When we opened the doors of CFR and WS&C over 6 years ago one thing I was not expecting was a large portion of our membership would be females. I mean, we squat, press and pull heavy 5 days a week. There is no AC, only barbells and squat racks. I was a strength coach for the military and I assumed what type of person would be walking in the door. Very quickly I found this was not the case. Women love to pick up heavy shit and get strong. As a matter of fact, it’s much more fun coaching women on the major barbell lifts than men. So much so, I have jokingly said I should turn WSC/CFR into a women’s only gym. Don’t worry guys, this will never happen! However, they learn the lifts quicker, listen better, have less bad habits and generally move better than their male counterpart. I guess this is because most of them have never cleaned before so they listen to every word and work hard at mastering the details. The men quit listening when they hear the word clean and immediately start cleaning like the local football coach showed them. These habits are hard to break.
One thing I was not prepared for was the constant battle women face about how they should look. I never thought about this for a couple of reasons. I have a sister but she was quite a bit older than me and most of my memories are when she was graduating high school and getting married. I grew up with a brother 6 years older than me and thus never really had a female in the house concerned about body image. I know my mother would diet when I was a kid but I never remember her complaining to me about any serious body composition issues. My wife has always been athletic and when she began her strength journey, I never heard her mention her enlarging quads being a real problem other than finding pants that would fit. She was always more concerned with the weight on the bar and increasing it. Every now and then she asks me if her quads or butt look big, usually in a joking manner. I always tell her “Ah yeah, of course they do. You squat 260 pounds, they look great!”
I love my job and the absolute best part is when a female walks in the door for their free week trial on a Monday. Mondays are always squat day. I love teaching the squat. For me when a new member walks in the door it’s almost like a treasure hunt. The minute I have them descend into their first squat may be one of the most exciting things I do all day. It’s exactly like opening up a treasure box or a present each time. I get to see their first squat and I immediately know the work I have ahead of me. I immediately see the future. Every person’s squat is different and I can foresee 6 months down the road. I don’t see the shaky first squat in front of me with a 35 pound bar on their back. I see what will be an absolutely perfect Low Bar Back Squat loaded with 200 pounds in the near future. I see the them not as they are at that moment, whether skinny with no muscle mass, 50 or 100 pounds over weight or everything in between. I see what they will look like with hard work, consistent effort and a sensible diet.
I know what they will look like when they squat 200 pounds with confidence. Do you know what that looks like? It looks different for everyone. Much like each one of you look different to me at the bottom of a squat, you all look different than you perceive on the first day. That’s the day when I see the future and envision you squatting 200 pounds or more. The one thing in common is to us, you all look great. You look just as your Creator intended you to look when He also hoped you would some day be strong and powerful. But that image in our mind doesn’t look like the magazine cover you saw checking out at the grocery store. The airbrushed, photo shopped, muscle wasted, skinny fat model you wished you looked like, or had legs, shoulders or arms like. Because you don’t look like her; your legs won’t look like hers. You are NOT her. Be thankful.
If you haven’t noticed ladies, you are all built differently. Some of you carry more muscle mass than others. Some of you simply look at a barbell and gain a pound of muscle. You have large muscular quads when you walk in the door the first time and you have never even seen a squat. You have shoulders and traps like an athlete and you have never heard of a deadlift. Others walk in with little to no muscle on their legs and elsewhere. They are skinny and those first squats are difficult for them. They wish they could squat like you and don’t understand why the empty bar feels so heavy. Both of you will be strong. Both of you will change physically but you will never look the same. And you won’t look like that magazine cover.
Every single person who walks in our door creates a level of excitement that is difficult to explain. When a female walks in our door, I don’t see her as overweight or obese. I see a person with near perfect levers that will make her a good weightlifter. The only thing stopping her from fulfilling her potential and being great is HERSELF. I see a person who holds and easily builds muscle. I see a woman with big, muscular quads and glutes who will only get stronger and more powerful as time passes. I see a woman who has a strong back long before she has ever touched her first weight. I immediately start seeing the you that you were put on this earth to be. The strong, powerful, confident and capable you. I see a person that does NOT look like a fitness model on a magazine. I see a strong woman who not only is strong but looks strong. I see the you that you were meant to be, NOT the one society is telling you to be.
I was recently reading a book and a section really jumped out at me. The book, The Development of Muscular Bulk and Power by Anthony Ditillo, was written in the early 1970s. It was written for men who wanted to get into serious weight training. It was the author’s attempt at a basic beginner’s guide to gaining strength and size. It’s a pretty awesome book I would recommend to everyone. The part that jumped out at me was a section called The Forming of Realistic Goals. I will quote one of the most important things everyone should know and understand when beginning a journey to improve their health and fitness.
“Better to merely accept such an occasional occurrence as being the ‘scheme of things’ and after hashing and rehashing such pertinent facts in your mind you will sooner or later come to the conclusion that you are you, I am me, and ‘never the twain shall meet’. One of the most important things any trainee can learn is that we must work with what we have, not what we imagine ourselves to own or that which we feel we shall indeed possess at some later time.”
I could not say it better myself. This is an extremely important concept to grasp. If you are the woman who gains muscular size quickly and increases weights on the bar with relative ease, why try to be something you are not? It will only create disappointment and failure. Stoptrying to look how the magazine or society tells you. Take what you have been blessed with and use it. Use it to become the strong person you were meant to be. Trust me, somewhere there is a woman who wishes she could be as strong as YOU or look like YOU. Take your strengths and run with them. Focus on them and make them even better. Be proud to be you and stop trying to be someone you are not.
Few things break my heart more than watching a woman get stronger each day only to be derailed by what someone else tells her she should look like. Or worse yet, quitting because of an unrealistic or unattainable goal she has set for herself. Let a stranger look at you in awe because you LOOK like you can squat 300 pounds. That is much better than them never noticing you because you have spent a lifetime hiding it instead of embracing it. Or even worse, a lifetime of striving to be someone you are not. Just do us a favor and roll with it. Be BADASS and own how badass you are becoming. BE YOU.
So this article was inspired by a few things happening over the past few days.
I read a pretty good short blurb from Joe DeFranco on T-Nation titled “Don’t Just Get Tired. Get Better.” Google it – it’s the TL/DR version of this post.
Someone new started at our gym who, while squatting on their first day, didn’t think they were working hard enough because they weren’t drenched in sweat.
Someone else asked for a conditioning workout on their light day. I gave it to them, and the conversation afterwards went something like this:
Person: That wasn’t too bad. Should I go back and do a few more rounds?
Me: No. Go home and eat and relax.
Person: But I could have done the whole thing like 3 more times
Me: No. Go home and eat and relax.
Person: Should I at least do some extra prowler sprints or something?
Me: No. Go home and eat and relax. Now get out of my sight before I karate chop you.
Now, I’m all for terrible workouts when the time is right. Sometimes, you need a good butt-whupin’ to keep you humble. But the first thought that went through my mind for each of these scenarios was: not every workout has to destroy you. If you’re not a beginner and are intelligently programming your training, you’ll end up with some days that are hard – they’ll be heavy, have lots of volume, and you’ll wonder why on earth you got out of bed that morning. Some days will also be a little lighter – it feels magical to squat, press or snatch at 75%% for just a couple sets when you’re feeling a little beat up. The point with both of these is that they’re working towards a goal that your training is based around. These things are planned ahead and they are part of the process of achieving whatever goal you’ve set for yourself.
“At the end of the workout I was sweaty, hot, confused, and tired. But that doesn’t mean it was productive training, and I definitely wasn’t achieving my goals.”
Recently, it’s become very popular to indulge in what I refer to as the “effort” programs. Crossfit, P90x, Insanity, Bodypump, or anything similar where people are actually challenged to work hard. It takes a lot of initiative to do these things – more effort than most people are used to. If you are doing something like this I applaud you for actually doing something with your body. I’ll be honest and admit they are hard while you’re doing it. I know this very well. I used to do Ab Ripper X three times per week in my college dorm room. I know the feeling of complete muscular exhaustion and how you need to ring the sweat out of your shirt afterwards. At the end of the workout I was always sweaty, hot, confused, and tired. But that doesn’t mean it was productive training, and I definitely wasn’t achieving my goals. I was training 5 days per week and I still wasn’t where I wanted to be. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It wasn’t until 2011 when I gave Beau at WSC a call that I realized what a difference productive (or optimal) training makes.
It is important to note here that any person or coach can make a workout “hard” to make you feel like you’ve accomplished something. 12 sets of 5 squats at 90% of your 1RM. That’ll be fun. And while I sit here laughing at my computer thinking of somebody actually doing that, someone out there is a “coach” who is coming up with ideas with the sole purpose of making people sweat. Yes, a good amount of training needs to be difficult, but all the effort that goes into the training needs to be focused on a goal. You can only recover from so much – make all of that energy spent productive energy.
Whenever someone new comes to Westminster Strength and Conditioning, we inevitably have the “training vs. exercise” talk. Simply put,
“exercise” is physical activity done for the sake of how it makes you feel today. It can either be a random workout that an instructor wrote on a chalk-board, or it could be the exact same routine for eight weeks. The goal is to make you sweaty, “confuse” your muscles, and make you feel like you’ve worked hard.
“Training” is a systematic approach to exercise. It is done with a plan in mind. Goals are set and progression is planned ahead of time to get you to those goals quicker than if you were simply exercising. Some days might even be easier than others, but they serve a purpose and are all part of a master plan.
The first thing to worry about here is whether or not you actually have a goal in mind. Find whatever motivates you and work toward it. Then whatever goal you have, figure out what you need to do to achieve it, and freakin’ do it. As simple as this sounds, a lot of people do the exact opposite of what they need to do. Here’s an analogy… my wife is terrible with directions. I mean exceptionally bad (sorry Jenna!). I’m awaiting the call where she’s broken down on the side of the highway in Arizona, about 2200 miles away from our home in Maryland. Thankfully, she’s pretty smart and uses the GPS on her phone to get to where she’s going. She inputs where she wants to go into her phone and it takes her right there using the most efficient path possible. Shouldn’t exercise be the same way?
It took a little while before I understood how this process actually works. A lot of people get caught up in the feeling of “man, I really got a good workout today. I did a bunch of squats and crunches. I’ll have a kale salad for dinner and I bet when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be super ripped”, but fail to see how what they did actually fits into a plan. That is exercise. I can’t count the number of times I’ve talked to someone and they have said something along the lines of, “at the end of my lifts yesterday I added a bunch of rower sprints.” When challenged why, the answer inevitably boils down to something along the lines of “I felt like I needed some extra work to get sweaty and out of breath.” No! There is a difference between making something hard because it needs to be, and making it hard because of “the feels.” This isn’t about your feelings. This is about trusting the process and following a training program.
So after all that, why might some days be easier than others? It depends on your plan. Remember that all physical activity is just a repetitive cycle of stress, recovery, and adaptation. Rank novices can get away with doing some pretty crazy things in the gym, but eventually if you’re progressing and actually working towards a goal the stress needs to increase at times and lighten up at certain points to maximize recovery. Any non-beginner program that doesn’t do this is 1) actually a beginner program, or 2) simply exercise. Maybe your light day serves as a recovery day between two hard workouts, like a lot of our advanced novice or intermediate programs. It could be after a heavy volume or intensity day, where you to maintain some skill in a lift without a whole bunch of extra physical stress. The point here is you can’t always recover from max-effort training sessions in a short period of time. If you are seriously thinking about long-term progress, you need to understand this and plan your training out accordingly. And while a low-stress workout doesn’t always seem sexy or bad-ass, doing it makes you much more likely to achieve whatever goal you set out for. So stop worrying about having the greatest workout ever every day. Think critically about your goals and the path you need to take to reach them. Then do everything you need to to reach those goals, even if it means taking a light day.
At Westminster Strength and Conditioning we have a lot of strong women. At our gym, we take it for granted too often because we are literally surrounded by women who to the general public or gym goer can do absolutely amazing things with a barbell. We have several women who deadlift over 300 pounds. It’s normal to see women in almost every class we have pulling in the mid to high 200s for sets of 5. Look around on squat day and see plenty of ladies squatting over 200 pounds. Women weighing in below 140 pounds squat close to or over 200 pounds for reps. We have women pressing 100 pounds and benching their body weight. They do strict chin-ups and dips. When those outside of WS&C read this it’s easy to imagine huge women with bulging muscles hoisting massive weights above their heads or 20 year old athletes in their prime squatting insane amounts of weight.
For those of you who have peeked in our doors, you know this could not be further from the truth. The overwhelming majority of the women at WS&C who lift huge amounts of weight are not 20 years old, they do not currently play a sport, most have a couple or more kids, are in their 30s, 40s or 50s and do not look manly or like overweight power lifters. Truth be told they look exactly as a healthy, strong woman should. They are athletic and strong; they carry themselves with confidence. They are empowered. It’s hard not to be confident when you go through your day knowing you are stronger than every person you talk to, even the men!
Nearly every woman that walks into our door for the first time has a glimmer of understanding that they need to be stronger. They understand on some level that they need to increase upper body strength, leg strength and what they usually term “core” strength. For many, I think they begin to recognize this fact as soon as they have kids. Up until that child starts running around and squirming like a squid when you try to leave the store, it’s easy to muddle through the “portable” months without a basic level of strength. Once you try to sprint down a 2 year old, sling them with one arm and carry 3 bags of groceries and a 20lb diaper bag, you quickly realize the need for greater strength. I’m pretty certain this is why about 70% of our members are women. Nevertheless, there are actually a few more reasons to get strong if you are a woman other than being able to carry your children like a sack of feed.
As a matter of fact, the most important benefits from strength training CANNOT be gained by other means. Running, biking, swimming, Body Pump, spinning, CrossFit, P90X, and Zumba cannot produce the most important adaptations for women that training with a barbell can and will produce. This is important to remember and understand. While exercise is great and I’m glad you are doing something, you must understand that if your exercise of choice does not involve progressive training with a barbell you are missing out on some pretty important adaptations to keep you functional and healthy later in life and make your daily tasks easier. Let me be clear. If you do one of the above mentioned exercise programs, I applaud you. You are moving and you are making yourself healthier. Keep it up. My hope is that this article dispels a few myths about women and strength training and allows you to gain a better understanding of the benefits of strength training.
So why is progressive loading (adding weight to a barbell as the trainee gains strength) with the major barbell movements (squats, deadlifts, presses) so important for women? And what adaptations occur during progressive loading of the squat, deadlift and press that do not happen with running, spinning, biking, Zumba, Body Pump or just about any other exercise program lacking in progressive loading of major barbell movements? There are several benefits but we will focus on two of the more important ones here (besides looking and feeling better of course, those are a given)! Increased bone mass and increased force production (strength) are of utmost importance medically AND aesthetically speaking. Lets talk about bone mass first.
I cannot think of many physical adaptations to exercise that would be more important for women than increased bone mass. Bone loss (osteopenia/osteoporosis) as you age is a pretty big problem . When your bones lose mass they become weakened and brittle causing them to break easier. We could toss up some interesting and compelling statistics but I think you all know someone near to you who has fallen and broken a hip, back, or arm later in life. You also know where the problem leads. Many times this is the event causing your grandparent or loved one to begin the discussion of long term care. At this point, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to care for themselves and continue to live independently. Here’s the thing, we can go a long way in preventing this type of situation both in the elderly and long before while we are still young. We will all begin to lose bone mass as we age. This is simply a fact of life we must face. But how we deal with it is what matters.
Think of your bone mass as your 401k of bone health. The more you have now the more you are likely to have when you are 70. Remember, we will begin losing it as we age. If you have more to lose during the normal aging process, the more you retain as you age. Now add to the fact that strength training will also slow that loss and you have a pretty good chance of maintaining healthy strong bones later in life. No broken hips in your future. So how do bones adapt favorably to strength training and why do they not with running, biking, swimming or many other exercise activities?
The body is an amazing system and adapts to all sorts of stress. The first adaptation most of us think about when we discuss strength training is to the muscular system. This is where images of Arnold pop into our head and this is enough to end the thought of squats, presses and deadlifts for most women. After all, they don’t want to look like Arnold. But the muscular adaptation is far from the only adaptation. The next in line, the skeletal system experiences some pretty radical adaptations to the same stress the muscular system adapts to. Muscles attach to bones. Muscles need those bones to produce movement. They pull at their attachments of the rigid bones and produce movement around joints. Muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones function as a system and adapt as a system to stress.
So why does weight bearing exercises produce favorable adaptations to bones and running does not? Why do you need to squat, press, and deadlift and carry heavy things to increase bone mass? We will keep this pretty simple so we do not get bogged down in the details but there are a few things about your bones’ ability to increase mass that you should know. When a bone experiences a sufficient stress, called Minimal Essential Strain (this could be bending, compression, torsion or even muscles pulling at their attachments) specialized cells called Osteoblasts are signaled to move to the surface of the bone. The Osteoblasts are responsible for producing new bone material to strengthen the bone and increase it’s Minimal Essential Strain. In essence, when you produce enough force to bend the bone slightly the body recognizes this and signals specialized cells to prevent that bending in the event the same force is experienced again. This is the skeletal system’s adaptation to stress.
How does this work in your exercise program? Let’s say you wake up one day and decide to “get in shape”. Most people will pick a day, head outside and go for a run. During that first run when your heel strikes the pavement, the bones of your lower leg and femur experience a stress and the Minimal Essential Strain is met (your body weight impacting the ground), Osteoblasts are signaled and new bone formation begins. Perfect right? Well, almost. What happens several months later when you have run three times a week getting ready for the half marathon? Still laying down new bone mass? Probably not, because your body has already adapted to that stress. It’s not going to signal Osteoblasts to produce more bone material in the absence of a greater stress. I guess you could strap on a loadable weight vest and slowly increase the load as you run but who the hell would want to do that? How about bicycling? New bone mass? How about swimming? Body Pump? Or P90X? You guessed it. These activities are limited in their ability to continue to increase the stress applied to bones to drive the formation of new bone material. You may be getting “in shape” but you are not doing much for new bone growth and remember your bone health is like a 401k. More bone mass now means more bone mass later as you begin to lose it. We are in a race to build bone mass and there must be a better way.
So what do you do to continue to produce a sufficient stress to the skeletal system to lay down as much bone mass as possible or to slow your loss of bone and decrease bone turnover? You squat, press and deadlift while progressively loading these movements over time. When you place a bar on your back, squat down and stand back up you are producing force from your feet up through both legs, through the hips, through the spine and finally delivering that force to the barbell. Nearly every biological system in the body produces a favorable adaptation to this load, including your bones. You squat today with 55 pounds on your back and you have signaled Osteoblasts to begin bone modeling. Squat next week with 60 pounds and the process continues. The beauty of the barbell is we can continue this progressive loading for a very long time. Remember those women at our gym we mentioned in the first paragraph? They started with light loads and increased the loads over a couple of years. They have been modeling new bone material for years and as they continue to get stronger, they continue to add to their bone 401k. They are doing something today that will have a lasting impact on their bodies for the rest of their life.
We all know we need stronger bones. How about increased force production? Why is being stronger so important? For most of the same reasons having bigger, stronger bones is equally important. As we age, we will continue to lose strength. The beauty of strength is that it is a persistent adaptation. It takes several years to get strong because you are modeling new tissue. Again, remember our ladies in the first paragraph. It took them two years to get as strong as they are, but it will also take them a very long time to lose this hard-earned strength. This is quite different from your cardiovascular adaptation. We all know we can get in pretty good running shape in a couple months at most. We also know that when we take a break we lose that same adaptation pretty quickly (within weeks).
The second part of the importance of building strength is its application to everyday life. Most of life is a force production sport (strength) not a cardiovascular event. Think back to the example we used of chasing your kids and picking them up in the grocery store then carrying them and three bags to the car. If you get winded doing this and mistake being “out of shape” with being weak, you would be wrong. If this is difficult for you, it’s because you are weak. Not because you are “out of shape”. When we increase your ability to produce force and make you twice as strong as you are, you will not see many (if ANY) of your daily tasks as a cardiovascular event. You will see them as strength events ALL made easier by being stronger. This may piss a lot of runners off which is not my intention, but NO ONE will care when you’re 80 what your marathon time was when you were 30. They will care if you have the ability to get up if you fall (strength), carry the groceries from the car (strength), stand up from a chair or a toilet (strength), and generally take care of yourself (strength). Remember, the more strength we build now the more we will have to draw from as we begin to lose it and the better we can slow the process of inevitable strength loss.
Of course the barbell is the best tool for gaining this strength for the same reason it works so well for gaining bone mass. We can continue to load the barbell incrementally over time. It loads the muscular system using the most amount of muscle mass over the greatest range of motion (the squat), and it’s the most efficient way to gain strength. When choosing exercises with a barbell to gain strength and bone mass always favor compound exercises that use the most muscle over the longest range of motion. This is the reason why the squat, press, and deadlift are the kings of weight bearing exercise. No other movement has the capacity to produce as much favorable adaptation to the biological system. So why are you not squatting, pressing and dead-lifting? No matter how old you are it is NEVER too late to start.
For many women (and men) these movements can be a little intimidating to learn. Add to the fact that most personal trainers and many coaches have no idea how to teach (or execute) them let alone how to program them and many women may be hesitant to include them in their program. WS&C teaches dozens of women these movements every day. If you are fortunate enough to live near a Starting Strength Gym give them a call and get started today. Here is a great resource to find a knowledgeable coach in your area. Even if you have to make a short drive to get some awesome coaching it will be well worth it in the long run.
Join us Friday for the last HIFC of the year. We will have a short workout followed by a two man themed scavenger hunt around Westminster. Find a partner, pick a theme and be the first to complete the scavenger hunt. As always bring meat for the grill, a side and BYOB for the typical HIFC party post scavenger hunt.
Starting Strength Fall Classic
Saturday, October 29th
The 2016 Starting Strength Fall Classic once again comes to Westminster Strength and Conditioning. This is the worlds only strength lift meet which uses the Press as a contested lift.
Three attempts to establish a one-rep max in the Squat, Press and Deadlift.
Not only will you get to compete against the lifters that attend your local meet, but your results will be compared with the competitors from all the other locations.
The best male and female lifter from the combined meet, calculated using the Wilks formula, will be awarded a free spot in a Starting Strength weekend seminar of their choice, a $900 value.
Look for order forms this week to get your T-shirts, tanks, and headbands. Grab an order form, write a check or drop cash and pick up your gear in a week or so. Out of town sales can send us an email and we will mail it to you.
As I write this there have been over 2.6 million views, 26 thousand shares, and 4.3 thousand comments. All in about a week. The elderly deadlifting is obviously popular. In the eyes of the general public, an elderly person strength training is clearly remarkable. However, in the eyes of a Starting Strength Coach the fact that that an elderly person can squat, press and deadlift is less than remarkable. It is less than remarkable to us because we teach EVERYONE to squat, press and deadlift. Every single person who walks into our gym will learn to strength train utilizing the basic barbell lifts or some variation to accommodate for age and injury history. We do it every day and we have helped thousands of people learn how to gain strength using a barbell. And we have very good reasons why we do it for everyone, particularly the elderly – they quite possibly need it more than anyone else.
Mrs Fox began training with us shortly after suffering from a pretty severe fall. Her face was still black and blue from the fall, and her wrist was still sore the day she started training. X-rays revealed no fractures and we began training about 10 days after the fall. As Starting Strength Coaches, we choose the basic barbell lifts (possibly modified for age and injury history) to get a person stronger as fast and safely as possible. The likely hood of a fall increases as we age due to lack of strength. Lack of balance is often mistaken for lack of strength – absent a problem with the inner ear balance is usually never the problem. The crux of the problem is simply lack of strength. To understanding this fact simply stand up on your own two feet. Stand with arms at your side, legs straight and weight on the middle of the foot. Now lean forward slightly. You will feel your calf muscles contract to prevent any more foreword lean. Now return the weight to the middle of your foot and lean backwards slightly. You will feel your quads contract to help prevent you from falling backwards. If we lack sufficient strength in these muscles, eventually enough of a loss of balance happens that the muscles lack sufficient force to return the body into balance. The body begins to fall and gravity wins. The moment we begin making you stronger we are decreasing your likelihood of a fall. There is urgency and we need to do it as efficiently as possible. The barbell accomplishes this better than anything else. You can read more about this here.
So, how does this process start for an 88 year old women who has never been in a gym? Believe it or not it is pretty simple and every Starting Strength Coach in the country can do it. Mrs Fox began practicing the Starting Strength modeled squat from a box set up just below parallel. Her first sets of squats needed some assistance to stand. Once she mastered the hip drive from the box she finished the session able to stand on her own without assistance. If you want to see true joy, teach someone who can not stand on their own without some form of assistance to get up on their own. Needless to say she was pretty excited. We then taught her to press with a 5 pound training bar. Our second session revisited the squat and we taught her to deadlift with that same training bar and 5 pound training plates. She deadlifted 15 pounds on her first day. And so it went from there. She trained every Tuesday and Thursday for several months. Slowly making progress. Slowly adding weight to the bar as she got stronger.
Today Mrs Fox can squat for sets of 5 reps while holding a 25 pound dumbbell in a goblet squat, press 27.5 pounds and as seen in the video can deadlift 88 pounds. Absolutely none of this was possible when she walked in the door. She is STRONGER today than she was at 87 years old. Increasing her ability to produce force has had a dramatic impact on her daily life. She can hang her laundry without taking breaks due to arm fatigue. She can move 50 pound bags of mulch on her own without calling a neighbor to help. She even walks to the gym. Most importantly, she has not fallen again since beginning strength training. This is why we teach 88-year-olds to squat, press and deadlift. There are simply no greater tools to increase strength than the basic barbell lifts and a skilled coach.
With over 4.3 thousand comments clearly lots of people had something to say about Mrs Fox pulling a loaded barbell from the floor. The overwhelming majority were positive. Most loved seeing her excitement when she hit a goal she had clearly been working on for quite some time. We share video like this to celebrate the trainees accomplishment and with the hope it will be the spark to drive someone else to start the journey of getting stronger. I’d be willing to bet the majority of people over 60 years old have no idea they could possibly begin strength training with a barbell to build strength and muscle mass. Seeing someone their age or older doing something you think impossible can have a powerful impact on getting them moving.
Of course not everyone sees things this way. One thing good strength coaches know, if you post a video of the elderly or a child lifting a barbell you better be prepared for the uninformed to let you know how dangerous it is. When I posted the video at 8am I had an idea it would be popular. You don’t see an 88 year-old-woman – dressed like she was out for tea with friends on her birthday – deadlifting a new personal best every day. It didn’t take long for the usual comments like “I can think of a thousand moves that are far healthier for this woman than a deadlift”, “she’s going to destroy her spine by lifting with her back like that”, and “ I can see a vertebral compression fractures any second”. Those that understand the basics of adaptation, are trained to actually coach the barbell lifts and understand the benefits of increased force production can wave off comments like this from the uninformed. The issue is that we are trying to convince the general public of the same benefits Mrs Fox has reaped from getting stronger. This is a difficult job when nearly everyone around them seems to think that strength training is dangerous. As Starting Strength Coaches we have taught thousands of people to squat, press and deadlift. An amazing thing happens when you start a person where they are capable and slowly increase the stress over time. They ALL get stronger. Every one of them. And stronger is better. Stronger makes your physical life easier. Stronger makes most of those nagging back and knee pains go away.
There is little doubt Mrs Fox has inspired many to find a strength coach and start strength training. There’s also little doubt that some of the “experts” with uninformed opinions prevented a few from every starting and that’s a shame. This stuff is too important for anyone to miss out on. While we can’t address every negative comment and concern from the uninformed public what we can do is continue to try to educate those that need to increase strength about the benefit of barbell training. I have asked several fellow Starting Stength Coaches take a look at the Facebook Post that went viral and address some of the misinformed internet experts who raised concerns over an 88 year old deadlifting. These are some of the best strength coaches in the country and arguably have more experience training the over 60 population with basic barbell strength training than anyone else.
One of the common responses to the video was “the trainers are irresponsible for having an 88 year old deadlift that much weight”. Of course if we had an 88 year old deadlift that much weight on her first day it would be irresponsible. This is obviously not what happens. Eric Shugars explains how we get to a nearly 100 pound deadlift for Mrs Fox. Eric is a Starting Strength Coach at Westminster Strength and Conditioning. He has a degree in Kinesiology and has been a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist since 2012.
The human body is an amazing machine with the ability to change to reflect the demands placed upon it. When a person is exposed to a certain stimulus (or lack thereof), the body begins the process of better preparing itself should it encounter the same situation again. This process occurs in all humans – young or old, male or female. As strength coaches we use this continuous cycle as the basis for how we construct a training program – the key for us is to determine the right type and amount of stress to elicit the change we want.
We use barbells for this because, simply put, a barbell is the most efficient tool we have for stressing your body as a system. It offers a way to load normal human movement with virtually any weight, making it possible to scale movements to anyone – from the deconditioned elderly to the professional athlete. In a movement like a deadlift the weight of the bar is carried through the arms and shoulders, down the torso, through the legs, and to the ground. Every single piece of this kinetic chain is carrying part of the stress. Muscles do the heavy lifting, but they aren’t the only things involved. Bones respond to the magnitude of the load. Tendons and ligaments grow stronger along with the muscles. Even your heart and blood vessels adapt. As the weight on the bar is increased from workout to workout, literally every part of your body adapts and becomes stronger.
What most people will miss from this video is all the work that occurred over several months to build up to 88 pounds. When someone first comes to work with any of us, they will finish their first workout by pulling a set of five deadlifts at a weight we deem appropriate for them. For an elderly client, this may be as low as just a couple pounds (at Westminster Strength and Conditioning we can use PVC pipes or bars as low as 5 kilograms with plastic bumper plates to use). For this person, that load is enough to create exactly the stimulus we want. We tell them to go home, eat well and sleep, and come back in a few days.
What many people will get wrong in this situation is a lack of progression the next time they train. If this person came in diligently over the next several weeks and lifted the exact same weight, they would never get any better than they did after that first week. After an exposure to a stimulus, the amount of stress needs to be increased the next time in order for any meaningful change to happen. You have to give your body a reason to adapt. Your body’s not going to get stronger just because you want it to.
So we add five pounds to the bar the second deadlift workout. It is not such a huge jump in weight that form erodes (in fact, you get better at deadlifting as you do it more often), but it is a slightly larger stress than your body encountered before. Your body recognizes this, and just like the last stress you recover and your body adapts. Then five more pounds are added to the bar and the process repeats itself over and over.
There were concerns raised in the comments by a few orthopedic surgeons, who reported that they had operated on a number of elderly patients like Ms. Fox who had suffered vertebral compression fractures and stress fractures from picking up far less weight than her 88 lb deadlift. The implication, of course, being that Ms. Fox was being subjected to a high degree of risk of similar fracture through her training. To answer the concerns of an orthopedic surgeon we asked Dr Austin Baraki to help us out. Dr Austin Baraki is a Starting Strength Coach and resident physician in Internal Medicine at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, Texas. He received his doctorate in Medicine from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia and his B.S. in Chemistry from The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Orthopedic surgeons often make similar claims and recommendations regarding squats being “bad for the knees,” deadlifts “bad for the back,” and presses “bad for the shoulders”. They unfortunately tend to see a very selected patient population — the already injured — resulting in a number of biases and misconceptions about the safety of resistance training. If all they see are patients with chronically painful knees, backs, and shoulders, it’s hardly surprising that they make these claims.
But consider that there exists a weight at which everyone can safely perform the basic barbell exercises without pain or injury. The job of the coach is to help the trainee find this starting weight — however light it might be — and from here take advantage of the continuous, lifelong, inevitable cycle of adaptation in response to stress. Ms. Fox did not attempt to deadlift 88 lbs on her first day — because that would be irresponsible. She gradually titrated the load upward over time, forcing her body to adapt until the 88 lb deadlift was possible to perform safely.
Consider the alternative – if she had not chosen to begin training, the lack of any meaningful stress would have resulted in a continued decline in health, strength, and bone density. This would certainly predispose her to falls, fractures, and ultimately landed her on the orthopedic surgeon’s operating table.
Instead of ending up under the knife — get yourself under a bar.
Probably one of the most common criticisms of the video was the form used for the deadlift. Many people felt Mrs Fox was deadlifting using her back and she would certainly hurt herself if we didn’t teach her the proper way to “lift with her legs”. This is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but nobody really knows what it means. For this we asked Starting Strength Coach CJ Gotcher to explain why the deadlift is a back exercise and why she used the form she used in the video to deadlift. CJ is a barbell strength and conditioning coach with a passion for general health, high school athletes, and military preparation/selection. CJ completed 6 years as an active duty Naval Officer and is currently in the reserves, coaching out of north San Diego County, CA.
“Don’t lift with the back”
We’ve all heard this well-meaning advice since we were young. As the story goes, you should pick everything up by bending your knees and squatting down, keeping the back as upright as possible. Several commenters cautiously wagged their fingers at Mrs. Fox’s coach, saying that having her lift with a horizontal back is dangerous.
Quite the opposite, actually. As a Starting Strength Coach, Beau has her lift that way for several reasons:
1) It places the bar over the middle of the foot, so Mrs. Fox doesn’t have to do any extra work to lift the weight.
2) It places her shoulders just forward of the bar so that her lats can assist both in lifting the weight and maintaining a healthy curve in the lower spine.
3) Her limb proportions require it. She has long legs, specifically long femurs (thigh bones), which means she’s going to be more horizontal than others might be in order to make the previous two points happen, an individual difference that must be accounted for.
I don’t use the word “require” lightly, either. When picking something up off the floor, you can really only “squat” a relatively light weight. As the object gets heavier and the legs alone are insufficient to pull the bar up from its inefficient position forward of the midfoot, the lifter has no choice but to lean farther forward, pull the knees back, pull the weight into the shin, and drive the weight up from what we call the standard pulling position. This happens every time a truly heavy deadlift is pulled from a vertical-back ‘squat’ start without exception.
Trying to start Mrs. Fox from a knees-bent upright position leaves her with three options:
1) She could hold her form with a weight so light that she’s unlikely to adapt from it.
2) She could use a heavier weight and pull until she comes to a jolting stop at the position that she should have been in from the beginning. Like slamming the gas pedal on a tow truck while there’s still slack in the connecting chain, something will give in this situation, and it won’t be pretty.
3) She could use a deadlift variant, like a ‘trap bar,’ which allows her to place the bar wherever she wants in relation to her body, allowing her to squat-deadlift as much as her strength will allow. This is many coach’s first choice, but it misses the mark. The fact that the back muscles must work to keep the spine rigid in the deadlift is not a problem. It’s the point. We are using the deadlift to train the muscles of the back progressively, under controlled and balanced conditions, to build excess capacity in a task of daily life: picking an object up off the floor.
Mrs. Fox’s position may look wrong or seem counterintuitive, especially to people who haven’t trained for strength, analyzed the biomechanics of the deadlift, and coached thousands of lifters. Beau has. On top of that, like any good coach, he knows Mrs. Fox, her anthropometry, prior injuries, and training history, and combined with his extensive knowledge as a Starting Strength Coach, is in a better position to help Mrs. Fox reach her goals than internet worrywarts.
Lastly, some may ask why we address these comments at all? For this I asked DR Jonathon Sullivan to explain why uninformed comments not only annoy us, but cause more problems than people imagine. Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, is focused on the use of strength training in middle-aged and elderly populations as a way to improve function and fight the diseases of aging: sarcopenia, osteopenia and metabolic syndrome. His coaching practice, Grey Steel Strength and Conditioning, is located in Farmington, Michigan.
THE UBOA: A BARRIER TO THE BARBELL EXERCISE PRESCRIPTION
When we as coaches post images or videos of our older clients working under the bar, most comments are supportive and positive. This is useful, because every positive example and display of support makes it easier to get this training to people who need it.
And that’s important. Barbell training is big medicine for the aging adult, and meets every criterion for an exercise prescription. It is incredibly safe, because it recapitulates normal human movement patterns through a natural range of motion, on stable surfaces, at precisely managed loads, without unpredictable or violent forces, impacts, or joint moments. Barbell training is subject to exquisite dosing and therefore has a wide therapeutic window. It addresses a broad range of fitness components: strength, power, endurance, mobility, balance, and body composition. Barbell training for strength directly attacks dysfunctional aging processes: It improves insulin sensitivity, fights the metabolic syndrome, increases muscle and bone mass, promotes better metabolic and cardiovascular health, reverses the loss of powerful Type II muscle fibers, and even appears to retard cognitive decline. And barbell training is simple—just a few exercises, two or three times a week, will make aging adults stronger and healthier. No other exercise formulation comes close for this combination of safety, simplicity, effectiveness, and specificity for beneficial effect in aging.
But there are many barriers to the delivery of this powerful medicine to the people who need it the most. The most important barriers are misunderstanding, misinformation, and fear. It is frankly unusual to see an octagenarian doing a deadlift, and unusual things can provoke cognitive dissonance, anxiety, or fear. Seeing an elderly lady pulling, pressing or squatting a heavy weight may not comport with your world view…yet. You didn’t know such things happened, and weren’t aware of the benefits, safety, and growing implementation of this approach.
When confronted by such unfamiliar images and concepts, most people, again, respond intelligently and constructively. Some merely offer their support. Some ask questions and begin to learn about the new phenomenon. A few will dig deep, explore, and even try it out for themselves.
But some people simply react, without thinking, without questioning, without learning. They see unfamiliar images of seniors lifting heavy weights as an opportunity to bloviate, to spew out dire warnings of broken backs and heart attacks, to make unsolicited and uninformed technical critiques, or to call into question the motivations, competence, or judgement of the coach or athlete.
These are the behaviors of the UBOA: the Uninformed-But-Opinionated Asshat.
The UBOA is one of most pernicious and widespread vectors for misinformation about training for seniors. The natural habitat of this viper is the internet, an ecosystem rich in misinformation but lacking in critical thinking, hard data, practical experience and analysis—the UBOAs natural enemies. The UBOA is thus a sort of apex predator. Like most boas, he functions at a reptilian level. His postings are thoughtless and ill-considered, not based on experience, expertise, analysis, or concern for others, but rather more along the lines of a primitive mating or dominance display. His primary objective is to be seen and heard, to direct the focus of conversation toward himself, and to attack a phenomenon that challenges his ossified view of reality, so that he doesn’t have to shed old ideas.
This is not to say that any contrary view expressed on the internet is that of a UBOA. Disagreement and dialectic are critical and constructive. But the UBOA is venomous to critical discussion and thoughtful debate.
Fortunately, this species can be identified easily by his natural markings and habits.
The UBOA’s comments are mere assertions. They are never backed up by data. They flow not from expertise or experience, but rather from conventional wisdom, ideology, anecdote, and his own visceral reactions to the material. His postings are reactionary or even hysterical, couched in dire warnings of impending doom, invariably taking the shape of some medical or orthopedic catastrophe he has never diagnosed, witnessed, or even understood. For the UBOA, the strange image of an elderly person lifting heavy weights is unfamiliar and therefore dangerous and, even worse, it’s not about him. Any potential benefit must be impeached, any potential interest must be attacked, and any potential danger, however insignificant, improbable or imaginary, must be highlighted. It will only end in heartbreak, he tells us. “I knew this guy once…”
The UBOA helps to perpetuate longstanding mythologies and misconceptions that make it harder to deliver a valuable form of exercise medicine to those who need it the most. Eradication of this pest is probably impossible, but pest control is not, and it begins at home with the simple question: Are you a UBOA?
When you are shocked by a picture or video of an old lady or old man lifting heavy weights, and feel compelled to post your outrage or warning or diapproval, ask yourself these questions:
Do you even lift? If you have never trained the deadlift, squat, or press, have never followed a dedicated strength training program with progressive overload to get stronger, or did once upon a time but stopped long ago, then you are uninformed.
Are you familiar with the literature on the subject? If you haven’t been exposed to the extensive peer-reviewed literature on strength training for older adults, which documents the profound safety and benefit of this form of exercise medicine, then you are uninformed.
Have you ever trained seniors? Have you spent any time in the gym teaching older adults how to perform the exercises? Have you ever designed or executed a strength training program for an older adult and used it productively, to make a senior stronger and healthier? Have you ever had to deal with the unique challenges and opportunities presented by this kind of work? Are you familiar with the concepts of volume-sensitivity and intensity-dependence? Have you ever heard of a 3-in-2 or Heavy-Light-Medium program? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you are uninformed.
It’s important to note here that it’s okay to be uninformed. Being uninformed is not a sin. It’s an opportunity to get informed, to learn, to grow.
But if, after looking at the list above, you must conclude that you are uninformed, then how are you possibly entitled, intellectually or ethically, to post an opinion on the matter, especially if that opinion is negative and might be discouraging, misleading, or frightening to the elderly man or woman who screwed up the courage to get under a bar and get strong—or the one who’s thinking about it? The answer, of course, is that you aren’t entitled to such an opinion.
Of course, if you want to post your uninformed opinion anyway, you’re free to do so. And that, dear reader, would be the behavior of an asshat. That would make you a UBOA. And if you want to be a UBOA, well, we can’t stop you. We just have to clean up your mess while you slither on to your next meal. But don’t be surprised or outraged when we call you on it. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, and you talk about it anyway, and make it harder to deliver the barbell prescription to the people who need it–we’re going to tread on you. This work is important, and you’ve been in our way long enough.