At the start of this year I was getting fat and weak. My entire adult life, I hovered around 170 pounds. I never bothered to weigh myself because it was always about the same. But then I started to notice my pants felt a bit tighter and, I wasn’t sure, but I felt like I had more belly fat going on too.
So I found the scale and blew the dust off it. When I looked down I was shocked. 195 lbs.
Following that little reality check I looked in the bathroom mirror through more objective eyes. I looked terrible! My shoulders were tiny, my chest shrunken, my arms spindly. I looked all doughy and flabby. I knew the diagnosis instantly. DadBod.
DadBod: The Struggle Begins
My son Lachlan was about 18 months old at the time. It had certainly been challenging to stay strong and healthy since he showed up but I’d done ok the previous year. I trained for the Edmonton Marathon through the summer, pushing the little guy in his stroller for hour after hour. I wasn’t going as hard on the strength training as usual, but I was still managing to sneak it in at least once a week.
After the Marathon in the fall though, the bad weather came. Normally, I put running into maintenance mode for the winter and focus on strength training. However, in spite of the fact that we had an 18 month old baby and were a single-income household, I decided it was a good time to start my own business.
So I got up at 5 every day and worked on the business for a few hours before I went to my clinic job. Then I’d come home and try to summon the motivation to go for a run in the freezing cold with Lachlan and the Dog. When he eventually went to sleep, I’d go to the fridge, grab a beer and then go back to work. As you can imagine, my sleeping and eating habits worsened and strength training became a distant memory.
Fast forward a few months and I’m standing on the scale in the bathroom looking fat and weak. It didn’t take long!
You know the worst part though. I felt like a total fraud. The reason I’m so passionate about helping injured runners get back to training is that I understand running is the linchpin for many people when it comes to their health. I wanted to create a business that not only got them back to training, but helped them continue to improve their overall health for the long term.
So I was spending most of my time talking to my athletes about their health, while I became progressively more fat, weak and unhealthy.
The Saga Continues
Feeling like I was a bad example for my athletes and my family, I knew I had to make a change. I decided to start with the thing that had really fallen by the wayside, strength training.
So, why strength training? Well, it has a ton of benefits, but I like to sum it up in these five:
- Makes you run faster: About 5% faster. That’s roughly 13 minutes off the average marathon time (Male 4:20 > 4:07 | Female 4:48 > 4:34 )
- Stops you getting injured: When you hit the ground with each footstrike, the impact will travel up the leg. You can better attenuate those forces with strong, powerful muscles. This reduces the chance that you’ll overload the joints, tendons or bones and get injured.
- Makes you Healthy: It has proven positive effects on sleep, bone density, insulin sensitivity, mental health, blood pressure, lipid profile
- Reduces Age Related Decline: We lose about 1% of our muscle mass each year beyond the age of 30. That means a 65 year old runner who does no strength training could have lost 35% of their muscle mass by the time they retire! That’s where frailty comes from.
- Reduces Body Fat: Less belly fat and bigger muscles so you look good in your swimwear!
So, strength training is awesome for your running and awesome for your health. But more importantly, it would make me look good without a shirt on.
A New Hope
When I sat down to write my strength training plan, I took the same approach I use with all of the runners I work with. Focus lifts and rep max percentages.
What? What the hell are you talking about?
Ok, bear with me. This is important.
The majority of runners do no strength training at all. Of the small percentage that do, most of them are wasting their time.
The reason being, they aren’t actually getting any stronger.
If you take a runner who has never done any strength training and give them a program of 3 workouts a week, they will get stronger. It doesn’t even really matter what exercises you get them to do. Their body will adapt to the resistance and become stronger.
The problem is, after a few weeks, those strength gains will start to plateau. The body has become strong enough to handle those workouts, so it doesn’t need to become any stronger.
Unless you are progressing your strength training, you will plateau in strength after a few weeks. From that point forward, you are maintaining your strength, not increasing it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, maintaining some strength is much better than nothing. But you won’t realize those performance improvements unless you have a system to progress your strength training.
The Tide Turns
The system I like to use to progress my strength and that of my athletes is Focus Lifts.
The focus lift is simply the most important exercise in a workout. It’s the one we’re going to focus on. I usually put it early in the workout, just after some mobility work and a solid warm up. The focus lift that you choose would depend on your objectives but the most common ones I recommend for runners are a squat and a hinge.
Squat and Hinge are movement patterns. So there are lots of exercises that would fit into those categories. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll give two examples for each. For the squat movement you could use a back squat or a split squat. For the hinge movement you could use a deadlift or a single leg deadlift.
So this is what I did. I decided I would do three strength sessions a week and have one focus lift for each. Monday it would be the deadlift, Wednesday the bench press and Thursday back squat.
Now that I’d chosen a focus lift for each session, I needed to know how I was going to progress my strength on those lifts. That’s where working max percentages come in.
First up, I needed to work out my 1 rep max. A 1 rep max is simply the maximum amount of weight you can do 1 rep of. So for the deadlift, you just keep adding weight to the bar until you can’t pick it up. Whatever the heaviest weight is that you can lift once, that’s your 1 rep max.
I’d been off lifting for a few months, so doing a 1 rep max wouldn’t be very sensible. It’s the same with most of the runners I work with. Unless you are a very experienced weightlifter, doing 1 rep maxes is more risky than it’s worth.
However, that’s not a problem because you can just use a lighter weight, see how many reps you can do, then plug it into any 1 rep max calculator that you find online. That’s what I did in January. So for my deadlift, I started with 135 lbs and just added weight each set. By the time I hit 245 lbs, it was feeling pretty heavy. I lifted it as many times as I could and managed 6 reps.
I plugged 245 x 6 into a 1 rep max calculator and it told me my estimated 1 rep max was 294 lbs. This estimated 1 rep max is sometimes referred to as your working max.
Deadlift Working Max = 294 lbs
Focus Lift Goal
Now that I know my working max, it’s really helpful to set a goal. Just keep it simple “I want to add 20 lbs to my working max in 3 months” for example. Pick a goal that you find motivating and seems achievable within a few months.
I decided on a 2x bodyweight deadlift. That would be 390 lbs at my current Dadbod weigh-in. However, I was making some dietary changes so I expected that to come down. Even if I lost 20 lbs though, a 2x bodyweight deadlift would still be 350 lbs. My working max was only 294 lbs, so I gave myself the whole year to hit 350.
Use Working Max Percentages
Next I use my percentages of my working max to progress my Focus Lift. A simple set-rep scheme I use often is 5 sets of 5 with a 10% increase each set. So 5 reps at 50% of my working max, then 5 at 60%, then 5 at 70%, then 5 @ 80%. Then for the last set I use 90% of my working max and do as many reps as I can.
Since my working max was 294 lbs for the deadlift, my sets and reps would be…
- 5 reps @ 145
- 5 reps @ 175
- 5 reps @ 205
- 5 reps @ 235
- Max reps @ 265
For the last set, I would do as many reps as you can. Max reps. Then I take that number and plug it into the 1 rep max calculator again to calculate a new working max. There are lots of apps that can do this for you, at the minute, I use one called Train Heroic.
This progressive system prevented me from going too easy on myself. As long as I calculated the working max and then worked out my sets and reps as percentages of that, I’d get stronger. All I’d have to do was show up and hit my numbers
A Hero Emerges
So that’s what I did. I showed up and hit my numbers. The system progressed my strength training for me. I continued running and made some changes to my diet. None of this was particularly easy, but it was pretty simple.
It’s September now and I’ve lost 20 lbs, I’m back down to 175. My 1 rep max deadlift is at 335 lbs, just 15 more to go!
Looking back, I can see I was heading down a pretty dark path. I know it’s a familiar one to many of you Dad’s listening. You want to be lean, strong and healthy. You want to set a good example for your kids and your family. I do too. But life has a way of throwing these wrecking balls at us. By the time we pick ourselves up and get our bearings, we can’t understand how we ended up where we are.
The fact is though, if we want to be healthy, we have to be strong. Creating a progressive strength training program will help you see improvements week on week, month on month. Setting a goal to increase your working max will help you stay motivated, just like races do.
We can’t stop life’s wrecking balls, they will keep coming. But we can make sure we’re strong enough to take the hit.
If you’re struggling with DadBod and you feel like a wrecking ball hit you, we’d love to help. Just click the button below to set up a free call.