Strength

I’m going to be honest — I’m not in great physical shape right now. I’m not here to make excuses, but I am going to tell you how I’m going to change this and get into the best shape of my life.

First, a little history.

Thanks to a few smartphone apps, most recently Weightbot, I’ve been capturing my weight every day for nearly three years. Here’s what that looks like on a trend graph:


A few things worth noting here:

  • My weight fluctuated about 5lbs for the last year, between 185 lb and 190 lb.
  • I logged my food intake inconsistently throughout the last few years, usually for a few weeks at a time before getting bad about inputting the data.
  • In 2010 and the first half of 2011 I was running on a regular basis. I ran a handful of times in January 2012, too.
  • I started the 60-day Insanity workout program the last week of September 2011 and ended it the last week of November1.
  • Much of 2012 consisted of inactivity, regular beer drinking, and eating whatever I wanted. I did not exercise on a regular basis.

My Goals

I’m willing to make some big changes in order to get myself into top physical condition. The last time I lost a lot of weight was in 2005, before we had our first baby. I dropped 25-30lbs through brute force — 40+ minutes of cardio every day and lots of salads. Looking back, I can definitely say that I was skinny, but I wasn’t strong.

This time I’m trying sometime different. Because it’s not possible to burn fat and build muscle at the same time, you need to choose. Based on my research, focusing on losing fat first without losing muscle seems to be the best way to go, so that’s my current plan.

This complicates tracking though, because while logging weight is super easy, it doesn’t separate fat loss from muscle loss. BMI, too, is essentially bullshit, and is an unreliable measure of body fat and muscle mass.

The best indicator of progress is body fat percentage, which, it turns out, is also probably the hardest to measure accurately. Based on our Tanita body fat/water scale2 and these body fat percentage photos, I’m currently at about 25% body fat. My goal is to get this down to 15% body fat. Based on a simple ideal body weight formula, 15% body fat means a goal weight of 165 lbs.

Phase 1: Diet

As important (and satisfying) as exercise is, the biggest factor by far in losing fat is simply eating less calories than your body burns. Yes, working out will help on the burning calories side of that equation, but when you realize it takes over an hour of running to offset the calories in a typical fast food lunch, it’s just easier not to eat it in the first place.

I’m already eating pretty well on a daily basis, so I don’t need many changes here. I haven’t had a dount for breakfast in over a month, and I’ve done well in avoiding candy and chips for snacks. We rarely eat out, and almost all of our meals are homemade with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. I’m not following a specific diet plan, but I guess you could call it low-carb. I avoid breads and pastas as much as possible and try my best to stick to whole grains if I do eat them.

I am also back to using MyFitnessPal for calorie tracking. While I’ve developed a good intuition for the “cost” of a food from my previous episodes of tracking, I’ve found it difficult to keep a running total for the day without recording it somewhere. Yes, it can be a pain — especially at dinner time when we make something from scratch that isn’t in the MyFitnessPal database. But, it gets results, so it’s worth doing.

The areas where I need to focus are:

  1. Watch my portion sizes. The things I eat are good and healthy, but I need to pay attention to how much I’m consuming. Instead of going for seconds on the main course, have some extra vegetables, etc.
  2. Minimize evening snacking. We don’t keep much junk food in the house anymore, so this has gotten better, but I still need to watch what I eat after the kids are in bed. I feel ok indulging in a big bowl of popcorn once a week, but otherwise I need to stick to fruits, veggies, and nuts.

Phase 2: Fitness

In my adult life, fitness for me has always meant cardio. First the elliptical machine, then, after I overcame my longtime mental barrier towards it, running. I never once considered weightlifting. That entire part of the gym was alien to me, and, to be honest, free weights intimidated the hell out of me.

But recently, I read a few things that changed my mind and made me decide to give weight training a serious try. The first was a 2011 article from Men’s Journal titled “Everything You Know About Fitness is a Lie” that really hit home. From the introduction:

Too many of us drift into health clubs with only the vaguest of notions about why we’re actually there — notions like maybe losing a little weight, somehow looking like the young Brad Pitt in Fight Club, or just heeding a doctor’s orders. Vague goals beget vague methods; the unfocused mind is the vulnerable mind, deeply susceptible to bullshit. So we sign our sorry names on the elliptical-machine waiting list — starting with a little “cardio,” like somebody said you’re supposed to — and then spend our allotted 30 minutes in front of a TV mounted a regulation seven to 10 feet away, because lawyers have told gym owners that seven to 10 feet minimizes the likelihood that we’ll crane our necks, lose our balance, and face-plant on the apparatus. After that, if we’ve got any remaining willpower, we lie flat on the floor, contract a few stomach muscles with tragic optimism, and then we “work each body part” before hitting the shower.

That sounds…a little too familiar. What did he discover was the most effective workout? Plain, boring barbell exercises.

Regardless of which aptitude you choose [strength, power, muscle mass, and muscle endurance], you’ll start by focusing on a few basic exercises – the squat, the dead lift, and the bench press. Those old sessions you’ve been doing, of eight or 10 different single-muscle exercises, that’s over. Every serious strength-and-conditioning coach sticks to the basic barbell movements, because our bodies don’t operate as single muscles – they operate as a whole. Even in 2010, picking up heavy things, throwing heavy things up over our heads, and pulling heavy things remain the very best ways to replicate our foundational movement patterns.

This article and the fitness subreddit on Reddit both highly recommend the book Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training by Mark Rippetoe. It’s considered by many to be the best book ever written on the subject of strength training. If you have zero knowledge of weightlifting like I did, this book is required reading.

In the three weeks since I started strength training, I’ve already made these gains:

  • Squat: 65 lbs to 120 lbs
  • Bench Press: 95 lbs to 110 lbs
  • Press (overhead press): 65 lbs to 75 lbs
  • Deadlift: 95 lbs to 170 lbs

I’m planning on taking a brief break from adding weight during every session in order to work on my form. I don’t want to keep making increases, only to hit a plateau or get hurt because of bad form. The great part is that at my gym, I’ve never had to wait to use the deadlift mat or the power rack for squats and presses, so I can spend as much time working on these as I want. There just aren’t that many people doing these boring (but effective) barbell exercises.

If I’m not able to make it to the gym for barbell exercises, I use the You Are Your Own Gym iPhone app to get a good bodyweight workout done at home. Even the beginner workout is tough, but some of the advanced exercises are downright tough. There’s really no excuse I can’t get three good strength workouts in per week.

Progress

I’m happy with and excited by the progress I’ve made in January alone. I’ve already lost five pounds, and I’ve made big improvements in my strength. I’m looking forward to where I’ll be later this year, and will be sure to follow-up!


  1. If you’re looking for a good cardio workout along with some bodyweight exercises, take a look at Insanity. It’s great for building endurance. 
  2. The method used by Tanita isn’t nearly as good as Hydrostatic Weighing, but is “good enough” as a fast and easy substitute (and a hell of a lot cheaper). 

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