Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Renee’s Journey To The Platform

by Andy Baker, SSC and Renee Mathis | October 18, 2018

renee mathis pressing in a strengthlifting meet

On September 1, 2018, something occurred that would have been highly unlikely 4 years ago. My personal training client, Renee Mathis – a 55-year-old teacher and grandmother – entered a Strengthlifting meet and set 3 new personal bests on the Squat, Press, and Deadlift.

As I’ve written many times, most coaches typically have to divide their personal training roster into those who are just “clients” and those who are “lifters.” The difference really just boils down to goals and mindset. Clients are those members of the general population who are mainly interested in better health and fitness and are strictly training for strength as a means to an end. New numbers are nice, but nothing to get overly excited about. I have no problem working with clients, since a good portion of my membership is far more concerned about their health, vitality, mobility, energy levels, and body composition than they are about reaching some sort of subjective number on the bar. We can still get them strong and improve the quality of their lives, and for most, this is enough.

Lifters get a bit more serious about the performance aspect of their training. A subjective number on the bar does matter, for reasons that vary with the individual.

For some it’s an internal competition with themselves. For some, it’s competition with others that drives them. For others, it’s the self-confidence and positive emotions that manifest with every new PR they set. For many it’s the recognition of the fact that serious goal-oriented behavior in any domain creates a healthy amount of discipline and focus that bleeds over positively into other areas of their life.

For whatever reason, some people become lifters, others remain clients.

Renee started in 2014 as a client at Kingwood Strength & Conditioning, and slowly made the transformation into a lifter in 2018.

From Renee:

In 2014 I gave up. Grit, willpower, and even surgery hadn’t helped with my weight loss goals. I finally began to make a little headway, but when I was told that the gym was the next step, I dug in my heels. Oh no! I don’t exercise in public. I will not squeeze my size 26 body into spandex and huff and puff my way through the “silver sneakers” class at the YMCA.
At 50 I was convinced I was pretty much finished.
Lucky for me, I was given a glowing recommendation for a “local” coach named Andy Baker. (This is Houston – “local” is relative. I drive an hour to Andy’s gym.) I consoled myself with the fact that at least there weren’t crowds of people in there. Andy’s gym is a private barbell-based training facility and not an overcrowded health club. Maybe there was something to this individualized approach. In July I signed up.
My road to strength could best be described as the scenic route with a few potholes. I began training with 2 already herniated discs. Right from the get-go we had to try and work around my sensitive and often painful lower back issues. As I wasn’t able to Squat on day one, we were using the deadlift as my primary lower body exercise. But every time things got heavy, I’d have pain, and we’d have to go light for several weeks until the inflammation went down. We were only making sporadic progress and in February of 2015, I had an injection to alleviate pain from 2 herniated discs.
This helped. I was able to train again, and after several months of steady progress on the deadlift the pain never came back. Turns out that getting my back strong was a better long term strategy than surgery.
So now I was making progress on the Deadlift again, but was still unable to Squat. My shoulders were so immobile that even carrying the bar in a high-bar position was impossible. I could Press, but only for a partial range of motion and this made training either lift very difficult.
In May of that year I saw an orthopedist about my immobile and arthritic shoulders but there wasn’t much he could do without surgical intervention. At this time I was only squatting with a machine and couldn’t yet do a Press with any substantial load.
But we pressed onward, and with a lot of work and practice I was finally able to achieve reasonable range of motion in the Press, and even got the bar into a high-bar position for the Squat (but not without pain!). I told Andy that I wasn’t ready to give up on these lifts just yet and he accommodated me as best he could.
In 2018, a major event occurred: I went to Strength Con in April 2018 in Wichita Falls. The combination of coaching, encouragement, and information resulted in a new commitment to 3 days a week of training (up from 2 days per week to this point).
This led to me registering for my first ever Strength Lifting meet. And thanks to Andy’s programming, I was able to set 3 PRs during the meet in September. I Squatted 205 lbs, Pressed 99 lbs, and Deadlifted 302 lbs. Not bad for a 55-year-old grandmother!
Yes, I’ve seen changes in my weight (and I’m still working on this.) When I first started training, I complained a lot. I groaned about wanting the work to get easier and he just told me “It won’t get easier; you’ll get stronger.” He was right.

Competition Prep

We prepped Renee for her competition using a reduced-volume version of the Texas Method for about 12 weeks leading into her meet. The Texas Method gets a bad rap because of how the intensity can beat a lifter down, but I’ve used the program for many years as meet prep for clients heading into competition, and for me it has worked just fine. Renee executed her programming flawlessly, without missing workouts and without missing reps, and without getting ground into a fine powder.

For her meet prep, Renee’s training program looked like this:

Monday (on her own, at the YMCA)

  • Squat 3 sets, 5 reps (across)
  • Press 3 sets, 5 reps (across)
  • Light Deadlift 2 sets, 5 reps (across)

Wednesday (on her own, at the YMCA)

  • Light Squat 3 sets, 5 reps (across)
  • Bench Press 3 sets, 5 reps (across)
  • Pulldowns 3 x 8-10

Friday (with Andy at Kingwood Strength & Conditioning)

  • Squat: 1 heavy triple, 2 heavy doubles, 3 singles across (alternate each week)
  • Press: 2 heavy triples, 3 heavy doubles, 3 singles across (alternate each week)
  • Deadlift: 1 heavy set of 5, 1 heavy triple, 1 heavy double (alternate each week)

For the final few weeks of the program, we used just singles across on Friday as we tapered her down into the meet.

Renee’s story is great because she is like many of you. She has some real physical limitations. The immobility of her shoulders is probably the worst I’ve ever seen for someone as young as Renee. It creates some real problems with pressing and squatting.

But she has chosen to work around and through these physical issues rather than taking the easy way out and avoiding the hard lifts. And I’ll have to admit, as her coach, I’ve offered her an easier way out on several occasions. Renee has chosen to resist easy, and pursue hard.

She’s a devoted mother and grandmother, with family spread out all over the country. She’s also a full time teacher and a tutor. Her work and her family obligations often have to come before her training. She misses a lot of sessions because of her travel schedule. We do a lot of starting, stopping, back tracking, and regaining lost ground. But this is just life for most adults.

Despite the difficulty of her schedule, Renee has played the long game, and it’s worked out for her. Although there were weeks and months where we didn’t make much progress trying to retrace our footsteps, every year she has made progress, stronger and healthier at 55 than at 50.

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