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I’ll start off by repeating this disclaimer: I’m not a personal trainer, a member of the fitness industry, or a trained professional. What you about to read are my opinions as well as observations from my personal fitness journey. Anyone embarking on a new workout regime should consult a medical professional prior to starting a new routine to verify one’s ability to handle the targeted activity. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into how I workout and why.
Much like my post on “What I Eat and Why” I’ll summarize my workout first, then delve into some history revealing how and why I have evolved to this particular routine, and then end with specifics.
In general, I currently focus my exercise routine on functional power lifting exercises utilizing the barbell with some additional supporting exercises thrown in. On top of these, I try to get some sprints and swimming in when I can. You may be asking, “But what about cardio? To keep around 12% body fat, you are required to put the time in on treadmill, elliptical, and bike, right?” I can only speak for myself, but my answer is, “No!” I’ll clarify in a bit.
The barbell lifts I focus on are the squat, bench press, barbell row, standing overhead press, and deadlift. These are all compound exercises meaning, when executed properly, they work my entire body not just a single or isolated muscle group. This is especially true when I progress to lifting heavy weights in the cycle. I find focusing my efforts on these lifts is amazingly simple as opposed to the complicated split-routine, muscle confusion approach I tried most of my life.
I have played around with weight lifting my whole life. My father was a junior high and high school coach (football, basketball, baseball, tennis, cross-country–I’m sure I missing some sport he coached) and we always had access to the high school gym and weight room growing up. I can remember being elementary school age and tagging along with my dad and brother when they would go to the school gym to work out.
When my brother (a year older than me) was in junior high, he got a weight set for Christmas. This was an old school set that came with a barbell and collars, and those plastic weights with concrete (maybe?) inside. I remember Dad building a cool homemade bench and rack for doing bench presses. The set came with instructions on the various exercises complete with diagrams. Cool! The perfect tool to mold my prepubescent, ectomorph body into a chiseled specimen.
The problem was, like many Christmas toys, I never really used the weights much after New Years day! Needless to say, my skinny physique never transformed into anything close to a bodybuilder. It turns out, being an ectomorph, I really have no chance of ever becoming “big” like a bodybuilder–and that has not been a real goal of mine since the week or so after my brother opened up those weights on that Christmas morning. Throughout junior high and high school I never really “trained” in the sense of formally lifting weights or running, rather I much more enjoyed playing sports.
I don’t really remember having much time at all in college for fitness or sports but when I graduated and entered the work world I started back to playing lots of tennis, basketball and dabbling with weights. The first company I worked for had a fitness center in the building and I remember working out sporadically on their Nautilus circuit. Then in the mid-90s I joined an athletic club where I played basketball every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6am before work. Again I would go through phases of lifting weights, usually a split routine of alternating between bunches of exercises focused back and biceps one day and then chest and triceps the next. What about legs? I hardly ever did legs because I figured I played so much basketball that my legs didn’t need lifting!
To sum it up, I spent thirty or so years messing around with weights with the right intent–to use weight training to improve my physical fitness and performance–but without a solid strategy to get stronger. I was the guy who wandered around the gym hitting the targeted muscle five different ways, three sets at a time, eight to twelve reps a set until I exhausted that muscle. During that whole time, however, I never felt like I made serious or breakthrough gains–I was sort of just treading water!
Then, about three and half years ago when I stumbled upon Mark Sisson’s book, The Primal Blueprint, I read about the importance of walking, functional strength training, and sprinting, (and why chronic cardio may actually damage your body). As a result did I Google search (based on some pointers from Mark’s Daily Apple) on how to actually get strong by lifting heavy weights. This led me to a character on the internet named Medhi and his simple program called StrongLifts 5×5. This program changed everything for me because it forced me to learn and perform just five basic power lifting exercises. The key to the approach is to start with an empty barbell (45 lb) for each exercise and simply do five sets of five reps (hence the name 5×5). Then, the next time you do the exercise, you add just 5 lb to the bar. Starting light and progressing slowly allowed the novice lifter like me to learn proper technique while building a solid foundation (without the massive pain you get, called DOMS, when you start heavy and kill yourself).
The core exercise in this program is probably the lift I both despise and love the most: squats. I am convinced squats are probably the single best total body lift I can do–it works every muscle in my body! When I am hitting parallel and then coming out of the hole with over 250 lb on my back, every muscle in my body is working to make the lift happen, otherwise I will drop the bar, fall over, or potentially injure myself! The deadlift is probably a close second. I can tell you without question, at 50 years of age, I am the strongest I have ever been in my life because of doing StrongLifts 5×5 and a couple of advanced variations (and no other program) for the past three and a half years.
Participating in StrongLifts 5×5 had another benefit for me–the program promotes consistency. I use the free app on my phone to track my progress and I get such a great sense of satisfaction from doing whatever it takes to hit that weight room three times a week and slowly over time lift heavier and heavier weights. For example, before SL 5×5, I think maybe I could bench 165 a few times. Now I have been able to rep 215 lb–that’s a 30% improvement! I’m no Arnold, but I’ll take that To achieve personal records in these lifts has taken years. I have injured myself (not weightlifting related), causing me to start over with an empty bar, and also made the decision my form needed so much work that I started from scratch, but each time I have stuck with the program and, so far, I’m not bored in the least!
As I mentioned at the top, I do sometimes throw in some supporting exercises, always after the main barbell lifts, like pull-up, chin-ups, and dips. Rarely do I venture into the land of the weight machines!
But what about cardio? Everyone is different, but I have proven, for me, cardio is not necessary to shred body fat and become lean and fit. If I want to shed body fat, all I have to do is eat properly and lift heavy weights. If I want to accelerate the shredding, I add in sprints and swimming. It took me awhile to figure this out because we are pounded with the message that cardio is required to be fit and to burn fat, but it mostly makes me hungry! There are theories (with supporting evidence) that too much cardio, long distance running for example, can cause inflammation and may potentially be doing more harm than good. I have never enjoyed distance running (I started to get into road biking until I got hit by a car–wear your helmets bicyclists!) so luckily I don’t feel cheated! Do I worry about my aerobic and cardio capacity? Nope! If you witnessed how out of breath I am after squatting 295 lb, you would understand the load my lungs and heart are under doing this type of lifting.
One of the other things that helps motivate me is a fitness community called Fitocracy. You see I love video games. In fact, there was a point in my life about ten years ago I might have considered myself addicted to the on-line game World of Warcraft (WOW). In WOW your character “levels up” using points earned by killing things, progressing in their profession, and completing quests. The folks a Fitocracy have created a similar kind of paradigm where you log your workouts and complete quests to earn points and level up. But even more important to than this “gaming” aspect is that Fitocracy has become this very specific social media platform for like minded fitness nuts (like myself) which has ended up creating a support system of sorts for me. I have surrounded myself with folks like me that are committed to health and nutrition and it helps motivate me!
I am excited to to hear how you work out and why so please comment if you like and, as always…
Be smart in the kitchen and a beast in the gym!