This is Part I of a 3-part series on how I have perceived, worked within, and beyond the limits of power with the human body...
The Limits Of Power…
I have understood for a long time, in ways I believe many around me fail to understand, that the human body will only get so strong. I have also believed that for most, the human body should only get so strong.
It’s always been my belief that we have a social responsibility to be physically strong on behalf of those who may need us; family, friends, members of our community. Not bench press strong, but help a wife move the sofa strong. I feel the responsibility of strength extends that we maintain ourselves so we won’t need to depend on the strength of others. In this era, that kind of strength is often cultivated through exercise.
That said, the utility of exercising to increase physical strength has a tipping point that, when it’s exceeded, utility can give way to diminished returns in other areas of one’s life. Those who reach high levels of physical strength have likely sacrificed in other areas of their life in order to do so. Peripheral physicality can give way when excess strength is pursued, as can personal, social, and business relationships. That’s just my opinion, but I believe it has teeth.
However, the human body is capable of advancing in strength, and within reasonable bounds, at nearly any age, and without peripheral damage to the musculoskeletal structure, or to one’s social relationships. Despite attempts to advance physical strength by millions of people each day, even the middle limits of individual power are generally never met.
So how much is enough, how much is too much, and how does one find strength in the gym that translates outside the gym…? In these next three essays I will share my thoughts on this…
Fred Ain’t Dead…
Fred is 68 years old. He is an engineer by education, and tree grower by trade. Fred is active, plays senior softball each week, hikes regularly, backpacks, and spends a fair amount of time daily tending to his trees, and his property.
Fred began working out with me several years ago in hopes that regular strength training would support his softball, and help him stay injury free. For the first couple of years together, my emphasis with Fred was on the mindful conditioning of the areas which are most vulnerable in softball; Achilles tendons, hamstrings, low back, and shoulder movement.
Last year as I assessed Fred’s progress, I began to slowly increase the poundages he uses in his workouts. The arcs of those increases are still on the rise. He is now deadlifting 50 pounds more than this time last year. His bench press is up about 30%. His balance and agility are off the charts for being 68 years old, and his form in all of his movements is exceptional, and safe.
What makes this progress significant though, is that each week he feels he’s playing softball as well as the week prior, and often better. He’s remained mostly injury free. When he has experienced a strain during a game, it’s always minimal, and gone within several days. As Fred recalls his play from 3 years ago, it was anemic compared to his level of play after three years of strength training.
Oh, and Fred strength trains just one day per week – just one. As such, he’s not sacrificing too much in the form of unnecessary wear and tear on his body, nor is he taking excessive time away from his business or his family. He’s making progress, without even approaching the tipping point of excess sacrifice from his body or his life.
Throwing In The Towel – Sort Of…
For years I have battled a duality within me, of how I perceive and pursue physical strength. On one hand, there is the person who wishes to age gracefully, and function well right up to the point of my final breath. On the other hand is the person who wants to perform, function, and look at the highest possible level – right now, today.
In my mid-40s I began to reconcile this conflict with several of compromises. Chief among those compromises was that I would continue to practice my brand of strength training, only do so with an increased emphasis on functionality, and a lesser emphasis on poundages used and aesthetics. In theory, this was a means of preserving the longevity of the practice with only minimal sacrifice in performances and looks.
I made the decision that I would no longer attempt to increase my strength on any exercise. My emphasis would be on consistency, and proper form. I justified that so long as I maintained my existing level of strength, I would still be making progress inasmuch as I would still be on the clock of aging. Through my mid-to-late 40s, this became my protocol.
What I had theorized was ultimately fulfilled. My muscle mass suffered some, my body fat increased some, but for a guy in his late 40s, I was looking, and functioning well, with less overall sacrifice, and I enjoyed my workouts.
Mid-Life Crisis 2.0…
Shortly after I turned 50 I began training several serious bodybuilders for the first time in a decade. As I took inventory their progress, I began to yearn for progress of my own once again. Shit. Despite my concerns for aging well, and avoiding that tipping point where excessive strength and muscle work against utility, as well as the biological limitations of my aging physiology, 18 months ago I set into action a plan to regain the peak bodybuilding condition of my early 40s. I’m now in my early 50s.
Leg Press: Every weight in the house. Proper form. Full range of motion. No joint pain.
In the past 18 months or so I have become stronger in most every strength movement than I have ever been – ever. On most movements in the weight room, I’m using weights previously unused, with form as good as it’s ever been, and no residual pains, aches, or injuries.
Okay, so the faces ain’t pretty but the form is. I could not have approached this weight in this form 12 years ago.
I’m not suggesting that pursuing muscular gains like this, at this age is correct or even beneficial. In truth, it’s both good, and bad. I don’t expect to be hoisting these poundages, or sporting this mass 10 years from now. I’m truly good with that. If I’m being fully honest, there is less joy in hunting for gains than there is in pursuing utility from exercise. I am though, committed to making meat while the sun still shines, knowing full well that the sun will begin to set at some point, and the arc of my recent progress will rescind.
Be it by designer, or by Designer, we are designed to age and break down. Believing we can avoid this is foolish. However, within that design plan there exists some wiggle room – even for card carrying AARP folks like Fred, and me. It is possible to make gains in physical strength which translate to enhanced physicality outside of the gym – at any age. How far we take this, and what we sacrifice to achieve it, is open to discussion. Does anybody remember discussion…? Be well. rc
Please check back in 2 weeks to see how I explore the negative side of me using heavier poundages than ever, and how I plan to scale down – yet again. Oh, and there’s this from Jeff Beck And The Big Town Playboys. Enjoy…