After my long-awaited exchange surgery, I said goodbye to the horrid tissue expanders once and for all (longest 10 weeks of my life, without a doubt). Implants were installed, and while this surgery wasn’t nearly as traumatic as my bilateral mastectomies, it still had a punch.
The tissue on the right side didn’t heal properly after the mastectomy, so during the exchange surgery, the doctor had to create a a breast wall. Otherwise the implant would have slid right under my armpit – not good! Unfortunately, I had a lot of pain and discomfort from this extra surgical work in my armpit area that lasted for months, especially when wearing a bra. I required another six weeks of physical therapy to work through scar tissue and loosen the right breast, which was becoming hard and inflexible. We feared capsular contracture, but thankfully, excellent soft tissue work helped me avoid a third surgery.
Adjusting to a New Upper Body
After six weeks of recovery and more PT, I was ready to hit the gym regularly again. It wasn’t easy, and I felt like a fish out of water for weeks. I disappeared from a place I went four times a week for basically three months, only to return with diminished muscle mass and perkier breasts. What did people think of me? But I pushed forward, keeping my head down and focusing on myself.
For the first three weeks, I simply got used to moving my body in ways that were familiar but now more difficult. I was accustomed to a 10-minute dynamic warm-up and tough workouts that included seven or eight unassisted pull-ups. Now I had to move carefully to stretch my stiff upper body and my warm-up itself was challenging. My chest was weak and my implants shifted spastically when I flexed my pectoral muscles. This would be a slow process, but I was committed. And I began seeing changes within a few weeks in mobility and strength, which motivated me to keep pushing.
The goals for my first two weeks of training after reconstruction were (1) full-body conditioning and (2) practicing movement patterns while assessing my range of motion. This should be your goal too, when training after a layoff or as a beginner. I didn’t know what I was capable of after a double mastectomy and found that my pectorals really were not ready for dedicated training right away. (I ended up waiting too long to train my pectorals, as you can read more about here.)
Keep in mind that my workouts aren’t the necessarily the best workouts for you. I had different priorities, experience, and preferences that may be different from yours. Be sure you always know why you’re doing any particular exercise. I chose to train my shoulders first in my workout, for example, because shoulders were my priority. If getting to unassisted pull-ups is your top priority, you should do back exercises first (or whatever your goal).
A Full-Body Workout
Before my surgeries, I enjoyed four-day workouts. I chose full-body workouts post-surgery because it’s a great split for my goals at that time. I used short rests and higher reps (12-15) to encourage fat burning and conditioning and kept the weight low so that my connective tissues could adapt before attempting heavy loads.
Exercises grouped together are supersets, performed back-to-back without rest as one set. Supersets burn more calories and can be done a whole lot of different ways. I chose unrelated muscle groups to superset to increase the full-body conditioning benefit.
1A. Dumbbell Bulgarian split squats 6-10 x 3
1B. Overhead press 10-12 x 3
2A. Dumbbell Romanian deadlift 8-10 x 3
2B. One-arm dumbbell bent-over row 8-10 x 3
3. Leaning lateral shoulder raise 10-12 x 3
4. One-arm seated cable row with rotation 8-10 x 3
5. Weighted hyperextension 10-12 x 3
6. Rear delt raise 8-10 x 3
7. Calf press 15 x 3
8A. Bicep curl 10 x 3
8B. Tricep pushdown 8-10 x 3
9A. and 9B. Core exercises (bicycle crunch, plank, wood chop, bird dog, ball crunch, etc.)
After a couple of months I did go back to an upper/lower training split. I’ve rebuilt muscle and strength, but now that I’m in menopause, it’s more difficult. Since training is a source of joy for me, I enjoy the process and challenge of trying to get back to unassisted pull-ups. Keep pushing! You’ll get there too.
This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.