I got serious about strength training in March 2009. By mid-May, things were looking pretty good. It's amazing what a few sprints and a bit of bodyweight work can do.
Having layered on some basic strength, I began looking for ways to add intensity to my training. While the format of my workouts remained much as they began, I increased their difficulty without purchasing equipment by:
- Graduating from standard push-ups to decline push-ups, starting with my feet on an 8-inch step, then moving up to 2 and eventually 3 steps.
- Transitioning from standard hanging leg raises (to "L" position) to the knee-to-elbow version.
- Adding pull-up efforts to the end of my pull-downs. I also did many pull-downs in which I lowered an inch, then pulled back up and inch, lowered three inches and pulled back up two, etc. It was a great triumph the day I managed my first-ever, unassisted pull-up!
- Making a "weight vest" out of an old school backpack filled with gallon-sized zip-top bags full of sand. Voila! A free and easy way to add 30 pounds to my squats and lunges. Holding 12-lb dumbbells allowed me to bring the total up to 54 pounds, which made a huge difference in my lower body musculature.
Notes:On modifying exercises -- I discovered that although I experienced great benefits from increasing the difficulty of standard exercises (such as by switching to decline push-ups or knee-to-elbow HLRs), it paid to go back to the original exercise periodically. The modified versions may be more intense, but they also involve different angles of motion; if you only practice the modified version, you'll lose capacity in the original.
On grip -- As I worked on HLRs, I noticed that the limiting factor on my number of reps tended to be not core strength, but grip. My hands and forearms weren't up to dangling from the bar that long. Continued pull-up and HLR work got me through, but months later I discovered an exercise that would have sped the process: Farmer's Walks. Don't have two barbells? Try buckets full of water. After all, my fortuitous discovery was the result of a cold snap that forced me to haul water by hand to my 9 horses. Farmer's walks, indeed!
On training around injuries -- Did I mention that I tore my hamstring in April? The result of a nasty riding accident, that injury forced me to inject some extra creativity into my workouts. Lower body work such as squats and lunges was obviously out, as were sprints and distance runs. Even walking was off the table for several weeks. So, I decided to take advantage of my recovery time to focus on upper body work. I did push-ups, pull-ups (well, pull-downs), HLRs, planks, side planks, overhead dumbbell presses, and delt raises galore. And guess what? I emerged on the other side of that injury fitter than I began. Score!
On the role of diet -- One can't ignore the importance of nutrition in maintaining or improving fitness despite injury-induced modifications. Though I hadn't yet discovered primal eating, I kept my diet clean (that is, free of processed foods) throughout my recovery. Leanness is 80% diet, and despite my carb-laden, flegan choices, I didn't gain a single pound of fat during those weeks.
Speaking of diet, by early June I realized it was time to add more protein to my daily intake. This meant first the re-introduction of eggs (2 a day), followed by fish (several times weekly). Meanwhile, I was fed up with acne and stomach bloating, and looking for answers. That search led me to grain-free nutrition, the truth about fats and carbohydrates, and finally to the Primal Blueprint. I wrote about the transition here.
As summer progressed and life changes demanded that I be able to run my farm alone, I placed increasing value on functional strength. Cardiovascular fitness is great, but the ability to lift heavy things is invaluable when it comes to laying in a winter's supply of hay, repairing fence, lugging bags of feed, and watering livestock despite frozen pipes.
Yes, farm work is demanding -- but not necessarily consistent. I looked for ways to continue building strength during the lulls and, though I found many, my desire to own a bunch of iron increased. When I finally got it, the nature of my workouts changed. More about that in Part Three.