Getting Jacked in my Thirties

Lessons from the First Half

Originally posted on Medium on September 3, 2020.

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Left: a lifetime ago, visiting Vietnam when I was 23. Right: age 35, visiting a cottage in Quebec last week.

My Trajectory

When I was a teenager I was relatively slim. I took up Karate when I was around twelve years old, unable to perform a single push-up. Thrice weekly Karate classes soon changed that. A few years later, I could easily rep out dozens. And I was still pretty slim.

I parted ways with Karate when I was sixteen. I never joined any formal sport afterwards, though did cultivate a passion for breakdancing while in high school. Those moves still come out at the occasional wedding, but sadly I can no longer windmill (this is a windmill if you’re curious).

My twenties saw a rapid decline in my physique. I ballooned up in weight. I was around 150 lbs in high school, but topped 215 lbs when I hit age 23 (with no discernible muscle included in that surplus).

My weight ebbed and flowed for the remainder of my twenties, ending right around 185 lbs at age 30. Definitely not horrible by today’s standards. But then again, today’s standards leave much to be desired.

My thirtieth birthday kicked off a quest for better health. A membership at a newly opened Globo Gym-style facility was just the ticket. Over the next eighteen months I began dropping calories, slowly and conservatively hitting weights, and frequently (way too frequently) crushing the stair mill, interval style.

This produced some impressive results. I dropped to a lean 149 lbs with a 30” waist.

The only problem was, I was hungry and weak, but at least I was slim!­­

It was at this point I decided to prioritize building muscle. Partly due to the fact I knew I’d get to enjoy more guilt free calories. And partly because I looked straight up spindly.

And so began a regiment that included a generous serving of eggs, steak, and very heavy deadlifts. I dropped cardio to virtually zero, and began following Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength Program. In hindsight, maintaining a small amount of weekly cardio would have been good idea. Otherwise, I’ve been extremely happy with the changes I enacted, namely, more calories, and heavier weights.

Fast forward to 2020. I still maintain the same 30” waist size I held at 149 lbs, but now I wake up a much healthier 170 lbs. I’m knocking out push-ups better than I did training for my black belt at age sixteen. While I was one of the few guys who couldn’t perform a pull-up as an adolescent, I’m now in the minority of men my age that can rep out a dozen plus. When I began conservatively training the barbell at age 30, I was barely pulling 150 lbs. Now I can rep out 405 lbs deadlifts on an empty stomach.

This isn’t to boast (well maybe, partly), but to show what massive potential we have in us. Even those of us who believe we are at a genetic disadvantage. And even those of us who are no longer spring chickens.

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Making a pretty face while crushing some heavy deadlifts in my garage gym.

Lessons Learned

Now on my fifth year of lifting, and well into my 35th year on this earth, I thought I would share some lessons I learned picking up the barbell in my thirties.

1. Dose Matters: When I first started lifting, I struggled to get myself to the gym. As I progressed, the difficulty of going to the gym vanished, and before I knew it, I had difficulty avoiding it. At first, I had trouble delivering a large enough ‘dose’ of exercise to elicit an optimal response. Over time, however, I started employing too high a dose. Ultimately this led to overtraining, hindering my capacity to recover and grow.

Finding the sweet spot with respect to volume, intensity, and frequency is something that takes time. It is, however, helpful to be aware that more is not always better with exercise, whether it’s cardio or resistance training.

Some exercises are so potent (heavy deadlifts for example), you likely shouldn’t engage in them more frequently than once a week. I’m talking to my peers here, specifically. Individuals in their thirties, likely out of shape, and unconditioned. I’m not referring to a 22 year-old powerlifter with above average recovery. Perhaps they can get away with more volume. You probably can’t. At least I couldn’t.

Find the sweet spot, and learn to embrace the minimum effective dose. It’s more efficient, and will help extend your lifting years.

2. Pay Homage to Pareto: With every passing year I appreciate just how valuable the fundamental barbell lifts are. I’m speaking of the overhead press, squat, deadlift, and to a lesser extent, the row and bench press.

These movements offer so much value. They are the embodiment of the Pareto Principle. Of the multitude of exercises you might engage in, this small group of core lifts will be responsible for the overwhelming majority of results. Armed with this knowledge, you can complete far more efficient training sessions. The loud awakening of your central nervous system simply can’t be replicated the same way with other movements.

My garage gym is scarcely more than a squat rack and barbell, save a couple of kettlebells and light dumbbells. I’ve eliminated options, cut out noise, and bought into the 80/20 principle with respect to resistance training.

It’s made training remarkably straightforward, and supremely effective. I’ve learned to prioritize to the main lifts, because they work.

3. Muscle is Precious: Consistency and patience are rewarded handsomely in strength training. While peak genetic cardio fitness can be reached rather quickly with proper training, peak genetic strength can take years, sometimes decades to achieve.

Put another way, with strength training, you can enjoy new personal records for years and years to come. Assuming you train intelligently, of course.

We all want to reduce body fat and increase lean muscle, but we tend to prioritize body fat reduction. I certainly did.

Body fat can come and go rather quickly, but muscle growth and reduction is a slower process (at the very least, growth is). I’m now of the belief that it’s far better to prioritize building muscle, most of the time.

If you need to drop ten lbs of body fat, this can be achieved relatively easily by disciplined individuals in short order (a few months, or even a few short few weeks). Gaining ten lbs of muscle in a single year, on the other hand, despite what some people might claim, is extremely difficult.

Muscle building is a long game. And that’s okay. It’s taken me time to realize this. I wish I had prioritized building muscle at an earlier age. It’s like a retirement account for your health. You should make deposits early and often.

4. Creative Targets are Invaluable: Success in strength training doesn’t have to be measured purely in absolute increases in poundage on the bar. There are countless ways to measure growth. Identifying these alternative targets, and tracking them, make the entire process much more enjoyable.

Achieving a new personal best can feel great. In my experience, framing your training in such a fashion that allows for a broad range of targets to be reached, leads to more sustainable lifting.

For example. If you’ve just come off an injury, aiming for your previous personal best squat on your first workout back would be irresponsible. It may be disappointing to pull back, but setting a fresh, lower target — with full acceptance that it’s being set with a healing injury — provides an honest, new challenge to overcome.

Moreover, the reality is you likely couldn’t squat that same weight, anyway. You could try, reinjure yourself, and guarantee even lower numbers in the future.

The bottom line is, learning to look for wins in creative ways will make your lifting career much more enjoyable. Age and injury are a fact of life. Numbers on the bar will not go up linearly forever. In fact, for some overachievers, linear progression can halt a few months in.

5. Identify and Embrace what Motivates You: Consistency and longevity in the gym requires more than sheer discipline for most individuals. That was certainly the case for me during my infancy of lifting. It requires some form of motivation.

For me, it was everyone around me that didn’t lift.

The older we get, the wider the gap becomes between individuals in terms of health, fitness, mobility, and physique. Why? Because we’ve had more time on this earth to either grow or destroy our bodies.

Just look at the variation in the oldest age brackets. Some are rock climbing, travelling, dancing, and even deadlifting. Others are stuck to their computer or television, depressed, immobile, and even bed ridden.

This is where I happen to find motivation. It’s all around me. Each pound I put on the bar further ensures I’ll be able to lift a bag of groceries into my old age.

Identify what drives you. Is it the confidence you feel when pulling 315 lbs off the floor? Is it the euphoria you feel after completing a heavy set of five squats? Is it the satisfaction you get knowing you’ll be able to golf when you’re 80 years old, when other men and women your age won’t be able to?

Or is it for the guns?

Whatever it might be, try to identify it, and remind yourself of it regularly.

It’s definitely for the guns, isn’t it?

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