Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World


Training Wendy

by Jeff Leonard | October 11, 2018

I have been training folks in my small slice of garage gym heaven for a little over a year now. I’d like to tell you the story of one of my clients, 59 year-old Wendy. 

Wendy was having a conversation with a friend of hers, who is also one of my clients, a 58-year-old female who's had double hip replacement surgery in addition to some other orthopedic issues. She found that strength training was helping her tremendously by alleviating her pain from the surgeries, improving her range of motion and just her all around health. After talking with her, Wendy decided strength training in a controlled setting with proper programming was exactly what she needed. So Wendy contacted me about training her. We met, had a conversation about what she was looking for, and I explained what would be involved, and we set about the task of getting her stronger. Wendy came in with some medical issues; she was pre-diabetic, had had a knee replacement, as well as hypertension and a few other things that warranted attention.

First Session: Squat-Press-Deadlift 

We started with the squat. What we worked on, and eventually got to, was a box squat a bit above parallel, while holding a 5-pound plate. I used the same teaching progression on her as I would if she had been using the barbell: knees out, squeeze tight, nipples to the floor, Valsalva etc., only first to a chair and then to the box. Her first squat workout was in the books – three sets of five with a 5-pound plate to a box.

Next was the press. I had her use a PVC pipe to check range of motion and it was pretty good. My lightest training bar is a 25-pound Rogue technique bar, but I knew she wouldn’t be able to press that overhead, so I had her use 8-pound dumbbells for her press. During the first set, I noticed her left arm was all over the place. I stopped her and asked what was going on with her arm. I came to find out she had had a stroke (TIA) about a year prior. She finished doing three sets of five, very shaky 8-pound dumbbell presses.

Next was deadlift. Wendy’s range of motion when bending over was limited, and her slight kyphosis made getting her back in extension difficult. So for the next two to three weeks we did progressively lower rack pulls until she was able to pull from the floor. Once we were able to get to the point of pulling the work sets from the floor, she would do her warm-ups off 18” x 24” rubber stall mats. For each subsequent warm-up set, I would remove a mat until we were on the floor for the work set. It really helped for her to get the “feeling” of having her back set before we actually got to the heavy work. So, her first numbers were:

Day 1

  • Squat: 5-pound plate x 5 x 3 to a box
  • Press: 8-pound dumbbells x 5 x 3
  • Deadlift: 50 x 5 (rack pull)

Day 2

  • Squat: 10-pound plate x 5 x 3 to a box
  • Bench: 25 x 5 x 3
  • Deadlift: 55 x 5 (rack pull)

We are using a high bar squat for Wendy. Once she had the stroke, her balance was not what it used to be, and she is quick to get dizzy at times. Due to the “looking down” technique of the low bar squat, she experiences dizziness. And her knee prosthesis makes the box necessary.

As we moved along, a huge mistake I made was that I was too greedy with the weight jumps in the squat. Once we moved off the box and had a 25-pound bar on her back, I thought we were going to be home free and that Wendy would make 5-pound jumps every session. Everything was going good, until I increased the load from 40 to 45. Her first two reps were great, but on the third rep she lost the bar forward, it rolled over her head, and she fell backward. This incident scared her so much that I really thought she would be done at that point. But then I came to find out that she had fallen at her house a couple of days prior and her right leg was still hurting a bit. We now discuss everything going on in her life that may interfere with her training before each session.

After a brief reset in weight, we started the process back up slowly. The thing here was just to get Wendy comfortable under the bar again. I had her lift in the rack with safety pins, and I would spot her until eventually she was comfortable with the exercise again. Wendy turns out to be a tough-as-nails individual – she definitely has an “old school work ethic.” From that point on, we were good. If she was having a bad day, she would tell me and we would make adjustments if needed.

Her programming currently looks like this:

Tuesday

  • Squat 5 x 3
  • Bench/Press one work sets of 5 with 2 back-off sets of 5
  • Rows or BB curls 3 sets of 8 (if time permits)

Thursday

  • Squat 5 x 3
  • Bench/Press one work set of 5 with 2 back-off sets of 5
  • Lat pulldown or BB curls 3 sets of 8

Saturday

  • Squat 6 sets of 2, 10% lighter than Thursday
  • Bench/Press one work set of 5 with 2 back-off sets of 5
  • DL 2 sets of 3

We are now making 2-pound jumps on the deadlift, and we continue to make 1 to 2-pound jumps on all other lifts. I use the Saturday workout as a light squat day. I started that once the deadlift began to get heavy for her. 

Wendy came to me without any set strength goals, as her main priority from day one was just get stronger to be able to live a better life. Once we got into it, we started to make some goals. At about 75 pounds, we started thinking about a 100-pound deadlift. When that Saturday came, she promptly pulled five reps at 100 pounds!  She was ecstatic, high fives all around from the others in the gym.

So after 4 1/2 months of lifting, here are her numbers:

Squat: From a 5-pound plate with a box, to reps at 81 pounds

wendy squatting 81 pounds

Press: From 8-pound dumbbells x 5 x 3 to 61 on the bar x 5 with 2 back-off sets of 5

wendy pressing 61 pounds

Bench: 25 x 5 x 3 to 66 x 5 with 2 back-off sets of 5

DL: 50 x 5 rack pull to 125 x 3 x 2 from the floor!

wendy deadlifting 125 pounds

She has no knee pain and she has a full range of motion. She does not have the fear of falling down like she use to. Her blood numbers are better, her clothes fit better, and so on. The best thing to me is that her overhead press and bench press are solid as a rock. She recently sent me a picture of her lifting a bag of softener salt and placing it on the cart, something her husband had to do for her in the past.

I can’t help but think of the quote, “When one teaches, two learn.” I have quite a few other very strong folks I train, but nobody impresses me as much as Wendy.  If you have the opportunity to help someone like Wendy, do it. Embrace the reality and the humbling truth that you have an opportunity to drastically make a person’s life better. The confidence she has gained and abilities she has re-acquired have been life-changing. In one of the Barbell Logic podcasts, Matt Reynolds talks passionately about how “this stuff matters.” Of all the words uttered about strength training, when it relates to the aging lifter or masters athlete, there have never been truer words spoken. This stuff does matter – it matters a great deal to someone like Wendy. Five months ago, she was worried about falling down, getting diabetes, her blood pressure, the stroke, and so on. Now those things don’t worry her. Now we look forward to new PRs. 

Wendy is gaining more strength and independence every session she lifts with me, and independence, my friends, is what strength at this age is all about.


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