·The following article first appeared some years ago in the newsletter of the Michigan chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP). Note that in recent years Dwight has stepped up his exercise program, doing yoga/pilates for flexibility and strength, and walking every day. Doing this allows him to continue and expand a rigorous schedule, and more easily stay focused and strong throughout a long photo day in the factory, business office or college campus.

The Camel's You Know What.
by Dwight Cendrowski


Finding a photographer without some sort of back problem is about as easy as finding one who's happy with his fees. A difficult task indeed. But like the weather, most of us tend to talk about it without doing anything. That is until, like one wire photographer told me, he's flat on his back in the kitchen, unable to move, exhorting his cat to go get help like some weird Lassie movie remake.

My own day of reckoning happened several winters ago after a pretty heavy snowfall. Now I've been lugging equipment around for many years, bending, stretching, hoisting...all without much thought about my body. After all, I was young (relatively), played competitive hockey for years, was still athletic and felt pretty darn good most of the time. Oh, I had the occasional shooting pains across my upper back. And once or twice out of nowhere came fetal-inducing spasms that clench you like a giant fist and suck your breath out. But hey, it's gone in a day. Or two.

I once leaned over to pick up my camera bag from the floor and felt rockets going off in my lower back. Gasping for breath I finished the assignment with a smiling grimace, shuffling very slowly as my iron fisted back master tried to force me to the floor.

With all these signals flashing 'Warning, Warning' like the Lost in Space robot, I did what most thinking, responsible, professional photographers do. I ignored them. After all, I had jobs to do, lights to set up, stairs to bound up. Until that winter day. Oh yeah, the snowfall. A good six inches. Wet. Heavy. Menacing. I bounded outside right after breakfast, intent on clearing that whole, long driveway. I'd gone about ten feet and was throwing a big shovelful when I felt a familiar spasm in the lower back. Only worse. Still, denial was working overtime, so I kept shoveling, determined to finish the job. It hurt to lift, so I pushed and kicked. Finally, I saw the light and called it quits. The rest of the day wasn't bad.. I even exercised a little. But come morning, I was stiff as a board and just about as mobile. Thus began my long journey back.

No doubt every photographer could tell similar stories. The occasional pain, the ignoring, and the straw that broke the camel's you know what. I've been very fortunate to have a wonderful wife who happens to have a degree in exercise physiology. With her support, advice and exercise regimen I'm doing everything I did before, albeit with a lot more awareness. And awareness is key.

For many months after B-Day I would still unthinkingly pick something up the wrong way and be jolted. A tough way to learn, but very effective. You've heard it before, but here it is again. USE YOUR LEGS TO LIFT. Did the shouting help? It's worth shouting to yourself. Every time you open the hatchback , every time you go for the camera bag. USE THE LEGS. Make it a recurring karma. Picture the robot waving his arms and hear 'Warning'. Whatever it takes to bring it to awareness each and every time you lift.

Don't forget all the other sensible precautions too. Put your equipment on wheels. Make one case into two and balance your load. Find the elevators and ramps. Don't carry everything on every job. Use assistants. We've all heard it. We've all ignored it to one degree or another. Me too. But I'm finally breaking down and doing more, mostly because I'm finally breaking down. And if you're 18, raging and raring to go, I hope you'll make an exception to the 'listening to anyone over 30' maxim and start doing it right now! I've been there and it's no fun.

We are talking about being able to continue on with your profession. This is serious. Back problems are a nuisance to many, a burden to some, and totally disabling to others. By not paying attention to our bodies we're risking losing the ability to do what we enjoy and what pays for that roof over our studios. If there's one thing I'd do differently if I could travel back in time it would be to stretch. (I'd also take a good long look at my dating patterns, but that's another story). Flexibility is one half of the fitness coin along with strength, which we'll look at in a minute.

Watch babies stretch. Watch cats and dogs. It's instinctual. Our bodies know what they need. Yet too often we don't pay attention. Not once in all my years on the hockey rink or baseball field did a coach emphasize stretching. Speed, strength and toughness, yes. But no flexibility. So I suffered for years with groin pulls and stiff muscles. And I've ended up with a 40 year old body that's steadily contracted, with tight hamstrings, tight tendons, tight everything. What's this got to do with the back? Plenty. Everything in our bodies is connected to everything else. Nothing acts independently. What one part lacks is made up for somewhere else. If you can't do the stretch with the legs, the back is forced to make up the difference.

And that goes for the other half of the fitness coin, strength. Strengthen your legs and lift using those muscles and you take the strain off your back. The back is your pivot point. It's not made for the grunt work. The heavy lifting is for the legs and upper body. We can protect the back by focusing not just on the back, but by increasing the fitness of the whole.

I can hear the rumblings and whining starting. "Oh no, not exercise. I don't have time. I hate health clubs. I get all the exercise I need by working." Wrong.

Sure, our jobs are not sedentary. But they won't provide the strength or flexibility work necessary to maintain health and keep us from injury. But I'm not talking about joining a health club and fighting the Spandex crowd. Just a little room in your house and you're ready to go. You ought to shoot for an hour workout, three times a week. That's really all it takes to reach a solid fitness level. Of course, any sensible person getting up in years really should consult their physician before starting any exercise regime. It's a sensible precaution. Even better, talk to an exercise physiologist.

Do you remember your mother always telling you to stand up straight? Well, she was right, as always. The key when exercising as well as during the rest of our waking hours is posture. Gravity, camera bags and life's struggles have a way of slouching us over, and that's bad. Just focusing on proper body alignment, with chest lifted and shoulders back and relaxed, will start to ease pressure on your back.

Here's what I do three times a week. First I walk briskly for a half hour. That's moving more than 4 miles an hour, or fast enough to carry you two miles in 30 minutes.

When the weather's bad, I use a treadmill. Besides a good aerobic workout for the heart and lungs, walking warms the body. And you need that warms body before you stretch. If you'd rather run or bike, fine. In fact, step in place, dance around ...anything to get that blood flowing. Just be careful not to jolt yourself with high impact stuff, especially if you're nursing a sore back to start.

OK, one third done. Now spend twenty minutes on strength. It's great if you have a universal gym at your disposal, but you don't need it. Small hand or free weights are ideal. And not big weights. We're not going for Schwarzenegger here. Remember, if you're going for bulk you use lots of weight and few repetitions. We want strength, so use less weight and more repetitions.

The areas we're trying to build up are the arms (front and back), chest, back, and shoulders. Some good movements are an overhead press, bench press, bicep curl and tricep extension. That last one just means holding the weight with two hands and raising and lowering it behind your head. Use the weight that lets you feel worked doing 10 to 15 repetitions. And remember to think posture...chest lifted, shoulders back and relaxed, and knees over the feet.

When you've been doing it awhile you can start repeating the movements once or twice, using slightly heavier weights each time. Build up to three repetitions of each movement and you're in business.

Push-ups are a good upper body exercise too. And all this goes equally for women. In fact, women can use even more upper body work than men, since they have traditionally neglected this training, mostly because of old-style Neanderthal gym teachers and silly social conditioning. And no, women will not become unattractively muscled. Just ask my wife, who pound for pound is stronger than me yet beautiful and sleekly feminine.

Be sure to work on your stomach. Often our backs suffer extra strain when they have to compensate for weak stomach muscles. Remember, everything ties together.

For a safe, effective situp bend yours knees, cross your arms across your chest , and come up 35 or 40 degrees, then down. Using your hands behind the head with straight legs could do more harm than good.

Also strengthen the lower back muscles by laying on your stomach with arms out front and raising your head and chest off the floor. You'll feel it in the lower back. Build up slowly. You can also lift your legs up off the floor.

Spend the last part of the hour on flexibility. Again, take it slowly. For most of us we're trying to undo many, many years of clenching and bad habits. That doesn't happen overnight. The body sinks into a pattern of tightness. We have to gradually cajole, knead, stretch. Yes it takes patience. It might be frustrating at first. A little like three steps forward, two back. But your tendons and muscles will stretch. It will make a difference, and you will be able to gradually see and feel the difference. It's been two years for me and I'm well on my way.

For starters, just reach both hands for the sky. Stretch. Feel the spine lengthening. Sit on the floor, legs straight out front, and lean forward. Don't bounce now. Always go slowly and stretch comfortably. Forget the old 'no pain no gain' mentality. That's bad advice. Just hold the stretch for a count of ten then relax.

Now keep the legs straight and spread them as far as you can to the sides. Reach the maximum and just hold it there.

You may not realize it, but you've been doing some basic Yoga here. Stripped of the mystical aura, Yoga is stretching. That's how I look at it. It's an excellent way to increase flexibility and stamina and assure you'll be able to bound into and out of bed well into your nineties. Check out your local community education programs for Yoga classes. Most programs have Yoga for beginners. You also might want to check out a book called Stretching by B. Anderson. It's a very good guide.

Add other stretches that seem right for you. And if you can, try doing a little stretching on your non-exercise days too.

At the end of the hour it's good to cool down. Just lay on your back, arms comfortably at your side, and breathe slow, deep, regular breaths. Feel your body relax one part at a time. To give you a better feeling of relaxation, tighten your arm and fist as tightly as possible, then relax it. Go through the other parts of your body

the same way. Let your mind drift off to Jamaica if you like. Just don't think about work.

In fact, go beyond your job now and think of all this as an investment in your life. There's a song entitled "Our life is more than our work, and our work is more than our job." Increasing our fitness to protect our backs and livelihoods is a good starting focus. It's bound to spill over, giving us more energy. Maybe giving us a start on clearing out the emotional and mental cobwebs. I know energy begets energy. When I exercise I have more drive, better concentration and more vitality. It works, and we can make it work for us without much sacrifice.

I'm lucky. I got a start on this with professional advice from a very smart lady before I completely incapacitated myself. I now remember to be aware. Use my legs every time. Stretch and strengthen with some aerobics on the side. And be happy I can still get around and see the roses.

Finally, you might want to carry with you the words of a sage old photographer who once advised, "I never lift anything heavier than a case of beer." Wise words indeed.


NOTE: If you have any questions about exercise, contact Dwight or Victoria. We'd be happy to answer questions and provide additional reference materials. And remember, it's wise to consult your physician before beginning any exercise regimen. [Top of page]

Text © Dwight Cendrowski 

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