SAN FRANCISCO — I’M no scientist, but I sure like reading about science. I’m always looking through newspapers for the latest research aboutsaturated fat and whether it’s still bad for you, or if maybe sugar is poison.
So when I found myself 40, fat and weak, I paid special attention to exercisescience articles, in the hopes of getting strong. I found stories about cutting-edge studies that claimed you should do intense, brief workouts instead of long ones.
I hired personal trainers certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine in a training methodology “founded on scientific, evidence-based research.” They taught me to avoid cave man barbell lifts like squats in favor of tricky new exercises on wobble boards and big inflatable balls to stimulate my body’s core.
I learned about the science of muscle confusion — central to infomercial workouts like P90X, from beachbody.com. It’s a little hard to understand, but the idea seems to be that you change routines constantly, so that your muscles continue to adapt.
I had fun doing these workouts. Sometimes, when I stood naked in front of the mirror, I thought I looked better. Mostly, though, I looked the same. I mentioned this to an excellent trainer named Callum Weeks, in San Francisco. Mr. Weeks suggested that I focus on one aspect of fitness for a while, maybe strength. So I poked around Amazon and found “Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training,” written by Mark Rippetoe, a gym owner in Wichita Falls, Tex.
The program sounded like an unscientific joke. It called for exactly three workouts per week, built around five old-fashioned lifts: the squat, dead lift, power clean, bench press and standing press. But the black-and-white photographs were so poorly shot, and the people in them were so clearly not fitness models, that it seemed legit.
The book came in the mail and then I went to the gym and, per Mr. Rippetoe’s instructions, did three sets of five reps in the squat, dead lift and standing press. Then I went home and drank milk. Two days later, I did three sets of five in the squat and the bench press. I repeated this basic pattern, alternating the dead lift with the power clean, for a year, adding a little more weight to the bar in every lift, during every session.
Now for the astonishing part: It worked. I was able to lift a tiny bit more every single time, like magic — or, rather, like Milo of Croton, the ancient Greek wrestler who is said to have lifted a newborn calf and then lifted it every day thereafter, as it grew, until Milo carried a full-grown bull. In my own case, I eventually squatted 285 pounds, dead-lifted 335 and bench-pressed 235. Those numbers will not impress strength coaches — I weighed 215, after all — but they were a marvel to me.
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