I’ve written hundreds of articles. And have read thousands more.
If there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s that coaches love to criticize. Most of the time it’s in good faith. We point out the mistakes we’ve made (or that others have made) in hopes of helping the next generation avoid them.
That’s what this article is about: possibly the biggest mistake I’ve made in recent memory.
Over the past year, I’ve lost sight of just how powerful what we do is. Not sets and reps and PRs, but what every man and woman who walks into a gym or steps on a treadmill experiences. And what I almost let slip through my fingers: the unstoppable power of exercise.
Serious lifters always say, “Training is my number one priority.” Well, you may think it is, but it’s not. Maybe it is if you’re 20. Or if you’re one of the very few who earns a sizeable living from lifting. But for the majority of lifters, especially those over 40, training is at best a passionate hobby.
How you can tell if it’s not really number one? By how you respond to non-abrupt chaos. Before we talk about that, let's look at abrupt chaos.
Life is full of adversity. Some of these challenges are what I call abrupt chaos. A parent dies. Your wife gets sick. I’ve had my share of these. Most of you have too.
What’s interesting about these bouts of abrupt chaos is how they affect your training life. If your wife gets diagnosed with cancer, the first thing you do once you get a moment alone is hit the iron. Even if it’s just 30 minutes, you have to get under the bar. Because you know you have to get that shit out.
But then there’s the other form of adversity. It's slow burning, less intense, cumulative stress that plays out over months or years. This is what I call non-abrupt chaos.
Financial problems, family strife, increased workload, even co-workers. It’s seemingly normal stress, but at the same exhausting. However, ask anyone for sympathy and they’ll say, “That’s just shit you’ve got to deal with as a man.”
So as men, we do just that: we deal. Or at least try to.
We get up earlier, work harder, wear multiple hats, and try to please everybody. As our schedules get maxed, we start cutting away the extra fluff. The stuff we don’t really need.
Like GPP sessions. Then any cardio, period. Then accessory days. Until you’re left making it to the gym one to two times a week for 40 minutes at a stretch.
It’s schedule creep. And it happened to me.
Over the past few years I’ve watched my frequency drop from six days a week to just a Saturday back workout. I wasn’t dying and my family was okay. I just had responsibilities and stuff I needed to take care of to keep the boat afloat. So I let training take a back seat for a change. Until I needed to change.
When a serious lifter drops down to training just once or twice a week, not so great things slowly start to happen.
You can keep most of the size and even a lot of strength by training that infrequently. But what you lose is less obvious and more insidious. You get softer and weaker. Until eventually your work capacity falls below a tipping point. And you get winded going up a flight of stairs.
Congratulations – you’re yet another out-of-shape lifter.
And you’re tired. But you can’t sleep. And you have brain fog. Many develop depression. You notice these symptoms and then ask yourself, "What supplements can I take to help?”
You’re tired, so you load up on energy drinks. You can’t sleep, so you get a script for Lunestra. You feel stressed, so you look into anti-anxiety meds.
Then you think maybe it's not depression. Better take Vitamin D. Oh, you’re already taking that? Maybe just take more?
Sounds silly, I know, but that was me just a few months ago. Sitting at my computer, fat, stressed, and anxious, and typing these conditions into Google, looking for solutions.
You know what kept coming back as the number one treatment?
Have you ever stopped to appreciate how powerful exercise really is? This is what I finally realized:
Blood pressure: a 45-minute workout is as good as hypertensive drugs, resulting in a 20% decrease in blood pressure.
Depressions: intense exercise as effective as anti-depressants in some patients.
Blood sugar: exercise is as good as meds in many contexts.
Ditto energy, mental clarity, and sleep. Literally every symptom I was battling could be addressed, in whole or in part, by exercise.
Look, I know you know this. Even I know this. I’ve worked in the field for 30 years and have an exercise science degree. But my entire training life has been about the very specific aspects of training — training to get strong, and then peaking for meets, then dieting to get ripped. I’ve never trained for health.
Honestly, who does? That’s right, the skinny guy in the back balancing on the Bosu. In my eyes, health was just a possible side effect of the process. But I didn’t see it or pursue it,and sure as hell didn’t appreciate it.
So when the time came to retire from competitive lifting and just train “for health,” I didn’t know what that meant. Like most meatheads, I took it to mean joint health. You know, switch to bodybuilding and other shit that wasn’t going to hurt me.
That meant following a body part split, with arm days. I appreciate big arms as much as the next guy, but I hate arm days. Really, I hate all that shit except legs — everything else is just an intermission before leg day.
So I started dropping training days. Not deliberately, but I’d just find ways to be so busy that I’d get out of doing these boring workouts. Of course, I also dumped the other shit I hate, which are all the little things that make up a well-rounded exercise program.
Stretching, cardio, anything remotely resembling GPP was out. I’m retired, I didn’t need it anymore right? Dumped.
And then it came around to bite me with the symptoms described earlier. Symptoms that had me chasing down supplements and drugs. When all I had to do was resume what I was supposed to be doing.
I’ve since added in some steady state cardio and increased the number of training days per week. And you know what? All the above items got better.
The story isn’t so much about the benefits of training, but that many of us simply forget about them, or worse, take them for granted. Because when you’re trying to be your best in a sport and willing to do anything and everything it takes to be the best, health is tossed out the window.
It’s said that the day you really become a competitive athlete is the same day health moves to the passenger seat. Then as you progress, gets tossed in the back seat, then the trunk and finally out the door.
There are still health benefits associated with the training, even insane training, they just aren’t the priority. Fortunately, you don’t need to be aware of them to reap these benefits.
But what about when you’re no longer competing and the training load drops, your frequency drops, and your workload drops? I wonder how many guys on anti-depressants and blood pressure meds and sleep aids and nootropics could be able to toss all that stuff if they were just able to train more, even at a lower level. Just by following a nice, well-rounded training program.
I admit, doing cardio and training like a bro still sucks. I miss the feeling of a heavy bar on my back. I miss hitting a PR and even setting world records. But while I still love (and always will) challenging my body to push to the edge, today the stakes have changed. I train to keep from being a pin head, to maintain as much muscle as I can, at times to drop bodyfat under 10%, and to push my yoke bar squat up.
I push hard and train hard but I also have moderate and easy days that are built for health and recovery. These days are the ones I hate to do, but I know that they keep me healthy, keep me training. So I do them.
Sure, the past year has sucked. I’ve dealt with more bullshit than any year in my life, but stress isn’t going anywhere. There’s no fucking end in sight.
The best I can do—what we all can do—is prepare for it.
It begins not by changing how you train (life tends to force that upon you anyway) but figuring out why you train .
What does lifting and pushing and doing GPP and stretching do for your body beyond the PR’s? What meds does it keep you from having to take? How does in enhance your longevity and quality of life?
Wrap your head around that and suddenly this getting old shit isn’t so bad.
Even the arm days.