How to program your body to become strong & resilient

In the early 90’s I worked with a colleague who had a track background as a pole vaulter. Doug subsequently became a fitness professional and athletic coach. He had a philosophy about fitness that was characterized by a simple notion:

“Weight training is the paycheck and cardio is the bonus”.

I have thought about this issue often since I met Doug and as I have grown older I believe he was right. I am now training as hard – or harder – than I ever have before to ensure I enter my 70’s with as little loss of lean muscle mass, and as much strength and power as I can create. This article will highlight the importance of weight or resistance training, give you some valuable ideas on how you might implement a program, and finally share ideas with you that can protect and preserve your body for the “long haul”.  

What is resistance training?

Resistance training is characterized by working a muscle group to fatigue or failure under a prescribed “load”. This load can be an actual weight or your own body weight. Any “load bearing” movement that includes multiple muscle groups is called a compound movement such as a walking lunge with an overhead press with dumbbells.

Why is resistance training important?

Because we are sitting for the greatest portion of our days and not stressing our bones, we are losing bone mass as well leading to osteopenia, the forerunner of osteoporosis, and this will ultimately lead to serious bone density decline. The issue of frailty and imbalance is becoming more and more pronounced in our population and will only accelerate if we don’t change our sedentary behaviours. Identifying the issues related to loss of muscle mass and bone mass is relatively simple and can be done through clinical testing.

Women have the highest potential to start this chronic loss because they have different hormonal issues as we age – less testosterone and smaller bones for example – which creates an earlier onset of disease. Fractures and other related problems can happen in an instant if the loss is not addressed in a timely manner and medication can help along with changes in lifestyle and diet. However, the real solution lies in weight bearing exercise where stresses are applied to the muscles and skeletal structure intentionally – and safely. Men are not immune from developing these conditions – they just start later in life due to larger and heavier frames and greater weight.

Beginning a weight training program – free weights, machines, and other load bearing exercises such as body weight exercises – earlier in life is the easiest and best way to prevent the decline and decay of tissues. I will share my program for you as an example of types of exercises that help the most in preserving and protecting our muscles and bones from further loss or damage and injury.

The resistance training program0032

The idea is to do a multiple set (8-12 repetitions/ 2-3 sets to start) program that targets all the major muscle groups: back, chest, shoulders, arms, abdominals, and legs (calf, quad, hamstring) while “loading” the muscle and joint appropriately to stimulate fiber growth. Fiber growth occurs over time when a muscle is exposed to a load that forces a larger than normal contraction. One contraction is the shortening of the muscle (positive or concentric) and the other is the opposite force of lengthening the muscle (negative or eccentric). This movement is accomplished across a joint and creates the change we seek in terms of strength and size.

Each movement is done in a rhythmic and controlled manner that gives the muscle an opportunity to move through a “complete range of motion”. This constitutes “one rep” and applies the stimulus necessary for a muscle to be stimulated to grow following the session during what is called the “recovery phase”. Each time we increase the load we enable the muscle to grow and become stronger because the stimulus changes the nature of contractions making the movement more difficult but insuring that it becomes stronger in the process.

We are not really sure about why this works the way it does but the theory is that by “tearing the muscle” microscopically we create a muscle that is stronger, more adaptable, and able to withstand greater loads going forward. This is referred to as “progressive resistance training” because it is designed as a controlled process with its defined purpose of increasing lean mass.

By programming more than one set, we ensure that the muscle has to deal with “variable loads” and has to adapt to these increased loads thereby making it able to withstand more of life’s rigors. The theory of doing 2-3 sets initially is that, regardless of the weight used – light and smaller to heavier and larger – is that ALL muscles react in the same way to each stimulus – they grow in strength – but NOT necessarily in size. You don’t have to fear getting “muscle bound” by lifting weights. That takes a concentrated and persistent effort – with a significant caloric intake to help repair the body – as all body builders know. Most of us will never be in that category – and I am certainly not!

Program Design: The Schedule

Designing a program that addresses the needs of the body as it ages is relatively simple and yet very challenging to implement. The reason is that you will initially experience some muscle soreness that you might find uncomfortable but this is just the body’s way of recovering from the session (you should never experience pain as that is not normal – don’t believe in “the no pain – no gain” theory – that is just wrong!). 48-72 hours of recovery time is generally advised so that you can allow the muscle to heal itself. In between, you can then initiate a cardio program of swimming, cycling, walking or some other form of movement that allows you the opportunity to encourage this process to become more of a habit – and train your heart to support your effort (my favorite organ – other than the brain of course).

I believe in a 3-5 day opening schedule of activity that encompasses some cardio and some weight training. Each session can be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending upon your willingness to include a warm up and cool down phase, which I highly recommend. Cardio activities include an extended activity (continuous movement) over time, and includes a warmup, training and then cool down phase. You can include an abbreviated walk on the treadmill or outside and then do your weight training program with a brief cool down to finish the session.

Exercises & Muscle Groups

  1. Chest – (examples) chest press with dumbbells, barbell, wall pushups, modified floor pushups (knees on the floor) or wall pushups at an angle.
  2. Back – (examples) seated row, pulldown – bar, low back extension, rubber tube chest extension, dumbbell reverse butterfly – standing with weights at chest level and extend backward.
  3. Arms – dumbbell curls, triceps extension with dumbbell, reverse pushup off bench.
  4. Legs – Wall slide, traditional standing squat, standing from seated position, leg press, calf extension (stairs), and standing lunges.
  5. Abdominal – crunches – lying on your back, knees bent – raise shoulders off the floor and repeat. Exhale on shortening and inhale on lengthening.
  6. Shoulders – shoulder press with dumbbells, front and side raise with dumbbells

My program

I do 16 main exercises twice a week: bench press (barbell); incline upright row (back); shoulder press, incline/decline press (chest); incline-lateral low row (back); seated triceps extension; arm curl; latissimus pull (back); pullover – chair (shoulder/back); seated leg press and calf extension; lateral raise (shoulder); low back extension; seated abdominal crunch with 65 pounds; hanging dips – upper body, and seated cable row.

Each of these exercises is performed in multiple sets with many repetitions and a variety of loads and at varying speeds to not only encourage growth of my muscles but also to help my body maintain speed. Each muscle group consists of type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers. Type 1 fibers are used for longer endurance activities while the type 2 fibers are for quick explosive movements such as sprinting and power activity (jumping out of the way of a car for instance).

The reason I train my muscles against variable loads – climbing (the ladder) and descending – is to insure I give each fiber a chance to be engaged and give them the opportunity to become stronger.  I do my program twice a week – on Monday and Thursday – to ensure I recover sufficiently and allow the muscles time to repair themselves.

I am also cognizant of the reality that regardless of how hard – or well – I train, the odds are not in my favor for remaining this way due to the aging process. I am, however, “cutting the odds in my favor” by doing all I can to stay fast and strong. I am convinced that weight training is the key to my future and that I will be able to maintain my potential for running fast through my continued commitment to remaining strong. It is as Doug said more than two decades ago – “weight training is the paycheck and cardio is the bonus” but I am so glad I have been running all these years as well!

Coach Nick’s Tips

  1. Do find the resolve to begin – and continue – a weight training program: schedule at least three days a week for a concentrated effort at building and maintaining your lean muscle mass – and joint integrity. Remember, we start losing 2-5% of our lean muscle mass starting in our 20’s – and bone mass as well – unless we do the work to prevent – and slow – the process.
  2. Take time to build your cardio capacity through a commitment to your heart: cardiovascular fitness is what makes it possible for us to do weight training.
  3. Take your body seriously and examine how you feel about it: getting mentally strong through accomplishing your goals is a very important way to stay on track and feel good about yourself.
  4. Commitment and discipline should be founded on purposeful activity: this will ultimately lead you to getting lean and being able to burn more calories every day.
  5. Take your fitness needs very seriously and yet find ways to make them fun: “Every act we take is its own reward” – Earl Nightingale
  6. Make sure you get the right running shoes. Read more here 

When you see how fast your body will change with weight training (within 30 days you will see results) it will excite and encourage you to do more and finally realize the dream of a healthy, lean, strong, and fit body.

You can also read my tips on establishing your fitness program and on fitness readiness assessment. If I can help you with any fitness questions, leave a message in the box at the bottom of this page and I’ll get back to you.