I promised you, Dear Reader, I’d avoid my boring posts about exercise, now strength training, but I can’t resist. Bear with the dull part for perhaps something more interesting.
Today I finished my 14th recorded gym day for my 32nd day of using a gym, rather than my exercise machines at home. So here are a few results:
Of my seven upper body (mostly arms) strength exercises I do at the gym these are my averages, per day, of each type of exercise. I won’t detail which machines are which but it’s interesting to see the range (over 2:1) of my “weakest” to my “strongest”. But is there any progress?
So the graph above shows my total amount of iron move, in the seven upper body machines. The total, not clear how impressive it is, has clearly grown, but the interesting thing is how much it’s growing per day, as per the regression line. Now in strength training I deliberately skip days so the graph above is elapsed days, not days of doing workouts, so I’ve been gaining 241 lbs/day (now 14,460 lbs). But is this any improvement? Especially as I’ve altered my routine a bit (now trying to do “maximum” for a few reps + “manageable” for a larger number of reps (and multiple sets)). So this might be the money graph:
Discounting for number of reps plus ignoring that I can move more iron in some machines than others I have been able to increase my weight per rep (given varying number of sets and reps/set, plus different machines) by 0.6lbs/rep/day. You could say that’s how much I’m improving (given I’m not trying to “cook the books” by just doing a few more of my strongest exercises). In fact, the low point on the graph, by time, is a deliberate change of routine to try, as experiment, today to do more reps at lower weights.
Now in fact I have been increasing my reps (total per day) a bit, but that’s not my goal, which is more to increase weight (per exercise per day), so I include this chart to show I’m not “cheating” (much) by just doing a bit more of my strongest exercise (“cooking the books”, corporate America’s favorite trick, but if you’re telling yourself the “truth”, not a good idea just to artificially inflate the numbers):
So the real thing is to increase weight/rep, not total weight by just increasing reps; but doing more reps has some benefit so it’s really both to consider.
OK, enough of the boring statistics. You might ask why I even bother with all this. And my answer would be if you don’t measure raw data and also analyze it you really don’t know whether you’re improving or not. And improving is what it is all about.
Until that is, you reach some plateau.
No trend, about anything goes up (or down, like weight) forever. You reach some point where further improvement is either much slower or even hard to have any improvement, i.e. you’ve hit your limit. Starting from nothing (i.e. never going to gym or doing strength training (per se, since I’ve done other things that do increase strength) is easy, but sooner or later your “progress” slows down. But where? And why?
I don’t have much historical data to consider but I know when I was rowing crew in college at age 20 I was a lot stronger than I am now. And, today, after first doing lots of leg (and cardio) exercise, and now lately strength exercise, I’m ahead of where I was, say 5 years ago, when I was working and paying no attention to any of this.
But the years and age take their toll. Our bodies do wear out. Sure, by exercise, esp. really “training”, not just casual exercise, we can kick our bodies into higher physical performance. But how much? Do we have limits? If I go to the gym every day and really dedicate myself will I ever look like Arnold Schwarzenegger? Do I really want to? Is that my “fitness” goal.
Despite all these posts about boring exercise stuff I’m not a jock. In fact, you could easily say I’m just the opposite. For many years of my youth I had no clue what exercise (or fitness) was. I didn’t really even being to consider this, for myself, until I moved from Texas to Montana, in my teens. Bored with nothing to do and living in a radically different place (my home in Texas was almost completely flat, my home in Montana was at the edge of a cliff, the “bluffs” of the Yellowstone Valley in Billings, Montana). So for the first time in my life, there in Billings, I began to “exercise”, yes, totally undisciplined (no clue how to exercise) but at least doing what I could.
But it wasn’t until MIT that I ever did anything “athletic”. I got recruited (rather vigorously) to row crew, which I’d never even heard about. I was picked because I’d gone through a teenage growth spurt, from chubby kid, to lanky tall and skinny kid, perfect for lightweight crew (believe I know about the difference, once I rowed in a race against the US Olympic crew team and seeing them semi-naked for the weigh-in (vs me) showed me my place, nothing in absolute strength terms). But the real thing I learned in doing crew (starting from zero, as all my other teammates at MIT, who’d never done this before) was how to train, how to start from nothing and learn how to improve in a sport, in fitness.
From that, an enduring life lesson, I have some idea what to do now.
I can’t recall (accurately) but at one point we went through some tests to measure the strength of various muscles (in some torture chamber type machines to test a specific muscles’s strength). IIRC (and it’s a very vague memory) I believe I could do over 300lbs of force with my legs, at 20. Today, at the gym, I did 120lbs and probably could do just a little more if I really forced myself to see what my maximum is. IOW, today at nearly 70 my strength is less than half of what it was at 20. But then, I did that test after several years of rowing, probably 200 days/year. And I haven’t done anything like that in 50 years, since just starting this gym.
And so what should I expect?
Can I today, with maximum workouts, achieve 50%, 75%, 100%, 150% of what I could do at 20? What should be my goal, what is reasonable. Come on, as we age we are just not as strong as we were when we were young. But if we really apply ourselves (something learned with age) can we do better, as well, almost as well as when our youthful bodies made this stuff “easy”?
I did a “tinman” (less than half the “ironman”) triathlon when I was just 40. That took over a year of training, especially learning to swim (which was a fear thing for me). Can I, at 70, do something at least as good as when I was 40?
I think all this is very important. A person can’t be unrealistic, age wears us down. But how good can we be, at any age, if we really try.
I’m very fortunate, at my age. Nothing is broken. I may be weaker but I have no health/fitness factor to stop me, even at this age. Sure, it’s unlikely I can do what I do at 20 or even 40, but how much can I do. It’s not been very long I’ve been doing this gym thing (sorta a first, I did a little bit of this stuff during crew). So what can I do? What should I expect? What is my goal?
So I guess I’ll just have to find out. Given I have more “skill” at training than I had when I was 15 (and my first attempt at any exercise) or 20 (when I had a coach) or 40 (when I had the motivation to feel like I wasn’t falling apart) can I now, at 70, do as well as my past “bests”. Or are those gone? And if so, what is a reasonable goal, 70% of my youth, 90%, maybe even 110% if I concentrate on something I never did in my youth.
I know I’m getting near some kind of plateau, where much more improvement isn’t likely. Starting from nearly nothing obviously my progress can be fairly fast, but where does it go from here?
And perhaps most importantly, why? What difference does it make to me, personally, how much weight I can move on a particular machine? I’ll never been as good, even perhaps if I were 20, as the real monster muscle builder types. But what should I expect for me? What is my limit? At any age, now especially at my current age?
Well, we’ll see, won’t we. Where does this journey end? Where is my “peak” now? And why do I care?
I care because I’m not ready, yet, to be old and feeble. There are still things I can do. I’m a latecomer, as a kid, to fitness. But now I understand it better, intellectually, than I did then. Before we turn into an old blob where we have no choice but to accept our physical decline (inevitable for all us, sometime) what can we achieve, each day, at each point in our life. And why?
Physically fitness is good for us. I never understood that. But even if you’re just on vacation walking around some city, viewing the sites, your fitness matters. If you’re out in Wyoming and wanting to walk a trail to a summit, it matters. But even if you’re just interesting in strolling a farmer’s market, without getting exhausted, it matters. Our bodies do wear out, that’s just a fact, but we have some control over how much that happens, and when. And during the time we have those choices, more is better. Fitness is a good thing, it allows us to enjoy the world. It doesn’t matter whether it’s hiking the Camino de Santiago (something I have yet to do) or riding a bike through Germany (something I did do) or walking around Florence all day, our bodies are the way we can experience the world. Sure a plane gets us over distance far faster, a car covers more miles than a bike. But walking, moving at a human pace is how we experience the world, not how our machines make it easy. And while walking being able to carry a pack or even just a few things to support us (i.e. upper body strength) or hauling our luggage through an airport to get to our destination, these are valuable things. At any age when face limits (based on our body types) but also any age we can be better or worse than our biology limits us based on how we manage to increase, even maintain, our body’s fitness.
So that’s the point. Not absolute. I will not be as strong as I was at 20. I will not be as strong (at 20, at 40, at 70) as others. But I can be as strong as I can be, even someday at 90, and that’s what is important. It took me years to learn that, but now I know and now I’ll do what I can.