I do a lot of things the majority of people really don’t understand. For example, software engineering. The average person just doesn’t know what it is, often confusing it with IT. If your first thought was “what’s the difference?” or “what’s IT?”, then you are one of those people. You are probably that jerk that, upon learning what I do for a living, immediately asks me to fix your printer or make your “Internet” work. But software engineering is not IT. I do NOT sit around all day cleaning viruses off your computer and making your email work. I *create *software. If computers were like books, software engineers would be the authors and IT would be the guys that fix the printing press if it malfunctions.
But I didn’t want to talk about software engineering today. Instead, I wanted to discuss another misunderstood hobby of mine: weight lifting (aka strength training, resistance training, “going to the gym”, “pumping iron”, etc). I’ve been lifting consistently for about 4 years now and my current routine is to workout 3 day a week, 1.5 hours a day. Many people seem to have the impression that I spend all 90 minutes standing in front of a mirror doing bicep curls and grunting. It’s as if arms are the only parts of your body that get stronger. My mom has a wonderful habit of pulling up my shirt sleeve in front of her friends and asking me to flex as she makes weird grunt noises on my behalf.
The reality is that when it comes to strength training, my biceps could hardly concern me less. During the average week, I do at most 2 sets of bicep curls, amounting to 10 reps, or all of 2 minutes of grunting a week. So what the hell do I do the rest of the time?
Before I get to that, it’s worth answering the following questions:
What is strength?
In the most basic sense, strength is a measurement of how much force your body can exert in a particular motion. It’s worth noting that strength is made up of many components: muscle size, muscular endurance, tendon/ligament strength, skeletal strength, coordination, and much more.
What is strength training?
Strength training is the use of various forms of resistance to increase strength. Please do NOT confuse strength training with “body building”, where the goal is not strength, but a particular appearance. To illustrate the difference, compare Arnold Schwarzenegger (world famous body builder) to Andy Bolton (strongest man alive). Body building has made Arnold strong, but his primary goal was a statue-esque physique and enormous muscles. While Bolton is nowhere near as god-like in appearance, he is significantly stronger than Arnold - Bolton has deadlifted over 1000lbs and squatted over 1200lbs, both world records.
Why do strength training?
To set the record straight, I am not trying to look like Andy Bolton (or Arnold, for that matter). But I do want to train like Andy Bolton, with the primary goal being strength. Here are a few reasons why:
- Increased muscular power and endurance: useful in sports (run faster, jump higher, etc) & life situations (opening mayonnaise jars, carrying luggage, fighting off assholes).
- Increased muscle mass: boosts metabolism, allowing for better weight management. Yup, you’ll actually lose more fat with proper strength training than pretending to use that dusty treadmill in your basement.
- Improved balance and coordination.
- Increased bone density. Injury prevention: stronger muscles, bones and tendons help protect the body.
- Better sleep: after a hard workout, your body needs to heal, and you sleep like a baby.
- Better looks.
- Better overall health and more energy through out the day. The list goes on and on. I don’t want to turn this into an infomercial, but it’s important to explain this stuff. Strength training is a lot more than big biceps.
So, if not bicep curls, what are you doing?
The first thing to understand is that there are many approaches to strength training. Unfortunately, most of them don’t work very well. Here are some easy ways to identify bad strength training routines:
- Anything your friends recommend to you is probably bad.
- Anything the gym trainer recommends to you is probably bad.
- Anything you found on the Internet is bad (including anything I write).
I’m only half joking, actually. Exercise and weight loss are a big business and the amount of misinformation out there is ridiculous. Your friends are in no better position to know it than you and are completely untrained to give you advice. Unfortunately, most gym trainers are also very poorly versed in strength training. They are often only taught how to use the machines on the floor (which you should avoid for strength training) and like to spread stupid rumors, like “squatting is bad for your knees”.
Of course, as a beginner, you can can try almost anything and see results. Millions of years of evolution have allowed your body to react wonderfully to the shock of peeling your fat ass from the couch and picking up a dumbbell. However, after a very short time, crappy programs become less and less effective. It’s not long before you see no progress at all and give up.
The single greatest thing you can do is to follow routines created and endorsed by strength training experts. Not machines advertised at 3am on tv, not fad diets, and not books published by body builders. The difference between something you scrap together by yourself and a proper strength training routine cannot be overstated. Think of taking up strength training like being sued: you could go to court and make up a defense based on the advice of your friends and something you read online… But wouldn’t you rather follow the advice of an expert?
The gold standard is Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore. This is the book, the weight lifting bible, and it should be required reading for ANYONE that sets foot in a gym. This book (make sure to get the 2nd edition) will teach you everything you need to know about proper strength training, including clearly written instructions on each exercise and excellent illustrations and photographs. It not only explains what to do, but also why, and the amount of research put into it is impressive.
If you know me, you know I would never recommend spending money on something you could get for free, but the information in this book is NOT available elsewhere. Your friends don’t know it, the gym trainers will get it all wrong, and the morons online will only lead you astray. No, I am not in any way affiliated with the authors/publishers and I don’t profit in any way from writing this. But if you do any form of strength training whatsoever, this is a resource that you need to know about.
And no, you don’t have to do the Rippetoe Starting Strength routine itself. It’s a fantastic routine, but there are other very effective alternatives available. However, they all focus on the same basic principles:
- Working every part of the body (this includes legs!!) several times a week.
- Repeat a relatively small number of exercises each time to become very proficient at them.
- The most effective exercises are compound movements - those that involve multiple muscle groups and joints. This is in direct contrast to what most people do at the gym, which are isolation movements that focus on just one muscle/joint at a time. The bicep curl is an isolation exercise and as such, largely ignored in effective strength training programs.
- Most exercises are done with barbells.
- Most exercises are done with high weight and low reps (sets of 5, typically).
- The main exercises are the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, rows, clean & jerk, pull-ups and dips.
- Most workouts are focused around the squat, as this is the best bang-for-the-buck exercise for total body development. It works something like 65% (if not more) of the muscles in your body and produces a massive hormonal response. Translation: your biceps will get much bigger if you do squats + curls than just curls alone, even though the squat doesn’t directly work your biceps. As an added advantage, the squat will also give you strong legs, back, hips, butt, abs, balance, and so on.
- The only differences between the various routines are exactly which exercises are done, for how many sets and for how many reps. As such, Starting Strength is a wonderful how-to guide for any of these routines.
Some of the most effective routines are:
- Rippetoe Starting Strength (a partial writeup is available here, but definitely buy the book!!)
- Stronglifts 5x5: very similar to starting strength.
- Bill Star 5x5: a program focused on intermediate lifters
- Crossfit: a program focused on not just strength, but also endurance, agility, coordination, power, etc.
When I try to convince people to start strength training, I get a lot of stupid responses:
- Oh, I’ve been meaning to go… but… (insert stupid excuse here)
- I don’t have time
- I don’t want to get “huge”
Yes, almost any excuse you give is bound to be dumb. Just about everyone out there, young and old, male or female, healthy or not, will see serious benefits from strength training. You can argue with me till you’re blue in the face, but try a proper strength training routine for 10 weeks - and actually stick with it for more than 2 days this time - and report back to me. If you didn’t see noticeable results, you did something wrong.
The time issue is a bunch of BS. Exercise is something you make time for. It’s as important as making time for doctor’s appointments, getting your car fixed and watching (insert your favorite show here).
As for the “getting huge” issue, I need to warn you: it’s kind of insulting to say that to someone who has been working out for a long time. Getting huge is NOT EASY. It doesn’t just happen. You don’t walk into a gym, pick up a dumbbell, and suddenly swell to Arnold proportions. It takes years of hard work, a very specific routine, and proper dieting to get “huge”. The vast majority of people that do strength training - even those who are pretty damn strong - will never get particularly huge. Strength training is NOT body building and muscle size is not the goal.
So when you nonchalantly use this excuse in front of someone who has spent hundreds of hours working their ass off at a gym, it’s like a slap to the face. Either you’re insulting them because they haven’t gotten huge despite their efforts - where as you, in your grand arrogance, would grow like mario on mushrooms just from signing up for a gym membership… Or you’re directly telling them you don’t want to look anything like them. Way to go.
Moreover, if you are female, it’s almost impossible for you to become huge without steroids or other extreme measures. There are dozens of articles online about this and suffice it to say that strength training will only make you look more attractive. Checkout some of the pictures of the women of crossfit (many of whom are incredibly strong) to see what I mean.
So, at last, my routine
Well, I promised I’d tell you what I spend all my time doing, so at last, here it is:
- Tuesday: bicep curls, 90 minutes
- Thursday: bicep curls, 90 minutes
- Saturday: bicep curls, 80 minutes followed by 10 minutes of flexing in front of the mirror.
OK, OK, my real routine
For the last half a year, I’ve been doing the Bill Star 5x5 routine
- see the website for the full details. Just for the record, and also for the all important purpose of flexing the biceps of my ego, I will list my personal records for each lift:
Exercise: Weight (in lbs) x reps
- Squat: 325x4
- Bench: 315x4
- Deadlift: 405x4
- Rows: 225x5
- Press: 165x4