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


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.