Makeover update

I’m about 16 weeks in on Strong lifts 5×5 so things are starting to get interesting. Being a retired moocher, I elected to lift after lunch and quickly found that appointments and other activities claimed one workout day a week. So I’ve been lifting 2 times a week rather than 3. For an older person (over 60), this may be good because recovery ability slows significantly after 40.


Sixteen weeks on, I’m through the easy stuff and the military press and deadlift are becoming challenging. I’m stalled on the military press and had my first lift failure on the deadlift at 225×5. Bench press and rows are still well away from stall point and squats still have a way to go.

I’ve learned to do each of the lifts without discomfort and with decent form but still feel a little goofy in the squat and a little uncertain of back posture in the deadlift. This is where a coach comes in handy. If you miss the technique by a bit, you sense it as you’re doing the movement. You feel off balance and have to muscle the weight back into balance. But if the back is not quite right, you can’t tell.

My weight has crept up the last couple of months. I’m attributing this to two things, trying to add protein by adding a fruit smoothie with whey power to the diet. This added a meal’s worth of calories. The second is that I’ve had Saturday bacon and eggs and weekend waffles for breakfast for a few weeks.This adds a good bit of sodium to the diet and causes a weight uptick until the excess sodium works out.

Last salty food for a while and I’ve dropped back to a chocolate whey milk shake with far less calories than a cup of yogurt with a couple of cups of fruit and whey. Surprisingly this was about 550 calories with unsweetened yogurt and mixed berries. A whey whole milk shake is about 1/2 the calories.


  1. David Laid Magic Leg Workout
  2. Qwin Vitale: Building big powerful legs
  3. Jon Candito How to Squat with Proper Form
  4. Jon Candito How to Deadlift with Proper Form
  5. Omar Isuf on Military Press
  6. Mehdi’s Stronglifts 5×5 site
  7. Ars Technica Biggest Loser Study Story
  8. Wikipedia on Body Mass Index

Things I’ve Learned

It has been an interesting journey over the past 4 months. Strong lifts 5×5 begins slowly, good for novice lifters. The slow start gives time to learn to perform the 5 movements correctly. The squat, deadlift, and military press were the harder lifts for me. But I also had to unlearn some 90’s bench press “knowledge” that didn’t stand the test of time. Mostly, the importance of maintaining the lumbar arch during this lift. I’m going to talk about some of these things in more detail.

Strong lifts 5×5 Audience

Strong lifts 5×5 is a beginners program designed for general strength building. The program starts light, with the empty bar for squat, bench press, and military press and with a lightly loaded bar for deadlifts and barbell rows. These lifts use bumper plates to hold the bar at the proper height off the floor, hence the light beginning load rather than the empty bar. The light start makes the Strong lifts 5×5 protocol good for beginning seniors like me. I had lifted in the past but not for 10 years so I was pretty detrained when I returned to the gym. Guess that qualifies as a beginner.

Strong lifts is designed to improve your strength, not to turn you into a Greek god. The repetition range and linear progression provide a robust growth stimulus that will increase strength and muscularity up to a point. Eventually, it will become necessary to use more sophisticated protocols and to add some accessory exercises to strengthen muscles that assist the with compound motions. Typically, this happens at the 18 to 24 month point.

Strong lifts 5×5 is fairly safe

The lifts selected are compound (multi-joint) exercises done in a controlled manner making them safe for those who have learned proper technique and are attentive to the proper setup of the power rack safety rails. No snatch or clean and jerk here. An advantage over Starting Strength.

Strong lifts has an app

Mehdi, the Strong lifts promoter, is a software engineer who lifts. He makes egg money selling iPhone and Android apps that are Strong lifts protocol aware. The app knows the weight schedule, stall protocol, and includes warmups (in app purchase) and rest timers. And it keeps progress records that may be plotted. These features free your mind from tracking program details and schedules

Learning the lifts

Most folks start lifting without formal coaching. Even high school athletes such as football players and wrestlers that have lifted as part of a sports program are unlikely to receive significant coaching in the lifts or to have received training in teaching the lifts. Even “personal trainers” have only to do some reading and memorization and pass a quiz to get a certification. So, you are unlikely to find a skilled lifting coach unless you are lucky enough to train at a facility having a college trained strength and conditioning coach on staff.

So I ended up learning the lifts by watching several YouTube videos.

  • has a series of videos that provide basic coaching on the 5×5 lifts.
  • Jon Candito, Qwin Vitale, David Laid have YouTube channels that include instructional videos for the power lifts. All three are young power lifters and rising stars. Jon Candito is world class power lifter in the 83 Kilo class and Qwin and David are rising stars and interesting puppies. I figured out how to take up the bar, proper breathing, etc by watching their training session videos.
  • Mark Repetrope gives a good prose explanation in Starting Strength but his squat video teaches the movement but not addressing the bar and unracking the bar. This is a significant hurdle and merits coverage in how to squat guide written for beginners of any age.

Learning to Squat

For me, learning to squat was hardest. The low bar squat is the preferred training technique for developing strength and for power lifting. This squat style carries the squat behind the deltoids and above the shoulder blades. Once the shoulders are stretched, this is the most comfortable position in which to carry the bar. It also makes the squat more stable. It takes a while for the shoulders to stretch out to carry the bar in the low bar position.

The second tricky bit of the squat is carrying the bar as the load approaches body weight. The bar should be in line with the center of gravity and the center of support in the feet. somewhat forward of the heels and over the arch. This requires keeping just a little bend in the back at the top of the squat, un-racking and re-racking the weight..

The third tricky bit is getting the extension of the hips and the extension of the knees coordinated to maintain balance. If the hips lag a bit, an imbalance forward develops. The hips and knees move together to keep the bar positioned over your feet between your ankles and your bent knees. Your body weight moves behind as the hips bend but the bar moves forward a bit to maintain balance. If the technique feels clumsy, it is because the two joints are not bending at the proper relative rates. Most often, the shoulders come a bit forward. You’ll have to muscle the bar gently back into balance.

Dealing with Failure in the Squat

The fourth tricky bit is figuring out what to do if a lift stalls. I’m not there yet. Unfortunately, Norfolk Fitness and Wellness Center does not have a proper squat rack with safety bars. Not being a competitive lifter, flirting with failure is something I can forego.


It’s important to do the warm up lifts. They are less about warming up the muscles and more about warming up motor control and executive function to do the lifts properly. I’ve found the warmups helpful on all lifts. In the Stronglifts 5×5 protocol, lifts not from the floor begin with an empty bar warm up. This seems pointless but it is a good opportunity to prepare the shoulders for squatting and to refine the power rack setup for bench pressing. Make good use to find the correct fore and aft position on the bench and to confirm that the safety rests are positioned correctly should they be needed.

For squats, I’ve been using the warmup to develop confidence in squatting deep. I’m not currently confident enough to go well below parallel on the work sets but I do go all the way down on the warmups.

Work Sets

Strong lifts 5×5 takes its name from the work set protocol of 5 sets of 5 lifts for each of the session’s exercises. The program uses two workouts A and B each of three exercises. The A workout is squats, bench presses, and barbell rows. The B workout is squats, military presses, and deadlifts. The deadlift is 1 set of  5.

Strong lifts 5×5 increases the work sets by 5 pounds from one workout to the next, a linear progression. Eventually, the progress will stall as indicated by a failed set or two. If you fail the first set, it is usually because you let the new weight psych you or you rushed the setup or the movement. When a set fails, Strong lifts increases the rest from 1.5 minutes to 5 minutes to allow recovery. Do the remaining sets. Usually, the third workout will succeed. If it also stalls, deload the lift for the next workout.


Stalling is failure to complete a work set. When I began lifting, I had no idea how to cope with a stall so I made my newbie gains and little more. The Strong lifts 5×5 protocol has specific procedures for coping with a stall.

  • If the stall is on an early set, increase the wait time from 1.5 or 3 minutes to 5 minutes and press onward.
  • If you stall for 3 workouts in a row, reduce the weight lifted by 10% and resume the linear progression.

Using this protocol, I believe I’ll be able to break the stall and resume progress, all be it, more slowly. I’m trying the de-load protocol to break my most recent Military Press stall. In this lift it may help to drop to 2.5 pound increments since this is a weak lift for me.

Diet and Weight

Like most Americans my age, I’ve allowed a kilo or two to come to stay for several years so I believe I’m 10 to 15 percent over fat. I’m trying to loose weight and build strength at the same time. For the first two months, I continued my vegetarian diet with an occasional bit of meat. For the second two months, I’ve been trying to manage my macronutrient ratios and total calories to be about 500 calories in deficit each day. The goal was to loose a pound a week. I quickly found that I was low in protein so I’ve begun supplementing protein with whey rather than adding in meat. This approach appears to provide the needed protein (I picked 100 grams) without inviting the risks of meat eating and TMAO.

The jury is still out on weight but my waist is definitely getting smaller as indicated by pants fit and belt adjustment. Weight has stayed about constant but my belly is flatter and the region between hips and ribs is loosing love handle fat. Not there yet but looking hopeful. I’m less concerned about the scale reading than looming big blue pants and health risks. For me, the goal is to reach a healthy maintenance weight rather than to look good at the beach.

Biggest Looser Lessons Learned

Weight management is difficult if you allow your weight to get away from you as you age over 40. The  body wants to regain accumulated weight after you take it off. Interesting research is coming out of  a prospective study of Biggest Looser season 8 participants. As they lost weight (some had truly impressive losses), their metabolism slowed. In post show attempts to maintain weight, their metabolism slowed further. Most have had some weight regain but to nowhere near their former morbidly obese weight.

Calorie Counting

I use the Under Armor My Fitness Pal app to count calories and track macronutrient ratios. The app calculates base energy needs from age and target weight, measures activity using the phone’s accelerometers (iPhone) and computes calories and macros and some micros from your eating log. Best of all, it can calculate these for home made recipes.

I’m suspicious that it is over-estimating my base energy needs especially based on the Biggest Looser study experience. I’m not quite there yet but I’m suspecting that I’ll have to cut another 500 calories to have repeatable weight loss.

I’m trying to eat a whole foods cook from scratch diet that is vegetarian with an occasional bit of meat snuck in for variety. Every couple of months, I’ll make a one dish meal recipe with some meat or sausage in it, mostly for seasoning. These are a pleasant switch in routine from rice and bean things and vegetable stew things. I’ve found I don’t like meat analogs. They tend not to work well in stews or soups. I’ve not tried using sautéed firm tofu, as a substitute.

I’m also suspicious that I’m getting the portions per recipe wrong and hence the meal calories. Typically, i’ve been dividing the recipe into pint Zip Lock jars giving more servings than I’ve told the calculator so I should be over estimating actual calories. The scale hasn’t rendered a verdict.

Body Mass Index and Healthy Weight

The lazy like to calculate body mass index and use it to determine if subjects are overweight. Unfortunately, BMI is 100 year old junk science. It is a many to one mapping of body size and weight to a scalar number. BMI is unable to differentiate between me and a competitive strength athlete of similar height and weight. I’m 20 to 25% fat vs 10% or so for the competitive lifter of similar height and weight. I’m talking weight-class lifters, not open class.

A better means of determining healthy weight is needed. The things tried to date are either costly (whole body counting to determine radioisotope ratios, etc) or inaccurate (calipers, impedance, etc) or inconvenient (dunking to measure average density).

Perhaps the best for now is just tracking the waist anatomy. If the hip to rib joint gap is filled in with tissue, you’re over-fat. The key is not to fill in that gap as you build muscle or age. If you are near a “normal” weight and the new year finds you up a kilo or two, take it off rather than letting it come to stay. It is the accumulation of weight from 40 to 60 that gets most of us unhealthy. This happens a kilo or 2 a year adding up to significant weight gain that becomes hard to loose and keep off. I’ve learned this the hard way.

Foo on Electronic Scales

Integrated circuits and load cells are cheap. Spring balances with calibrated springs and moving parts are expensive and fragile. But the old mechanical scales had the advantage of being relatively insensitive to subject technique. The scale was damped and settled quickly to a repeatable weighing. You could weigh 3 times in a row and get the same reading to the width of the pointer.

Not so the electronic scale. The load cells and the load make a spring mass oscillator that is relatively undamped and sensitive to how one stands on the platform and the wobbling to establish balance. These electronic scales can give a 2 percent spread just with position on the platform. They hasten the settling process by grabbing a number and remembering it. They’ll give you that number back the next day. And the next and the next.

If you are loosing or gaining weight, you’ll see the scale trying to settle to a new number , then suddenly, it will repeat yesterday’s number with a visible jump. It is impossible to see a trend up or down. It takes a month of weight loss or gain for it to appear reliably in the scale’s reading. Pure crap.