My friend Ryan Eliason is sharing several freebies this month only (June 2018) to help people launch a successful visionary business (i.e. the kind that creates positive ripples in the world, even if it's just one person running it). Today he’s giving away a free PDF called The Revolutionary Entrepreneur Manifesto. I've read it and encourage you to download it while it's free. For more more details, see this News update.
After decades of running as my primary form of exercise, I decided to get into weight training last year. My main motivation was curiosity. I wanted to see if I could build my strength consistently if I made an effort to do so. I approached this as another deep dive exploration.
It’s been nice to do a deep dive that doesn’t involve depriving myself of food or sleep, in contrast to last year’s 40-day water fasting experience. 🙂
Previous Strength Training Experience
The last time I did a significant amount of strength training was around 2003 when I did some group training at a private gym for several months. These were grueling workouts that included a 15-minute spinning warm-up, a 2-hour weight training session with dozens of pyramiding sets and sometimes circuit training, and a 15-minute spinning cooldown. I did these workouts about twice a week on average.
I got significantly stronger during that time, but I didn’t like the workouts after a while. The trainer was into the Body for Life approach, and I found that style of training too time consuming relative to the results I got. It was often exhausting to do dozens of sets for every workout. And carving out time for a 2.5-hour workout multiple times per week wasn’t easy. It was nice to try this for a while, but I didn’t find it sustainable. I couldn’t see myself doing such workouts on a long-term basis.
I experimented on and off with other strength training approaches over the years after that. I did P90X a couple of times. I did Mark Lauren’s YAYOG workouts (You Are Your Own Gym) for many weeks. And I probably tried at least a half dozen other methods, including 5×5, Power Factor training, and some approaches I just made up. But nothing stuck for more than a few months. I eventually got bored with the workouts or found them too complicated or time consuming. Another factor that caused me to lose interest was the difficulty in measuring progress.
My Current Approach
Several months ago, I finally found a weight training program I really like and that I’ve been doing more consistently (and more enjoyably) than any other thus far – Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. I like it because it’s simple and doesn’t take too much time. I do the workouts at home using a barbell set and a power rack. I don’t have a gym membership or a trainer.
This program is based on compound exercises with barbells. No machines. Nothing fancy. Just hard pushing and pulling exercises: squats, bench presses, shoulder presses, deadlifts, dips, etc.
There appear to be some variations on this workouts, and Rippetoe probably keeps refining it over time, but the version I started using has two workouts of 4 exercises each. For the most part, I alternate between the two workouts, and I usually have at least one rest day in between.
I started my current regimen on October 21, 2017, so I’ve been going for a little over 5 months now. I train fairly consistently, usually doing 2-4 workouts per week with a few weeks off for travel. These days I’m probably averaging around 3 workouts per week.
Here’s what I do as a base. The numbers are sets x reps.
3 x 5 squats
3 x 5 bench press
1 x 5 deadlift
2 x max dips
3 x 5 squats
3 x 5 overhead press
3 x 5 bent over barbell rows
3 x max chin-ups
So the focus is on compound exercises that involve multiple muscle groups, not isolation exercises. This is strictly a barbell program, so there are no dumbbells used.
I like that each workout is only 9-12 sets total. That isn’t a big time commitment. In the beginning I could do them in about 25 minutes. Now they tend to take about 40-50 minutes, partly because it takes me longer to change the heavier weight plates but mostly because I need more rest between sets.
In the beginning I’d rest about 90 seconds between sets. Now I often need to rest 3-4 minutes between sets because the weights have gotten heavier and more difficult.
Sometimes I’ll add a warmup set or two, like by doing bench presses or squats with just the 45-lb bar to start. I might do that for 8-12 reps. But I’ve actually found that my recovery is better (and the workouts faster of course) if I don’t include too many extra warmup sets at progressively heavier weights. That might become important for preventing injury as the weights continue to increase, but for now I prefer to do just one fairly light warmup set for squats, bench presses, deadlifts, and overhead presses.
When I first began training, it took me a little while to calibrate how much weight to use for each exercise (i.e. to find the sweet spot where I was lifting heavy enough relative to my strength at the time), so the numbers I’ve listed below are my calibrated weights, which for some exercises are a little higher than my initial starting weights. This is because I started a bit lighter (like 95 lbs for squats and 90 lbs for bench press) till I figured out how much I should be lifting. These starting weights were all calibrated reasonably well within the first 10 days of training. I think it makes sense to share the calibrated weights vs. my initial starting weights since the calibrated weights paint a more accurate picture of my actual starting strength.
Here’s how much I was able to lift when I was just beginning in late October 2017:
squats – 115 lbs
bench press – 100 lbs
deadlift – 120 lbs
overhead press – 60 lbs
bent over rows – 71 lbs
And here’s where I am today:
squats – 238 lbs
bench press – 155 lbs
deadlift – 250 lbs
overhead press – 102 lbs
bent over rows – 134 lbs
I recently started including some other exercises, which I’m still calibrating a bit, but my current 3×5 numbers for those are:
shrugs – 200 lbs
standing calf raises – 215 lbs
I’m pretty happy with this rate of progress relative to the time investment. All of my current numbers are lifetime personal bests for me, so it’s nice to know that week after week, I’m becoming stronger than ever before.
I know that these numbers aren’t exciting relative to professionals or to anyone who’s been training much longer or harder than I have. I gauge my progress based on my own numbers relative to my effort, and for me these are good results.
I did a quick test just now to see how many push-ups I could do. I did 40 before my muscles gave out. That’s another new lifetime best. I think I could only do around 15 push-ups when I started in October. My previous max was 35, which was back when I was doing martial arts in my 20s.
I’m able to increase the weights for every exercise after almost every workout. I’m getting a good feel for how much I can increase the weight and still be able to hit 3 x 5 reps just barely. I like it when I calibrate so well that I can’t perform a 6th rep on the final set.
A big key for me was to use microplates. These are small Olympic weight plates that come in pairs of 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and 1 pound. This way I can increase the barbell by as little as 1/2 pound if I want (1/4 pound on each side). For squats and deadlifts, I might be able to increase the weight by 2-1/2 to 5 lbs from workout to workout. But for other exercises, I might only go up by 1-2 lbs. I like this because it gives me a sense of progress with every workout, even if I just go from X to X+1 pounds. It’s all about small gains.
The power rack is especially good for doing bench presses safely without a spotter. If I can’t return the weight to the upper pegs, it’s okay because I can just lower the weight to the safety bars right above my chest, so I won’t be smooshed underneath. Same goes for squats. This allows me to exercise with heavier weights safely without needing a spotter.
After doing this for five months now, I’m getting a good feel for how to adjust the weights from workout to workout. If I feel that my form has gotten a bit wonky for an exercise, I’ll keep the weights the same or only add a half pound for the next workout, so I can focus on my form. Otherwise if my form was solid and if an exercise felt slightly easier than expected, I might increase the weights by a bigger factor for the next workout to see if I can handle it, like going up by 3-4 lbs when I’d normally increase by 1-2 lbs.
I’m interested in exploring this aspect of fitness in a way that I enjoy and can sustain. Strength training isn’t something I’ve put much effort into for most years of my life, but I’ve long been curious about it, so I’m largely doing this to satisfy my curiosity and to see what it’s like to grow physically stronger. I think the main reason I didn’t get into this sooner is that I lacked an approach that really worked for me.
One thing that I found surprising is that as I grow stronger, it feels different in my body to exert maximum effort when I’m pushing or pulling. I had assumed that if I doubled my strength, then the experience of pushing or pulling at 100% effort would basically feel the same; I’d just be able to lift twice as much as before. But it actually feels like I’m able to push at 200% now. If I push at what used to feel like 100% of my capacity, then I’m still only pushing hard enough to lift whatever I could lift when I started. I have to push even harder than I used to be able to. Does that make any sense?
Sometimes it feels a bit strange when I observe that this feeling of effortfulness keeps increasing. I’ve had some surreal moments where I felt like I was pushing as hard as I could, and then I pushed harder still and saw the weight going up. There’s something odd (but also pleasing) about seeing a weight rise up that I previously couldn’t lift. Maybe this is because as my body adds muscle, my mind has to adjust to using it… like maybe more neurons need to fire in order to activate the new muscle tissue. I’m not sure of the neurological relationship, but that’s often what it feels like. The growth experience isn’t purely physical like I thought it would be. I actually feel like I’m getting stronger mentally too, at least in terms of my ability to concentrate on pushing or pulling heavy metal objects.
I like looking ahead to new milestones. Reaching 225-lb squats was a recent one. Same goes for hitting 250-lb deadlifts and 100-lb overhead presses. Now I look forward to hitting 250-lb squats, 125-lb shoulder presses, 275-lb deadlifts, and 175-lb bench presses. A really awesome target for me would be to bench press 200 lbs and to squat 300 lbs – I believe I have a good shot at hitting both of these later this year, depending on how much traveling I do.
Even though these workouts are simple, they’re also hard. Each time I’m lifting a heavier weight, I’m not sure I can do it. Often I’m just barely able to do 5 reps, and if I try to do a 6th one, my muscles fail. So I’m right at the edge of my limit most of the time. That’s an interesting space in which to exercise – not a space I normally experience when doing cardio.
There’s something very satisfying about these workouts too. Each one gives me a sense of accomplishment, even if I just lifted one more pound than the previous week. These mini-goals are very motivating.
One reason I’m getting into this now is to establish some good habits to carry forward as I get older. I turn 47 in April, and as I age, I want to maintain a strong and functional body with excess capacity. When I spent 30 days at Disneyland in 2016 and saw so many people in electric wheelchairs, I realized I didn’t want to spend my elder years in a weakened body. So I might as well start exploring good habits to stay strong in this decade of my life. Then I can more easily maintain those habits in later decades. This is similar to my decision to go vegan 21 years ago, so I could reduce my risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and other lifestyle illnesses.
I think one reason this approach is working for me is that progress is so easy to measure and track. As long as I can keep increasing the weights while maintaining good form, I’m getting stronger. The immediate feedback from each set is honest and specific.
I log every workout, including each exercise, sets, reps, and weights in a spiral notebook. No fancy apps. I also note how much weight to add to each side of the bar, so I don’t have to think about that too much while I’m switching the plates. I note how difficult each exercise felt (easy, tough, barely doable, solid form, shaky form, etc), and I record a suggestion for the weight I should use the next time I do a given exercise. Then when I begin each workout, I can just glance at my notes from a previous workout to immediately know what weights to use. It takes much of the guesswork out of the picture.
I also maintain an ongoing progress log in our Conscious Growth Club forums. This helps hold me accountable since any member can keep tabs on my progress. I also get tips and suggestions from those with more strength training experience than I have, which has led me to make some additional improvements to my regimen.
When I did a more complex workout program like P90X, it was hard to know if I actually made any meaningful progress from one workout to the next or even from week to week. It took more like 2-4 weeks to feel like I was making some progress, and the progress was harder to measure. It was more like a feeling of increased fitness than hard data. Yes, you can record some data, but it’s more like how many push-ups you can do vs. how much weight you can lift. P90X also included some workouts I disliked, like the dreadful Yoga X.
I think a good test of a solid exercise program that’s right for you is to ask yourself: Can I see myself doing this every week for the next five years?
If you have to answer no, like I did with P90X, then why bother with it? Maybe you’ll gain something while you do it, but if you’re not going to maintain it year after year, you’ll just lose those gains when you stop. In some cases you may still retain some worthwhile skills, like from martial arts training, but if your primary purpose is fitness improvement, then finding something you can sustain for many years is where the real value comes from.
What I find most motivating is actually seeing those small increases in the numbers week after week. This is surprisingly addictive – in a good way. I like pushing myself to hit the next mini-milestone, such as the next 5- or 10-lb increment. To me the numbers are a lot more motivating than how I look or feel. Perhaps that’s because the numbers give me a stronger link between my actions and results. How I look or feel may change over a longer period of time, but the numbers give me something clear and simple to focus on every workout and every set. They help me focus on doing my best in the present moment. I don’t find a mirror, camera, scale, or tape measure nearly as motivating because those results don’t provide a clear indication of what to do next.
Every workout gives me an experience like this: Okay, last time I lifted X. Let’s see if I can lift X+1 (or X+2, X+5, or X+0.5) today. Every time I achieve an increase, it’s a new personal best. That makes me wonder how far I can keep progressing along these lines. My curiosity helps fuel my progress.
Another aspect that I find motivating is how I feel in my body. I really feel the extra muscle on my body now, especially in my chest, legs, and glutes. It was a little strange to get used to feeling this denser material beneath my skin. I rather like it now though. I also like how the workouts make me feel physically and emotionally. They’re tough but rewarding.
I know that plateaus are common, but I’m still early enough in this exploration that I haven’t plateaued. I progress more quickly with some exercises than others, but I’m still making gains across the board. Deadlifts seem to be my strong suit, but I struggle for every pound with overhead presses.
My #1 concern with respect to continuing this training is avoiding injury. As the weights get heavier, good form becomes increasingly important, and even then it’s no guarantee. If I get injured, that would certainly slow me down. I know this from experience since I’ve already had some minor injuries along the way.
Finding the Right Balance
Figuring out how to balance strength training and cardio proved to be trickier than I expected. I feel that I have a good balance now, but it took me a few months to figure this out.
In the beginning I kept doing a lot of cardio (like I’d previously been doing) and added the strength training on top of that. I’d usually go for a 45-60 minute run in the early morning, and I’d do my strength workouts on select days in the early evening before dinner time. That was okay for a month or two, but the wear and tear began to build up, and I soon experienced some minor injuries and had to take extra time off for healing and recovery.
At one point I heard a popping sound in my calf followed by some intense but temporary pain, a telltale sign of a tear in the Achilles tendon. Then that calf was sore and tender for many weeks afterwards, and I walked with a slight limp much of that time. I’m glad the tendon didn’t rupture completely, or that would have required a much longer healing process and a trip to the doctor. The odd part is that the popping happened not during a workout but while I was just walking into a grocery store. This taught me that if I overdo the training, injuries could still occur post-workout while I’m recovering.
When I first started out, I was doing squats 3x per week. That was okay in the beginning, but I had to tone that down as the weights got heavier. I took 3-1/2 weeks off from doing squats since I was experiencing increasing pain in my right knee, and I wanted to give it extra time to heal. Now that knee feels okay. Presently I’m doing squats just once a week, which feels about right. Progress is slower than in the beginning, but I feel better with more recovery time, and I think this will reduce my chance of future injuries.
I experimented with going cardio-free for several weeks and just didn’t like it as much. I find cardio so beneficial for mental and emotional health and focus, and I really notice the difference when I don’t do it. Even though weight training gets my heart rate up while I’m doing a set and shortly afterwards, I’m still spending most of my time resting. I just don’t get the same benefits from weight training that I do from cardio.
I don’t perceive that doing cardio or not has impacted my strength gains from workout to workout, but I have noticed that if I overdo the combination of cardio plus strength training, I feel the wear and tear on some joints more, and this can lead to taking more days off for recovery. So I think the main risk of overdoing this combo is that it can slow you down by increasing the chances of injury.
Currently I feel a good balance is to do 3-4 shorter cardio workouts per week, like a 30-40 minute run or elliptical workout, mostly on days when I’m not doing strength training. For the elliptical workouts, I do intervals while wearing a 40-lb weight vest. If I don’t wear the vest, I have a hard time getting my heart rate above the 130s, probably because I’ve done so much elliptical training in the past, so my body is well adapted to it.
Sometimes after a cardio workout, I’ll do a few sets of some easier strength exercises like shoulder shrugs or calf raises. Occasionally I’ll do some isolation exercises like dumbbell curls or tricep extensions for added variety. I can presently do curls with 40lb dumbbells. I might be able to go heavier, but I don’t own any 45s or higher.
Sometimes I’ll do a 15-minute warmup on the elliptical before a strength training workout, but I usually don’t find it necessary. I mainly include it when I’m craving a little extra cardio for the mental and emotional boost it provides.
I also do a small amount of stretching and using a foam roller, but that’s been pretty minimal lately. It’s hard to assess if the foam roller makes any difference since it doesn’t yield a clear way to measure its impact. I’d have to experiment with it over a longer period of time to see if it helps.
I expect to continue strength training for many more months, possibly for years. I enjoy the mental and physical challenge of it. I’m not sure how far I’ll take this, but it seems relatively easy to maintain the habits I’ve established over the past several months. What I can’t yet predict is when I may reach a point where I’ll have to adjust my routine in order to keep making progress and/or prevent injury.