Lifting weights and running are two of my favorite activities. When I do them in a way that is right for me, it increases my energy and focus. My preference is two or three times per week for each.
I make it a high priority to avoid pain or injury. If I’m stiff or exhausted after a work out, I’ve done too much. If I train too hard, too often, or injure myself, I miss out on the pleasure of lifting and running while I recover. I also miss out on the boons they provide for my mood, attentiveness, confidence, and sleep.
It took me a while to figure out what feels right for me. I have no idea if it will work for you, and this is not medical, fitness, or nutritional advice.
I devote one day to building strength with Bill DeSimone-inspired high intensity training . The other day I do blood flow restricted, low weight, high repetition work to grow my muscles. I like to lift for an hour per session.
Training for Strength: High Intensity Training
When I committed to weight training almost six years ago, I started with Doug McGuff’s “Big Five”. Each session takes between 12 and 20 minutes and is so intense that it requires a week of recovery. I did it for about nine months and I was happy with the results.
When I felt ready to learn more, I found Bill DeSimone in McGuff’s list of recommended trainers. I loved working with him in person, and I learned a lot from his latest book, Joint-Friendly Fitness. What he taught me forms the basis for each of my routines.
Bill DeSimone is adamant about safety. He taught me to:
- Maintain good posture throughout the movement;
- Limit my range of motion to avoid putting my joints in vulnerable positions;
- Have the humility to choose weights I can control for the duration of the set;
- Use 90-second sets: one minute of ten slow, steady movements with no rest at the top or bottom. Then immediately follow it with a 30-second eccentric movement (negative). Imagine a slow motion lowering of the dumbbell in a biceps curl or fighting gravity as you descend in a pull-up.
To learn more, I recommend the Biomechanics on Our Minds podcast episode from August 17, 2022. Bill DeSimone and the hosts did a good job of explaining how he developed his ideas. He created a video demonstration of joint-friendly techniques to complement the podcast.
Training for Bigger Muscles: Blood Flow Restriction
Over four years ago, I devoted my second routine to growing my muscles (hypertrophy). For these, I use adjustable, 2” wide, $25 elastic bands to provide blood flow restriction (BFR):
- I place the bands as high up my arms or my legs as possible, depending on whether I’m doing an upper or lower body exercise.
- The plastic clasps on the bands let me adjust them to what feels like 30–50% restriction. That’s tight enough that I’m aware of them, and not so tight that they’re uncomfortable.
- I use BFR bands only for machine or dumbbell exercises where I can control how much weight I’m moving.
- I limit myself to about 30% of the highest weight I can move (one-repetition maximum, or 1 rep max).
I follow the standard guidelines for BFR training. The first set is 30 slow, controlled repetitions. I follow it with three sets of 15 reps, with 30 seconds of rest between each set. I always use good posture and a limited range of motion. The light weights and good form protect my joints, and help me use only the muscles I intend to use. I never cheat: I don’t use momentum or recruit tertiary muscles to help. If I can’t control the weights or come close to completing 75 reps, I use lighter weight the next week. If the last set is too easy to complete, I increase the weight the next week.
It’s worth noting that Bill DeSimone thinks BFR is dangerous. He knows what he’s talking about, and it’s important to consider his opinion. Plus, Chris Hemsworth used BFR to train for the latest Thor movie so, you know, caveat emptor.
I side with another of my key influences, Stronger by Science, which sees value in BFR. Stronger by Science’s founder, Greg Nuckols, published a guide to BFR. He also reviewed two recent studies on BFR. The first found that you don’t get worse results if you end your set before you struggle with form (failure). The second found that BFR produced similar results with lighter weights.
These are two of the hundreds of PubMed-indexed articles on BFR worth investigating. I like the recent systematic review by researchers at Tulane’s medical school.
I enjoy reading Stronger by Science, and I love the Stronger by Science podcast. Nuckols and his co-host, Eric Trexler, are great at demystifying evidence-based strength training. For instance, based on their guidance, I average about 145 grams of protein each day. I make sure to have plenty of nitrate in my diet (leafy green vegetables and beets). They also reaffirmed the 5 grams of creatine I take each day.
I appreciate DeSimone, Nuckols, and Trexler, the primary influences on my weight training. Others who have had an important, positive influence:
- Alan Thrall is a strength athlete (strongman). He makes funny, self-mocking videos with useful advice on weight training technique.
- Alex Hutchinson writes evidence-based articles and has published two books about endurance sports. His work helps me balance my running and lifting.
- Aubrey Gordon’s book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, helps me accept myself and others. Her podcast with Michael Hobbes, Maintenance Phase, interrogates diet and fitness culture.
- Doug McGuff’s videos kickstarted my weight training. His book with John Little, Body by Science provided context. His directory of trainers led me to Bill DeSimone.
- Stuart McGill will get as complicated as you want when it comes to spine health, or keep it simple. I found a lot of value in McGill’s Big Three, plus Stir the Pot, an exercise I do every week.
Powerlifting’s three movements — bench press, squat, and deadlift — are always a temptation. Feeling how much weight I can move is satisfying in the moment. It answers the lifting version of the questions that runners always hear: “What’s your time?” “How many miles do you run each week?” “When is your next race?”
Powerlifting is a way to turn weight training into a sport, rather than a practice. Sports are competitive, and competition often results in injury. I’ve injured myself twice due to lifting: once squatting, the other bench pressing. I realize a lot of people do these movements and avoid injury. For me, the risk doesn’t justify the reward.
It helps me to remember my goals: feeling energetic and focused, and avoiding pain and injury. Lifting also improves my confidence. That seems shallow to me, and I’m conflicted about it. At least for now, I’m happier when my training is going well.
In the long run, I do better with these goals when weight and repetitions are means rather than ends. They help me calibrate intensity from session to session. I try to avoid using them as measures of success.