, about three hours, I was sore but I went to work. I was used to being sore. I shuffled around. The pain in my back was nagging, dull. Despite all of this, I went to the gym. I did one movement called a “thruster” with thirty-five pound dumbbells from the daily  sport of exercise website update. I yelped and collapsed to the ground.

I went to the ER. They told me I had a back injury (DURRRR!). They referred me to the occupational health clinic. I kept telling them something was very wrong. Four visits in, which was about two weeks later, I got a MRI. The test showed I had a bulging disk and a herniated disk, L4-L5 and L5-S1. My doctor couldn’t believe it. She said I had the back of an old man. I went home that night and I shuffled up to the bathroom mirror. I was out of the workout game until further notice. I was out of the policing game until further notice. I knew that something had to change.

I spent the first few weeks of immobility thinking about what my job was like, really trying to deduce how to be sure that I could make it to retirement and be effective and healthy. I had an epiphany: police work was not soldiering. My career was thirty years long, not a four year enlistment. I had never been on a marathon ruck-sack march or been in a multi-day firefight. My job was based around sitting or standing with random, frequent dumps of adrenaline punctuated by periods of strenuous physical activity such as sprinting, fighting and ramming doors down…

Kinda like football.

I rehabbed slowly, for over a year. I read websites about being stronger. I stopped looking in the mirror as best as I could. I stopped stepping on scales. I lifted weights, light at first but then heavier and heavier. I even experimented with the dreaded deadlift. When I didn’t feel like I was going to explode my disks out of my spine, I continued to deadlift and then squat. And I ate with abandon.

I found another related website primarily focused on building a powerful body. I followed the program for months. I started to set personal bests in all the heavy lifts. One day, I took my shirt off and looked in the mirror. I felt fat. I wanted to vomit in the toilet. Instead, I put my shirt back on and said, “Fuck it,” under my breath. I kept lifting and eating in defiance of my broken brain telling me to maintain my eating disorder. At work I got accused of being on steroids by several cops.

Flashback to age 15. It was the mid Nineties. Every popular depiction of supposedly attractive males and females showed how skinny they were. I stuck my fingers down my throat back then because I wanted to look like them and I didn’t like myself. But my shoulders and pelvis were too damn wide to look the part despite the fact I was a strict vegetarian with a “perfect” diet consisting mostly of bread and Top Ramen.

Twenty years later, I am the strong version of me. I’m also the fattest I have ever been! Oh well; I sleep better than I ever have. I am no longer on depression medication and I am happy despite a total emotional ass-kicker of a year. And though I try to not eat the things the fitness gurus (well, Eva and Robb) tell me I’m not supposed to, I make no taboos when it comes to my diet, because I recognize the absolutely slippery slope the “criminalization” of food is for me. I look in the mirror and I focus on the fact that I look big. Mean. Tough. I like it.

Last week I carried the ram from the trunk of my car at the head of a swarm of cops and FBI agents to a solid-wood core housing project door. I knocked and announced, “Police! Search warrant!” I didn’t get an answer. I cocked back the ram and aimed it at the sweet spot just below the doorknob. It flew open on the first hit. My gun came out of the holster and I bounded inside. Calls of “CLEAR” filled the unit in a matter of about twenty seconds.

In 2007, I was never the guy who was given the ram. Now there’s never a question. That fucker is mine.

Big. Mean. Tough.

I like it.

Dan Silver is a cop, author, poet, satirist and the first man on the moon. He is lying about one of these things. Read his ramblings at dangersilver.com. Read his poetry at danielbsilver.com/Poetry. Follow him @dangersilver. He is not above eating bread but tries to keep it in exclusively pizza form and to a minimum so Eva doesn’t get mad.

NEN Workout:

Walk 1 hour


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