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Strength Makes Life Better

by Nate Moe | March 11, 2020

mrs moe ready to train

I have been a collegiate strength & conditioning coach for over twenty years, which means I train division one student-athletes in preparation for their particular sport. I pursued this career ever since the day I met Rock Gullickson, then the Head S&C coach at the University of Texas. I began lifting weights at the age of 14 with the goal of being able to play college football. However, because of my stature and speed, I knew I would have to work hard to play in college. Fortunately for me, I began lifting weights early on. It had an impact on my social status and athletic career. I was the kid they always called “husky,” and as I began training, I gained strength and muscle mass. I rose in social status in my grade and started to be noticed by the ladies. I was always an athlete, but my ability improved as I trained, dressing varsity on our football team as a freshman. 

Looking back, we did some silly stuff in our training, but nonetheless it allowed me to pursue my dream and kept me healthy throughout my career. My driving force as a strength and conditioning coach has always been to provide a better training program for my athletes and assist them in pursuing their dreams. I am fortunate to work with unbelievably gifted athletes so I know their success is a credit to them but I hope to support their efforts as best I can.  

Throughout my career, I have written workouts on the side for various people, including several of my sisters. I have enjoyed this as well, but they are relatively young and whether they train or not they can function and be relatively successful in life. Over the last few years, I have seen many examples of how important strength training is for all people as we age. Strength training can help fight diabetes, muscle and bone loss, depression, and more importantly, it can preserve function and independence. 

Mrs. Moe 

My mom has had an amazing and successful life – she is a selfless woman. She has been married to my father for over 50 years, and they have 6 children, 14 grandchildren and 1 great grandchild.  She was an athlete when she was younger, but raising six kids and living her life on her terms has never really allowed her to train. Over the course of my S&C career, I have tried to convince my parents to strength train, but you cannot want it for them; to be honest it was not really in their comfort zone. My mom has several health issues including being overweight, diabetic, and double knee replacements. Over the years I have seen her purchase many different “fitness devices” that usually collected dust, and they probably should since they were junk.  

Things were getting harder for her, and hosting her family for the holidays, something she loved to do, was becoming a struggle. Over Christmas 2018, it became clear that she was ready to try something new. I was very excited and told her if she would commit to doing what I said there were ways for her to safely progress. I recommended that she video her last set, and that I provide feedback and prescribe her next workout. 

I have used the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression with my freshman student-athletes with much success over the last five years. I personally have been training to fight off the effects of aging as well. I  remember seeing the  video of Sully’s presentation at WFAC, “The Importance of What We Do” and reading his article “Barbell Training is Big Medicine” and seeing his success stories of older “athletes of aging” using modified versions of the NLP to regain, strength, muscle mass, and independence. I wanted this for my mom but I knew she had to want it for herself. 

Obstacles to Training 

My mom was unlikely to go somewhere to work out, as she would be uncomfortable. That was a huge obstacle to her continuing to train on a regular basis. She lives in northern Minnesota in a small town that does not have a gym or a high school. Anything close only had cardio machines and some dumbbells. Any real gym is 40 miles away and likely would not have a qualified trainer. At first, I concluded she would not need much equipment and I wanted to build the habit of training. My father was a carpenter before he became a pastor and he would be able to build, modify and rig some things up for her to use in her initial training.

mrs moe squat progression

I utilized a modified version of the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression to begin her training.  I began with having her complete sit-to-stands out of a chair for the squat each workout. She did an RDL movement in place of the deadlift first with her hands tracing down her leg, then with a dowel. We alternated between a standing wall push up and DB Press for the Bench Press and Press. 

The progression over the first few months was as follows:

Squat

  • Sit to stand up out of tall chair
  • Sit to stand up out of slightly lower chair
  • Sit to stand up off the toilet
  • Body weight Squat to a stool
  • Squats to a stool with a broom stick on her back
  • Loaded broomstick Squats
  • Light barbell squats

Deadlift

  • RDL style slide the hands down your leg
  • Broomstick RDL
  • Broomstick RDL with buckets attached/loaded with light DBs
  • Deadlift from the floor with wood disks
  • Barbell Dead lift

Bench Press

  • Pushups against the wall
  • Pushups kneeling hands on the bed
  • DB Bench Press
  • Barbell Bench Press

Press

  • DB Curl and Press
  • DB OH Press
  • BB OH Press
  • Standing one arm press using an anchored barbell

Initially we went slow because, like I mentioned, I wanted to build the habit of training, I was not there to coach in person, and she did not have the equipment. I took the opportunity of my university's spring break to bring her some basic equipment and coach her in person. This allowed us to make some quicker progress and get her performing an actual barbell squat and deadlift. She made good improvement squatting, but the deadlift was her primary driver of strength. Her shoulder mobility meant she had to use a high bar squat and wrap belts around the bar and grab them as close as she could to the bar to hold the bar. In addition, she did not have a power rack, initially resting the bar on the backs of two high back chairs. Eventually my father built her a wood squat rack. 

Her shoulder mobility was an issue, so we started with a dowel press to train the range of motion, and a DB Press since she had some light dumbbells. We attempted a standing curl to press. I had heard Dr. Sullivan use a standing curl as an upper body exercise for an elderly client with shoulder mobility issues.  Eventually, I concluded that the standing one-armed press with an anchored barbell as outlined in Chapter 10 of Dr. Sullivan and Andy Baker's The Barbell Prescription was our best option for the press. I knew I had to be creative in getting around her physical and social obstacles to training while building her habit of training. I knew that over time she would see the physical benefits, and that would in turn provide a positive feedback loop to enhance her motivation to train, overcoming the obstacles. 

Why? 

I knew if I could keep her training consistently, she would see the progress and that would motivate her to continue to train. I told her that this may not add a single day to her life, but it would add life to her days. I knew she would not love the training itself, but if it could help her enjoy life she would learn to enjoy the training. Her “why,” – her reason for training – was her family, and specifically her 14 grandchildren. Her closest grandchild is several hours away and traveling was becoming difficult. In the spring, she traveled to visit one of my sisters and several of her grandchildren. She was planning to deadlift 100 lbs for the first time, but was not able to workout at my sister's. I was planning to make a big deal of her 100 lb milestone, but I knew her missing a workout to spend time with the kids was more important. She would always feel bad if she missed training. I would remind her that she is training so that she can go spend time and enjoy her grandkids – that she is “training to live, not living to train.”  

Upon arrival at my sisters, she proceeded to dance with her grandchildren, something she never would have attempted in recent years. My sister also mentioned you could see a significant difference in her mood and outlook on life. Her family and grandkids bring her joy, and her training allowed her to travel and live life with those grandkids. Soon after that trip she deadlifted 100lbs for five reps and continued to progress.  Her “why” for training was revitalized because she was able to have such a great time with her daughter and grandchildren. 

Life Gets Better 

In May 2019, she traveled to watch my son play in a basketball tournament in Lakeville, Minnesota.  When she saw my in-laws, she took off walking so fast to greet them I was in shock. She was much stronger and it was beyond evident in her gait. That day she stood watching several basketball games, something she could only have done for a few minutes several months before. The same day she was able to attend my niece’s softball game. She was able to walk around several softball fields on a significant trek without having to stop and rest.  Previously, she may not have attended because she would have been concerned with how far she would have to walk. 

For as long as I can remember my mom has been a bowler. In recent years that had become harder as well, with her knee replacements and loss of strength. When she began strength training her average score was an 88.  By the end of the season, her average improved to a score of 117 and she earned the “Most Improved Bowler” trophy. As of this writing in February 2020 her bowling average is up to 132.  

I know she enjoyed the award and bowling at a higher level again, and it motivated her to keep training, but even with that, her ability to play with the kids was the best reward.  She took my nephew, who has cerebral palsy, to the Minnesota Zoo for several hours by herself, where she would need to lift him out of the car and walk a significant distance, something else she would never have attempted a year earlier.   

In August her oldest grandchild got married. She danced all night with her young grandchildren and navigated the stairs and hills of the picturesque Wisconsin wedding chapel. I am not a dancer, but watching her enjoy herself was one of my best moments as her coach and son. 

Her doctors have noticed improvements in several health measures, including blood pressure, A1C, and liver function. Her A1C fell from 8 to 6.4 over the course of the year under the target of 7 for type II diabetics, which pleased her doctors. Currently she has lost 40 lbs of body weight.  To his credit, her doctor told her to keep lifting. Another great effect is that they have lowered the dosage of several of her medications as well. However, in a nod to the public’s view of collegiate strength coaches when she explained that her son was training her he jokingly asked if I call her “Maggot” to motivate her.  

I used her story as well as John Wilson’s in teaching the squat to a master’s level biomechanics class. One of the instructors seemed concerned that I was talking about barbells with the elderly. I know that 5 lb dumbbell squats, while better than nothing, would not have the same profoundly positive effect.  

Barbells are stable, safe, and progressively loadable. We were able to start with no weight, then a broomstick. Eventually progressing to a 25-lb bar and as of this writing, she has squatted 75 lbs x 4 reps and 72 lbs x 6 reps.  As I review her videos each week, I am impressed with how far she has come. She has now deadlifted 170 lbsx1, 167x3, and 160x5. She has had several breaks while life got in the way, but the barbell has truly made living possible. She is able to navigate the stairs to do her laundry and walk the dogs when my father is not around. 

She is currently alternating between these two workout:

Workout A

Workout B

Squat

Squat

Deadlift

RDL

Bench Press

Standing 1-arm Press with anchored barbell

 

DB Row

My mother has had an amazing life, blessed with a wonderful marriage, and God has blessed her with a loving family. I am proud of her and everything she has done selflessly for our entire family. I am profoundly impressed that she made the decision to do something for herself, to improve herself and her situation, and to continue to enjoy a great life and family. It is very gratifying to see her train in order to be able to live her life to the fullest and enjoy her children and grandchildren. I am happy I have the knowledge and skill to be able to assist her in this journey. Strength really does make life better. I love you, and I am proud of you, mom!


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