Today, I missed a rep (and set) on squats today for the first time ever. You could say that I successfully completed two sets at 205. But it was that third set, which I hadn’t originally intended to do, that got me.
I had done 2×5 at 205, working toward my third set of five. I got two reps in, then on the third one, I squatted down, then tried to get up, and all of a sudden, the bar was sitting on the rails.
Of course, there’s a business metaphor for this. It came in the form of an admonishment to me some years ago – someone said “shoot for the stars, even if you don’t make it, you’ll have gone a long way.
As an old guy, I have to be careful about the weights I lift. Inching up brings perils with it. Still, a couple of weeks ago, I managed to deadlift 3×300 lbs. The big numbers no longer scare me as they once did.
Today, I did one set and two reps more than I originally intended. I’m going to shoot for 250 on squats for at least a couple of reps, before the end of the year. I’m very confident I’ll get there. I’m really happy with the kind of training volume I’ve been doing.
By the way, one of the perils of squats is NOT hurting your knees. One of the reasons why there’s a big discrepancy in what I can squat, and in what I can deadlift, is because I had been doing squats the wrong way, and I was fighting a case of patellar tendinitis.
But there’s a right way to do squats (the “low-bar” variety) that puts more of the work on your glutes and hamstrings, and goes far easier on the quads and the knees. My knees actually feel better once I start lifting the heavier weights with good form.
This is an amazing story. In short: man falls off roof, and has both tibia bones shattered. Lots of pins surgically implanted in leg bones. Man begins strength training. Natural bone growth pushes pins out of both legs. Man enters powerlifting competition and deadlifts 600 lbs. Within a two year period.
His bones and muscles responded to the training, to the extent that bone growth pushed the pins and hardware out of his ankles and into the soft tissue. Within seven months of training, his bone growth, driven by the stress of a linear progression, had compromised the hardware in his left ankle. “I could see where the pins were protruding and beginning to poke out, just under the surface of the skin,” says Brian. The hardware in his left leg, which was supposed to be a permanent, lifelong addition to his body, was removed via surgery four months after beginning the Starting Strength program.
Pins were removed from his other leg shortly thereafter.
Strength training, in a regular, disciplined program, captures and maximizes your body’s power to adapt – to injuries, to stresses, to training – we have amazing recuperative powers built into us. And that works in any stage, almost any situation in life. If you can focus and put your mind to a thing, God has built into our human bodies and minds the kinds of resources we need to recover from major traumas (much less, the day to day troubles of life).
Today was the first day that I transitioned from my old 4-day schedule to the new 3-day “Texas Method”. I saw a Mark Rippetoe video somewhere, and just in an informal interview Q&A format, he said “the Texas Method will kill you”.
I’m not interested in being killed by any means, but I am interested in training progression. That’s particularly important at my age (57), as I’m looking for ways to continue to make training progression towards a “Tough Mudder” run later this year.
For now, I’m at a point at which I’ve completed a fairly intensive training schedule, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME having worked through some nagging injury problems (in my case, a knee and a shoulder). I’m feeling really good, on top of having lifted some personal records last week.
The “Texas Method” breaks down your training blocks into one-week intervals. You’ll do a very heavy “volume day” (five sets of five at maybe 80% of your PR) on a Monday, followed by a “recovery day” (some percentage of your Monday volume), followed by a Friday “intensity day” session where you attempt one set of five at another personal record (PR).
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep up this pace, but I’m going to try it. I want to continue to challenge myself as much as possible as I move forward, and again, the switch from a four-day workout schedule to a three-day schedule was to allow for three days of cardio interspersed. I’m feeling very strong and healthy right now, but there is a need for me to beef up my endurance.
The reality of growing older is that your physical potential diminishes. The chart nearby reflects some measure of a chart that I posted earlier, from the authors of “Younger Next Year”. By pushing now for that increase in strength performance, I hope to be able (with an eye toward avoiding injury) to move all the lines a bit further north.
Today’s the last workout of a program that I outlined earlier – four days a week alternating two each of the “big four” compound barbell lifts (squat, deadlift, overhead press, and bench press). Each of these is one of the “big four” because it works the body as more or less a complete system (as in the case of the overhead press, in which the whole body is “pressed” into service one way or another), or at least, a collection of systems. Working this program has enabled me to work around some injuries, while still enabling me to reach a number of personal bests.
Not merely are the muscles exercised, but the nervous system (“neuromuscular” aspects of training), the circulatory system, and even the skeletal system. Yes, even bones are strengthened with heavy weightlifting. Younger folks may not care, but this can be quite a marvelous thing for someone who’s tending toward osteoporosis, for example.
My own understanding of “programming” has gone through several evolutions. When I first joined the gym, I was gainfully employed, and so I hired a trainer. He was a young guy, a very caring guy. He looked at me, sized up some of my weaknesses, and put together a program based on pairing certain exercises like a dumbbell press and dumbbell rows, curls and tricep extensions, leg presses and hamstring curls. Things like that. In all, I had 10 exercises, for which I had to do three sets, three days a week. This gave me a good foundation for what was to follow. Later this was modified a bit, but still using the same principles.
But I’ve got some sons who work out, and their advice all along was “Dad, you’ve got to do the Stronglifts 5×5 program”. Totally different “principles”. The 5×5 program is a young man’s program – you start off light, and progressively add weight to the big four (the author of the program adds a fifth exercise to round it out, “barbell rows”, but this isn’t one of the big four). You work five sets of five for each exercise, broken up three days a week again, adding five or 10 lbs to the bar each workout. This works fine up to a point, and it enables you to make what others call “novice gains” – you gain the greatest amount of strength right after you first start lifting, because your body really “has the most room to grow”.
Maybe I didn’t read far enough into the fine print, but after you’ve realized all of these “novice gains”, your start to plateau. I didn’t know what to do with those plateaus. I began to think something was wrong with me!
Now, there’s no shortage of advice – including bad advice – on the internet. I muddled around for a few months, but eventually I came across Mark Rippetoe’s “Practical Programming for Strength Training”. This is a gem of a book for a lot of reasons, but it isolated a couple of problems I needed to solve.
A solution … is to train each lift heavy and each lift light during the week.
This is, he says, “especially true for older lifters who may have a more difficult time with recovery”. (As the saying goes, “you don’t get strong from lifting heavy weights; you get strong by recovering from lifting heavy weights”.)
Without going into detail, it’s an intermediate-level program that’s designed to enable you to break through the plateaus, while still focusing on strength. I put a two-day-a-week version of this into practice some time last September (I was starting a job with a very long commute), upping it to four days a week in December (changing jobs and working from home).
I have been able to make significant gains on this program, while still not spending more than 45 minutes in the gym each of those days (very helpful for work days).
But now, as I transition to training for a “Tough Mudder” competition in September, I’m looking for ways to continue to work on strength training, while enhancing my cardiovascular conditioning. I don’t yet have all the details worked out, but the rough outlines are becoming clearer.
Before you start any new endeavor (especially over 50), it’s always a good idea to set a baseline for your goals. That’s the purpose of this blog post. In training for the Tough Mudder competition later this year, I’m going to need to maintain my strength training, I think, while adding cardio work (most likely that will be long distance walking and running, but also some HIIT cardio). That will come as I figure out what I’m doing. Toward that end, I’m going to be revisiting The Hybrid Athlete from time to time here, as a guideline.
For now, I’m working out four days a week in the gym, alternating the “big four” exercises (squats, overhead press or “OHP”, bench press, and deadlifts). I’m working each of these exercises two days a week, alternating them as follows:
Monday: heavy OHP, light squat
Tuesday: heavy bench, light deadlift
Thursday: light OHP, heavy squat
Friday: light bench, heavy deadlift
I also try to walk or run on my off days, but given the winter weather, I’m not always successful at getting that in.
Within that framework, it’s fair to say that not all the heavy days are personal records (some are), and my light days are not all that light. Additionally, on my “light” days, sometimes I do more “volume” (“reps” and “sets”), and on my heavier days, I also alternate “heavier” and “lighter” in such a way that I don’t always try to set personal records (PRs), but sometimes I do.
Just for posterity’s sake, here are my personal bests at the moment:
Of all of these personal bests, I’ve been able to make the best progress on the deadlifts because that lift is least affected by injuries. Over the year and a half, I’ve had to contend with a nagging shoulder injury that affected by ability to bench and OHP, and a knee injury that affected my squatting.
All of this works on a “play it by ear” kind of basis. I’m very proud of this program, and very pleased that I was able to come up with it. At one point last year, my sons had me doing the “Stronglifts 5×5” program, which was very good for realizing what’s called “beginner gains” in strength, but which, I found, is very hard on an old guy like me. Prior to that, I had been working with a trainer who was more into bodybuilding than strength training (there is a difference), and I believe those programs prepared me very well – with some exceptions (things that caused those injuries in the first place) – to the strength training that I have gotten involved with.
I don’t want to get into programming right now, but that’s something that will be very important moving forward. Not only for me, but for anyone who takes up weight training or strength training for any reason.
Though I’ve been an avid walker (and sometime runner), I had never set foot in a gym a day in my life, until I did so for the first time at age 56. Sure, I had walked or driven past many gyms in storefronts, with the line-ups of people running on treadmills or flopping around on the elliptical machines.
Frankly, they were frightening. My first time in the gym, it was overwhelming. My son is afraid of spiders. I’m not, but walking through the gym for the first time, looking at all the spindly machines with the stacks of weights, it looked like I was walking into some kind of infestation. How do you even begin to contemplate what to do with all that stuff?
More specifically, back to the topic of this blog post, what’s the best kind of exercise to do after age 50?
The short answer might be: “the exercise that you do”. A somewhat longer answer will be, strength training has particular benefits you can’t get from cardio, cardio has particular benefits that you can’t get from strength training, and the beneficial effects of the two seem to cancel each other out.
That is, on a surface level, strength training puts on weight that hinders your endurance, and cardio tends to draw down muscular gains.
The big question is, how do you navigate this gulf?
I don’t yet have all the right answers – ha ha – that’s why this is still a big question. One consideration is that at this age, you’re not looking to become world-class in either endurance or strength training. Another short answer might be “it depends on where your goals lie”, and to a larger degree, this is correct.
But there we have to take another step back. “If I want to be healthy into old age, what should my goals be?”
At this point in my life, it’s an easy question to answer. My kids have talked me into running a Tough Mudder race with them, and so for most of this year, that settles it. Training for a Tough Mudder event, I have to be cognizant of both.
That’s why I’ve turned to Alex Viada’s “The Hybrid Athlete”. For younger people, it’s nothing to train for an Iron Man. The challenge, as Viada puts it,
It still doesn’t say what’s the best way to train for older age. The authors of “Younger Next Year” seem to draw the line at 45 minutes of exercise, six days a week:
One simple rule to learn (and follow when all else fails) before you get lost or bored or decide to go have a drink. It goes like this: Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life (emphasis in original). Sorry, but that’s it. No negotiations. No give. No excuses. Six days, serious exercise, until you die. Well, if you’re still in your forties and stretched to the breaking point with work, kids and travel, we can talk about four or five days, but six is much better even then. And after age fifty, six is mandatory. By then the tide is starting to pick up, and you need help staying off the rocks. In fact, my version of the rule would have been “Exercise hard six days a week,” but Harry convinced me that that would scare the horses. (Crowley, Chris; Lodge, Henry S., Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond (pp. 49-50). Workman Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.)
But here is the key: following “Rule Number One” “gives you the strength, the optimism, and the flexibility” to do everything else you want to do in life.
This brings you to another one of those paradoxes. I don’t yet know all the answers about “what kind of exercise” or “how much to exercise”, but with respect to strength training, three to four days a week is enough, and more than enough, not only “to exercise” but “to train”. And that leaves another three days to go. There’s a difference here, too.
It works out nicely: three days of strength training, three days of cardio. A couple of key rules of thumb that I might add are: Don’t overdo it. Don’t get hurt. “The one who fights and runs away lives to fight another day”. If there’s anything at all that I know, that’s what it comes down to.
The authors of the “Younger Next Year” books offer two life paths for those in their 50s and 60’s and beyond. “Chart 1” and “Chart 2” here represent those two different paths.
The first is how life goes without exercise. The forces of aging contribute to a steady decline until death. The second chart represents life with a sensible path of exercise. The reasons for this are becoming medically clearer: when you exercise, your muscles generate a particular growth hormone that “tidies up” your whole body. It fights and even reverses the forces of decay that tend to lead to what we think of as a typical path to old age.
The program they recommend involves about 45 minutes of exercise a day, six days a week. That may be daunting, but as with anything, it’s more important to start, without overdoing it. You may not be able to go out and walk for an hour. Maybe even doing that would cripple you for the next week. If that’s the case, if your first sixty minutes comes in the form of six daily 10-minute walks, that’s fine.
Here is why you should get started:
… let us have a candid moment. We are deadly serious. The stakes here— the potential changes in the rest of your life— are enormous. Think about the following numbers for a minute: … over 50 percent of all illness and injuries in the last third of your life can be eliminated by changing your lifestyle in the way we suggest. Not delayed until you’re a little older. Eliminated! Along with all the misery, expense and lost joy that goes with being seriously sick or badly hurt. You may want to think about that for a minute. You may also want to think about the fact that 70 percent of premature death is lifestyle-related. “Premature” means before you’re deep in your eighties.
Crowley, Chris; Lodge, Henry S. Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond (pp. 7-8). Workman Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.
Even more important, for me, is [the fact] that some 70 percent of the “normal” decay associated with aging— the weakness, the sore joints, the lousy balance, the feeling crappy— 70 percent of that horror can be forestalled almost until the end [of your life]. That is a huge difference. I had some interludes of normal aging in my life, when my joints hurt so much that regular walking was painful and I looked for the cutout in the curb so I wouldn’t have to step up three inches to get on the sidewalk. Think about that. Think about being so puny that you have to rock just a little to get out of a normal armchair. That stuff happens. It will happen to you. It really, really will. And it doesn’t have to.
Crowley, Chris; Lodge, Henry S. Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond (p. 8). Workman Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.
This book goes into great detail about the emerging science to show how all of this works. I highly recommend it.