Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World


The Benefits of Strength Training: A Useful Data Point

by JD Shipley | July 03, 2019

denny training his press

Attend a Starting Strength Seminar and you’ll hear one of the most common questions strength coaches are asked. In fact, it’s so common, you’ll often hear it get pointed out by the coaches for those attendees that want to ask, but are too embarrassed because they already know the answer. “I want to get my [father, mother, wife, sister, brother, loved one, etc.] to train, but he/she just won’t listen to me. What can I do to get them to train?”

Specific Problem

In short, you can't. You don’t have enough credibility to ask them to do things that they’ve most likely never done before, especially not to the extent you’re asking them to do them, and which they probably perceive to be dangerous or difficult or inconvenient. The best thing you can do, however, is to continue what you’re currently doing – focusing on your own training and that of others who you are currently coaching.

How is this the best thing to do? Continuing the path you’re on develops your credibility in their eyes over time. If you don’t stick to it, how can you ever expect them to? It allows them to get comfortable with the idea of training heavy in short, digestible exposures. It gives them the opportunity for the decision to be theirs, not that of their overly passionate child (yes, you’re still a child to them regardless of your age), spouse or sibling, however well-intended. Relatives are not clients – to them, you're just the guy they love, not an expert in this field.

Solution

Some may never get to this point, unfortunately. But for the ones that do, data points consisting of results from other trainees can help a loved-one’s transition from viewing strength training as an unnecessary burden to a powerful medicine with substantial benefits.

This brings me to the point of this article – a useful data point in the conversation about the benefits of strength training with barbells. I’ve found that most people view strength training as something only CrossFitters, powerlifters or bodybuilders do. Their perception is either crazy WODs, fat guys with beards covered in tattoos slamming weights around with heavy metal blaring in the background, or greased-up bros flexing in front of a mirror at the globo-gym. You and I know this is not the case, and I’d like this article to serve as an example contrary to these common misconceptions.

To this end, let me introduce Denny. When we met in October 2018, he was 72 years old, weighed 255 lb, and could not reliably do a bodyweight squat to depth. He had previously lost a considerable amount of weight, but he knew that something more than weight loss was needed to improve his health. He needed to get stronger.

We met over breakfast and after explaining the lifts and discussing the details of the program, I had built enough trust with him that he was sufficiently assured I wasn’t going to do more harm than good – after all, to him I'm just a young punk.

Overall Progress / Benefits from Training

We started him on 2 days per week – not ideal but three times per week wasn’t feasible as his schedule wouldn’t allow for more, and given his age, I knew that at some point in the near future we’d likely have to go to 5 days every 2 weeks and then to 2 days per week anyway to facilitate recovery.

The program consisted of the following:

Day A

  • Squats (bodyweight)
  • Press
  • Rack pull (Denny couldn’t safely bend all the way over to pick up a barbell off the floor)

Day B

  • Squats (bodyweight)
  • Bench Press
  • Rack pull

Progression on squats consisted of working on depth. His first squats were roughly 6” high. I stretched a workout band across the back of the squat rack and used he used this as an objective target. He’d squat down to where his glutes barely touched the band for 3 sets of 5 reps. Each session, we moved the pins that secured the bands down to the next set of holes – increments of 2”. Warm ups at this point consisted of sets of high squats that progressed incrementally lower to the prescribed depth for his work sets. By his third session, he was squatting to depth. For sessions 4 and 5, we didn’t add weight. He tweaked his lower back while squatting these sessions so I used this as an opportunity to drive home the concept of working through discomfort – doing something even if at a lighter weight to keep the tissues working and avoid detraining.

At session 6, we added a 25 lb kettlebell held at his chest for goblet squats. Denny’s shoulders are such that he cannot get the bar on his back without a very wide grip – out to the sleeves. This seems like a large jump, but he tolerated it well, and actually squatted better with it. Each session after that we went up 10 lb in kettlebells, 35, 45, 55 lbs. The next session after 55x5x3, we jumped 5 lb to 60 lb by using an analogue to a safety squat bar – a barbell with straps that Denny could hold in his hand to position the bar correctly (ref. Dr. Sullivan’s article “Modifying the Program for Geezers”). Progress continued in increments of 5 lbs each session. At 95 lb, I had procured an actual safety squat bar. The bar-and-strap analogue had become progressively more wobbly as the weight got heavier.

Once we reached 155x5x3, progress was slowed to 5lb increases per week in order to facilitate recovery. On the light days, he squatted 5lb less than the session before for 2x5 instead of 3x5. This was the beginning of April 2019. Progress has since slowed further to 5 lb every 3rd session. The reps/set scheme was modified to 185x3x3, 3x4 (next session), and 3x5 (next session). After this is done, we’ll increase to 190lbx3x3 and repeat the process. Denny’s squats are as close as we can get to the model for a low bar squat that can safely reap the maximum benefits from training the posterior chain.

Deadlifts proceeded in a very similar manner. At the beginning he could not properly get set into position for the deadlift. The solution was rack pulls. The bar was set roughly 8” above the conventional position. At this height, Denny could properly set his back into as much extension as his mobility would allow. We used a 15 kg bar loaded with 10 lb plates for a total weight of 53 lb. Each session the pins were lowered 2” and the weight was maintained at 53 lb. The initial starting height was conservative and most likely lighter than he could have tolerated, however given his lack of training history, we both agreed this was the better way to go. This also helped build the trust I’d need when it came time to push through difficulties, such as training through discomfort and not completely stopping to let it pass.

By session 6 we had 65 lb on the floor using a full-size barbell and 10 lb bumper plates. Denny deadlifted every session and took 10lb jumps per session up to 105 lb. By the end of February, we had slowed the progression to deadlifting every other session. At this point, lat pull downs were added using a 1.25” wooden dowel suspended by bands from the chin up bar. Denny sits on the bench, reaches up with a supine grip (palms facing him) and pulls the dowel down below his chin for 3 sets of max reps.

Denny deadlifted 195x3 in mid-April. We have since replaced the deadlifts with rack pulls again to focus on setting the low back. This became more and more difficult in the deadlift as weight increased. We deloaded to 165lb at a height of 1" below the knee. The next session was 165x5 at 3" below the knee and progressed each session as follows:

  • 175x5 3" below the knee
  • 175x5 5" below the knee
  • 180x5 5" below the knee
  • 185x5 7" below the knee
  • 190x5 7" below the knee (where we are currently)
  • The next session will be 190x5 off the floor as a standard deadlift.

Presses and bench alternated each session and progressed fairly normally except that Denny’s press was almost instantly micro-loaded, increasing in 2-lb increments. We did not incorporate the hips into the press until mid April – well into his training. The bench press has increased in 5-lb increments since the beginning. Progress on the bench has lagged as a result of missed days. Where whole weeks were missed, the press was prioritized when training resumed because its longer kinetic chain and it's requirement to “not fall down” make it more functional that the bench press, even though a heavier load can be moved on the bench.

Consistency has not been ideal, both on his end and mine. His because of normal life – work (he’s quite the business builder and heads various non-profit foundations), family (vacations, holidays, etc.), and mine as a result of the need to focus on getting Starting Strength Houston up and running.

Regardless, Denny’s results are nothing short of amazing. They demonstrate the efficacy of the program and the barbell in its ability to load normal human movement with weight increments so precisely appropriate for a given trainee that stress, recovery, and adaptation can be kept going seemingly indefinitely.

Here are Denny’s starting and current numbers after 9 months:

DateOctober, 2018June, 2019
Age7272
Height6'-0"6'-0"
Weight255 lb260 lb
SquatBodyweight x5x3 (6" high)185x4x3 (with a safety squat bar) (PR)
Press20x5x395x3x5 (PR)
Rack Pull53x5x3 (8" high)190x5 (~2" high)
Bench Press63x5x3135x3x5 (PR)
Deadlift195x3

From Denny:

Before meeting JD, I had never even thought of weight training. At the same time, I had been losing weight and concerned that I was losing muscle instead of fat. Fortunately, a client who was working with Cleveland Clinic researching the considerable benefits of building muscle mass got my attention. JD and I connected at church and I decided to give the program a try – I had no idea what I was getting into. Squats? I am thinking, why do we want to do this? I could not do one squat even without weights. Little did I know we would be doing squats every session. Our last session, I did a set at 185, all the time remembering not so long ago, when I could not do even one real squat. With the deadlifts and presses, I can remember thinking, “This empty bar is pretty heavy!” To be candid, I am surprised I stayed with it. However, JD is a great coach and the excitement and satisfaction of setting new PR’s literally every week is very motivating. My goal is to hit 200 this month to celebrate my 73rd birthday.
The benefits have been many. I was expecting people to be saying, “What is a 72-year-old doing weight training?” The opposite has been true. There has been great encouragement and I am experiencing the benefits every day. My core is much stronger, I have more energy and an increased “can do” attitude. Except for the day after, I feel so much better. These are serious workouts, and Aleve is much cheaper in the larger sizes. My wife judges my workouts based on how I struggle back into the house after returning home. For me, I just do Tuesday and Saturday morning. It works. It has definitely improved the quality and probably the length of my life.
To others I suggest, “What do you have to lose, and more importantly, how much more do you stand to gain?”

It’s my hope this information will serve as an example that a coach (or anyone for that matter) can use in the future to explain what training looks like, how progress will be made, how limitations can be addressed and worked through, and what’s possible given some time and effort.


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