Patience and time lead to long term strength gains, an older lifter's perspective

Ever feel like it's taken years of doing something to finally get to the point where you feel like you're ready to start making progress?

I do.  When I started lifting weights again with a goal to compete after a 16 year layoff, I had no idea where I would end up, only that I would likely need to continue for the rest of my life.  Since this originally started as my version of obesity therapy, I knew that if I ever stopped, I'd probably regain the weight that I had lost.  Being obese at 41 was uncomfortable so I could only imagine the effects at 50 or 60 or older would be worse.

Not a comfortable feeling, not a great look either.

Since I had weight trained and competed when I was younger, I didn't know how much stronger I could become.  I wasn't a beginner and didn't expect to enjoy the honeymoon period of "newbie gains".  In addition, my blood tests indicated I had low testosterone and TV commercials and print advertising aimed at my cohort suggested "consulting my physician" for pharmaceutical interventions to stem the tide of middle age.  Since I had made the commitment to compete in a drug tested powerlifting federation, I knew there was no easy way of creating the same hormonal environment I enjoyed when I last competed during my 'prime athletic years'.  It was what it was so I did what I could, namely, I lifted weights and ate food.

early on, met some strongman competitors and did a little strongman training
A video of some training prior to my first meet back in March 2008.  I was 41, 280 lbs at that time.  My squat groove definitely benefited from a big belly, it took 5 yrs before I could squat that kind of weight at 245 lbs of bodyweight.

Much of my strength levels from my previous competitive era came back pretty quickly.  My deadlift, formerly my best lift, came back the slowest but it, too, eventually came back.  I managed to maintain most of my strength as I dropped from 280 to 240 from March 2008 to July 2009.  After a year of competing raw, I decided I wanted to compete in a National meet.  Back in 2010 in Canada, this meant I needed to compete in gear--a bench shirt and a squat suit (I also wore my squat suit for deadlifts).  I was rushing the timetable because I was already 3 years into the 40-49 age group and thought the window for competitiveness closed with every passing year.  I achieved my goals of lifting at the 2010 Nationals but injured my shoulders in the process.  The overloading due to trying to learn how to use the bench press shirt was just too much for my shoulders and they became chronically sore.

2010 CPU Nationals, 3rd out of 5 lifters, I was just happy to be there.

I began training and competing raw again after August 2010 and for almost two years, my bench press stayed at 140 to 142.5 kgs.  12.5 kgs less than my best raw bench press achieved in March of 2008 when I was 275 lbs.  During that time period, I concentrated on improving my squat since it was almost 70 kgs less than my best deadlift.  My raw squat floundered around 205 kgs for about 18 months until I received some technique tips from an experienced lifter at the gym.  After June 2012, I also stopped yo-yo'ing my weight.  Previously I had bounced from about 250 down to 230 and back up while trying to make weight for meets.  This constant change in my bodyweight was stressful and no doubt added to the difficulty I was having in progressing my lifts.

Both my bench press and my squat started moving upwards again at around the same time I decided to leave my weight at 245-250 and stop cutting weight for meets..  As soon as I noticed my shoulders didn't hurt, I slowly started increasing both the frequency and the volume of my bench press workouts.   My bench press responded well to the increased stimulation.  The squat technique tip took longer to incorporate since I had to change how I squatted.  I had always squat-morning'd the weight up with a knees backwards/hips up shift that relied on a conventional style deadlifter's back and hamstrings.  Apparently with my structure, that meant I was maxed out as a 205 kg squatter as long as I was only a 280 kg deadlifter.  After I learned how to keep my glutes in the lift longer and not create poor leverage situations by getting my hips away from the bar, my squat started moving up but this time it didn't require concurrent improvements in my deadlift.  In fact, for the first time in my life, my squat actually carried over to my deadlifting.

285 kg DL.  I hit a 'comeback period' PR in the deadlift despite rarely training it prior to the meet.  

I've been lucky that, with the exception of the over-use injury with my shoulders, I've been able to avoid other injuries to backs, knees, hips, etc.  I typically train fairly conservatively and will take rest days rather than plow through fatigue or soreness.  I figure a missed day or week of training is still a better outcome than a missed month due to injury.

Time spent away from the gym is usually spent on one of these.

After training and competing for five and a half years, it feels like I'm still getting started.  While I hit some lifetime competition PR's in my last meet, I'm still nowhere near where I can be if I keep training. My squat and bench press have moved past previous PR's set when I was much younger and now that they are, I can once again start putting an emphasis on training my best lift, the deadlift.  I've been able to slowly increase my 'comeback' PR's but I still have a lifetime competition PR to beat. I'm hopeful, I'll finally get that one at my next meet with a 295 kg pull.

Despite believing in the beginning that I was past my prime, I've surprised myself and continued to make progress even after I thought my window for competitiveness was closing.  It hasn't felt like five and a half years.  The time has raced by.  I've been patient and I've gotten better at the lifts from a technical basis.  I've also let my weight remain stable rather than gaining and cutting for meets.  I think that has helped--one less thing for my body to stress over as I keep trying to convince it to push, pull, or squat another kg more.

Grumpy cat looks like how I felt about my lifting from January 2011 to June 2012.

In 18 months from January 2011 to June 2012, my three lift raw total only increased by 10 kgs.  Over the next 12 months, I was able to add another 32.5 kgs to my total.  Getting healthier, getting better at the lifts, and keeping my weight stable made a huge difference.   But the secret ingredient was time.  Not many beginning lifters would want to spend 30 months putting only 42.5 kgs on their total.  Some are disappointed if they don't put that much on their squat alone after a single smolov training cycle.

I needed to put in that time.  At my age and looking back in hindsight, I believe my body needed the time to 'get used to' the loads and the stresses.  It took time to feel comfortable and now, five and a half years after I started again, it feels like everything is ready to really do some lifting.  I have goals of hitting a 700 kg total sometime in the next 12 months.  After I hit that, I'll have goals of bigger totals and maybe even someday winning a Nationals, not just lifting in them.

Future goals:  more photos like this

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