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.

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.