If 3 sets of 5 reps on the overhead press doesn’t crush your sole… you’re not training correctly.

You’ve probably heard this before, but it warrants repeating: you don’t need to kill yourself in the gym to make progress.

Sadly, for normies, an effective session in the gym is gauged by:

  • Quantity of sweat produced.
  • Amount of soreness obtained.

To be honest, sometimes it might be wise to strive for a sweaty and sore workout. Periodic bouts of extreme movement – a long run or a high volume barbell session, for example – can be beneficial. The problem arises, however, when you only train like this.

Exhausting workouts can feel enjoyable, but if they’re too frequent and beating you up, your motivation to initiate them will wain rapidly. Moreover, you might end up dealing with overtraining, perhaps in the form of inflammation. Prompting this response may have value if done infrequently, but to be training so hard as to be constantly in a state of inflammation? Doesn’t seem healthy.

This is why it helps to reframe physical activity. Avoid “working out”, instead consider “training”. Don’t randomly move weights around. Pick a few exercises that cover your requirements, and track your progress. Track progress in terms of strength, and perhaps, body composition. Let the numbers and aesthetics speak for themselves, not the perspiration and pain.

Let’s Go!

Now, here’s where things get fun. If you’re like me, you actually love training. In fact, it’s not a lack of motivation that’s the issue, it’s the abundance of ambition.

I absolutely love crushing deadlifts in my garage gym. So much so that I’ve often (and still am) guilty of moving too much weight, too soon, before sufficient recovery.

The outcome: more work for worse results.

So, I’ve started flipping the formula. If I want to train most days, maybe even 10 or 20 consecutive days in a row, then I have to plan more intelligently.

In practice, this often equates to planning very short bouts of movement. I get the near-daily training out of my system, but most ‘workouts’ are short and sweet. Just enough stimulus to promote growth, but not too much that I can’t sit on the toilet the next 48 hours. The minimum effective dose.

“But I’m soooo swamped.”

Despite all our supposed wonderful technological advancements, most of us are getting busier and unhealthier in 2021. Some folks actually have to nerve to call this “progress”, but I call it “f*****g ridiculous”. Sadly, this is a subject for another time. Suffice to say, if you’re one of those “swamped” folks, this type of training might work even better for you.

Like I said, you don’t need to crush it. You just need to give your body a sufficient signal to promote growth.

Busy whipping up dinner for the family? Take a few minutes to squat between pre-heating the oven and grating cheese for tonight’s spaghetti and meatballs. Done. That’s it.

Is that enough? For me, yes. But don’t listen to me. Start experimenting. This is a single example from a single person. No one-size formula exists, despite what some Twitter-fitness-evangelists like to preach.

I don’t care what you think, 10 reps at 405 lbs will promote a response. Sometimes a single, heavy, set of deadlifts is all I need.

I really enjoying training, and feed off the momentum of a disciplined regiment, but sometimes I do it too much. Usually excessive intensity without sufficient recovery.

Here’s some strategies and tactics I use to to accommodate this addiction..

My favourite room in the house.

Shorter workouts, with a limited focus.

I enjoy full body training, and still prioritize compound movements (multi-joint exercises that engage multiple muscles), but I might focus on a single compound lift certain days, giving the other lifts a break.

Instead of doing three sets of five reps on the squat, overhead press, and barbell row, I might only do squats that day, knowing full well I’m going to be drawn back to the gym the next day, and can complete the other lifts at that time.

This has a couple of benefits.

  1. Reduces the risk of overtraining.
  2. Allows me to focus on a single lift.

Regardless of how you train, some lifts will get a priority in terms of CNS (central nervous system) resources. For example, if you were to cram eight exercises into a single workout, some of those latter movements will begin to suffer, even if you didn’t explicitly work those muscles yet. The CNS impacts all.

This is relevant if your priority is to build strength. It’s not only your muscles that need to be prepared and ready to execute a heavy deadlift or squat, but also your CNS.

Assess training over multiple days, rather than each single day.

I hate taking days off, but it helps to recognize the role that recovery plays in my week’s overall progression. Recovery is necessary for growth and injury prevention. Looking at it as an extension of training is helpful, psychologically.

Leverage active recovery.

If I get a few walks in during an day off, it reminds me that I’ve done something, but didn’t interfere with the recovery process. Instead, some very light walking likely helped it.

I prioritize multiple short walks versus a single, long hike, for example. This ensures I don’t go hours on end without moving. It keeps blood flowing to my muscles throughout the day, and avoids overexertion.

In my experience, it’s far more valuable to engage in frequent, light recovery, than a single, longer session. I’ve yet to discover a more effective way to reduce the symptoms of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), than frequent, brief strolls.

Recovery Plus: Treat Yo’ Self.

I like to plan enjoyable recovery days as well. This still includes walking, but also cold exposure (cold pool, showers), sauna, stretching, and lots of healthy protein, water, salt, and anything else I might need.

Essentially, I treat myself like a pro athlete.

Recovery.

All these strategies have helped me…

✅ Reduce the risk of overtraining while maintaining momentum.

✅ Experience more enjoyable recovery days.

✅Achieve better results by ensuring my body is properly recovering and growing between strength training sessions.

Do you have any tactics that help ensure you aren’t overtraining?

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?

Sometimes you need (or just want) a ten minute workout. I think the guys over at Mind Pump (funny fitness podcast) would call these ‘trigger sessions’. Sort of micro workouts intended to offer a quick hit of stimulation, but nothing too intensive. Not sure if my workouts would be considered the same thing, but I like the term, so I’m using it.

Given the fact that most of us spend hours sitting each day, it’s beneficial to add small, frequent bursts of movement to wake up our body. This in contrast to exclusively engaging in only one or two intense workouts each week, with all remaining hours spent virtually motionless. That’s why I use these sessions. Well, that, and the following reasons:

  • I’m sometimes lazy, and 10 minutes is less than 11, 12, or even 20 minutes.
  • Alternatively, maybe I do really want to exercise, but happen to be at a stage where I need to reduce volume. Ten minutes lets me do something, just not too much.
  • I’m short on time. Something is better than nothing.
  • Again, I’m lazy. 

THE LAYOVER: Perform 10 minutes of suitcase carries with a kettlebell or dumbbell.

Suitcase carries are similar to farmers walks, except the weight is loaded asymmetrically (one side heavier than the other). This lopsided loading requires you to maintain an upright torso, fighting the urge to be pulled down by the weighted side. If you have the opportunity, this is a great workout to do in the backyard, barefoot, under some vitamin D delivering sunshine. Try to keep a steady pace with a solid posture for the entire 10 minutes, switching hands periodically (say every 50 metres or every 30 seconds). I personally use a roughly 60 lb kettlebell for my suitcase carries. 

This routine isn’t meant to blast you. It’s a little extra work you can throw in, especially on an ‘off’ day. For me personally, it allows me to feel like I’ve worked out, without really overtaxing my body. 

BAMBI LEGS: This is so easy it hurts. One plate (135 lbs) barbell squats: 3 sets of 20 reps. That’s it. That’s the workout. Get in. Get out.

BACK TO BASICS: To be honest, this one takes longer than ten minutes, because a little extra recovery is required between sets. That said, the total time actually moving is less than ten minutes.

The goal here is five supersets (back to back exercises) of 10 pull-ups and 20 push-ups (for a total of 50 pull-ups and 100 push-ups).

I’ll often perform this routine while cooking dinner. It’s a simple way to add a little exercise in without disrupting my day. For example, using my recent hamburger recipe, my session might look something like this…

  • Perform set #1
    • Chop some onions
  • Perform set #2
    • Prepare spices, form hamburger patties.
  • Perform set #3
    • Warm up BBQ.
  • Perform set #4
    • Place burgs on BBQ
  • Perform set #5 (final set)
    • Finish cooking the burgers, enjoy dinner.

These are but three potential workouts you can use. The main point is, sometimes all you really need is a quick burst of movement. It doesn’t need to be planned days in advance, and it doesn’t even have to involve changing into dedicated workout clothes. The fewer hurdles you encounter, the more likely you’ll actually engage in these activities. A few extra push-ups sprinkled in here and there will go a long way. Don’t overthink it, just give it a try.

Don’t forget to wash your hands after doing the push-ups!

For as long as I can recall, my dad has been grilling up spicy, mouth watering hamburgers during the summer months. Just one of his many food specialties, perfected over the years. These burgers are now a staple in our household, with my wife and I regularly grilling them up.

Since I’ve been asked about the recipe a few times, I thought I’d share it here. Note, however, this recipe has been tweaked slightly from my dad’s original version, so any issues can be blamed on me.

Usually I’ll prepare roughly 1.3 kg (2.8 lbs) of ground beef into an infantry of small patties. This amount represents the average size of the large mince packages found at our local grocery store. This produces around 30 patties, give or take, but don’t you dare hold me to that amount.

A colourful bowl of spices at the ready.

Burger Patties

  • 1.3 kg (2.8 lbs) medium ground beef (full disclosure: more often than not I have to settle for the lean mince at our grocery store, but I prefer medium for the additional fat)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons of curry powder
  • 3 tablespoons of paprika
  • 2 tablespoons of onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon of black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of salt (add more after cooked, if required)
  • 1 large onion (chopped finely)
  • 2-3 crushed, fresh garlic cloves (optional – my dad hates garlic and would never use this in his burgers)
  • 1-3 jalapenos (chopped finely)
  • 1 bunch of parsley or coriander (optional)
Prepping the ingredients.

I like to mix all the spices together in a separate bowl before forming the burgers. Similarly with the garlic and onion. This allows me to add spice, onion, and garlic gradually as I break up and mix the mince in a large mixing bowl, helping ensure the ingredients are evenly distributed.

I’m not concerned with producing perfectly round patties, but I do want them thin.

I also prepare a whole wack of parchment paper ahead of time. I make squares big enough to fit the flattened patties on. Let’s call them five inches squared.

Once I have the ingredients prepared and set aside, and the parchment cut, I mix everything together (mince, spices, eggs) and begin forming the burgers.

I grab a small chunk of mince, roll the meat into a round ball the size of a meatball – maybe a bit larger – and flatten the patty out between two pieces of parchment. I don’t use any special ‘as seen on tv’ tools, but feel free to get creative.

I like my burgers thin. Like, super thin. I’m going for that 1950’s roller skating drive-in vibe. You know, the one I never experienced? I just figure these were the types of burgers they made.

Thin also means these bad boys are difficult to handle. You have to carefully remove the parchment when grilling them or they’ll just fall apart. There are other ways to do this (i.e. form the meatball and mash the patty on a pan on the stove top, but I’m grilling these, so that’s not an option).

I repeat this process until I have a few towers of super thin burgers. Usually we’ll end up cooking up a third of the batch, and freezing the rest. If freezing, avoid squishing the burgers together, or they’ll be difficult to separate once frozen.

Bonus! Toasted Buns

Toasting your buns on the grill is great, but for truly exceptional, drive-in style hamburgers, butter your buns and toast them on a piping hot pan over the stove. Ensure the butter is evenly spread out on each half of the bun. Aim to have a consistent golden bun when complete. Voila!

Enjoy

These burgers are meant to be thin. You can easily double, triple, or yes, even quadruple up the patties. This is especially helpful if you’re trying to keep the carb consumption low. Just go heavy on the patties.

Also, I didn’t mention the obvious, but you might want to throw a little cheddar on these hamburgers near the end. Your call. Lately I’ve been enjoying mine with a little ketchup, mayo, and hot peppers. Highly recommended.

Time to fire up the grill.

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I don’t exactly know why I stopped, but here I am, once again posting. Something triggered me to write today. I’m not going to dwell on what that trigger was, I’m just going to ride this motivation train, and see where I end up. See if I can keep the momentum alive past one post. Wish me luck.

A New Decade Begins

2020 has been great so far. The year started with Liz and I wrapping up a trip to the US South-West. We spent Christmas in San Diego, where we celebrated my parents 50th anniversary with our extended family. We had a blast hanging with cousins and nephews. Although we ate and drank too much, sporadic walks peppered our schedule, hedging some of the negative activity. And either way, it was a vacation, with the family together. Our intention was to live life, and so we did.

As part of the visit, we took a spectacular – albeit short – road trip through Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. The landscape was absolutely breathtaking. We found ourselves constantly in awe and appreciation of the hues of red that cover the dessert. I simply can’t get enough of this landscape.

Well, it’s back to reality now. The vacation offered a small break from heavy lifting, but I’ve been back to the barbell the last few weeks, slowly ramping up the workouts. Training has been productive and enjoyable lately. I’ve been working on checking my ego at the garage gym door, attempting, though not always succeeding, to stick to appropriately heavy weights. This approach has certainly contributed to lowering instances of injury, and helped me maintain a more consistent and predictable regiment into the new year.

Brief Deadlift Update

I’m happy to note I have now surpassed a 400 lb pull. In fact, I’ve since gone as high as 420 lbs, though I would be lying if I told you my form was on point. If all goes well, I’d aiming to pull 425 lb+ on my 35th birthday, coming up in less than two weeks. And for the end of this year, the goal is to hit 450 lb for a single. Safely! May as well record this goal here and now.

What’s Next?

Honestly, I don’t know. I want to continue to leverage this blog as a forum to practice my writing, express myself, and hopefully, share some useful anecdotes with readers along the way. Maybe this morning’s post will act as the catalyst for many more. Maybe not.

“The Office”. Our squat rack in all it’s glory.

Last year my wife and I decided to pull the trigger and buy a squat rack for our home. Prior to the purchase, we would frequent our local gym whenever we wanted to get under a barbell. Unfortunately, often times obtaining a rack would be difficult when the gym floor was busy. Moreover, we were a bit intimidated by the power racks in the club during our lifting infancy. To address both issues initially, we started only lifting once a week, early on Sunday mornings, while the gym was relatively quiet.

We quickly became much more comfortable using the power racks, however we still had the issue of often not being able to secure one for our use. And even when it wasn’t too busy and we would get a rack, we often wouldn’t perform the workout the way we intended, feeling pressure to move through the exercises quickly so the next person in line could access the equipment. Of course, occasionally someone would work in with us (or us, them), but this wasn’t always possible. And the fact that you often need long rest periods between heavy barbell lifts, means you might just be sitting around a busy gym, seemingly occupying a rack someone else could be using (yes, I overthink these things).

Ultimately, for peace of mind and convenience, we cleaned out our garage, and installed our own rack. Our garage is now almost exclusively used as a home gym. Given it’s only a one-car garage, and we live in a cold and snowy climate, this dedicated space came at the cost of a clean and warm car during the winter months (thanks Babe!)

Our home gym is fairly sparse, but more than sufficient for our purposes. Currently, we have the following equipment:

  • Squat rack with safety’s
  • Standard, 45 lb Olympic barbell
  • Just over 400 lbs of bumper plates
  • Flat bench
  • Dip/Pull-up belt
  • Rings
  • A few bands
  • 35 lb kettlebell
  • A few light dumbbells

We made a commitment to first see if we would survive a winter using the garage gym before we added too much equipment. We wanted to determine if we’d actually use the space on frigid January mornings. I’m happy to report the space was in fact used regularly, though it could definitely use some added insulation. A little bit warmer would be nice.

We survived the winter, and we’ve really been enjoying the space through the summer months. Since the garage gym is working well, we’ll likely pick up a few additional pieces of equipment at some point. Although not required, here are a few items I’d personally like to add:

  • Perhaps one day replace the squat rack with a full-fledged power rack
  • Additional, heavier kettlebells
  • Add an additional Olympic bar
  • Trap bar (especially to perform loaded walks in the backyard during the summer)
  • Incline bench

I’ll continue to share updates about our garage gym as we make changes. So far, the experiment has been a success, and we’re very happy we decided to do it. Now all we need to do is figure out how to keep the barbell warmer in January!