Strength training for the chronically busy and tired

Sometimes I have to keep learning the same lesson. Over and over again. This month’s lesson in humility has come from the barbell.

I have had some time off work and decided to push up my deadlift a bit. Two weeks later, beaten and sore, with no meaningful progress in sight, I stopped.

I don’t know why, but I seem to be unable to learn the lesson that there is a limit to what I can recover from. With my current life circumstances I’m pretty limited in what I can handle and the recovery strategies I can implement.

Sleep, for example. I hear that it’s good for getting stronger. Unfortunately I have small children and one of them wakes up a minimum of twice a night, every night. I also work shifts, which doesn’t help matters.

I am not genetically gifted. I’m also not young enough to, as my friend Kyle says, live on KFC and cigarettes and still make progress. I also have very little free time, given the demands of work and family.

So, once again I found myself looking at programs that aren’t too demanding. If they make me stronger, all the better.

I kept coming back to Dan John. As far as I can tell he is one of very few writers on strength and conditioning who is not a total meathead. He acknowledges that sometimes less is more, and that no-one has all the answers. Above all, he has some sensible guidance for how people with lives outside the gym should train.

Dan’s 40-day program seems to be a sensible choice. It promises to improve strength by pushing up your middling efforts, rather than your top efforts. This makes for an economical training session, in terms of both time and accumulated fatigue. For someone who is teetering on the edge of crushing fatigue most of the time, this sounds promising.

Dan’s recommendations are this: Pick 5 exercises (barbell or kettlebell), preferably aligned with the fundamental human movements. Perform around ten quality reps per exercise at 40%-80% of your 1RM. Repeat daily, or as close to as possible. It should feel easy. Never miss a rep. Stop after 40 sessions and reassess.

I’ve actually had a crack at this program before, but I made the cardinal error of believing that it was too simple, and turning it into a grind session by using heavier and heavier weights. I aim to avoid that this time because, well, I just have to. I can’t train an hour a day and I can’t tolerate the fatigue.

So, here is what I’m doing.

  • Front squat @60kg (60% 1RM) – Squat movement
  • Overhead press @40kg (57% 1RM) – Push movement
  • Clean and Jerk @50kg (58% 1RM) – Explosive movement/hinge
  • Bent over row @50kg (I dunno. 60%?) – Pull movement
  • Snatch-grip deadlife @60kg (Probably about 50% 1RM) – Hinge

So far I’ve done three sessions and it feels easy. There’s always the possibility that my lifts won’t improve, and I’m ok with that. At the moment, in my current life situation, if I can just keep practicing the movements and not go too far backwards, I’m happy.

I’ll report back when I’m further through the program.

Experiment: Lifting every day

A new addition to the family has meant that I have recently had several weeks away from work. Being around the house organising family stuff has given me a lot of free time, but time that I can only really spend around the house.

So I get to train in my carport gym. A lot.

Normally my training schedule is dictated by whatever spare time I have left over after attending to my family and work. That’s 3 x 1 hour sessions per week, at the most. Now, with loads of time I found I could train as often as I like.

I started by lifting according to my normal schedule, but the number of days gradually crept up. Training has always been fun for me, but I started lifting more as a way of getting out of babyland for a little while each day, which was good for everyone’s mental health.

Before I knew it, I was lifting around 6 days per week. Circumstances usually prevented the 7th day from happening, but that was probably fine. ¬†After 6 weeks of trial and error, I’ve learned a few things from this inadvertent experiment.


  1. Volume has to be reduced. Some people recover really well. I am not one of those people. High volume smashes me really quickly. Lifting every day means that the volume per day has to be reduced. This usually influences exercise selection as well, as squatting heavy day after day is no bueno. I’ve been doing at most three lifts per day – usually a press, squat or deadlift, and clean/jerk or snatch. Any more is asking for trouble.
  2. The rule of 10 is my north star. Renowned Renaissance strength coach Dan John talks about this at length, but essentially I’ve found that I only really have ten quality reps of any lift per session. I might push it up to 15 for the presses, but that’s plenty. Going higher than this on a daily basis leads to injuries for me.
  3. Injuries crop up and forced days off are… frustrating. I haven’t had anything particularly nasty happen, but my shoulders and upper back have taken a pounding. Once or twice I’ve taken a day off due to some painful niggle and it’s worked a treat. It’s been pretty annoying though! Once I’ve been in a rhythm of training, not training feels like punishment. It’s interesting how quickly I’ve adapted to daily heavy training. It’s almost like my body was meant to move…
  4. Exercise selection is organic. Most of the time I stick to my three-lift model. But I’ve followed my gut from day to day and moved them around a little. I’ve thrown in farmer’s walks, rows, and miscellaneous other set and rep schemes. I spent one day doing nothing but bench pressing. I suspect that desire for variation is probably my body’s way of telling me to take a break and do something different.
  5. A break from lifting doesn’t mean a break from training. On a couple of days I was fried in the gym or feeling stale, but I still wanted exercise. So I went for a run, a cycle, and even jumped and climbed on the parkour course at a local trampoline gym for an hour. These were a pleasant change of pace, and it was nice to do some training that felt a bit more general.
  6. Despite the reduction in volume, I’ve been getting stronger. In the last 6 weeks I’ve had lifetime PRs on the press, the front squat, the power clean and I’ve equalled my lifetime PR on the deadlift. I didn’t train specifically for any of these and decided to max them out on a whim. The consistent, low- level training seems to have done me loads of good. I’m also gaining weight again, which usually means good things for my “natural endurance athlete” body.
  7. I’ve also been walking a lot. I consider that locomotion rather than training, but since my kids’ school and the shops are less than 2 km from home, I’ve been getting up around 8-10 km per day. It feels really pleasant and seems to help to shake out some of the gym-related crinkles.
  8. Lifting in the carport gym means no guinea pig to train with. This is a blessing.

When I go back to work I doubt I’ll have the time to train daily. But I now know how much my body can tolerate without complaint. In the future I’m going to try to make it a more regular thing, even if that means shorter sessions.

The garage gym is dead

The garage gym is dead. Long live the garage gym.

I’ve moved house recently, and my new dwelling does not feature a garage. I’ve been forced to find other ways of training and it’s been an interesting experiment. Before I moved I’d just completed 2 cycles of 5/3/1 with great success (lifetime PR on the press!), so it was time to change it up anyway.

It seems that for the time being I may need to train en plein air, which will be interesting in winter. I can put my gear under a tarpaulin, but the actual lifting will have to happen in the open. The probably precludes training in the pouring rain or during heatwaves, but such is life. There is a subculture of rugged instagram types who swing kettlebells in the snow – I’m not one of them, but I’m not totally averse to being outside. Part of training is developing mental toughness after all.

While I work out a longer term plan, I’ve been keeping myself busy (apart from moving boxes) by putting together a short “maintenance” program

Method: Stand in the alley beside your house at 8pm when it’s 5 degrees outside. Load the bar to 70 kg. Clean it. Then jerk it. Then front squat it. Put it down. Do it again about 10 times. Rest as required.

Even for a minimal program, this is pretty basic. But it does tick a lot of boxes:

  • It covers most of the basic movements – push, pull, hinge, squat
  • There are grinding and explosive elements
  • It meets the rule of 10
  • It’s really quick, which ensures that training actually happens

Ultimately I’m not sure how I’m going to configure training from here. But at least I’m doing something, which is loads better than nothing.