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.

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.

Things I’ve learned after a year of lifting at home

It’s been nearly a year since I set up my home gym in my garage. I was originally motivated by a desire to free up more time to attend the gym by removing the commute, assuming you don’t count walking across my overgrown backyard as a commute. I wasn’t originally able to have more equipment than a barbell and some weight plates, so that has limited the scope of what I can do. However as I’ll discuss that has turned out to be beneficial in some ways.

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Very close to running out of collar space

Given that, here’s what I’ve learned after a year of barbell training in my garage gym, as a 30-something, somewhat sedentary person with a demanding family and work life.

  1. It’s easy to squeeze in a quick session.. but sometimes I don’t. Although the commute is pretty straightforward, I should be able to punch out a quick 30-minute session on a regular basis. It doesn’t always work like that though. Often the only time I have available to me is at 8:30 in the evening when the kids are in bed, and my general lack of mental organisation at the end of the day means that I often seem to stretch these sessions out. Some days it’s super hard to even put on my training clothes and I collapse into the sofa. I should probably be more diligent, but I’m prepared to accept 2-3 times per week.
  2. The quick lifts seem to be the most beneficial. In the past I’ve mostly trained the powerlifts, but without a bench or squat rack I can now only deadlift. However I’ve not found that to be a problem. I seem to get a lot of benefit from the quick lifts from the floor – clean and jerk, and the power snatch. Something about the opening out and stretching of the snatch in particular seems to refresh me physically and psychologically.
  3. Forced simplicity delivers results. The limitation of my equipment means that I can’t waste time doing things that aren’t contributing to my improvement. My snatch, press, clean and jerk and front squat have all come up because… there’s nothing else that I can train. No doubt there’s a synergistic effect as well – a better clean is likely to translate to a better front squat.
  4. I’ve fallen in love with the overhead squat. Snatch a weight, then squat with it held overhead. I could never do these in the past, but I’ve had some time to fill and I find them very satisfying. They’re a great balance of strength, balance, power and core stability, but are nowhere near as fatiguing as normal back squats.
  5. Cardio still sucks. It just does.
  6. Sometimes I have to train in shitty weather. My garage is cold in winter, very hot in summer, and stinks all year round. It’s far from the optimum training environment, but in many ways that makes it perfect. Life isn’t an optimum training environment and I’m happy to sacrifice a few gold medal performances if it makes me generally tougher and more resilient.
  7. Guinea pigs make bad training partners. George, my kids’ pet, lives in the garage in cold weather. He’s bad conversation, can’t lift for shit, and is terrified by the sound of me dropping weights.

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    World’s shittest training partner

After a year, I can wholeheartedly recommend a simple garage gym. I haven’t missed having a rack of dumbbells or cable-based machines even a little bit. If I were going to add anything, it would probably be a squat rack and a bench, but I’m in no particular hurry.

Simple works.