Written by our very own Head Strength & Conditioning Coach, Anna Marie Oakes – Joudy
I used to be a “gym-rat” I would spend two hours a day in the gym, six days a week. More than half of that time would be spent sweating it out on the Stairmaster, while the rest of the time I was doing “low-weights and high reps”. I did that for 10 years. I thought I was strong. I thought I would get the body I saw on the cover of fitness magazines if I just did the workouts they recommended and counted my calories. But, even after dropping my calories to 1200/day and working out incessantly I still jiggled in places I didn’t want to and I didn’t feel comfortable in a bathing suit. Fast forward to my having twin girls in 2013 and DREADING the thought of walking back into the gym and continuing the run on the hamster wheel in hopes that “it will work this time”. I joined a CrossFit gym in Santa Cruz, CA. not knowing that my town held the distinction of being the “Birthplace of CrossFit” until I walked into the big open warehouse. There I began the journey that has led to where I am today.
Put aside the very polarizing topic that is CrossFit and look at this with me. In that big, hot, chalky building, I learned that I was STRONG. I affirmed for myself what my parents always told me and what I had yelled in the faces of the kids that called me names when I was young. I found my niche there and was inspired by some very strong women and men. One of my coaches, in particular, told me early on that “You should LIFT”. I was a little intimidated by the whole idea at first, but watched a woman I knew never do a single kipping pull-up and continue to slim down under the barbell week after week. I stopped wanting to have a thigh-gap, razor abs, and slim arms and started wanting what my body already offered me: big thighs, muscular arms, and Traps! (traps are the new abs, by the way). I cared less about what my weight was on the scale and more about the weight on the barbell.
I began my Starting Strength Novice Progression in January of 2014. At the time my back squat was 195 lbs., my Dead lift was 255 lbs., and my bench was somewhere in the 140 range (I was a CrossFitter and CrossFitters don’t do bench much). I was the woman who would do the heavy stuff in the partner WODS (Workout Of the Day) and LOVED it. I had noticed things in my everyday life were becoming easier as I got stronger, but I wanted to slim down as well and the Coach teaching the class was a woman I had watched melt away with nary a Thruster done. She taught us the “Low Bar Back Squat” (hereafter referred to as Squat), bench, dead lift, and standing overhead press. We lifted twice a week with the class and once a week on our own, always beginning with the Squat, moving to a pressing movement to give the lower body a break, then ending with the dead lift as it is the most taxing lift. After six weeks of adding 5 lbs to each lift every lifting day for 3 sets of 5 (3×5); my Squat was 235 lbs., Bench was 150lbs., and Dead lift was in the 280 lbs. range. I know, to most, those numbers don’t mean anything, but look at it this way. I could carry both my twin daughters’ car seats out of the car without my shoulders aching. I could carry ALL the bags of groceries from my car to the front door of my house (50 yards away) without having to stop and set them down. I could pick up all 4 of my kids at once. My knees and feet stopped HURTING all the time (I injured both knees playing soccer), I cared less about what I weighed and more about how much I could lift. I was hooked. I began reading the books Starting Strength and Practical Programming and applying my extensive hard science background to the literature that was presented. Another benefit of all that strength training, besides the obvious strength gains? With proper nutrition and macro compliance (knowing how much of the main nutrients I was taking in on a daily basis, Protein, Fat, Carbs, Fiber) I dropped 20 lbs all while adding weight to the barbell and drastically altering my body composition.
I began to think about all the ways that strength made our lives better or lack of strength made our lives more difficult. I had never heard anyone ever say “I fell over when I was going down the stairs because I was too strong” or “I’m strong enough”. I know that some of you are picturing those guys in the bodybuilding magazines with the preternaturally large arms and legs and strangely misshapen foreheads and thinking “THAT guy looks TOO strong”.
I’m not talking about muscle SIZE so much as I am about the ability to produce force against gravity and/or an object and the ground. Muscle SIZE does not denote STRENGTH (Though this guy is also very strong). Some of the strongest pound for pound people in this world walk around you on the street and you wouldn’t even know it. This is Jen Thompson, she has a 300+ lb. Bench Press and hold many records, she weighs 132 lbs.
Let’s talk about the ways lack of strength effects our lives. There is a saying “In through the womb, out through the hip” This refers to how many people fall and break a hip after the age of 50 and how often that leads to death. It may not be the actual break that kills you, but what begins with the break of a hip sets a domino effect in motion. If you are already weaker because you don’t exercise often and are on any number of commonly prescribed medications, rehabilitation from an injury (such as a broken hip) becomes longer and more difficult. Many people develop other conditions due to lack of mobility during their rehab; Diabetes, Hypertension, and Pneumonia are very common ailments accrued over a longer rehab stint. (http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/12/01/366347840/broken-hips-preventing-a-fall-can-save-your-life)
Now, what if there was a way to make falls less common and less devastating to the elderly population? There is. Barbell training. Either beginning barbell training while you are still relatively young and mobile or; taking an elderly trainee through the Starting Strength program (with modifications) to get them to the point where their bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles are stronger. Then the major falls, which have the potential to end their lives, become either minor falls or they don’t happen because the individual has trained a bilateral (two legged) movement progressively under load and has trained their balance while building strength.
Many times people equate barbell training with specific sports like: Powerlifting, Olympic Lifting, Strong Man, or CrossFit. Strength training is a large part of all of the sports listed. HOWEVER, Strength Training is not only for powerlifters, Olympic lifters, etc. Strength training is FOR EVERYONE. Let me say that again Strength Training IS for EVERYONE. There is not a single person on this planet who could not benefit from a progressive stressing of the body, with compound movements, on a regular training schedule, with gradually escalating weights. I say TRAINING and not Exercise because the point of exercise is to break a sweat and get your heart rate up. This also occurs in Training, but training is for a specific goal whether it be building strength for your sport, building strength for your life, or building strength so your golf game comes back. Exercise has its place in the day to day just like practicing your sport does, but only Strength Training can make both the aforementioned past-times better, more effective, and you more accurate.
Strength Training is infinitely scalable. If your trainee can’t get up from a chair without a railing, you don’t start them under the barbell, you start them with getting out of the chair with less and less help and work them up to doing a squat of their own body weight. All it takes is time. I know that time = $, but your health = QUALITY time, it all depends on what you’d rather spend your time/money on. Get strong and live a more productive, quality life. Strength is UNIVERSAL.