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.

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.

IMG_6566
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.

    IMG_2407
    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.

Things to know when taking up powerlifting

  1. It’s hard physically.

Lifting heavy things off the ground is really hard. Especially when you get up to multiples of your bodyweight. Especially when you have to train first thing in the morning. It grinds you down and wears you out and makes you ache most of the time. Powerlifting will find every physical weakness you have and explain it to you in exquisite detail.

 

  1. It’s hard mentally.

I have been close to tears at the end of a heavy set of squats. The only thing harder was going back to do another set. Once you get reasonably strong, every training weight is enough to cause you permanent damage if you screw it up, and your body knows it. Finding the grit to go back and do it again and again can be impossibly difficult some days, especially when you’re underslept/underfed/stressed/cranky/over it.

 

  1. Eating a lot of food is hard.

You scoff now, but training only takes three hours a week.  Eating takes about three hours per day. Past a certain point of strength it takes an unholy amount of food to support further improvement. Shifting the weight on the scale upwards usually takes serious, concerted effort, especially for more lightly-built lifters. Eating is work and it stops being fun.

 

  1. You will never be as good as you were in the first few months.

There is a thing called the novice progression.  Basically it means that for the first 3-6 months of your serious lifting life you will gain strength very rapidly, possibly doubling or tripling it. This is exhilarating – one month you’re squatting the empty bar and a couple of months later you’re squatting 150% of your bodyweight.

And then it stops.  You spend the remainder of your career trying to push your weights upwards by a few kilos. And those few kilos are really hard work and rely on you getting the rest of your eating/sleeping schedule worked out. You will never regain that feeling of rapidly increasing competence.

 

  1. It’s ugly to look at.

Have you even seen a good powerlifter? Most of them are really fat, those that aren’t tend to be ugly.  The movements themselves look ugly and uncomfortable and tend to make the lifter look like they’re about to either have a stroke or shit themselves. Ugh.

 

  1. You will need a high tolerance for boredom.

There are only three lifts in powerlifting and they’re not too technically difficult. As a result, there’s not a lot of variety in training. There may be some assistance work that resembles what the bodybuilders do in the gym, but powerlifters will always squat, bench press or deadlift as the main training. You need to be ok with this.

 

  1. It brings a new set of social norms with it.

Once you’ve been seriously lifting for a while you’ll start to form opinions about other styles of lifting which you never would have considered in the past.  Powerlifters think bodybuilders are vain and look ridiculous. Bodybuilders think powerlifters are fat brutes. Olympic lifters think their style of lifting is magical and superior. Everyone hates Crossfit except the Crossfit people who LOVE it.

You will take on one or more of these views and be ok with it.

 

BUT

 

  1. Dieting is a thing of the past.
  2. You can’t beat the sense of achievement from a deadlift PR.
  3. Who wants to live an ordinary life anyway?