Cardio can crush a gazillion calories in a single session, but building muscle through resistance training can be a much more enjoyable route. Muscle is metabolically active. It requires energy at all times. What does that mean in practice?

More lean muscle on your frame equates to a greater proportion of consumed calories being directed towards just maintaining that muscle, versus being stored as fat or burned for energy.

You should prioritize building lean muscle. Resistance training promotes this signal in your body. Running, unfortunately, does not.

Not only that, but your body tends to adapt quickly to excessive cardio. It becomes increasingly efficient at covering the same distance with less energy (fewer calories). When food was scarce, and you had to travel long distances to find calories, this was a great feature. You could go further with less energy. Today, we simply don’t face this problem. We face the problem of having too many calories.

All else equal, a 5 km run today will burn more calories than the next 5 km run. You burn increasingly fewer calories the more proficient you become at running, and the more your body adapts to the activity.

This is important: your body will not prioritize building muscle if you are constantly running. Why would it? Muscle is heavy, and you don’t need a lot of it to run long distances.

Take a close look at a long distance runner vs a 100 m sprinter. The marathoner’s physique is extremely slim and light, while the sprinter is packed with lean muscle. Both groups have low body fat percentages, but sprinters have far more muscle mass.

I’m not trying to convince you not to run. If you love it, and it works for you, fantastic. However, for many people, resistance training may be more conducive to their goals. If you’re like me and you enjoy eating, but hate long, steady-state cardio, picking up the barbell and building some muscle is the obvious choice.

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?

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.

September 2020 update: here’s a shot repping out a few deadlifts @ 405 lbs.

For the past year or so I’ve been working towards achieving a 400 lb one-rep max deadlift. This would represent a fairly significant lift for me, coming in at roughly 2.5 times my body weight. Thus far, however, the lift has eluded me.

In November 2018 I thought I was coming close, pulling 385 lbs off the floor. This PR (personal record) was set shortly before my wife and I departed on our two-week honeymoon. Although not a terribly long break, I disappointingly found my deadlift lost some steam when I returned. Disheartening? Sure. Part and parcel of the game? Definitely.

Patience

The process to improve strength is slow and arduous. Many factors can slow progress, or even set you back all together. If you’re like me, these moments will test your resolve to maintain your program or routine. Changes can be so slow that it can prove difficult to remain motivated, but ultimately it’s the consistent work that compounds over time that provides meaningful results. Easy to understand. Difficult to accept.

Grinding

In recent months I’ve been improving my five rep max, recently hitting 375 lbs on that lift alone (though to be fair, the five reps were ugly, and I used straps for assistance). I haven’t attempted a single rep max deadlift in many months, though I suspect I’m now approaching the 400 lb mark. That said, given the inherent risk in heavy deadlifts, I’m not rushing towards this target. Rather, I’m taking my time progressing, and will attempt a PR once I feel I confident I can safely execute it. Regardless, progress is being made.

A Note on Tracking

Tracking has helped me recognize and appreciate the often small, incremental improvements I make. A couple of months ago I started using Gravitus (no affiliation), an incredibly intuitive app that helps me quickly record my reps and sets. When I start an exercise, Gravitus will automatically show the previous weight, sets, and reps performed previously (and the date on which they were performed). This has proved indispensable in ensuring I continue to properly challenge myself week to week, something that can be difficult to do when you primarily work out at home, alone.

Enjoying the Process

Coming to peace with the fact that muscle growth is slow, and only gets slower the further you improve, has helped reduce my obsession with constantly achieving new heights. I certainly wish to set new records often, but I understand that PR’s will be harder and harder to obtain the more experience I accumulate. And at some point, I will inevitably peak. Does that mean I stop resistance training when I can no longer improve? Hell no. If anything, weight training becomes even more critical – helping slow muscle atrophy.

And so I do my best to avoid being singularly focused on PR’s. Instead, I’ve come to love the challenge, love the process, and love the weekly grind. I’m energized knowing that I’m putting in the work day-after-day that other folks can’t, or simply aren’t willing to.

If it were easy, we’d see many more individuals deadlifting 400 lbs, but we don’t. And honestly, I don’t want it to be easy. The harder the challenge, the more satisfying the reward. Bring it on.