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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s now day two sans-vacation. My first full day back to reality. My wife is at soccer (or is it hockey?) tonight, so I’m on my own. I knew if I didn’t take this opportunity to jump right back into the routine that existed before our vacation, I would run the risk of falling off completely.
That’s where my go-to evening checklist comes in. It’s simple, effective, and enjoyable.
Strength Train: Usually takes me between 25 and 45 minutes. This evening, for example, was on the lower end, with just a 25 minute squat session. I load up my favourite tracks (typically some hip hop), and get to work.
Sauna: The hip hop is turned off, and I toss on a podcast (Mind Pump being one of my go-to podcasts currently). I aim to enjoy endure around 15 minutes in the hot box.
Swim: Nothing is more refreshing than the relief of a cold pool after a serious sweat. I’m not interested in doing any laps (though probably a good idea). No, I’m just looking to lounge for a few minutes and cool down.
Steak: Or in my case this evening, just some giant grilled ground beef patties from Costco, covered generously with Montreal Steak Spice and Pink Himalayan Salt (appropriate after all that sweating). The meal is dead simple. And yes, that’s all I’m eating for dinner this evening. If my wife was joining, perhaps we’d have a spinach salad included as well. Again, it would be simple. Typically dressed with olive oil, lemon, and salt.
There you have it. My go-to evening routine. It checks all the right boxes for me from a fitness and nutrition perspective. And as previously mentioned, it’s easy – so I’m more likely to do it. It’s enjoyable. I get to listen to good hip hop, great podcasts, get stronger, eat delicious salty meat, and feel refreshed. And importantly, it’s effective. Not many exercise send as a strong a signal to your body to adapt than a few heavy sets of barbell squats or deadlifts. And if you believe recent studies, regular sauna may be linked to significant reductions in all cause mortality rates. Plus it feels good…. At least afterwards.
An easy, repeatable routine like the one above has proven indispensable in my arsenal of tools to improve my health. I’m curious to learn if others have had success with something similar.
I only really started training with a barbell regularly two years ago. Although I dabbled previous to this, I never engaged in any sort of disciplined, consistent training. And of course there existed years on end with little to no exercise at all, let alone any sort of barbell training.
Barbells have always been the domain of the Meat Head. Or that’s what I told myself. More likely the few power racks that I did have exposure to were simply too intimidating, and it was easier to convince myself the treadmill and some bicep curls were more than sufficient… nay better, than the what the idiots in the power racks were doing. They were just showing off. They were risking their health for aesthetics. Right?
Fast forward to two years ago. My interest in strength training was first piqued through exposure to Nassim Taleb (philosopher, statistician, author, bull shit detector, former trader) and reading about his experience deadlifting. Because Nassim Taleb took up this intimidating activity at a late age, and the fact that he doesn’t come from the health and fitness world, likely played a role in encouraging me to explore the domain further. I was curious more than anything.
Once I began to learn more about strength training, I was convinced it was something I wanted to introduce in my life, and sooner rather than later. The cost-benefit became clear. If I were to engage in a structured, safe, slow progression routine, this would benefit me more that many of the other common activities folks engage in to improve their health and mobility.
My goals were clear. Improve my strength and mobility using the minimal effective dose of stimulation. I wasn’t interested in slogging through grueling ninety minute runs every other day, only to lay up at night icing my knees. No, a few sets of heavy squats every few days (although grueling in their own right for the few seconds they take to complete), was far more compelling, and likely much more effective, at achieving my desired outcomes.
And so I lift. I train to pull hundreds of pounds off the ground in a safe, controlled training environment today, so that I might pull lighter weights off the ground, with less risk of injury, at an older age, tomorrow. I’m lifting today to help me continue lifting tomorrow.