Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bells, the New Challenge, and Going Back to P90X

Last spring I quit going to our local Y. Even with very intense workout I had been doing - a combination of weights, cardio, and stretching - my condition was not improving; I wasn’t losing weight or body fat or getting stronger. Clearly, I was in a rut. I decided to check out the Iron Pit, a weightlifting gym where I used to work out with a personal trainer several years ago.

About the same time I read an article by Daniel Duane about his own experience with strength training (“Fitness Crazed,” NYT 5/24/2014). At the age of 40, Duane found himself fat and weak and went on a quest for an effective exercise program. After trying and rejecting a number of approaches (including P90X), he settled on a weightlifting program designed by Mark Rippetoe, Duane did three workouts a week based on five lifts: the squat, deadlift, power clean, bench press, and standing press. He did three sets of five reps of two or three exercises each time. Each workout, he found that he could lift a little bit more until, after a year, he could squat 285 pounds, dead lift 335, and bench press 235. (This Men’s Journal article gives a more detailed account of his progress.)

I decided to see whether this approach would work for me. Doug Ballard, one of the owners of the Iron Pit, got me started on the squat, deadlift and bench press using a 45 lb. Olympic-sized bar. To Duane’s basic five I added a bunch of others plus cardio twice a week on a cross trainer to keep my heart rate where it should be. (Duane is actually a biker and a surfer so weightlifting isn’t his only physical activity.) In order to burn enough calories, I need to be doing at least 6-7 hours a week of exercise so I rounded the program out with some DVD workouts, mostly P90X plus some Bob Harper routines. I’ve been doing this for about nine months.
Starting any exercise regimen gives you new insights into your physical advantages and disadvantages. To do a squat with correct form you need to push your hips back as you lower your upper body, keeping your chest as vertical as possible. Near the bottom you need to curve your lower back upward, sort of like a duck’s tail. I have a short torso so I don’t have much lower back to work with. I do as well as I can but I struggle with this one. Deadlifts, on the other hand, feel pretty natural, probably because my legs are strong. I’m up to 110 lbs. and expect to go higher soon.

Unlike Daniel Duane, I don’t find that I can add a little more weight each time. Progress is sporadic, especially if I have to take a few days off because of a trip or some other distraction. In terms of physical condition, my weight and body fat percentage are the same but I’ve lost half an inch from my thigh and a quarter of an inch from my upper arm, nice but nothing to write home about. The main improvement I notice is with my posture. Working the back muscles this hard pulls my shoulders back and down; I’m seeing more of my rib cage than I have since grade school. Also, when I go back to P90X I find that I’m doing the same exercises with heavier weights (still can’t do an unassisted pull-up though). 

One of the DVD workouts I do features kettlebells. These are round or squarish weights with handles at the top. Typical moves involve swinging them in an arc, though you can also use them for regular exercises like curls and cleans. The swinging motion means that you get into parts of the muscle that normal strength moves don’t hit. Bob Harper’s 45-minute kettlebell routine also includes jumping jacks and pushups. 

When it comes to strength there’s no magic; if you want to improve you need to work harder. That means lifting weights close to the limit of what you can do. Doing many reps with a 3- or 5-lb. weight, as is often recommended for people in their 60s like me, might help to keep you flexible but if you want to be strong you need to get up into the 10-or-above range. As you get older, strength training may be the most important type of exercise of all. I’ve noticed that Bob Harper, when he creates workouts for DVDs, uses light or medium weights; when he exercises for himself he goes to CrossFit and does powerlifting.

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