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Train Like Your Life Depends On It: Because It Does

by Bryan Glahn | February 03, 2021

moving a load in a wheelbarrow

Bryan and his son Connor show the carryover of the deadlift into real life, across all a sub- maximal weights. 

With middle age comes an illusion of security. You’ve settled into a career that most likely brings some financial stability. A few kids, a house, and a spouse may create a sense of achievement: the American dream. You’re no longer laser-focused on where you think you need to go in life; rather you learn to appreciate where you are. You think you have enough wisdom to have learned from the mistakes of your past and maybe enough hubris to think you’ll make fewer going forward. But what is at first a mistaken aura of contentedness is actually complacency. The daily routine has set in. It doesn’t matter if you gain a few pounds, your spouse probably has as well. You begin to make excuses: “My knees can’t ski anymore,” or “I don’t have time to ride a bike.” You not only justify but condone and ultimately enable your own path to mediocrity, and a premature demise that was in all likelihood preventable. You are weak.

When I was in my early 20s, I “went to the gym.” I remember my workout partner at the time complaining when people used the term “training.” “What are they training for?” he asked, as we banged out a few more leg curls. For years, I adopted this philosophy, rolling my eyes at those pretentious individuals who appeared to take this gym thing a little too seriously. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to waste nearly twenty years lifting weights.

As a beginner, Monday was bench, Tuesday back and biceps, and so on. And of course, the venerable leg day, which consisted of a few machines that left me physically sore but certain that the pain meant results. Through it all I was still weak. I evolved; my program had variety: repetitions and sets changed every workout, curls and “abs” were thrown in for the same reason your mother told you why you couldn’t do something when you were young: because she said so. And I was still weak.

Fast forward nearly twenty years later to a conversation I was having with a coworker and friend. I was 40 and Brian with an “i” was nearly 50. He asked me about working out. “Training,” as he called it, causing me to raise an eyebrow as I flashed back to college. Not this again. He asked me if I had ever heard of Mark Rippetoe. I had not. He asked me if I had ever heard of Starting Strength. I had not. I told him I had a squat rack, barbells, and a bench in my basement. Perhaps someone having to ask me if I lifted weights should have been the first clue something was wrong. Regardless, I bought the book Practical Programming for Strength Training. Typical of my analytical nature, I read it cover to cover, stopping to highlight, circle, or reread important parts. One notices the book serves as a microcosm of life: it tells you where you were, meets you where you are, but unlike real life, it also gives an accurate view of the future should you heed its contents. In other words, shut up and do the program as written.

The program is simple. The beauty, however, is in this simplicity. Compound lifts such as the bench press, squat, deadlift, and military press, done with perfect form, adding weight each workout. As you progress, you can add chin ups, power cleans, and other exercises. Although Starting Strength doesn’t claim to have invented the concept of lifting for strength, they have done a better job of explaining the why and the how.

Modern society is complex. Automated systems do much of our work for us, including thinking. In theory, this isn’t a bad thing. It’s why someone invented automatic transmissions and calculators. In practice though, humans are spending less time working harder but fail to realize they are no longer working smarter. One doesn’t need to know how to rebuild an engine to drive a car, nor write a software program to use a computer. However, the more complexity within a system, the greater the chance of failure. This critical distinction is what separates Starting Strength from other programs. There is no room for failure because all of the unnecessary components have been removed. The program consists of a few compound movements, detailed explanations of the biomechanics of each movement, and plenty of help available online via their forums and YouTube should you have questions. They don’t care about your six pack because they know strength is the foundation on which all other activities are built.

Despite “exercising” for over twenty years, I was a novice when it came to strength. My back still hurt, my knees were sore, and I struggled to understand why someone with so much “experience” wasn’t putting more weight on the bar. I couldn’t even do a few pull-ups with perfect form. Depending on your definition of a few, a couple may be more accurate. Yet I had concerns about Starting Strength. As an avid mountain biker, where was the high-rep work and isolated core work every cycling article said I needed? Nonetheless, I began to follow the program as written. Despite a fluctuating diet, life stresses, and less sleep than was always ideal, I did “my fives." The results came quickly and continued to build over the course of two plus years.

The simplicity of the programming was ideal for someone busy and middle aged. Workout A was the squat, bench press, and deadlift for 5 reps and 3 sets. Workout B was the squat, overhead press, and deadlift for the same reps and sets. A and B alternated in a 3-day training week – basic human movements that are necessary and useful in everyday life. Boredom was never an issue due to consistently adding weight from workout to workout. It was liberating to be free of trendy workout programs and instead follow something that drove progress each session.

Initially, the weight on the bar was my motivator. As days turned to weeks then months and then a year, personal goals that had once seemed impossible began to materialize. Nothing keeps your interest more than having to buy new weights because your bench press now requires two 45-pound plates on each side. It was even more thrilling to see 6 plates on a barbell for squats and deadlifts. Auto regulation is an important part of strength training. Although there is some gray area between pain and soreness, I found that when my squat and deadlift went above 400 pounds, changes had to be made. For example, pulling heavy multiple times per week became difficult as recovery became an issue. The book provides advice on how to negotiate these changes, whether it be substituting rows or pull ups, spreading the stress of a routine over more days, or changing the format depending on your goal. But the real change came from realizing the effect lifting heavy had outside my basement. One day my coworker and I were again discussing our progress. We no longer used the word exercise. I understood now why we asked about each others’ training.

At first, recreational activities were where I noticed the most benefit. At 6’2” 235 when I started the program, I was now around 245 pounds. The scale said I weighed more, but my pants still fit and my back and knees didn’t hurt anymore. My main passion, mountain biking, was greatly enhanced by lifting heavy. I can still remember vividly a ride in which a short but steep hill that had often left me stuck again reared its head, the menacing rocks at the peak seeming impossible to reach, let alone ride over. I had lost count of how many times my bike had stalled on this incline. But as I powered up the hill, I could literally feel my legs and hips kick into a gear that had not been there before lifting for strength.

It had nothing to do with cardiovascular endurance nor my VO2 max. I was stronger and cycling was easier. While I understand that strength training increased my aerobic conditioning to a degree, I had actually been riding less frequently than I would have preferred. Climbing was easier, throwing the bike around was easier, and the extra strength around my joints cushioned me and prevented injury should I fall. Despite being heavier, my stronger muscles had more endurance and were less resistant to fatigue. Other pursuits confirmed the same results. Kayaking became easier. Lifting an 80 pound boat on to the roof of an SUV required minimal effort. On the water, my increased upper body strength allowed me to barely notice the extra 115 plus pounds my sons added when putting the three of us into a boat for river trips which routinely lasted over eight hours.

As a global pandemic set in, we moved outside as much as possible. There is a nearly endless supply of outdoor scenery in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and most of it requires climbing to get to the good views. My wife and I drug our children along on these hikes, usually several a week, some of them approaching ten miles. Whether I was giving a piggy back ride to Chase, my ten-year-old, up a fire road, or a shoulder ride to Connor, my five-year-old, up a steep incline, the extra strength now proved its value outside the confines of a basement and a rack. Being strong allowed our adventures to continue and go farther. We spent the better part of a day hiking a creek bed straight out of Jurassic Park, climbing over logs and boulders. After playing at the base of a water fall, we discovered the only exit was to turn around and retrace our steps over the same five miles we walked in on. Spending an afternoon lifting rocks to build walls near a creek with my two sons was the first time it hit me: I am not lifting weights for myself.  

hiking

Chase (left) and Connor (right) point out the benefits of time spent in the weight room that get you to the top. 

Life doesn’t happen in a power rack. But what you do in the rack helps you when life happens. Having to push a lawn tractor that died back to the shed was annoying but doable. A snowblower breaking at the onset of a blizzard was not ideal, but being able to shovel out myself, my neighbors, and relatives was easier with the acquisition of strength. I didn’t come from an active family. Fast food, no exercise, and obesity was the norm, as were insulin needles and open heart surgery scars. Decades later, as we sat in the waiting room of a neurosurgeon’s office, my sister and I knew what the doctor was going to say when he finished my mother’s procedure. We didn’t flinch when a stroke led to the operation that confirmed masses on the brain. Further diagnosis showed Stage IV cancer that had spread to her lungs and other organs. That was the good news.

Immunotherapy has kept the tumors at bay. However, a sedentary life brought with it morbid obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. A post-surgery stumble that for most people would have been a simple turned ankle confiscated freedom from my mother. She became bed ridden to the point she could hardly turn over. Simple tasks became impossible, such as leaving the bed to go to the bathroom. And for my father, her primary caregiver who had his own share of health issues, caring for her was probably going to kill him. The phone rang multiple times a week. “Your mother fell. I can’t pick her up.” “We had to cancel the cancer treatment because I couldn’t get her out of bed.” She was nearly 300 pounds of dead weight. My dad got winded going upstairs for another blanket. He was certainly in no condition to move furniture or hospital beds.

I once asked asked my father, “What would you do if there was a fire?” He responded with no emotion, “We’ve been married for over forty years…I guess I will die with her.” It is at this point you realize why they call it “training.” The vanity of another plate on the bar was replaced by the realization you are lifting because your parents’ lives depend on it.

As I mentioned I have two kids. (My wife says she has three.) I don’t always feel I am wise enough to guide them. I curse too much, sometimes at them. They know I like whiskey. And they don’t listen. I would like to think it’s a kid thing; every parent says that. But it never ceases to amaze me what they observe. “Nana [my mother] did it to herself,” my oldest said the other day at dinner. My sister didn’t like the anecdote when I told her. “You should watch what you say around them,” she cautioned. But I never said anything. I didn’t have to. My son sees with his own eyes and mentioned on his own accord the Snickers wrappers, soda, and constant television watching that happens at my parents’ house. “You have all that metal in our basement,” he told me. “I’m gonna lift weights when I get older,” my youngest added. Can we start now, they both wanted to know? Anything to get out of eating their vegetables.

So there we were, after dinner (and an empty plate) hanging out under the “metal stuff.” I helped my son do pull-ups. They played with my bands and despite my wife’s protest, we discovered my ten year old can already deadlift at least 65 pounds. We had to stop there as the hooting and hollering drew the attention of a mother who still thinks high reps and twenty-minute ab videos are how one exercises. In a way she’s right. But the men in this house train.

I am not starting my sons on a program. I am glad they like protein smoothies. They have observed the obnoxious neon yellow lifting shoes, the weight belt, and the wrist straps and knee sleeves that hang from a shelf. I hope they see that at least three nights a week I am not watching reruns with a bag of chips or playing a video game. I am in my basement with a notebook and chalk. It’s just me, a bar, and some uncomfortably large wolf spiders. It’s not really about numbers any more. It’s more about the journey – the odd juxtaposition of barbell training and life lessons.

Not some motivational nonsense you saw on a poster either. It’s preparing for real world situations that call for strength: a literal deadlift to get your mother from a hospital bed to a wheelchair to a car and back again so she can get a cancer treatment. Nobody gets out alive. But I hope some day, if my boys get a phone call informing them that their father is no longer of this Earth, they will know that, due to my dedication to strength training, it could only mean one thing: their mother finally killed me.  


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