I was bitten by the iron bug at the age of 15 as a way to get an edge in amateur wrestling.
There was just something about getting stronger. Progress is very measurable. Much like wrestling, it’s you and you alone once it’s time to get under the bar.
Lessons are learned about yourself over time when you train hard:
- You CAN push yourself much harder than you think.
- Mental Strength is even more powerful than physical.
- Excuses and Discipline are both habit forming. Choose wisely.
These lessons are extremely valuable and spill over in some way or another to everything else you do.
For me, training became a big part of my life. It was my hobby, passion and later became the foundation of my businesses. I spent years studying anything I could get my hands on (even translated Russian and German literature) if it was useful for getting stronger, faster or healthier.
Between the ages of 20-37, I was able to hit some pretty satisfying numbers in the gym. Personally, I wouldn’t say that I achieved strength “goals,” because those numbers always kept increasing. I never dwelled too much on a training milestone since it was more about progression and “the journey.”
The Next Chapter
At the age of 38, the term “healthy” began to mean something different to me.
I knew that I could still continue to get stronger, but it would likely come at a cost.
I was routinely handling the type of weights that could cause serious injury – even if the lifts were performed with proper form.
These are the types of injuries that lifters and athletes never completely come back from. Not to say that they can’t recover and compete again, but usually not without pain and not at the same level as before.
I’ve dealt with my fair share of injuries and learned a lot from them. I don’t have any regrets from my years lifting and didn’t want a bad injury to change my mind about that. After 20+ years of hard training, I decided to reevaluate why I was training.
- What does it mean to me?
- What do I want to get out of it?
- What risks do I consider to be too risky?
After some thought, here is where I landed:
1. I want to maintain or improve physical attributes that typically start declining at this age as long as possible. (Speed, Complex Motor Skills and Mobility)
2. I want to maintain strength on the lifts that are safest for me. This means I either have to be ok with not performing certain lifts anymore or use them differently.
3. I will put more effort in improving blood markers known for longevity. This doesn’t always go hand in hand when physical performance is the main focus.
4. I will try to always appreciate the opportunity to exercise.
I used to routinely switch up microcycles (weekly training) and mesocycles (4-6 week blocks) to focus on areas that I needed to improve.
The lifts, tempo and programming changed often because for me personally, variety was needed to keep progressing. I was rarely able to keep the same training routine for weeks and still keep getting stronger.
In hindsight, adapting quickly to training allowed me to learn more about the process while keeping it fun because I was always trying to figure out the puzzle.
These frequent training changes would be foundational for my new routine, but I knew that I would need to train less often with weights above 85% of my 1 rep max.
So, I decided that the training would be in 4 week blocks with 3 distinct ‘microcycles’:
Here are some of the details around each microcycle:
Week 1: Hypertrophy
Hypertrophy is a fancy way of saying “to increase the size of a muscle.”
Naturally, this form of training looks similar to what you might see a bodybuilder do. For me, this means that I’ll be training 1-2 muscles groups per workout with medium to medium/light weights.
This week will have the widest variety of rep ranges (8-50) depending on the exercise and placement within the workout. Volume is high with 20+ total sets and rest periods are short (around 2 minute between sets).
I use this week to throw in exercises that I don’t always do and/or lifts that I now need to go lighter on (60-70%) for the sake of my joints.
Week 1 Exercise Samples:
I also look for exercises with big ranges of motion. By doing these with a slower eccentric (muscle lengthening phase) and applying a full range of motion, I’ve found this to be much better than static stretching to improve both flexibility and mobility – a big reason for adding this week into the mix.
The combination of short rest periods mixed with lifts that attack large muscle groups definitely tests your cardio. This works well to increase work capacity and aids fat loss.
Here’s a sample lower body workout during a hypertrophy week:
Weeks 2-3: Strength & Speed
Of course the heavy stuff wasn’t completely going away. These two weeks of training are by far my favorite, but they come with a few new rules.
1. If an exercise routinely causes pain (soreness doesn’t count), it will not be performed heavier than 80%. Most likely it will eventually be moved over to the Hypertrophy week.
2. Always stop at least 1 rep before failure. This allows for better recovery, adaptation and lessens the likelihood of injury from poor form.
3. Change the script when necessary. Just because you’re scheduled to do a heavy 3 rep bench press today, doesn’t make it set in stone. Switch it to something else if your body needs a break. Last time I checked, there’s rarely a line at the pull-up bar.
When referring to Strength and Speed as physical attributes, they can be broken down into subcategories: absolute strength, starting strength, relative strength, strength-speed, speed-strength, reactivity and on…
The weight and tempo of the lifts along with exercise selection often dictates which of the examples above you’re working on.
Weeks 2-3 Exercise Samples:
When I was younger, I would usually put strength workouts on a separate day than speed work. Both are highly dependent on the Central Nervous System and overloading the CNS makes recovery difficult.
Now, I prefer to combine them. I’ve found that by training strength and speed together (but with fewer total sets per workout), I’m actually able to train them more frequently and still recover well.
Reps, Sets and Percentages
Outside of a few exceptions, reps for strength and speed usually don’t go beyond 5 reps. Research is very clear that 1-5 reps is the optimal range for strength and speed work unless you are a novice.
I see this commonly misused with exercises like box jumps. 30 rep sets of box jumps for example has merit if your goal is speed-endurance or if it’s part of your sport like CrossFit. However, if jumping higher or creating peak power is the objective, reps above 5 are inefficient. It’s like running a 5k in preparation for the 100m dash.
During this two week microcycle, I usually train 4 days (2 upper-body days and 2 lower-body days).
Most strength movements will be around 80-95% of my estimated 1 rep max which gives me several options for rep schemes.
Some of my favorites include:
Speed Movements can be performed bodyweight only, with implements (med balls, shots, sleds), barbells and even cables/machines.
If you asked me my favorite speed exercises at 29, it was vertical jumping and long jumps. At 39 … it’s speed deadlifts. Why? It feels better on my knees and it still satisfies the need to perform exercises with athletic carryover.
I do still perform a number of jump variations, but have transitioned more into strength-speed barbell lifts at 50-60%. I like that I can easily measure performance, with the use of a tendo unit and recover better than traditional plyometrics.
Here’s a sample lower body workout during a Strength and Speed week:
*Notice the change in exercise selection, sets and reps when compared to the Hypertrophy training.
Week 4: Hodge Podge
On the surface, this microcycle might look like what lifters refer to as “deload week.”
Lifters and coaches often program a week into the training cycle where both volume and intensity are down with a priority towards physical and mental recovery.
While it can certainly be used for that, Hodge Podge week can also be extremely taxing depending on exercise selection.
Earlier I mentioned that maintaining the ability to execute complex motor skills was one of my goals. One way to accomplish this is to perform movements and skills that are new to you or rarely executed.
Week 4 Exercise Samples:
I believe this is a highly underutilized tactic for injury prevention and cognitive decline because your body perceives these movements as a “new skill” learned.
Awkward lifts = Untapped potential
Let me preface this by saying that you shouldn’t confuse this type of training with “functional training.”
Many trainers take this style of training too far with clients who would benefit much more from receiving foundational exercise and nutrition advice.
Prerequisites for exercises that I like to use during this week include:
- Is it a movement that requires a lot of concentration to complete correctly?
- Does it include movement patterns that I feel like could be declining?
- Do I have a history of injuries (joint or muscle) in the area(s) targeted?
- If yes, does that area feel better the day after executing the exercise. (Your body tells you a lot if you listen).
With these objectives in mind, many of the exercises I perform during this week look a lot different from the rest of my program. Odd objects lifted, calisthenics that I hadn’t performed in years, and pauses/tempos that make ordinary lifts anything but.
More times than not, I’ll perform these exercises in circuit fashion. Total-body works great during this week, however upper/lower splits will also do the trick.
Some of the toys that I really enjoy using during this week include:
- Bamboo Bars
- Tsunami Bars
- Indian Clubs
- The Powerplate
- Airex Pads
For comparison, here’s a sample lower body workout during a Hodge Podge week:
Jason Barbour is the CEO of Metabolic Meals and a builder of e-business brands that help people live healthier lives.
For over a decade, Jason worked closely with top athletes and executives to improve their performance through nutrition, fitness and lifestyle modifications.
He now focuses on using technology to give people a more personalized path to achieving their wellness goals.