The Bionic Man
BLOC coach Adam Skillin discusses his client’s journey through a difficult injury rehab.
The Bionic Man
By: Adam Skillin
When Joe Zirkle was 16, he was injured in a bad car accident. He suffered a burst fracture of his L2 vertebra, which means it compressed until it shattered.
The repair consisted of the fusion of five vertebrae, from T12 through L4. Due to the titanium rods screwed to his spinal column, he has no ability to flex, extend, or twist a significant portion of his back. For the nine years following the surgery, he experienced relatively frequent bouts of intense back pain and spasms, typically after performing strenuous activity. Joe owns a farm and nursery and volunteers as a firefighter, so strenuous activity is a daily necessity for him.
Joe explored regimens of yoga, calisthenics, and mobility work in his attempts to find a solution for the chronic pain. None of these were successful. In May 2017, he decided to try a different approach. Armed with a smartphone and tripod, a junky barbell, some old iron plates, and a gun-rack style squat rack, he signed up with Barbell Logic.
Upon joining the Barbell Logic community, Joe—a generally fit and active young man of 25—weighed about 155 pounds at his height of 5’11. His commitment was immediately evident. He almost never missed workouts, unless he’d been out all night on a fire call, in which case he made them up the next day despite the lack of appropriate rest. He never complained about the weight being too heavy, or quit on a rep he could have finished. Joe was an extremely coachable client, and he sailed smoothly through his novice programming, taking his 3×5 squats from 135 lb to 265 lb while gaining about 20 pounds of body weight.
After Joe completed the workout that included the 265 lb squats, he found that he had aggravated something in his lower back. While it’s not uncommon for back tightness to present at some point during a lifter’s training, we proceeded with caution in light of his injury history. After a few more attempts at letting the issue resolve on its own while continuing to add weight to the bar, it was clear that a little time off from low-bar squatting was necessary. Oddly, Joe’s deadlift caused him no issues—perhaps in part because he is unable to flex the portion of his spine that lifters so often have trouble holding in the correct anatomical position.
I assigned him high-bar squats (taking a few necessary pounds off the bar) for the next several workouts, hoping this change in back position would help alleviate the issue. After about two weeks of high-bar squatting, Joe made the decision to try low-bar squats again. I would have preferred for him to wait at least a few more weeks, but Joe’s resolution borders on stubbornness. He was able to resume low-bar squats without incident and continued making progress. By October 28, at a body weight of almost 200 lb, Joe squatted a nearly perfect
“3 sets of 5” with 355 lb on the bar.
Joe’s programming has moved on to more complex rep and set schemes, and he’ll have squatted four plates by the time this article reaches you. He has made necessary upgrades to his garage gym and found some larger clothes to cover his larger frame. The strength he’s acquired has made him more capable of his work as a farmer and firefighter—but most notably, Joe describes his episodes of back pain as “almost non-existent.”
Many people in both the medical and fitness industries would never have advised Joe to put a heavy barbell on top of his fused spine. Joe’s story is remarkable not because he reached some elite level of strength. He does intend to compete at some point, but his motivation is intrinsic, and not connected to the pursuit of titles or trophies. What’s remarkable about Joe is that the correct application of stimulus significantly altered his physical circumstances for the better. Joe’s achievements thus far, and his continued progress, highlight the transformative nature of barbell training, the value of commitment to consistency in habits, and the simple reality that a stronger body results in a stronger quality of life.