I recently received a call from my sister asking me for some suggestions on what kind of weight bench she should buy.
Being the inquisitive fellow that I am, I asked, “What in the world do you want a weight bench for?”
“Really, don’t know what a weight bench is used for?” she answered.
Touché. I deserved that. Wiseguy older brothers deserve to be knocked down a peg or two.
What my sister was really asking me though, was how she, a mature woman, should go about getting stronger.
In my last post, I explained why everyone over 45 years old must strength train. In today’s post, I’ll introduce you to a strength program that is guaranteed to improve your muscle mass and make you stronger.
And here’s the icing on top of the cake.
It’s uncomplicated, time efficient, inexpensive, can be started at any age, can be done at home, doesn’t require prior experience, and has delivered amazing results for thousands of people. Even for those in their nineties.
The program is called Starting Strength. This method is so efficient that it may make you stronger and healthier than you’ve been in decades.
Before getting into the program, I’d like to touch on some fundamental concepts you should know about strength training.
It’s Never Too Late To Start Strength Training
Again, I made the case last week that everyone over the age of 45 must strength train. If you don’t, your muscles will dissolve into a mushy mess a lot sooner than you desire.
And if you want to maintain wellness into old age, you must not ignore the quality of your muscle mass.
Now, if you’re over the age of 45 and have never strength trained, don’t despair. It’s never too late to improve your muscle mass regardless if you’re a woman or a man.
Here’s 90-year old Virginia strength training.
I started strength training three and a half years ago at age 58, after recuperating from bilateral shoulder bursitis and 28 years of severe chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Unless you have a debilitating illness, you too can strength train.
Remember, make sure your doctor says it’s okay for you to start strength training!
Strength Training Is A Lifelong Journey
If you want to maintain good health and a good quality of life, strength training is something you must do for the rest of your life. That makes strength training a part of your life’s journey.
It’s similar to eating food everyday day or taking the medicine your doctor prescribed for you. Strength training is a type of medicine that keeps you well.
During your strength training journey, there will be ups and downs. You’ll get aches and pains. And at times it’ll be hard.
But you also will receive the satisfaction that comes with knowing that you’re improving your health so that you can be there for the people you love and for those who love you. You’ll also feel great knowing that you’ll probably be one of the strongest guys or gals amongst your friends.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the program, let me explain why I chose the Starting Strength program.
Proper Goal Setting For Strength Training
In order for your strength training plan or any fitness plan for that matter to be successful, you must have a definable goal.
When I started strength training, my goal was very specific. I wanted to build strength which meant building muscle mass. At the time, I didn’t care about weight loss, body recomposition, increasing endurance, or aerobic capacity.
I wanted to get stronger. Not simply fitter. But stronger. Regaining and building muscle mass was my chief priority. Now, this goal, when it comes to strength training, may seem to be rather specific. But it’s not specific enough.
In order to reach my goal, I needed a program that would work for me in accordance with some specific needs.
Let me use the SMART Goal Setting System to show you what I mean.
The SMART Goal Setting System
SMART is an acronym that stands for: specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).
If you include these considerations when goal setting, your chances of reaching that goal will improve dramatically.
Let’s take a brief look at each component of the SMART system as it applies to strength training.
- Specific – The more specific your goal, the easier it will be to achieve it. For example, saying that you want to get fitter is a lot less specific than saying that you want to increase your squat lift from 45 pounds to 100 pounds in 2 months. The better your squat total means more strength which means more muscle.
- Measurable – In order to determine if you’ve successfully reached your goal you must have some way to measure success. That means that a good training program must have some kind of gauge to indicate that you are indeed getting stronger. Yoga may be a great exercise, but there’s no way to accurately determine if it’s making you stronger. But let’s say you start out by lifting 10 pounds, and in 3 months you’re lifting 100 pounds. Now you know, without a doubt, that you’ve gotten stronger.
- Actionable – How will your goal of strength be achieved? In other words, what actions are required to achieve success? The goal of any good strength program has to be actionable. Can you do the program you’ve chosen? In my case, something like CrossFit or high-intensity training was out of the question. They both bring good strength results, but I couldn’t do them because of my health status. I also wanted a program that was uncomplicated, and that I could do at home. If my program didn’t have the above criteria, I would have failed at strength training.
- Relevant – Is the goal relevant to your situation? Setting a goal to become an Olympic weightlifter is not a relevant goal for a 62-year-old. But having a goal to increase your squat total is relevant. Stronger legs mean you can accomplish a lot more in your life.
- Time Bound – Your goal should have a specific time in which the goal can be accomplished. This allows for you to monitor progress and provides incentive. For example, if your goal is to get stronger from bodyweight exercises, how long will it take you to get to where you want to be? There’s no way to really know. But if you start lifting 10 pounds and add 2.5 pounds per week, you’ll have an idea where you should be in two months. A good strength program should be structured and have a definite schedule attached to it. That’s the difference between training and exercising.
Be aware that goal setting is a dynamic process. Sometimes life doesn’t work the way we want it to. We may have to revise our goals or the ways we want to attain them. Therefore, we should evaluate our goals often.
Was I asking for too much from a strength training program? Did such a program for us masters even exist?
Yes, it did! After searching online for several weeks, Providence directed me to the program that matched all of the criteria attached to my SMART goal.
It’s the Starting Strength program.
The Starting Strength Program
The Starting Strength method is a free weight barbell program that involves basically 4 main lifts: the squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift.
Ok, I hear you saying, “Wow, I can’t do those exercises. I’m too out of shape or I’m too old.” That’s not necessarily true.
Can you lift something from the driveway and put it in the trunk of your car? Can you lift a child off of your chest? Can you rise from a chair? If you can do those things, then you can do these exercises. The only difference is that you’re doing it with a barbell.
Because this program uses exercises that mimic everyday human movements, it can be started at any age.
Watch this video of a 72-year-old untrained gentleman.
Now, obviously, you’re going to need some equipment to do these exercises. I’ll address that below, but first let’s look at the program in more detail.
As I mentioned, the main lifts are the back squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift. The technical reason these lifts are used is that they use the most muscle mass, across the longest effective range of motion, and allow us to lift the most weight, making them the biggest and most general movements for developing strength.
Translation: These lifts are the best for producing overall body strength.
As I mentioned before, the practical reason is that they involve multiple major muscle groups that mimic simple normal human movement patterns.
For example, the back squat involves muscles you would use to get off a toilet. The deadlift strengthens muscles you would use to pick something off the floor. The overhead press will help you put that stuff you’re not really sure what to do with onto the top shelf of your closet.
During the lifts, muscles are stressed by the weighted barbell. Eventually, the body adapts to this stress and overall body strength is developed.
Once the novice (beginner) trainee has gained strength and mobility with the main lifts, some accessory exercises can be added in if desired. There is, however, no need for targeted arm or abdominal muscles exercises as they are worked sufficiently with the four main exercises
Remember the idea here is to get stronger and build muscle mass not to body build or gain endurance.
The Importance Of Proper Form
The exercises used in Starting Strength are not hard to learn. However, whenever exercising with weights, it is important to perform the lift correctly.
Lifting weights with proper form is a major key to preventing injuries and maximizing muscle gain.
I started with the minimum weight possible so that I could learn proper form.
Now, this is important. To make sure I was doing the exercises correctly, I watched this excellent series of videos by Mark Rippetoe on the Starting Strength website.
When the weights are light and you follow the video instructions, you should have little problems with your form. But! As the weights get heavier, you’ll have to pay more attention to form.
After you really get into it and need outside help, you can find a gym with a good coach. These, however, tend to be hard to find. Starting Strength is now offering online video coaching.
Okay. Let’s get to actual programming.
The Starting Strength Schedule
This chart explains the basic schedule for the novice Starting Strength Program.
A glance at the chart shows that this method uses a three day per week ABA BAB schedule. Squats are done every day, deadlifts are done once a week and bench press and overhead press rotate over a two week period. After two weeks, it’s back to ABA.
The reason deadlifts are done once a week is because they are the most neuromuscularly taxing exercise, and it takes longer to recover from their effects.
Now, for you, over 50-year-olds out there follow closely.
The Schedule For The Master Population
When I began Starting Strength, I used the above program, except for power cleans (not recommended for older individuals) and chin-ups. While the weights were light, I did well. But as the weights became heavier, I began to notice that I wasn’t recovering as well. I was having a lot of aches and pains and I was not feeling refreshed from the previous lifting session.
The reason for this is that most of us over the age of 50 don’t recover as well from the stress of weight lifting as the younger generation.
To solve the problem of recovery, there is an alternative schedule for us masters. Here’s what a typical 2 week period would look like.
Notice that the exercises, except squats, alternate by day. Also, chin-ups are a good accessory exercise to add into the routine if you can do them.
There is less lifting volume (total pounds) on this schedule. Remember, what I said above about goal setting. This plan is a lot more actionable for over 50 novice lifters. While there is less volume in this program, I guarantee you can still make excellent gains.
I used this schedule until I was finished with the novice program. I never experienced an issue with recovery. That’s saying a lot for someone who was recovering from CFS.
Okay, let’s get to the actual workout.
The lifts are performed for 3 sets of 5 reps each. This means that the weight will be lifted 5 times with proper form. Rest between sets can be anywhere from a few minutes to 8 minutes depending on what you need. Then the weight lifted in like manner two more times.
A caveat here is that deadlifts, because of the strenuous nature of the lift, are only performed for 1 set of 5 reps.
Warm-ups are performed by lifting the weights at sub-workout levels for 5 reps. The weight for your warm-ups will depend on the weight you are using. A good rule of thumb is to perform warm-ups at 40%, 50%, and 60% of your workout weight.
What Weight Do You Begin With?
Generally, for the untrained, the bench press, overhead press, and squats should begin with an empty bar so you can learn the lifts. A standard Olympic bar weighs 45 lbs. For those who cannot start with this weight, a lighter bar can be used.
There are lighter bars made specifically for women. Barbara started with dumbbells on bench press and overhead press and then worked up to an empty bar.
Deadlifts can be started with an Olympic bar and 10-pound bumper plates.
How Do You Progress?
Once 3 x 5 is accomplished, the lifter will add weight to the bar at the next session.
A beginning novice will find that they can add 5 -10 pounds (depending on the exercise) per session when first starting out. Generally, this is 5 pounds to the OHP and bench press and 10 pounds to the deadlift and squats.
However, as the weights get heavier, the amount added to the bar will decrease sometimes to only 1 pound.
The process of adding weight to the bar at every session and completing your lift of 5, puts additional stress on your muscles. This stress causes your muscles to adapt to that stress by getting stronger.
As long as you can continue to add weight to the bar, you are getting stronger. Remember that’s our goal.
This is called the novice linear progression.
Since women are physiologically different than men, their novice programming may eventually change. When a woman gets acclimated to the program, she may have to change to 3 reps for 5 sets at a heavier weight. See here.
The Novice Effect
Novices generally find that they can get stronger very quickly. I was amazed at how fast I was able to gain strength. Personal records can be set each week for a long time on the novice program.
It’s like that story about how we only use a fraction of our brain’s capacity. Well, you’ll be surprised at how much strength potential you actually have. Good progress can be made sometimes for up to a year or more before a program change is necessary.
These are the basics of the Starting Strength program. If you’re going to start this program, you should purchase the book Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.
The book presents detailed information on exactly how and why this program works.
Equipment Needed For Starting Strength
To perform the above exercises, you’re going to need some equipment. There are two ways to do that.
You can become a member of a gym that has free weights or you can set up your own home gym as I did.
If you choose to lift at home, this is what you’ll need to get started:
- A garage, basement, or a room with a sturdy floor is an absolute must. In order to accommodate the overhead press, a ceiling over 8′ high is necessary.
- An Olympic bar and weights. I use a Rogue 2.0 Olympic bar (7′), and an assortment of iron and bumper plates. You’ll need about 200 pounds to start, including 2.5-pound weights.
- A Squat stand. I use a Rogue 70″ Monster Squat Stand and bench. I purchased the 70” stand because my basement ceiling was low. If it wasn’t, I would’ve purchased a power rack. My stand has safety bars that protect me from injury in case the weights were to drop on me. I also purchased some dumbbells.
The total cost for my equipment was about $1400.
Recovery Sleep And Diet
Proper rest and sleep are a priority with any strength program.
Without rest, you can’t recover. And without recovery, it’s difficult to get stronger. Concerning proper diet, I’ve been on a very low carb diet for over a year with adequate protein and am doing well. Adequate protein is the key here. I aim for at least 1.7 grams per kg of lean body mass. See our series on our ketogenic diet here.
My Status When Beginning Starting Strength
Each individual has their own particular situation when starting strength training. Some of us are overweight, some underweight, some are naturally already strong, some weak, some of us are recovering from an illness. That means that you’ll begin training at your own unique situation.
In my case, because I was recovering from CFS and bursitis, I had to start really slow. For a few months before beginning Starting Strength, I did the exercises with dumbbells only.
Most of you can probably go right to a bar and weights. But if you have to start with dumbbells, just do it and build up to a bar. Remember, don’t despise the day of small beginnings.
Shoulder bursitis left me with a limited range of motion in my shoulders. This prevented me from rotating my arms fully so as to allow my hands to grip the bar while it was on my back. Once I was strong enough to squat with a bar, I still had to do this exercise for weeks before I could grab the bar correctly.
If you can’t grab the bar for squats but still want to do them, then consider this type of bar.
Starting Strength Works
I started strength training with a bar only. Now, this 62-year-old, still recovering from CFS, can deadlift 300 pounds and squat almost 200 pounds. If Starting Strength can do that for me, imagine what it can do for you.
Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition and is not to be used as a substitute for the care and guidance of a physician.
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