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Two Months of Strength
A recap of my two month experiment with strength training
My personal training philosophy is simple: find balance in your training. I'm a firm believer that if you incorporate strength training, endurance training, and high intensity training you will achieve the best long term results with your fitness. The caveat to this is that it's hard to "get better" at these training types without having an interval of focused effort towards each practice.
Last year I focused on building up my endurance training. Quarantine made it hard for me to lift consistently, so it was perfect timing for me to focus on running. After a year of running I felt confident as a runner, but my strength wasn't where I wanted it to be.
In March, I decided to kick-off two months of focused strength training. I had never done a traditional "bulk" cycle where I allowed myself to gain weight strategically, and I had never explicitly focused on strength training while reducing my cardio load. Here's what I learned.
1. Eat big to lift big
If you want to focus on building strength, you need to fuel your training appropriately. I had always eaten around 2,600 calories per day to maintain a weight of 180 lbs. During my two month experiment I increased my calories to 3,000 calories to properly fuel my lifts.
I added carbohydrates for energy and extra protein to help build muscle. Extra energy also meant extra weight. After it was all said and done my weight went from 180 lbs to 188 lbs.
That weight gain was a combination of muscle and fat. I use a Garmin Index scale to measure my weight and body fat percentage. My body fat went from 19% to 24% according to the scale. However, according to a handheld body fat measurement system and traditional calipers my weight stayed consistent around 12% body fat.
I would guess that the majority of my weight gain came from excess water I was holding due to the major decrease in intense running.
A note on body fat calculations: scales are great at showing trends, but not great at giving you real measurements on body fat. Combine different ways of measuring body fat percentage to get the proper reading for your body type.
2. Maintain your cardio, but don't overdo it
Don't lose your cardio gains during a strength phase. Use this time to let your body rest after an intense period of cardiovascular training. I'll share my weekly schedule below, but as a core principle try to incorporate low intensity cardio twice a week and high intensity sustained cardio once a week.
I tried to build HIIT into my strength sessions as a "finisher" as much as I could. This meant 10-12 minutes of cardio at 160+ BPM at the end of each workout. This helped keep body fat gain low while I was bulking.
3. Focus on strength numbers, not scale numbers
This period of training is about lifting heavier weight. The scale isn't important during this phase. If your strength is increasing, you are doing the right things. There is a reason I time boxed this period to two months. I didn't want to take my eyes off of the scale for too long, but giving myself the freedom to take a step back from tracking weight gave me the freedom to focus on performance.
As long as you are eating healthy foods and feeling good, don't worry about the weight gain that comes with increased calories and decreased cardio.
4. Have a plan for the end of your strength phase
As I end my strength phase, I'm transitioning back into a cardio-heavy "cut" phase. I will most likely drop a lot of the fat and water weight I gained in the last two months but the goal is to maintain my strength and muscle mass while doing so.
Without a clear plan you can easily end up holding onto the excess weight you gained while focusing on strength. I'll share my plan for cutting the weight after I complete this next phase of training.
The Weekly Plan
Here is what my weekly plan looked like for the past two months. A couple of key ingredients are at play here:
Strength Training: For power
Hypertrophy Training: For mass and conditioning
Low Intensity Endurance Training: For maintaining endurance (Sunday)
High Intensity Cardio: For maintaining speed (Wednesday and Saturday)
The weeks are front-loaded with strength and taper off in load to allow for recovery. While recovering from strength I would focus on low-intensity cardio that was usually in Zone 1 and 2 of my heart rate zones. My primary method of cardio during this time was indoor cycling to go easy on my legs.
Towards the end of this 2-month cycle I started incorporating more running to prepare for my transition back to a running-focused plan.
Strength days were compound lifts only, and hypertrophy days were focused on smaller muscle groups. Strength training was 5 sets of 5 reps per lift at heavy weight, and hypertrophy training was 4 sets of 8-12 reps per exercise at lighter weights. I personally like to constantly incorporate hypertrophy training, but if you wanted to focus solely on power you could swap out hypertrophy days for big lifts.
Now for the fun part. I'll keep this short:
I hit personal records for every major lift.
I gained 8lbs of mass while keeping body fat % gains low.
I got faster with my 5k pace.
I felt great and had a ton of energy.
If I had to call out any negatives of the past two months I would say that the only downside was eating. 3000 calories of clean eating is a TON of food. Most days I would eat a huge bowl of oatmeal, two protein shakes, chicken and sweet potatoes, 300g of egg whites, a big dinner with protein and veggies and a ton of rice cakes and peanut butter. At first it was fun, but after week two it's a burden. I'm really excited about cutting back.
That's it! If you're interested in focusing on strength training I hope my little experiment helps. Feel free to reach out with questions. If you're looking for a plan like this I'm always here to help at firstname.lastname@example.org.