My first experience with weight training was in High School. As a part of our off-season training for the swim team, our coach had us lifting weights 3 days a week. We did a fairly standard set of exercises (bench press, military press, maybe squats, ...), all for 3 sets of 12 reps. The weight was selected such that you lifted enough weight to fail on the last 1 or 2 reps of the 3rd set. You basically went up in weight whenever you felt like you could. Not really any rhyme or reason.
The problem is that this is not fun. Failing on the last rep is painful and requires a spotter to prevent an almost guaranteed injury. Furthermore, progress is slow. We didn't really have any goals and no plan to achieve them even if we did. As a result, I think I maybe went up from 90 lbs to 110 lbs on the bench press in the course of 3 months. By the end, I didn't really feel stronger.
Throughout college and up through last year, my resistance training was mostly the same. Except that instead of using the barbell for things like the bench press or squat, I used machines. Mostly because spotters are hard to come by, but also because I just didn't realize that machines are so bad for you. Of course, even if I had known, a lot of gyms these days don't have a big section devoted to free weights.
Finally, about 6 months ago, I realized that I wasn't getting any stronger at the gym (but it wasn't really a goal either) so I decided to just do body weight exercises at home. I started off doing a whole bunch of stuff: planks, side planks, pushups, dips, military press, squats, curls, and calf raises. I did 3 circuits, going through each exercise from between 12 and 16 reps. I did all of this in about 30 minutes. It was as much of a cardio workout as it was a resistance workout. I got about the same results (if not better) than I did after 6 months in the gym.
At some point though, I realized that the only way to push myself was to increase the volume of exercises. Given that my free time is finite, this meant splitting exercises across different days and cutting some entirely. I focused on the ones that worked the most muscles. By the end of January, I was up to 5 sets of 17 pushups, 5 sets of 25 squats, and 5 sets of 45 second planks (and 35 seconds left and right side planks), as well as curls,, military press and dips on alternating workouts.
It didn't take long before I realized that I'd have to continue to increase volume to keep improving. Either that or go back to the old way of doing things: adding weight.
So I did what I always do when I'm looking for a more efficient way reach my goals.
I really just wanted to keep getting stronger. It would seem to make sense that strength goes hand in hand with muscle size, which (as I've written about previously) goes hand in hand with weight loss. Strength is easy to measure. How much weight can you lift for how many reps? Muscle size and body fat % are a little more difficult to measure, and change so gradually that they're hard to use as a motivator.
So with that in mind, I researched how to get stronger. I stumbled across this article in Men's Journal which has been adorned with a fairly hyperbolic title ("Everything You Know About Fitness is a Lie"), but contains a lot of good information. It made me start to realize just why I had spent so much effort and time on various machines with so little to show for it.
For starters, strength should transfer to your life outside the gym. So, why are there so many machines and exercises devoted to training 1 or 2 specific muscles in a controlled rigid motion? Do the bench press on a machine and you'll get better at using that machine, but how much does it transfer to real life? Considering I'd managed to gain strength going from the gym to pure body weight exercises, I'd say not much.
I started reading articles about barbell exercises like the squat and deadlift. I'd never even heard of the deadlift before, but of all the exercises I've tried it's the one that directly translates to my actual life. Imagine something heavy on the floor. Now, pick it up safely. What could be more useful? The squat, I read, involves just about every major muscle group in the body. I realized that the military press (which is seated) is inferior to the overhead press (which is done standing) because it restricts motion and doesn't require you to stabilize your core.
I also learned that the key to getting strong fast is to lift heavy weights. And continuing to lift heavier every workout. No more 3 sets of 12-16 reps of the same weight for a month. Endurance training has its place, but it doesn't get you stronger. And finally, I learned that you don't have to workout to muscle failure to build muscle. In fact, focusing on fewer exercises and doing them well will give you the best results, and means you don't need to spend a lot of time in the gym. Especially while starting out.
So, naturally I was itching for a way to use this information, but I didn't really have much experience with the barbell. And some of these exercises (deadlift and overhead press), I'd never done in my life.
My first step was finding a plan. The one I found has you starting with low weights (the 45 lb. bar) and gradually increasing by adding 5 lbs on every workout. It's called StrongLifts 5x5, and the website has a ton of information on what it is and how to do the 5 exercises involved. There is also a free e-book that you can find if you look around the site a little.
The basic gist of the program is that you lift 3 times a week. Each exercise is 5 sets of 5 reps (with 1-5 minutes rest between reps). Each workout you increase the weight by 5 lbs. You do 3 exercises on each day, squatting every day and alternating bench press and barbell row with overhead press and deadlift (which you only do 1 set of 5 reps since you're getting a leg workout with the squats). It's simple and you see results for a long time, while starting off at a low weight gives you time to learn the proper technique on all the exercises.
So, I figured out what I needed get strong, now I just needed access to the weights. I contemplated going to the gym. The problem is that I've gotten used to all the free time that working out at home has given me. So I went onto craigslist and got an olympic barbell, a squat half rack, a bench, and weights (and an assortment dumbell and curl-bar weights that I'll probably never use...) for $250. And now a big chunk of my garage is devoted to something that I never thought I'd have... or even want.
Well, it's been a little over a week since I've started and it feels pretty good. I've done 4 workouts and I've changed my diet to focus on lots of protein. Who knew hard-boiled eggs were so good (and so good for you)? It's weird going from a diet where you limit your calories to lose weight to a diet where you need excess calories to gain muscle mass, but I'm slowly transitioning. So far I feel pretty good.
I've decided to keep a workout journal to track my progress. Notice the low starting weight, the squats every workout, and the increase in weight every time.
At this point, I'm not sure how this will affect my running goals, but I don't have any intention of sacrificing one for the other. I'm sure that adding more weight will probably not make me a more efficient runner, but on the other hand, all of my increased mass will be in the form of muscle (if I do it right), which I think would probably be helpful. But the thing I'm most hopeful for is that muscle mass increases metabolism. One of my goals for this year is to show off a 6 pack, and you can't do that without dropping overall body fat %.
Isn't it nice when your goals reinforce each other?
And on that note, I think I'll stop. Once again, I've written a wall of text, so congrats (and apologies) if you made it this far. I plan on keeping the workout journal up to date, so you can follow it if you want. I'm sure I'll be updating in a month or 2 with an assessment of the plan (and probably pictures), so you can look forward to that as well. Talk to you later.