Figuring Out a Program

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.

Baseline for my 2017 Training

John_baseline_at_gym

Pardon me for the shameless self-portrait here, but this is where I’ve gotten to after a year and a half in the gym. Compared to my former puffy self, I’m very proud of this pose.

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:

Overhead press: 3x3x115 lbs.
Bench press: 3x5x150 lbs.
Deadlift: 3x4x250 lbs.
Squat: 3x5x185 lbs.

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.

Working Out After Age 50: What’s Best?

Gym-Equipment-1Though 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,

For many years it has been widely accepted in the athletic and fitness communities that strength and endurance are physiologically opposed to one another and therefore, cannot be simultaneously trained and developed. Strength athletes and bodybuilders believe endurance work weakens them and strips them of their precious muscle mass. Endurance athletes believe strength work will add unnecessary weight from increased muscle and slow them down. (From The Hybrid Athlete, ©2015 Alex Viada and Juggernaut Training Systems, from the Foreword.)

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.

Tough Mudder 2017

My kids have talked me into running in the local Tough Mudder race, to be held September 9, 2017 at a course near Slippery Rock, PA. I’m 57 years old and widowed. I started weight training in October 2015, following the death of my wife in June that year. At the time, I wanted to lose my belly, and to focus some energy on a physical activity that I’d be able to maintain. The high school track was closing for the winter, and I wanted to try to stay active.

The gym was offering a one-time special, and it was right next to the grocery store that I always shop at, and so I thought I’d go for it. In almost a year and a half of working out, I’ve lost much of the belly, I’ve made great gains in my overall strength, and I feel better physically than I have in a long time.

I had never lifted weights in my life. No, I don’t count the couple of days I played around in the weight room in 10th grade to be lifting weights. It wasn’t even a weight room – it was more of a crawl space with a weight machine. I have almost zero memory at all of that experience, and therefore it meant nothing.

For a while in my late teens and early 20’s, I was a regular runner. I hit approximately 40 minutes in a 10K race, for comparison purposes. All of my life, I’ve tried to get out and walk, sometimes on a very irregular basis. In recent years, I’ve walked somewhat regularly; I have a couple of four mile routes that are not uncomfortable.

The Tough Mudder race is 11 miles, and it’s chock-full of military-style obstacles. I haven’t even looked into them yet. But watch this space, as I try and break them out.

I’m sure there are some who will want to win this competition. Maybe there’s not such a big emphasis on that – there is a fairly significant emphasis on teamwork. Some will merely want to finish. I’m hoping to do better than that. I’m hoping that with my present level of conditioning, plus the training I’m hoping to do throughout the year, I’ll be able to perform respectably well, and even keep up with some of my sons.

There will be a whole team of Bugays at the race this year – my sons Jeremy (29), Zachary (who will turn 26 on race day), Nathaniel (24), John III (21), and my daughter-in-law Jamie (26). At least, that’s the plan for the moment.

I’ll be keeping track of my training throughout the year on this blog (http://johnbugay.com), as well as my thoughts about the race going forward. I’m not sure how frequently I’ll be writing here, but if you’d like to keep tabs, please subscribe. No, you won’t get a free ebook or a free report of any kind by subscribing. I’m not promising anything free – just maybe a pretty good story of an older guy who’s trying to stay young and keep in shape and have some fun with his kids.