The strength experiment, a final word: What I did right and wrong

One thing about these guys: They’ll give back what you put in.

Much thanks to everyone who has hung on through this series on my strength experiment. If you’ve read the posts, you know why I did this, the workouts I performed, and what I did to stay healthy and ready to go.

This post is what I would call an “accountability” piece. Namely, what my results were, what went right, and what went wrong.

Before I go into all of that, a little guiding philosophy first. When you’re pushing for strength gains, you can’t do the same workouts with the same weight every week. You have to gradually increase weight in your lifts. The added challenge is added stimuli to promote muscle growth and performance gains. Otherwise, you stagnate and ultimately regress.

That said, I am very conservative when it comes to bumping up weight. Part of it has to do with a history of back injuries. I was steady but conservative on increasing weight on deadlifts, and even more so on squats. But when I felt it was appropriate, I moved up.

That said, let’s get to it…

THE RESULTS

I started out with a one-rep max deadlift of 320 pounds. Not too shabby, but in need of improvement. At the end of four months, that one-rep max stood at 350. Not quite twice my body weight, but a decent gain and 30 pounds closer to my goal.

I don’t like doing one-rep maxes on squats. I just don’t trust myself on that lift with the make-or-break stakes of a single. It should also be noted that my squat sucks out loud. I’ve had to work hard on getting the right form, and that meant dialing back the weight a bunch. When I started the cycle, I was doing a four-rep set with 225. When it ended, I was getting a four-rep set at 265. I think that would put me right at a 300-pound 1RM, but it’s all talk until you do it. Nevertheless, I’d call my approach on the squats ultra-conservative, and the gains were real.

Lastly, the dreaded bench press. What used to be my best lift is now pretty sad. At the beginning of the cycle, I was getting a max of about 220. At the end, I hit 240. That one surprised me a bit, mostly because I put very little emphasis on this lift, but I went ahead and tested it, mostly because it’s one of the three used in powerlifting meets. It was a pleasant surprise. I haven’t put more than 225 pounds on the bar in five years.

These aren’t really big totals. There are Crossfitter/bodybuilder/powerlifter/gym rat guys and gals who crank better than this. Just being honest. But there was some progress, and if you believe Men’s Health magazine, that 350-pound deadlift puts me in the “fit” category on that lift. The charts at one of the gyms I go to puts all my lifts in the intermediate range, or between intermediate and advanced, for my age and size. Not bad, with room for improvement. But more to the point, improvement is what I got.

WHAT I DID RIGHT

Dialing back the running. I’m a runner these days, so scaling back my miles was mentally hard. But what’s harder is getting stronger while pounding out 20 to 30 miles or more a week. Dropping that weekly mileage count allowed my body to rest and rebuild in a way that was conducive to strength.

Conservative progression. Some lifters and coaches advise adding 10 pounds a week to your lifts. I was more of a 5 pounds per week person. Go big or go home? Nah. There was one week toward the end I went the 10-pound route, but otherwise, nope. And I think that was the right speed. On some lifts, it was even slower. But progress was made, mostly without injury.

Workout design. I did a bunch of research and consulted with folks in the know to come up with the workouts I did. Not only that, I took care to place them at the right times of the week. They seemed to work pretty well, and did so without having to spend hours in the gym or doing exotic (and painful) fad workouts. Mine were simple, concise and challenging. Could they have been better designed? Probably. But these worked for me.

Sticking with it. I never let bad moods, busy schedules, laziness or anything else keep me off the program. Consistency is where I did best.

WHAT I DID WRONG

Lazy diet. I did a good job in getting all my protein. But I also ate more than I should have, and in many cases, in an undisciplined way. Too much junk. I gained about 8 pounds, most of it being the jiggly kind. Now I have to work that crap off. Yeah, there was some muscle gained, but not enough to justify that sort of weight gain.

A rep too far. In the last week of the cycle, I was really feeling the strain of it. Muscles and joints were barking. During a mid-week workout, I missed on a clean (I caught the bar, but at an awkward angle that tweaked my mid-back). It scared me a little, but I wasn’t in pain so I figured I got away with one.

Three days later, feeling beat-up and fatigued, I went through my lifts on the deadlift: 135×8, 205×7, 255×6, 295×5. They all went fine, even if I was a bit tight. I loaded 355 on the bar for a one-rep attempt and missed. An inch off the ground, but no more. The week before, 350 went up fairly well, so I figured I’d take a breather, reset, and try it again.

Big mistake.

I missed the second attempt, and my lower back freaked out for the better part of two weeks afterward. I suspected after the first miss that I needed to back off and move on, but I was prideful and wanted that gain. Bad move, and I paid for it. It’s now four weeks later, and I’m just now starting to deadlift heavier again.

So there you have it. Four months of work for a runner/hiker in the weight room trying to get stronger. I haven’t focused this intently on strength in many years, and after focusing on running over the past five years, I had a lot of ground to make up.

Will I get my miles back up? Yes, especially when the fall rolls around. Would I do another strength cycle? Absolutely. I’m not young, but I’m not dead. Being stronger can only be a positive, and if I can repeat what I did right and avoid what I did wrong, who knows how far it will go.

Thanks for reading, y’all. Time to get outside once again and get back to writing about the wide, wonderful outdoors.

Bob Doucette

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