Just checked, and its been a little over two months since I started doing serious strength training. I'm also just about reaching the point where my strength training is producing notable results beyond Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). So, good time to take stock, right?
Any time I go for a run or walk into the weight room at the gym, I can see people who are much faster and stronger than I am. The thing that keeps me from falling into a giant pit of, "Man, I suck!" is to reflect on how much better I am than I used to be. To aid in that, I've decided to try to jot down some notes on my progress every few months. And I've decided to post them, because I love seeing what other mere mortals like myself are able to accomplish fitness-wise, so maybe someone besides me will find some interest in this.
What I'm currently doing
I run 3 times a week, usually about 3 miles per run. I try to make one of the runs a "long run" of about 3.5 to 4 miles, and incorporate some kind of interval work into one of the other runs, but mostly I just do what I feel like and what I think my body can handle on any given day.
I strength train twice a week. One session is with a personal trainer, and I do whatever he tells me to do for an hour. The other is by myself, and has evolved a lot, but at the moment includes squats, lunges or step ups, push ups (on an incline), overhead presses, bent-over rows, and either planks or reverse crunches.
On days when I neither strength train nor run, I sometimes go for a walk, or sometimes do no particular form of exercise.
Numbered not so much in order of priority, but for easy reference.
- To maintain bone density and muscle mass as I age. (I don't need anything like the intensity of what I'm doing right now to do this, but it is part of my motivation for getting up and exercising.)
- To be able to run a 10 minute mile (and sustain that pace for multiple miles), to be able to run 10 kilometers/6.2 miles, and to achieve these goals without seriously injuring myself.
- To get stronger. In the long term, I'd like to be able to lift my own bodyweight in the squat, deadlift, and bench press, and to do unassisted pull ups. However, based on my current strength level, these are very long term goals. Short term, I'm looking forward to things like being able to do a non-trivial number of real pushups, and being able to lift enough in the squat that it actually makes sense to rack up the barbell in the squat cage rather than using dumbbells.
- To fix my creaky left knee. This is the one I keep forgetting about, because I've already made huge progress on it.
- To look better. A weird thing happened after I'd been running a while - I started to like my thighs. They changed shape and got muscle on them, and I started catching glimpses of myself in mirrors and thinking, "Hey, nice legs...Wait, WHAT?!" I don't know if this is even really a goal, since I'm not aiming for anything in particular here, but knowing that getting fitter does make me like the way I look better is motivating.
Running: I can sustain a 12.5 minute mile over a multiple miles. The muscle soreness from strength training really threw a monkey wrench into my running for a while - I've just now started back on slowly increasing the length of my long run. The most recent one was 4.15 miles.
I haven't had any running injuries in the past few months. (Then again, I wouldn't expect to - in the entire time I've been running, I've only had one real injury in the sense of something that actually required a break from running of more than a day or two to stop hurting.) I do seem to recover from runs better - I have fewer minor aches and pains post-run than I used to, and I generally feel like I could actually run on consecutive days if I wanted to, although I haven't yet.
Strength: If I try to list every exercise I do, we'll all die of boredom. So, let me try to hit a few highlights.
- Squats: In my first training session, my trainer had me do squats while hanging on to the upright of the cable machine, so I didn't fall on my butt. I can now squat without falling on my butt. I can't quite squat to full depth while keeping my heels on the floor. If I squat to full depth, I don't use any extra weight. If I'm doing a box squat, I'll generally hold 2 10 lb. dumbbells.
- Pushups: I can do about 5 real pushups with good form. When I started strength training, I struggled to do even 1.
- Bench Press: I can currently do a reasonable number of sets/reps (we generally shoot for 4 sets of 10-15 reps) with 25 lbs.
- Lat Pulldown: Standing, with an overhand grip, I can do a reasonable number of reps with 50 lbs. (Actually, I swear I did 60 in the gym with my trainer on Tuesday, but on Friday, 50 was plenty challenging.)
- Pullups: Still not king.
- Core exercises: When I started training, I had great difficulty completing even 6 reps of a reverse crunch or bicycle crunch. Now I can do 4 sets and complete 10-15 reps per set. My current record for the plank is 34 seconds. (I'm not sure what it was when I started, because my trainer didn't even tell me the numbers. I'm guessing it was probably in the realm of 20 seconds, possibly less.)
My creaky knee: For years before I started running, I had nearly constant low-grade pain in my left knee. For the most part, it hurt enough to be annoying, but not enough to hamper activities, except whenever I had to sit for long periods of time with my legs bent, like on long plane flights or car rides, at which point it would be really damn painful. I complained vaguely to my primary care doctor about this, and she was like, "Yeah, it's probably a touch of arthritis, take some ibuprofen." Ibuprofen never seemed to help.
Bizarrely, running has almost completely fixed my knee pain. It still gets stiff and sore if I have to sit for a long time, and once in a while I'll tweak it somehow and it will get achy, but its default state is pain free. I'm kind of hoping that further strengthening my leg muscles might fix the problem entirely, but even this is so much better than I'd hoped for.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: The good news is that the overall trend does seem to be that my post-exercise soreness is diminishing over time. The bad news is that something like 1 out of every 3 strength training workouts leaves me sore enough that I end up either postponing a subsequent run, or doing a shorter or less intense run than I'd planned. I'm experimenting with various things that are purported to either prevent DOMS or hasten recovery, but it may be that the best cure is just to be patient.
Other observations: The biggest unexpected change from strength training is an improvement in posture. I sit up straighter, and hunch my shoulders forward less. I also feel like I walk differently - when I move, I actually feel like the top half of my body is connected to the lower half of my body. Yay, hip flexors. I think these postural changes largely account for the compliments I've been getting lately from friends and coworkers - I haven't actually lost weight, nor have I gotten amazingly buff, but something is different enough to make people comment.
I have put on some muscle mass, although it's a modest enough amount and under enough body fat that you'd be hard pressed to see it unless you were looking very closely. My most visible muscle definition is in my biceps and my calves. Which is funny, because I do almost no direct strength training work on my biceps or calves.
So, that's a snapshot of where I am, fitness-wise. Hopefully when I check back in 3 or 6 months, I'll find I've made progress.