Jennifer + Ryan’s Story: How Trust, Persistence + Patience Overcame Trepidation + Pain


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What a difference a year makes…

I was introduced to Jennifer Lukawski by my friend and fellow fitness business owner, Jen Meehan. Jen and Jennifer are close friends, but Jen couldn’t accommodate Jennifer’s schedule needs. She knew what Jennifer needed more than anything was the focused, one-on-one personal training FOR provides.

The image above is an excerpt from our first exchange about Jennifer joining Fitness on the Run (FOR).

I will never forget our first session. It was Saturday, August 29, 2015 at 7am. This is a committed mom!

Jennifer had also told me, referring to her back, “It has given me trouble from time to time ever since I was diagnosed in my 20s. And now in my 40s, most notably when I have overdone it with trainers who were not experienced working with someone with my back condition and who didn’t know how to accommodate for it.”

In our first session, we explored how she moves, just on the floor. We worked on her using her breath, taking full advantage of her lung capacity. I listened to her story and allowed for ample quiet time for her to just breathe and relax into our gym setting. She needed to trust us and that our intention was to help her gain confidence in her own daily movements.

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I showed her how to use a LAX ball to roll her feet, the start of good movement, how to “rock” on the floor on all fours for ultimate relief, and how to roll on the floor. I gave her a foam roller lesson. We left the floor (her most valuable piece of equipment, other than her own body) only once to see if she could hinge her hips (send them back) correctly. No.

Jennifer learned hip openers, the quadruped movements to relieve stress on her back, how to use her breath, and how important her glutes are to her back health. She learned about the value of joint mobility and muscle flexibility.

The next day, though, I received this note from Jennifer: “I am not having a good day with the wretched back.  It has felt stiff for the past few days and yesterday it started to hurt more and today it feels worse. Before it was my usual localized “ugh” on my lower right side but I woke up this morning and it is straight across the lower back and it hurts. Trying not to get discouraged but I don’t see how I do anything of significance with Ryan in the morning when it feels like this.  Any recommendations?  Don’t give up on me! :-)”

From my notes for Ryan, I stated “We took every move slowly, cautiously trying to avoid pain. She was nervous. In her note to me the following day she said she was sore and appreciates we use only her body for equipment.”

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Enter Ryan. Jennifer worked with other FOR instructors, yet she found great comfort in the consistency of one trainer: Ryan Jankowitz.

Ryan Jankowitz, a FOR instructor with 10 years of experience, has multiple certifications (ACE, CL-FMS, PN, RKC 1, RKC II, Primal Move), and takes his continuing education very seriously. Ryan is especially fluent in the Functional Movement Systems and its myriad of corrective exercises. If we could describe Ryan’s greatest strength, Denise and I would agree it is his ability to have a laser focus on a goal. Ryan also has a great way of making clients feel comfortable to talk to him about their fears and victories.

The goal here: to help Jennifer Lukawski become strong again, enabling her to approach her daily activities pain free.

Ryan admits he was nervous training Jennifer. Given her history of unsuccessful stints with multiple trainers, and that she was referred by a good friend of mine and a fellow kettlebell instructor, he knew he was “on the spot.”

“I was a little nervous.  The most common movements that I took for granted — like sitting down and bending over to tie a shoe — caused severe pain for Jennifer. However, my nerves were quickly eased after our first session.  Jennifer made my job very easy because of her positive mindset, commitment to the process, and belief in me as a fitness professional. She’s a really great person to interact with.”

Until late September, Jennifer did not lift a weight, mainly remaining on the floor for her sessions.

HUGE NOTE: Jen never gave up! She knew she had a team of trainers who were focused on her goal right along with her: “I have found a truly incredible network of experienced trainers who are as committed as I am to achieving my fitness goals.”

Jennifer learned the value of viewing her body as a “whole” not individual parts. The individual parts (back, for Jennifer) work in unison with all of the others: feet, hips, glutes, the head/neck, and shoulders. When one is out of whack, the body responds through compensation and, eventually, pain.

Strong glutes are hugely important, especially for back health. (The gluteal muscles are a group of three muscles which make up the buttocks: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus.) They help bring in the core and protect the back from injury.

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When soft tissue is injured, where no bones are broken, the body responds in the following way and yes, pain can occur through the repair process:

First, inflammation.

  • With injury, the tissues (muscle, bone, connective tissue, etc.) are deprived of their normal flow of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood. Reduced blood flow, and actual damage, leads to cellular death. The body then initiates the inflammatory process to clear out damaged cells and lay down new ones.
  • As inflammation occurs, pain can result from the swelling on the nerve endings.
  • Blood vessels are damaged by the trauma, and swelling occurs.
  • Last, redness and heat can occur from what is called “vasodilation.”

This inflammation period is hugely important. This is where repair begins.

Second, restoration or “proliferation.” 

  • Oxygen is restored and nutrient flow to the damaged area occurs.
  • Scar tissue is formed. Ideally it is formed in alignment with healthy and proper placement. This happens through Physical Therapy and Rehab or, like Jennifer, working with Ryan. It will eventually contract and reduce the size of the injury.

Last, scar tissue will be changed into collagen and laid down in its place. 

  • It is important to maintain functional activity (like Jennifer did) throughout the recovery process to maintain the length of the scar tissue.

Skip forward to October 2015. Ryan had been working with Jennifer on how to use her bodyweight alone for daily movements, but was ready to put light weight into her hands. Jennifer began to learn The Get Up then worked on learning how to deadlift (pick up something and put it down) with a PVC pipe.

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This is one of the more complicated and complex movements to learn. It requires great focus, strength, and tension.

Life was good. Jennifer reported no back pain after the session where she first learned The Get Up. Same for the deadlift. Jennifer experienced pain the day after her sessions until late October. In retrospect, though, she now knows her back was repairing, healing, and strengthening.

November and December, Jennifer and Ryan gradually increased the difficulty of her movements and occasionally the load (weight). She completed squats, planks, deadlifts, push-ups (yes, real big girl push-ups!), mountain climbers, and many more. And all without pain during and the following days.

Jennifer wanted to get strong enough to join our common friend Jen Meehan’s Kettlebell (KB) classes. Jennifer started to learn the KB swing in December so she could eventually participate in Jen’s classes. Learning the KB swing is a long process. It requires about 20 different “standards” or rules before you can complete them successfully. Jennifer not only learned the 2-hand swing by the spring, she was practicing her prowess at the 1-hand swing, a true test of core strength and stability.

Jennifer told me this is the first time she has been able to stick with an exercise program: “This is the first time in my life that I have stayed consistent with an exercise routine and cannot believe it has already been a year.  I have hit a few speed bumps along the way, but Ryan has always known how to help me work through them and get me right back on track.  I no longer dread getting up at 5 a.m., three times a week to work out because I always feel better when I walk out that door after challenging myself.  I am so grateful to Ryan for his patience, his attention to detail, and for his commitment to my fitness goals.  I get very emotional when I think about how he has changed my life!

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Even through some hiccups like a sprained ankle, work and kid demands, Jennifer consistently maintained her schedule with Ryan. In the spring, movements, like ball slams and lunges, became the norm.

All of us who’ve gotten to know Jennifer are so proud of her. Despite seriously painful episodes, she never gave up. Ryan shared, “Working with Jen has been inspiring and rewarding for me. Fast-forward to a year later and I am so proud of what she has accomplished.  You would never know that Jen experienced debilitating back pain with the way she gracefully and powerfully swings a kettlebell today.  I always look forward to working with her and I can’t wait for our next session!”

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