Beautiful Badass Profile – Emily Socolinsky

emily5Today I have the privilege of sharing another Beautiful Badass Profile with you, and it comes from Emily Socolinsky. She has an incredible journey to share with you that is filled with trials that ultimately lead to victory. It truly is an inspiring story, and I encourage you to read all of it.

The Incident

Pain ripped through me like I had never felt before. I threw myself to my bathroom floor screaming in agony. Every time I tried to move, my entire right side from shoulder to foot went into spasms. I was crying uncontrollably. It was 9:00 am on a Tuesday morning in May of 2010. My phone was downstairs which meant somehow, I had to get down my steps if I wanted to call my husband and tell him to come home. Remarkably, I was able to drag myself down the stairs, crying and sobbing as my body raged. I managed to call him. “Come home. Now,” I cried. Within 15 minutes, he was walking through our front door. I was lying on my back, crying, unable to move. It took him about 45 minutes to get me to a place where I could walk back upstairs with his help and get into bed. I started taking drugs immediately. It did nothing to alleviate my pain. I cried and cried and cried.

Never in my life had I ever experienced the pain I was feeling now. And at that moment, I really thought I was going to be like this for the rest of my life. For three days, I laid on my stomach, unable to eat, sit, walk or drive. I was popping pills right and left. (Funny side note: I was on so many drugs in such a short span that when I finally made it to my primary care doctor the following week, the blood sample she took came back positive for elevated liver enzymes. She asked me if I drank a lot. I told her no, but I was popping a lot of damn pills and MAYBE that had something to do with it! A week later, after I was off of my drugs, my blood work came back negative.)

At first, the drugs did not seem to be working but eventually, things began to calm down. By the fourth day, my mom came down to visit and we took a sloooow walk together. By Monday, I was able to drive myself to work. I pulled up in front of the dance studio, turned off the engine and proceeded to just sit there. I was frozen. I tried to get out of the car but every time I moved, my back would seize up. I started to cry. It literally took me about 5 minutes to find the right way to get out of my seat without pain. Thinking back to this time, I still cannot believe that I let myself get to this place where I hurt so much.  In a span of two weeks, I lost quite a bit of weight too. When I walked into my doctor’s office a week later, I weighed 129lbs, the lowest I had been since probably high school.  I was thin but I was in pain. I had zero strength. I was in the worst shape of my life. How did I let myself get to this place? For months and months leading up to this incident, I chalked it up to “this is the way it is.” I know now that that was a crock of s**t.

A little background on me….

My name is Emily Socolinsky, and I am the owner of Fivex3 Training, a one-year-old gym in Baltimore, MD. I specialize in strength and conditioning. I work with the most dedicated and committed clients I know who are just regular folk looking to feel better, move better and get strong! I never dreamed of owning my own business let alone running a gym.  However, due to a series of circumstances over the past couple of years, here I am. And I could not be happier. ;-)

Although I now own my own gym and lift heavy and often, I am and will always be a dancer. I began studying ballet when I was 7 years old and continued my ballet training through elementary school, into middle school. I auditioned for the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts where I studied ballet and modern for four years, 5 days a week, 4-5 hours per day. I received my Bachelor of Arts in Dance from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. After living in New York for two years, I returned to Baltimore in 1998 and danced with numerous local professional dance companies from 1999 – 2009 when I stopped because of my back.  Three years ago, I thought my dance career was over…for good.

In 2005, I suffered a back injury that put me out of commission for awhile and into physical therapy. An MRI showed arthritis and a couple herniated discs. A year later, things had improved and I was back to dancing. Then in the spring of 2008, my back began to give me problems again. At first, I thought a little pain here and there was no big deal, but then I started to have issues when practicing yoga. Eventually I had to quit yoga altogether and, at least three times that year, my back went into spasms. The first time happened in rehearsal; the next at the studio when I picked up a TV. Then it happened again a few months later.

Fast forward to May of 2009. I decided to stop dancing with the dance company of which I had been a member of since 2002, and joined a new company. I was so excited to embark on this new journey. Yet, there was trouble brewing.  I started to notice how uncomfortable I was feeling almost every single day. I was having trouble sitting and trouble driving. There was a sharp, shooting pain down my leg that had not been there before. And dancing was increasingly becoming more painful. As summer rolled around, a dance class put me out for a week, and I held back pain-induced tears one afternoon as I drove to DC for a performance. By November, I made a very emotional but mature decision to stop dancing. My body was suffering.  Although I loved my new company, and I wanted to continue working with them, I was in pain. Real pain. I could not deal with it anymore. No more classes. No more rehearsals. Nothing. I was tired of crying.  Things were going downhill fast. I went back to my doctor and the second MRI showed multiple herniated discs and what used to be a little arthritis five years earlier, was now severe arthritis. I started physical therapy again in December of 2009. Exercises that should have been easy for me were difficult and they hurt. I felt so weak and pathetic. How could I look so strong on the outside but be so weak in reality? Had years of “wrong” training left me with a bad back?

The Tipping Point

Three months later, I was “cleared” of physical therapy. My PT and I high-fived each other and I got a t-shirt. I really thought that I was better. Wow, I remember thinking. It really did not take that long to make an improvement. Just three months! Snowstorms ravaged Baltimore that winter, and I was out on my block the whole week, shoveling snow and chopping ice. Through it all, my back felt normal. I began choreographing a new piece for my older dancers. Since I had been cleared of PT,  I figured that meant I could start dancing again. I started rehearsing my new piece and actually performed it with my students one weekend the end of April. The next day, my back hurt, but I did not seem to be in too much pain and shrugged it off. I rehearsed the piece again the following week and performed it at a dance concert in May. My back did not feel 100% but I figured it had just been awhile.

A week later, there I was, a complete and utter wreck, collapsed on the bathroom floor, my body screaming. Crippled with pain, I felt as though there was no hope for me. Once I was able to function properly again, I vowed never to have this happen to me again. “The Incident,” as I like to call it now, spurred me to re-evaluate everything I’d been doing. My PT did not know what to do for me. “There is always surgery,” my doctor said to me as I stood in front of her, wincing in pain, unable to sit. She gave me a prescription for a back brace and more PT. I knew there had to be more to life than physical therapy, back braces and pills. And I was damned if I was going to let this affect me for the rest of my life.

Getting Strong

While I was dancing in college, I was one of the few dancers in my department who actually cross-trained.  I am not talking about Pilates or Yoga. I loved the gym. My dad bought a rowing machine the year I started college so he could row at home, and I fell in love with it. I would go outside on our back porch on the weekends and row and row and row until my arms ached. I once rowed for an entire hour and broke down into tears following this stunt. I even had thoughts about joining the crew team at school but the thought of waking up at 5:00 am to sit on a boat down off of Hanover Street just did not appeal to me so I stuck with the rowing machine. :-) I went to the gym religiously while in college. Many of my dance friends did not, thinking that this wasn’t what dancers did. But I loved it. And I tried everything. Stair climber, treadmill, aerobics classes, step classes. I used every machine I could. When I moved to New York after college, the first thing I did was join a gym. Each day, I would be there for close to 2 hours – 45 minutes to an hour on a cardio machine and then hopped from machine to machine. The whole time I thought I was doing the right thing. When I moved back to Baltimore, I took a job at a local gym so I could get free membership. I fell in love with Spinning and thought about getting certified to teach cycle. Years later, in 2005, I did get certified and taught cycle for 6 years. So between 1999 and 2010, I danced for a number of companies, took cycle classes, aerobics classes, step classes. I logged hours and hours on the treadmill, the elliptical, the stair climber, the stationary bike. I rehearsed weekly with my companies and performed multiple times throughout the year. I sat on every machine there was and did my leg curls and my bicep curls. I did my triceps kick backs. I ate like a bird. And I truly thought that I was making myself stronger and more fit to dance. Even up until 2010, I really thought that I was doing the right thing for my body.  And then my body fought back. When my PT gave me a simple exercise like bird dog or the dead bug, I had difficulty with them and it frustrated me and made me more angry about my situation. Why was I not strong? What had I been doing all this time????

The Solution

The “Incident” in 2010 was the straw that broke the proverbially camel’s back. I was not going to be one of those people, one of those dancers, always in pain, popping pill after pill, icing, heating, going to PT. I was through messing around in the gym with the wrong program. Once I was out of acute pain, I went into the gym with a brand new approach to training.  Instead of “working out,” I was going to “train.” I was going to train my body to get strong. My husband had started Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program about a few months before my attack and for the first time in years, he was now able to sleep on his stomach with no back pain. He did not have to stop and stretch his back every few blocks when we would take our evening walks. I told him to put me on this program and that summer, the summer of 2010, I squatted, deadlifted, pressed and benched to my heart’s content. Squatting was not new to me, but deadlifting was. I can still remember picking up 95 pounds, putting it down and feeling like I was going to pass out. I looked at my husband and asked if he was trying to kill me. He kindly told me no and to try it again. He fixed my form and after a couple more pulls, I was in love. Deadlifting became my new found love in the gym and was the ultimate test for my back. Every time I approached the bar, set myself and pulled, all I could think about was how impossible this would have been a year ago, two years ago, 10 years ago. I was a new woman. And I knew that this was a new beginning for me. If I could do this for my body, I could do this for others.

As the weeks went by that summer, each time I got into the gym, my numbers continued to go up. I continued to get strong. By the end of the summer, I suddenly realized one day that my back pain was gone. I mean, gone. No more spasms. No more pain down my leg. No more problems driving. I felt like a new woman. I continued to train this way into the fall. I started looking for a space to open my own gym, a place where hard work would pay off big. Where people could come who were looking for results and knew that by training smart and training hard, they would feel better, get stronger and start living their lives all over again. In November of 2010, my husband and I attended Rippetoe’s Starting Strength Seminar. It was the most incredibly three days of my life. I was congratulated by Rip on learning how to squat “properly” as he knew that I was a dancer. ;-) We both took the test and became certified Starting Strength coaches. I am proud and honored to hold such a certification, knowing what my body and mind had gone through for the past 5 years leading up to that day in May. It is a true testimony to strength training. By this time, I had found a place in the city, not far from where I lived. 900 square feet.  A warehouse. The perfect place for what I wanted to do. Help people get strong.

A few months later, I visited my PT to tell her how incredible I was doing. I met one of her clients who was also a trainer, and I remember telling her how I had fixed myself through squatting and deadlifting and that my new goal was to help others get strong too. I was quite proud of my accomplishments. She looked at me funny and told me I needed to be careful. “Why would you want to pick up that much weight?” she snidely asked. I was stunned. The words came out all wrong but I managed to say something like “Because if I can pick up 200 pounds, anything in my daily life becomes that much easier.” She shrugged off my comment and started talking about Bosu balls. I knew that was the last time I would speak to her. We obviously had nothing in common.

Two years later…

So, in a nutshell, I decided that after many trips to the doctors and the PT, I was going to take matters into my own hands and I got my a** back into the gym and learned to lift like a girl. I learned to use my body. I learned to feel weight in my hands and on my back. I learned that despite appearances, I was one weak a** woman who needed to get strong. Did I fix my back? Yes…and no. I still have arthritis. I still have herniated discs.  But now I know what I need to do for my body to keep it healthy and on track. I understand the importance of foam rolling, of mobility work, of training hard and knowing when to back off and when to keep going. By August of 2010, I was feeling good. By December of 2010, I was feeling great. In January of 2011, I started to dip my toes in performing again. By May of 2011, I took my first modern class in almost two years. At one point during class, I broke into tears. The emotions that were inside of me overwhelmed me and brought me to tears. For the first time in almost two years, I was moving again.

In June of 2011, I opened my gym, Fivex3 Training, and my dream became a reality. Slowly, people started to come. People were inspired by my story and were always amazed when I explained to them why I decided to open my gym, where I was two years ago and where I am today. I have many clients who suffered from some sort of back pain in their life and once they started strength training, their back pain mysteriously disappeared. ;-) After a couple months, someone told someone else and that person told someone else and soon, my classes were growing.  People were talking about it. I was starting to make a difference in people’s lives. They were starting to see the results of their hard work. The stronger they got, the happier they were and the healthier they became. It doesn’t take long. J

By August of 2011, I joined a new company, Deep Vision Dance Company. The Artistic Director was at first a little wary of bringing me on. “How is your back?” Nicole would ask me on more than one occasion. “Good,” I would say, over and over. I would be lying, of course, if I said it was perfect. It’s not. None of us are perfect.  But because I am stronger overall, I know how to work with my body and with its limitations. It may not move the same way that it used to move. At 37 years old, I am 16 years older than the youngest member of the company. In fact, I am the oldest member of the group, older than my director. And while I may not move as fluidly as they do, I am strong and I am sturdy and they trust me to lift them and hold them.  They always comment on my strength, how well I hold myself in class and in rehearsal. They admire me and respect what I have to offer the company. A  few of the dancers have now joined me at the gym and train with me once a week. It is an awesome sight to see a 125lb dancer walk up to the power rack, dip under the bar and squat her bodyweight for reps. Dancers are natural movers so this training comes easy to them. So why aren’t more dancers following this regimen? Ahh, but that is a whole other story in itself and one for another time…..I am working on this one.

The weekend of October 21, 2011, I had my first professional dance concert at Towson University as a member of my new company. Two years ago to that very day was what I thought was to be my final dance performance….ever. In that final performance, my back was killing me. It took me two hours to simply warm up enough to get through it in one piece. I made up my mind right then and there that I could no longer put my body through this torture. Fast forward two years and there I was, standing on the same stage, ready to dance again. And not just one performance. Three performances, two on one day. I spent the week leading up to the concert foam rolling, stretching and doing a ton of mobility work. If lifting has taught me anything, it has certainly taught me to listen to my body, something I never did as a dancer. I know when to stop, when I need a break, when I am ready to push myself.

I just finished my first season with the company this past spring. We had a very intense couple months leading up to our two big performances in March and April. The piece we showed at these concerts was intense 30 minutes of dancing. Nicole’s work is not “back” friendly at all, which is what I love even more about being able to dance with her. The biggest compliment I received one night after a performance in April came from another dancer and wife of a very well-known performer and teacher. She came up to me and congratulated me on my performance stating what she loved the most about my dancing is that I moved from my back. I thanked her profusely and briefly told her my story. She smiled and told me to keep doing what I am doing because it is obviously working. ;-) To be able to get through an entire week of rehearsal, running this piece once, sometimes twice in one night and still having the energy, the drive and the strength to perform for an audience two nights in a row, proves to me what real work will do for a body. There is absolutely no way that I would have ever been able to work with DVDC if it had not been for the year of training that I did prior to joining the company. It is now a way of life for me.

Where I am today….

It has been one year since I opened my doors and I have not looked back since. I have met the most incredible men and women during this year, who are committed to getting strong and moving better. Many of these women never dreamed they would be working this way a year ago yet here they are. I recently wrote a post about why women should strength train, and I quote many of the women whom I train. Their honesty is astonishing. I am proud to know all of them. They have learned to squat, to press, to deadlift. They work tirelessly on their push ups and chin ups and kettlebell swings. I train them the same way I train myself….what else would I do? I continue to focus on the big lifts – squat, press and deadlift  – and most recently, I have started incorporating the Olympic lifts into my program. I am working with a friend of mine who is a weightlifter and runs his own gym in Pennsylvania.  I LOVE  the challenge these lifts bring to my program and to my training. It is like learning how to dance all over again because the technical skills needed for these lifts is incredible. I round out my program with other good pushing and pulling exercises as well as include some kettlebell training. No matter what I do, I always focus on strength. I keep my sessions to an hour and always include all of my mobility and foam rolling before and after.

If strength training has taught me anything, it has taught me to take a break when my body tells me to do so, something dancers are not very fond of doing.  When something is a little out of whack, I stop and rest. I will take a month off from lifting and focus on more bodyweight type workouts or stick with more kettlebell training. When I feel my body is ready to tackle the bar again, I am there 150%.  I have also learned to balance my training with my dancing and know that during the weeks I am in performance and intense rehearsal mode, I need to back off and work smart. Once those weeks are over, I can build my program back up again and work harder, set new PR’s and have fun. I don’t stress too much about my training sessions as I used to do. I always walk into my sessions knowing exactly what I am going to work on but I do allow myself to go off program if I feel my body or mind just isn’t ready for all of the work that day. I like working this way. Before I developed this new mindset, I would get very frustrated with myself and beat myself up when something did not go right, or when I was dealing with any body issues. I do have to accept that I will  always be working on something in regards to my body. Years if dancing does take a toll on one’s back, hips, knees, etc.

Many dancers are finished dancing by my age. For me, I wanted to prove to my doctors and my PT that I could dance again if I wanted to, that I was not ready to stop when I did. Of course, I do have my limitations when it comes to certain exercises. A broken right foot, tendonitis in the shoulders and leg from years of dancing puts my body in a precarious position at times. I do a lot of single leg work, especially on my right side. I work on my internal rotation because of years of turning out, my legs do not know what it means to turn in. I am teaching them. I am trying to find stability in my body where it never had it before. It is a work in progress. My body is always learning something new each time I enter a session and I am always discovering something new about my body, what it needs, what it can handle, where I am lacking stability or mobility.  Learning what my needs are helps me to relate to my clients even more. I train for a better, stronger and healthier me.

I don’t tell people I am perfect, that I have it all figured out. But I do tell people that they can change, that they can always be stronger, mentally and physically. I believe this. I live this. Through hard work and smart training, you can make a difference in your body. Back pain cripples more of us than we would like to think. Young, old…it does not matter. We do not move as we once did. We do not move…period. We sit in the car, at our desks at work, while watching TV, while watching a game. We spend more time on our butts than we do on our legs. And when we don’t use something, we lose it. And when the pain hits us, we go out of our way to fix it. We drag ourselves to the doctor who tells us – “Here is a prescription for physical therapy,” “Take these drugs,” “Get a back brace.” We make an appointment with the acupuncturist because drugs are bad. We drive to the Healthy Back store to buy expensive seat cushions that will help to relieve our pain, help us to sit better in the car as we drive. We drag ourselves to the chiropractor, to physical therapy, to Yoga class, to Pilates.

But are we really getting better or are we just fooling ourselves? How is it that all of these so called “fit” people still have back problems? Because they really are not strong. Lifting heavy weights is hard work. It humbles us. But it makes us strong. I am not talking 5 pounds or 10 pounds. I am talking real weight. We should not be proud that we cannot lift the 36 pack of water at BJ’s. We should not be proud that we need to push our carts full of bags to our cars instead of carrying them. We should not be proud that it hurts to get out of our chairs (unless we just finished an intense lifting session…we should be sore!) We have the ability to change our bodies, to make them stronger, by working smarter and yes, harder.

This summer, my friend and I are holding a strongwoman contest at my gym. In preparation for this contest, I am building more strongman type training into my program as well as into some of my client’s programs who will be participating in the contest. I think I am more excited for them to compete than me! Nothing says STRONG like a strongwoman contest. They are excited. I am excited. Strength is addictive and contagious. And I am an addict for life.

Note from Nia — I asked Emily to please share a video of her dancing, and you can see her and her company in action in this video:

Be sure to check out Emily at her website and on Facebook and Twitter.

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