I’ve done lots of different exercise programs and have lots of different goals over the years. Going from endurance athlete to strength athlete has taken time as I felt it out through various forms. I’m nearly 40 and staying healthy has been more challenging for both me and my older brethren. Where my goals were previously to be at the front end of age group triathlons and running races, or being a competitive crossfitter in competitions, they are now simply to be strong and healthy. While I’d certainly like to be able to see my abs better, it’s a distant third priority. My diet isn’t always super tight, and I need to get more sleep, which both would help with my waistline, but I digress.
When I was first getting my footing to gain strength, while trying to transition after nearly a decade of endurance work, I used bodyweight HIIT of Beachbody’s Insanity DVDs. I did it for the full 60 days, got stronger and in better shape, but it wasn’t for me and didn’t really give me the mass and muscle I wanted. I then moved on to Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. This is a linear progression (add 2.5-5 pounds per workout until you can’t, reset [i.e. step back 10-20%] and start again), program, using a 3 sets by 5 reps approach with the main body movers (squat, overhead press, deadlift, bench press). My copy is well worn and I’ve recommended this to many people over the years as they break down technique and philosophy on gaining strength. I’ve used this programming off and on for 3-4 years, rolling to it again after whatever else I’ve done to maintain that old man strength I’ve gained. The thing is that it’s a little like groundhog day. Same workout every few days. I tend to stall out around the same spots and don’t think you can build castles in the sky with this program, so when I stall I moe on to something else.
My subsequent steps were a strength-focused Crossfit gym, that focused a lot on the same SS prime movers. I was interested in competing in local competitions (scaled) and this didn’t fit those goals, so using my home gym equipment, starting following Outlaw programming. Coach Rudy focused on training for competitive crossfitters and focused not just on the power strength stuff Rippetoe does, but also explosiveness of the olympic lifts (clean and jerk, snatch). I loved Outlaw programming and even went to one of Rudy’s camps, but it didn’t love me. I kept getting various injuries, a lot from those technical barbell lifts. For the last year or 18 months I’ve been doing my own thing – secret sauce training mostly of big movers and support exercises, weights and reps varied, with standard barbell crossfit workouts thrown in. I maintained my old man strength, but was all over the board since I simply made it up as I went along so depending on motivation for the day did a little or a lot.
So like many, I determined I liked someone else to come up with my strength and conditioning programming. Despite input from natural bodybuilding friends, and looking into programming by those in the crossfit community, I didn’t really find anything to my liking. So instead I went off the beaten track and found something that was a mix of traditional lifts, established programming, and my own blend of secret sauce that met my goals. That something I’m currently doing is Tactical Barbell (and Tactical Barbell Conditioning).
While unfortunately only an e-book on kindle and the like, Tactical Barbell has the right mix of rigid program, flexible workouts, and moving the bar that I like. Written as a program for ex-military and cop type dudes who need strength and endurance for their job, it has a couple of tracks depending on what your goals are. They break them as Fighter, Operator, Gladiator, and Mass, which sort of vary along the endurance/strength spectrum. For example Fighter (as in boxers or MMA dudes as an example) is more endurance based with some strength, Operator less need for endurance, more for strength, Gladiator has more strength volume with enough endurance stuff to stay fit, and Mass is as expected focused mostly on strength/mass. Pick your poison depending on your goals.
For me, I chose Gladiator. It’s roots are in Starting Strength or maybe it’s brother Stronglifts 5×5. But instead of just adding weight, it does it all on a percentage basis off your real or anticipated 1 rep max. Four strength workouts per week for a 3 week block, with two blocks in a 6 week cycle. At the end of the cycle you can repeat exercises, or mix them up. The weight percentages go up over the 3 week block with reps going down. The idea being to increase your maximum strength, and submaximum strength workouts will get easier. The Tactical Barbell Conditioning then adds in HIIT workouts to the mix, with more workouts on easier strength weeks and fewer on the heavy weight weeks in a prescribed manner. You can choose the workouts, and they aren’t anything special (sprints, hill work, kettlebell swings, burpees). However, they are designed to work your anaerobic and aerobic systems while still leaving you fresh for your weights. And maybe the best part is, both the weights and workouts are designed to get you in and out of the gym quickly, as in under 30 minutes. Bonus for us busy folks.
If you end up going this route, here are a few things I’ve done that are either different or aren’t mentioned in the book. First, they don’t talk about warmup weights. I usually do some light kettlebell swings or one Spencer Arnold (an oly lifting coach I clinic’d with) recommends just to get the muscles loose in the morning. Then depending on the weight for the sets across programmed for that day, would do zero to three sets of warmups for the lift. Tactical Barbell recommends 2 minutes rest between each set, but depending on time and weight being moved, would sometimes do both back to back, with 2 minutes rest between each individual exercise (for example, would do a set of OH Press, set my stopwatch, jump into a set of squats, then would start my second set of OH press at the 2 minute mark). With a weight workout, I can usually be in and out in 30 minutes, and usually the conditioning programmed takes me about 20 minutes to wrap up depending on the workout. Efficiency is the name of the game.
On “easy” days, I still put on my weighted vest and ruck for awhile, or go on LSD runs with my wife. Helps with the base level endurance to supplement the short anaerobic stuff during the week.
I’m just 4 weeks in the program and already feel stronger, and my muscles look beefier. I’m recovering pretty well, but my only issue is that deadlift is in my workout this cycle and while I’m hitting all my reps, I can tell it’s not sustainable for me in back-to-back cycles. Hamstrings are fatigued, but back is holding up well for now, over the long term health from this lift would be a concern for my body. Current cycle consists of bench press, OH press, high bar back squat, deadlift, and pullups/weighted pullups. I plan to take a week or 10 days after to do more 10-12 rep workouts or crossfit type barbell-esque WODs since I like them and here we’re only in the 5 rep range or less. Then max out, then start a new cycle with front squat, OH Press, Bench Press, chinups/wt’d chinups or barbell bent-over rows, and power cleans. The flexibility is there to do whatever.
I’ve actually been getting up early to knock these out (I’m not a morning person), am trying to get to bed early to get more sleep, and trying to eat better to show those abs. It’s been a mixed bag so far on the sleep/eating better, but have hit every workout thus far and am staying happy and motivated with this program despite working out alone.
So do what makes you happy and healthy, but if you’re looking for a spark, you could do a lot worse than Tactical Barbell. While I think they should take the little time to make it into a real book, I just translated the prescribed training format onto a notebook and took it from there. A $6 investment (or $16 with both books) and you may do what I did and break through a plateau. Good luck!