This post was written by reader Joe O’Brien, and it really is one of the most awesome transformation stories you’ll read anywhere. Not only did Joe lose 100 pounds of fat, but he now squats 450 pounds at the age of 52!
Joe did it all using a program that I recommend, namely strength training, a low-carb diet, and intermittent fasting, although I believe that he lost weight and ramped up his lifts before he started reading this site.
I’ve added a few comments to Joe’s post.
How system thinking can get you strong and help you not to DIE
Men, you are less likely to die if you are stronger:
Association between muscular strength and mortality in men: prospective cohort study
Conclusion Muscular strength is inversely and independently associated with death from all causes and cancer in men, even after adjusting for cardiorespiratory fitness and other potential confounders.
One more time with emphasis:
Men, you are less likely to die if you are stronger!
I wanted to emphasize that point as the “Anti-Dying” benefit of strength is WAY under-appreciated. Readers of this blog would agree that strength training is THE MOST IMPORTANT anti-aging (anti-dying!!) health intervention.
How do we take that knowledge about the efficacy of strength and strength training and put it into practice? My observation is that there are many people who start lifting weights (usually around the start of the new year) but don’t continue long-term due to illness, injury and burnout.
You need more than willpower, grit and determination. If you had a limitless amount of willpower you won’t progress if you are getting sick or injured. You need to have a system.
I have managed to build myself up from morbid obesity in my 40s to someone with a good amount of strength (450lbs. squat) for someone his age (52) by thinking about strength training as a part of a system.
Here’s me suffering from morbid obesity in my 40s (my hair was nice and dark though!):
Me at 51. 100 lbs lighter with my babies:
My system allows me to strength train on a consistent basis, as a result make consistent gains in strength. My system has also made me more resilient to stress and a great deal healthier.
It is important to keep first things first. The most important aspect of the system is getting in the gym and lifting. The secondary aspects aide in recovering from the stress of hard training. I have found that the secondary aspects of my system are more important as I get older.
If I am not sleeping, eating, recovering, conditioning on my off days my strength training suffers.
Please note, I am biased in giving my recommendations. My system works well for me a formerly obese guy in his early 50s. My recommendations at this point in my life skew towards longevity as opposed to absolute performance.
Without further adieu,
The Joe O’Brien Getting Strong(er) system:
1: Focus on the same barbell lifts every workout
The barbell squat, press and deadlift lifts are the best lifts to build strength. You will get the best results focusing on these lifts.
The challenge with these lifts is the learning curve. Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength is the best resource available to learn to the lifts. The book, DVD and online content are all excellent.
I have found that using the same set of exercises exclusively allows you to more accurately measure the stress and progress of your training. The following is my workout “template” (very similar to the Starting Strength Novice program or Stronglifts program).
Squat: Back Squat
Press: Alternate Bench Press and Overhead Press each workout
Deadlift: Alternate Deadlift, Back Extension and Good Morning each workout
Row: Alternate Hammer Row and Hammer Pulldown each workout
Additional Accessory Exercises: Optionally 2 or 3 exercises done with lighter weights and higher reps to promote hypertrophy.
My workouts consist of 3-5 exercises, 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps. I know from experience based on the total weights lifted (Exercises X Sets X Reps X Weight) how much stress I have incurred during the workout. A 20,000 lbs workout is an in and out punch the time-clock workout. A 30,000 lbs workout is an ass-kicking. There is some trial and error in and learning how much training volume you can tolerate. Use a spreadsheet to track your total training volume to find your sweet spot.
2: Develop a Sustaining Mindset
Your mindset will be the difference between quitting 6 weeks into your new gym membership and being successful long term. The best advice I can give you is to divorce yourself from results and think of your strength training program as a meditative practice.
You are not trying to “go hard as a mother-f’er”, you are simply performing the exercises. Perform your lifts with same emotion as carrying groceries in from the car. You will have great days and not great days. You will make progress and you will stall and feel frustrated. That is OK. The point is to CONTINUE training. Concentrated effort over time will outpace the once-a-week death-march workout that leaves you sick, sore and burned-out.
Two questions to ask yourself:
Am I working out hard enough to make a quantifiable change in my strength and conditioning?
Could I continue with my current workout program for the next 6 months?
The answer to both of those questions should be a definitive “Yes!”. You want your workouts challenging so that you are actually getting stronger but not so challenging that you have to stop due to illness, injury or burnout.
3: Use weight lifting shoes and a powerlifting belt
If you are going to squat, deadlift and press with enough intensity to increase your strength you are going to need proper lifting shoes and a true powerlifting belt.
I can’t tell you how many time I have seen people trying to squat in cushioned running shoes and watching their knees cave in (technical term is knee valgus) dues to the soles of their shoes compressing. Proper shoes with a compression resistant heel will prevent that knee cave-in. Weightlifting shoes typically have an elevated heel, which will help if you are lacking in ankle flexibility. A pair of entry level Adidas PowerLift 2 shoes cost about what canvas Converse All-Stars cost.
Just as a good shoe provides stability, a proper powerlifting weight belt assists in stabilizing your core by giving your abdominal wall something to push against. More core stability means more weight lifted and more strength squatting and deadlifting.
4: Work on your Mobility
There is a concept of human movement referred to as the “Joint-By-Joint” approach . The premise is that each of the major joints of your body requires alternatively either mobility or stability as you move from bottom to top:
Joint — Primary Need
Ankle — Mobility
Knee — Stability
Hip — Mobility
Lumbar Spine — Stability
Thoracic Spine — Mobility
Scapula — Stability
Gleno-humeral — Mobility
If your mobility is lacking you experience injury or loss of performance in the adjoining stability joints. Knees hurt from squatting? Work on hip and ankle mobility. Lower back hurts from over head pressing? Work on thoracic spine mobility.
I work my ankle, hip, thoracic spine, and shoulder mobility as often as possible. I perform the following 6 movements as a warmup before lifting and on my off days to help me recover:
I great resource for mobility is Dr. Kelley Starrett’s book “Becoming a Supple Leopard” and his personal Youtube channel.
5: Eat Low Carb/Paleo/Primal diet
I can’t keep up with the different names for a low carb diet. I think my diet would be called LowCarb Paleo. The goal of my diet is to provide adequate nutrition while keeping my insulin response to a minimum. Eating a nutritionally complete diet supports your strength training program, the added benefit of low carb is that it tends to be anti-inflammatory. These are the basic guidelines I follow:
- Restrict Carbohydrates: I basically eat 50-75 grams of carbs daily – half of which is fiber.
- Moderate protein consumption. I generally eat only around 1.5 times RDA for protein (RDA is .8 grams per KG of body weight). This equates to about 130 grams on a daily basis.
- Focus on nutritionally dense/calorie sparse vegetables, herbs and spices that are high in polyphenols and antioxidants.
- Religiously Avoid Grains, especially wheat. Nothing stimulates your hunger or your blood glucose level more than wheat.
- Religiously Avoid Omega-6 heavy industrial seeds oils like soybean oil as they are inflammatory.
- Avoid Dairy. I avoid dairy and dairy proteins (whey) with limited success. Life is too short not to have cream in your coffee! Whey makes me ravenously hungry so I tend to avoid it.
- Fast intermittently. A low-carb diet is very effective in minimizing insulin response but fasting is even more effective. Nothing moves the dial in terms of my weight or waist measurement like fasting. Remember “Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation”.
Dr. Ted Naiman’s Diet 2.0 Infographic summarizes what I eat [Ted Naiman has an excellent approach to fitness, focusing on low-carb and bodyweight exercises, and from his appearance, he obviously follows his own advice. – PDM]:
6: Do Aerobic Conditioning
I know!! It’s 2016 and I am recommending aerobic exercise. Sacrilege! This is something I have added to my regimen in the last 18 months and it has made a world of difference in my training. My work capacity is greatly improved as I am able to recover faster in between heavy set of squats, deadlifts, presses.
I have two of caveats to this recommendation.
The first caveat is that I use an Airdyne bike for all my aerobic training.
The big advantage to using an Airdyne is that the exercise is very low (no) impact. No impact, no wear and tear on my joints.
The second caveat, is that I use a heart rate monitor to administer the correct dosage of aerobic exercise. I use Dr. Phill Maffetone 180 Formula to determine my optimal heart rate for aerobic conditioning. If I was going to list the “one weird trick” for improving your strength training it would be to use Maffetone’s 180 formula a couple times a week. Start slowly and ramp up. I am currently doing 45 minutes 2-3 times per week. (The short “sciencey” explanation of why this works so well for me is “insulin resistance and anabolic resistance are the same things”.)
7: Get enough sleep
Turn off the TV, cell phone, tablet and go to bed! What I do is pretty basic “sleep hygiene” but fundamental to recovery:
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening
- Avoid exercise in the afternoon and evening
- Avoid electronic devices in the evening
- Go to bed earlier – hours of sleep before midnight are gold!
- Keep regular sleep hours
- Melatonin 2 hours before bed helps you to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Less is more with melatonin. Start at .5 mg.
Nothing extraordinary in this list, other than taking a multivitamin/multimineral which seems like it is out of style these days. [Most of the following can be seen on the site’s supplements buying guide. – PDM]
- Creatine Monohydrate. Supplementing with creatine is settled science. It has a multitude of muscle building and anti-aging properties.
- Vitamin D3/K2. Adequate levels of Vitamin D protects against hypertension, heart disease. K2 keep calcium in your bones and out of your arteries.
- Multivitamin/MultiMineral – I am a firm believer in the Dr. Bruce Ames “Triage” theory of aging – that vitamin and mineral inadequacies accelerate aging.
- Melatonin (see sleep hygiene)
- FishOil/Curcumin (active ingredient in the spice turmeric). I have no proof, but my experience is that there is some synergy when Fish Oil and Curcumin are taken together.
- Alpha Lipoic Acid/Acetyl L-Carnitine
- Psyllium Husk powder and Vinegar. I take these two “supplements” before meals to curb my insulin response.
So there you have it. In my mind these are all simple hacks that help you to get strong.
Very enlightening post Joe. I liked the tip about the powerlifting shoes and belt, will have to follow up on that one. I found your link to the top 100 polyphenol containing foods very useful too – which weirdly enough ties right in with the following TED talk I watched yesterday, which basically takes the same point from a different angle: https://www.ted.com/talks/william_li?language=en#t-850053 I’d strongly recommend having a look at it if you haven’t seen it already. The high polyphenol foods definitely seem the way to go!
Great! Admire your system!
Great transformation! Congratulations! I too am a 55 year old male that does all the things that you mention including bi monthly blood donations. I am glad to hear you mention that you included cardio. I fell victim to all the bashing against it and stopped for a few years. I have been lifting heavy for over 20 years but I feel amazing when I also incorporate cardio. Keeps my body fat levels around 10% and I feel much more happier. I can’t explain it. But the stress, sleep and body composition just improves even though I fast, eat low carb and weight train when I include 5 days of cardio outside on the trails. Its very low intensity, I run 3 minutes and walk 2 for an hour on trails. very phil maffetone! He was Mark Allen’s coach back in the 80’s. I followed his advice then.
One of the things that I didn’t do a great job explaining is that I have been basically weight-stable for the last +5 years. Since then I have made improvement in my conditioning, body composition and strength as detailed in my post. There have been “no-scale victories” during that time other that setting a PR in a list. Looking at that “after” picture is an example – my wife made me throw away the shorts I am wearing because they were TOO baggy.
Joe E O
I’m 35, & weigh just over 410lbs. I’ve tried everything possible. I’m at the point of my doctor recommending surgery. I’m pushing back as much as I can. I started with a straight 10 day, no food, greens only juice fast. Disgusting, but I dropped 31 lbs fast. Moving back to salads only I went up 15 lbs. Very disheartening, to say the least. But I’ve joined a local gym. A personal trainer costs way to much. I’m going Mondays & Wednesdays & trying to regularly go on Friday mornings. It’s mostly cardio. With mild to moderate lifting, mostly on the machines. (No free weights) the impact thus far has been good. I have more energy & feel a little better about myself. My reading habits are sparatic at best. I eat healthy for the most part. I’ve cut off all drinking, not that this was an issue, but I figured the less carbs the better. (Granted that went out the window with St. Patrick’s day) That said, I don’t have but maybe a burbon once or twice a month. Red meat once a month & mostly chicken, salad & veggies the rest of the month. I’m still trying to find my way in this whole system of new found healthy habits. I guess I’m responding because I found this very helpful & after some more research with the books & nutrition information you posted, I hope to follow up with better & more positive weight loss results.
William, thanks for the comment and it’s great that you’re fighting back. If I may make a suggestion or two. It sounds as if your diet is relatively low fat (chicken, salad, vegetables) and while that particular combination is healthy enough, the low-fat aspect may leave you hungry. A higher fat diet, in the Atkins (or O’Brien) style may leave you less hungry. Re fasting: you might consider daily intermittent fasting, using an 8-hour feeding window. (Lots on IF here on my site.) Keep up the lifting: building muscle helps weight loss more than does cardio – though Joe’s experience is a bit different.
Please keep us informed as to your progress.
At my heaviest I was 340 lbs and I am only 5-10 so I’ve been where you are….
I would agree with what Dennis said – don’t worry about cardio until you have your diet squared. I lost a majority of my weight with no cardio. Basically going on a typical low-carb diet and lifting. The only two absolute rules were: ABSOLUTE AVOIDANCE of Grains especially Wheat and Absolute Avoidance of Omega 6 oils (no mayo, no commercial salad dressing). Getting rid of the grains and Omega 6 will have an amazing positive effect on your hunger (decreasing it)
Please keep in touch and follow-up with any questions.
Hey PD, I looked at the Top Steroids Australia website which is embedded in the comment above..
I’ve never heard of these supplements here or of the company, so I looked for a contact address..It is based in Larnica in Cypres.
1 : It is not an Australian business
2: So their claims about there steroid supplements being ‘legal’ here are very dubious.
3 : All stuff shipped here to Australia from overseas is inspected at Quarantine via X Ray and by being dog sniffed.
4: Illegal stuff ‘discovered’ is seized by Quarantine, and
5 : The destination address is also checked by police.
I suggest that folks from Oz not deal with them.
Thanks, Bill, I deleted the comment.
Joe – tell me about your lifting progress over time. What was your squat/bench/DL when you started four (?) years ago? Do you feel like you have reached a plateau, or are you still gaining? I’m 53 and started lifting seriously (again) 18 months ago. I am now definitely stronger than I was in my late 20s, which was the last time I was lifting regularly. I’m just not sure how strong it is reasonable to expect to get at my age. Yesterday I set my new 1RM records: 281# bench, 276# squat, 364# deadift. Yay! But can I realistically expect to squat 450 or dead 500? And *should* I be thinking in terms of lifting that big, or in terms of finding some “optimal weight for my age” for each lift and not exceeding it?