27 Oct 2017

Starting Out Strength Training

That’s me in the photo lifting a weight. Something I have never ever done before. Not seriously anyway. A long time ago I did try to do a dead lift, once. But, at age 48, I’ve only now started to give lifting weights a serious consideration. I can't believe I've left it until now to do it! In this article, I report on how I found my first session...

I used to hate the topic of strength and conditioning. I avoided it like the plague. Whenever it was discussed online, I would skip past the threads. I simply wasn’t interested. In my head, jiu jitsu training was all that I needed. I truly believed (and still do to some extent) the Gracie family pitch that jiu-jitsu was designed to allow the smaller weaker (trained) person to defeat the bigger stronger (untrained) person. I believed that mastery of leverage was all that I needed.

So why the sudden interest?

Small people. That’s right, the inspiration came from other small people who train BJJ and lift. In the past, if I ever got dominated by someone bigger and heavier it was easy for me to justify it by simply saying they were bigger. But when guys who were my size were able to dominate me, I began to take notice.

Rolling with folk who use good technique fueled by appropriate use of power and strength was eye opening. I took note. Yet I still did not do much about it. But a series of niggling injuries got me thinking. Techniques that I had previously used without problem were now starting to let me down. Sometimes it was because I applied the technique poorly but other times it was because my body just wasn’t capable and resulted in me tweaking a joint here, injuring a muscle there, etc. After years and years of jiu jitsu training without anything else to assist me, I concluded that my body was getting weak. If I carried on like this, I feared my BJJ would decline. Sure, I’m not expecting to roll like a twenty year old, but I needed to do something if I was to remain an active practitioner in my 50’s, 60’s and beyond.

So guess what? All those online articles, forum threads, magazine pieces that talked about S&C and BJJ that I had ignored in the past? I started reading them. It was a bit overwhelming. The s&c community is full of loud voices, all of them ‘experts’ and all suggesting different things. Filtering through all the noise however, the same thing kept cropping up again and again: barbells.

Who knew, in this age of ingenuous technological advances, a big long chunk of iron and some heavy plates offered to do more for me than any fancy gadget or so-called revolutionary piece of equipment? Then again, I'm a complete newbie, what did I know?

Battle ropes, these are horrible horrible!

The Gym
Like many nervous gym newbies, I was hesitant to start weight training because (a) I have no idea how to use the equipment properly, (b) I’m a bit daunted by the gigantic muscly people there and (c) I feared they would laugh at me lifting tiny, tiny weights.

Other concerns I had were that I didn’t have time to commit to a program. Already it was easy to see how negative thoughts manifested themselves so readily. The world is already full of people who talk about doing stuff, but never actually doing them. Not me…

Luckily I trained BJJ with a chap who worked as a private trainer at a gym local to me. He’s also small, like me, and one of the guys I alluded to above who combined his jiu jitsu technique and strength really well.

The Farm is an outdoor strength and fitness gym located on Barnet Way in Elstree, Herts. Users of shiny high street branded gyms, with their immaculate floors and endless rows of articulating machinery may balk at first sight of The Farm. It’s very raw. It’s very outdoorsy. It smells of farmyard smell. It is stuffed full of strange objects, the kind of things you only see on World’s Strongest Man programs on the TV. No one wears lycra. But hell, you can literally throw your weights onto the ground HARD and no one will tell you off, you can apply cakefuls of chalk for your grips and no one will tell you off, you can roar at top volume as you try to push harder and no one cares, you can climb and jump and hammer and punch, run and do all the things you did when you were 6 years old in the playground when you thought you were the Hulk. The Farm looks like a place to get HULK work done.

First timer 
The first exercise we did was the barbell squat. John instructed me how to place the bar (minus any plates) behind my head and lean slightly forward. I didn't enjoy feeling the weight dig into my lowest neck bone, I complained. Yeah you get used to that, said John. Oh, I thought maybe it wasn’t going to be so straightforward. Anyway, after a bit of adjustment, I squatted and my first set of ten were sort of ok, until I was informed that I was squatting too deeply and I was standing too vertically. We did three more sets, each with a little bit more weight added. I think I managed to lift 30kg by the end, but it was very tiring.

Experienced lifters will now snigger at this ridiculously light load. We all have to begin somewhere. At least I had progressed from just the bare 20 kilo bar alone. When we completed the squats, my whole body felt like they were lifting upwards, lighter than air.

Next exercise was the standing row. Being such a newbie, I had never seen this exercise before. It’s not one of the ones you often see in gym selfies. I guess because it looks slightly silly being bent forward and sticking your bum far out. But by golly was this one tough. Pulling my elbows back as I was told, as if a string was pulling them, was tough to complete three sets of ten reps. I’m not sure I even managed to finish the last set. John didn’t add more weights, the bar was at 30Kg and remained so. I also wasn’t bending forward enough, nor was I squeezing the muscles behind my shoulder blades. This was way more technical than I thought. I think I feared that bending forward while lifting a weight would injure my back, but after performing the exercise I realise now this was not the case. If anything, it was one of the exercises that would add strength to my back. Subsequent sessions with John saw my technique improve as well as the weight load increasing.

Next, the bench press. Now here’s one that was familiar to me as it seems to be the archetypal exercise of the lifting scene. We started with the unloaded bar, getting my position and technique correct. Lying on a bench, without any actual weight, this would be easier surely I thought? Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t as straightforward as I had expected. The bar weight wasn’t the issue, it was the fact that my lifts were wobbling all over the place. I also had a tendency to drop it too low nearly touching my chest and at the high point, I wasn’t lifting straight up as vertically as I could. My elbows were also flaring wide out, which John advised would cause shoulder problems later on so I had to keep my elbows in tighter. A few more sets of 10 ensued with a bit more weight. I think the final load was 30Kg but I wasn’t counting, I was so focused on trying to lift it properly, there was a lot to concentrate on.

Standing overhead press next. Man, this one sucked big time. I literally have no strength capability to lift even a tiny weight directly over by body. It’s like trying to do a pushup from a handstand position (which obviously I can’t do either). I think the issue with this exercise is that at no time in my life have I ever been required to lift something directly over my standing body. Ok maybe a couple times I lifted my kids up for fun but that’s when they were small. I suppose if I worked on a farm and lifting hay bales or sacks of grain? Anyway, I couldn’t even finish three sets of 10 with the unloaded 20Kg bar. I felt pathetic and weak but John as always was super encouraging and explained that this was absolutely fine, it would soon get better. Yet several sessions later I’m still unable to complete my three sets of ten. There was talk of using an even lighter bar. Oh the shame.

After the dismal failure of the overheads John then presented me with a couple of dumbells. I can’t remember what weight they were but they looked tiny. They literally looked like two oversized peanuts. These would be so easy, he’s being too kind to me I thought. So I did a set of strict curls. No problem, yay I didn’t suck at something! I confidently commanded John to bring over heavier ones. He hesitated but did as I wanted and handed me chunkier more impressive looking slabs of iron. Shit, big mistake. I barely finished my set. After a bit of rest, John told me I had to finish the third set, but that I would do it with the original lighter weights. I agreed but it was bad news, my arms were gone, I couldn’t finish the set with these lighter weights. I had learned a valuable lesson!

We finished off the session with tricep dips on the parallel bars, but, ahem, I couldn't do them lol so instead I did easier dips by leaning against a tractor tyre. Then I had to do stomach crunches – as many as I could within a set period of time. I have no idea how long, by now, my mind and body was in a weird place.

After a cool down jog and stretch we talked about the session. I had lifted yay! I had used muscles never before used. My entire body, flushed with post workout blood and hormones, felt incredible. I was buzzing. John predicted my arms would be really aching two days later. He was correct, boy how they ached. But I didn’t care, I couldn’t stop thinking about weights – technique, load, exercises, anatomy, muscles, size, etc. I had so much to improve on, it was a laughable start but start I did.

Concluding thoughts
In some ways I’m glad I have begun lifting in my late 40’s. I’m unconcerned by the vanity of trying to look big and muscle-bound. I simply want to become functionally stronger and protect my body so that I can continue to train BJJ as I get older. And I do feel it is working exactly as intended and more! My body feels stronger, especially my back. Through years of slouching, sitting at my office for hours and house, inverting in BJJ and getting stacked, my poorly back had become a bit of a nemesis. But I feel lifting has literally lifted me into better posture and the muscles seem to hold my skeleton more firmly. I'm not suggesting it is a cure of chronic back pain, but my back doesn't feel as sore and weak as it used to be.

Me with John my trainer, small but strong!

Other things I've noticed after a month or so of training. My chest muscles feel tauter, a little bit bigger, more powerful, so are my shoulders, biceps and triceps. I definitely still look skinny and small on the outside, but inside I feel much stronger. The squats especially, while not necessarily being one of those vanity exercises that provides me with visible bulk, I have noticed have granted me a source of internal power. It is a little bit like gaining a superhero power. Crucially, under the guidance of John my PT, I haven't done anything stupid and injured myself or developed bad habits. I also enjoy the fact that the rationale behind lifting is quantifiable and measurable – lift this set and do it for this period and you get this much stronger etc.  There is no mystique or pseudobabble surrounding strength training, it’s very straight forward, unlike a lot of martial arts and certain fitness pursuits I could mention.

So how has the strength training affected my BJJ? 
Good and poor. If I go training the day after lifting, I am still too sore and the muscles fatigued to feel any benefit, in fact my rolling suffers. But leave it an extra day and during that training session my body feels much more robust and I can chain transitions and techniques together with greater confidence. The tiny little bit of added power I now possess I can utilize by making the most of the good positions I’m in, and if I’m in a bad position, I know I have a bit of extra reserve to resist submission attempts.

Strength training has given me an added boost that allows me to make the most of the BJJ skills I already possess. It doesn’t replace or add new BJJ skills, obviously.

I’m going to keep up my strength and conditioning sessions. Some people think hiring a PT to be an unnecessary expense while other people I know hire a trainer several times a week. It’s not cheap but not expensive, I know it has already yielded a large amount of physical benefit for me. Plus there are so many cool strength training toys to play with at The Farm - I've already been using battle ropes and flipping gigantic tractor tyres over, but I haven’t even touched a kettlebell yet, nor the beer kegs or Atlas balls, rings, climbing frame, rope climbing and numerous other bits of equipment they have. Stay tuned for updates further on down the line as I try to get stronger and fitter.


About the Author


Author & Artist

Meerkatsu is the artist name for BJJ black belt Seymour Yang.


Tom said...

Awesome. You might get me int he gym at 42.


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