In the emergency room with heart attack symptoms, my years of sedentary lifestyle were finally catching up with me. Working as a college instructor and audio recording engineer had provided very little physical activity, and even less free time to use for getting in shape.
So at 46 years old, I had become a statistic; I was now the average unhealthy middle-aged American male, overweight, out of shape, and having typical middle aged health problems. At five foot eight inches tall, I tipped the scales at 185 flabby pounds with a body fat of 35%.
The doctor told me that my blood levels for unhealthy cholesterol and triglycerides were dangerously high. With triglycerides over 650 I was going to have to start medications to get them under control.
Five Years Later
Now let's fast-forward 5 years. Over the past 5 years I have turned my health and physique around, shed 35 pounds of fat, and added 25 pounds of muscle. Looking in the mirror I now see my 51-year-old head setting on a muscular physique that appears to be that of a twenty-year-old athlete.
The scale now shows 175 lean muscular pounds at 14% body fat. Shirts that used to pop buttons around the waist are now tight in the chest and arms instead, and my jeans have had to be replaced because my muscular thighs were too tight for the pant legs.
The doctor says I now have healthy blood levels across the board, and the heart of a young athlete.
And so we arrive at the heart of the matter. Strength training is the primary factor in my health and fitness turnaround. It is the catalyst that activates my other positive lifestyle choices, and sits at the core of my present vibrant health and well being.
I am evidence that adding healthy, lean body mass is a central component of a healthy life. Over the past 5 years of strength training, I have made a lot of mistakes, studied a lot, learned a lot, and now have some pointers to share.
So, how does a flabby middle-aged guy turn his physique and fitness around? Strength training is the focus of this article, but first I'll briefly summarize some important main points relevant to middle age guys, followed by my strength training experiences.
A Few Important Pointers
Most of the fitness and strength training information out there does not apply to you
Nearly all of the websites, magazines and books I have found about strength training are intended for younger people. Potential ability, hormone levels, lean body mass ratios, energy, and metabolism all peak before we reach middle age.
Younger trainees may be able to get away with the traditional bodybuilding foolishness that our culture promotes, but we can't. Our older joints and added years of neglect or abuse we have subjected our bodies too will not allow us the luxury of strength training abuses.
I have injured myself more than once trying to follow information that was actually intended for someone half my age. So be sure to qualify your source of information before you try to apply it to your own situation.
Most of the nutritional information out there does not apply to you
Stop and think about it for a minute. The nutrition and lifestyle/fitness magazines at the checkout in the grocery store are full of advice on losing weight and getting fit. They are intended to be bought and read by the vast majority of the population who are sedentary, overweight, undernourished, and not involved in athletic or strength training activities.
So even if by some miracle the information in the magazine ends up being true for it's intended audience, more than likely it does not apply to a strength trainer. The caloric, vitamin, mineral and other dietary requirements of a sedentary person differ greatly from that of an athlete.
Again, be sure to qualify your source of information before you try to apply it to your own situation.
Strength training is one component of being in shape
A healthy lifestyle is essential for meaningful and ongoing fitness and strength training results. For me, four essential components of a solid strength-training program are proper nutrition, proper hydration, proper rest, and proper exercise. If one of these is lacking, results will suffer.
Strength training exercise is the catalyst that animates the other components, and makes the whole program work correctly. I look at it like this; if I work out for an hour, I want to see an hour's worth of results. Would you be happy with 25% results? Or how about a half hour's results from each hour in the gym?
I don't think so. I'm not willing to waste the time or my body's resources on something that only works partway. If you want maximum results, pay attention to your overall lifestyle. But this article is about the strength training, so...
My experience is evidence that strength training is a dynamic process. The amount of weight you move, and the exercises used will vary from year to year, while the principles of safe training and good technique always remain as a constant.
The routines and exercises that I used two years ago have changed as my strength and overall fitness have increased. What worked for me when I started out no longer works for me. As your body adapts, your training methods must change as well.
Year 1: Great gains with full body routines
After my wake-up call at the emergency room, I began studying and reading up on fitness, and learned that strength training is important to achieve meaningful long-term fat-loss, add lean body mass, raise metabolism, and improve physique.
I read the muscle magazines, muscle websites, tried all sorts of workout machines, dozens of routines I saw others doing, and wound up straining my shoulders and elbows, back and knees. (Ever wonder why there is such a turnover in the fitness club memberships?
Because they don't get results! It is only a matter of time until poor training leads to getting hurt or discouraged, so most people quit within a few months.
After floundering around like this for months, I finally started having success when I applied the training suggestions from Ellington Darden's great book LIVING LONGER STRONGER, written specifically for out of shape middle-aged guys.
The exercises were the big multi joint free weight movements, squat, deadlift, chins, bench press, shoulder press, rows, pullovers, one set of 12 slow reps to failure, full-body routine Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Total time per workout of 30 minutes each session.
I did no other aerobics, and was strict with my calories and quality of food, drank a gallon of water daily, and slept 8-9 hours each night. During the first 16 weeks on this regimen, I dropped 35 pounds, and began adding muscle and filling out in the right places.
Year 2: Overtraining with full body routines
I continued with the full body routine 3 times a week. I continued adding pounds of muscle, and pounds to the bar, but the amount of weight I was lifting began to tax my joints and recovery ability.
I began to notice that I was no longer able to progress as I had been doing, and wound up leveling off, stagnating, and not recovering fully. I was learning about overtraining.
My body had responded so well to these workouts for many months, and I had made such progress, but it was certainly not working for me now. Not seeing any further results, I figured that I must have reached my genetic potential, so I stopped strength training.
I was happy with my physique, was in great shape, and as a result had inspired and helped many friends and relatives to get into shape. During the next few months I jogged a couple of times a week, continued to watch calories, drank a gallon of water a day, and slept 8-9 hours each night.
Unfortunately, after dropping strength training for a few months, it became painfully obvious that I was not keeping my great shape and robust health. During those months, I lost the buff muscular look, my metabolism slowed down, I began to add fat pounds, and I just didn't feel nearly as good overall.
Year 3: The switch to traditional split routines
It became obvious that I would have to return to strength training in my fitness plan, so I slowly and carefully started over with very little weight, using the same 3 per week full body routines I had used before. My strength returned quickly, and all went well for a few months.
Then I began to recognize the returning symptoms of over training. But this didn't make sense to me. If I could train this way when I was weak and in poor shape, shouldn't I be better able to handle it now that I was much stronger and in better shape?
I went back through my training logs, and realized that my overall strength had tripled since I started training, which meant that my body was now having to deal with three times the stress and strain on my joints, on my recovery system, as well as my muscles.
At my present strength, three full body workouts a week were now too much for me. I would have to revise my training, so I began experimenting with split routines. I tried a number of different splits, all with way too many exercises, and made only small progress during the next year.
Switching routines every six weeks or so became necessary because of sore joints, or minimal progress.
Year 4: Great success with abbreviated training
As a more advanced trainee, I was now searching for the balance needed to continue gaining strength at a good rate, while not stressing my joints or recovery ability. I found the HARDGAINER website, and began reading about abbreviated training. Finally, here was a welcome voice of reason.
It made all the sense in the world, especially for this 50-year-old guy. I took a three week break while on vacation in the summer, read Beyond Brawn, and The Insider's Tell-All Handbook on Weight-Training Technique, and started over from scratch, working with little weight perfecting slow and correct technique using a two-day per week full body routine.
I had great gains, added pounds, and got much stronger, working in twelve-week cycles with no joint or recovery problems.
Year 5: In the groove and making gains
And that brings us up to today. As I have aged, I notice that I am still adding mass, even though I am not adding as much weight to my lifts. My definition and muscle size is better than ever, but I realize that I will probably never be lifting the pounds that the younger guys do.
The tried and true big multi joint movements done slowly (about 5 seconds per rep) and with good form are my mainstay. I have been using a three day per week split, upper body on Monday, lower on Wednesday, and different upper movements on Friday with about 2 cardio sessions each week, jogging or bicycling.
Then I take 2 weeks off, and begin a new 8 weeks or so cycle using a two-day per week full body routine. By alternating the routines in this way, my joints seem to be less stressed, and I keep adding muscle.
Having had the opportunity to help train other people, I feel confident in recommending that for a typical out of shape middle ager, start with a full body routine of one slow set of 12 to failure, using the tried and true big multi joint movements with free weights three times a week.
Read and apply Stuart's books Beyond Brawn, and The Insider's Tell-All Handbook on Weight-Training Technique. Use perfect form, slow reps, and light weight. Add weight slowly, and don't get greedy for fast gains, or you will injure yourself.
Be consistent with record keeping, a healthy diet, enough sleep, and drink plenty of water. You will add lean body mass and be an inspiration to the younger generations.