Barbell Training is for Everyone! Mylan’s Story

Over the past several years I have heard many misconceptions about barbell training. The ones I hear most frequently are 1) the bulky and slow myth, 2) the fallacy that barbells are for younger athletes or “I’m not trying to be a weightlifter anyway,” and 3) “I’m not strong enough” or “I can’t”.   Much has been written about each of these notions, so I’ll just touch on them briefly. Then I’ll share the experience of one of my clients, Mylan Dawson, a man in his early 50s with a primarily sedentary job, concerned about his loss of muscle and strength but not sure what to do about it; a man who had some common misconceptions about Barbell training and who now “could not be happier that I overcame my reluctance and committed to trying barbell training as it has made a significance difference in my life in a relatively short time.”

The Misconceptions
1) The Bulky and Slow Myth
First off, “bulky” is a subjective term about which plenty has been written, especially as it pertains to perceptions of female athletes. Suffice it to say “bulk” has more to do with nutrition, supplementation, and exercise volume (total number of reps) than it does to touching a heavy weight. People you might perceive as “bulky” worked intentionally and very hard for many years to build muscle; it will not happen to you accidentally.  (In fact even with intentional eating and dedicated training, some people struggle to build muscle mass). For the average person, a heavy barbell poses less of a “bulking” threat than dessert and alcohol do.  

Once we get past the false idea that weight training will leave you “bulky” and “musclebound,” it becomes more clear that increased strength actually improves almost all markers of athleticism, including speed.  More strength means a greater ability to produce force against resistance – translated this means a stronger you can run faster or can run at your previous speed more easily.

2) Barbells Are for Younger Athletes or “I’m Not Trying To Be a Weightlifter Anyway!”
Yes, college athletes, powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, etc train with barbells. That doesn’t mean that everyone training under a bar has the same competitive goals, just as everyone driving a car does not intend to be a NASCAR driver.  I use barbells and barbell lifts because they are time-tested, effective ways to build strength and to maintain muscle and bone mass – not because I’m trying to turn everyone into a competitive powerlifter.  My regular training buddies include women and men spanning all decades, including well into their 70s, and just a few of my training partners are interested in competing.  Regardless of whether the goal is a competition or active and healthy aging, building strength increases one’s durability, independence, and quality of life.

3) “I’m Not Strong Enough” or “I Can’t”
Strength is a continuum and chances are you’re not as devoid of strength as you might imagine.  Additionally, the road to strength has many different on-ramps. Regardless of your exercise or injury history, there is always something you could be doing to get stronger. Every main lift has modifications for those who are recovering from surgery or injury, and most ROM limitations are less restrictive than people are generally lead to believe. A properly equipped facility will have specialty and training bar options. I started my kids out with a 10# training bar, and we built from there. Weight can be added to a barbell in much smaller increments than is possible with other training modalities, as little as 1/2 pound at a time.  In the world of strength one learns straight away that the focus is always on what one can do; not on reasons why one can’t.

Mylan’s Story

“At 52, it became painfully obvious to me that I was experiencing significant muscle loss. My clothes were alternatively baggy and tight – and in all the wrong places.  I was noticeably slow to stand up when getting out of bed and the times I need to lift our senior dog into and out of the car or up and down stairs was beginning to be more and more difficult.  I knew it was time to get stronger but, as I did not have any real experience with weight training, I did not know how. Fortunately, six months ago I was referred to Rebecca.

“I was initially somewhat reluctant to barbell training as I was concerned about the time commitment and as well as my inability to perform the lifts due to my lack of strength. Rebecca introduced me to the Starting Strength method of training which focuses on lifting weights using a barbell and doing so in the most efficient and safest manner possible to gain overall strength. This has had the benefit of keeping my time in the gym down to a manageable level. Rebecca also explained that the movements we would be doing were generally reproductions of what we do in everyday life – squatting down to pick something up or lifting something heavy over our heads for example. I could not be happier that I overcame my reluctance and committed to trying barbell training as it has made a significance difference in my life in a relatively short time. For example, lifting and carrying the dog is easier and I feel more stable, my knees are nowhere near as balky in the mornings as previously and I carry my luggage and place it in the overhead far easier than before making my frequent business travel significantly less strenuous.

“I have found a good, qualified coach to be essential. Learning the lifts has been one challenge but interruptions from work and everyday life has presented other obstacles to reaching my goals. In overcoming these challenges, I have benefited immeasurably from having a professional give her perspective and guidance on all aspects of my training. Rebecca realizes we are all individuals and tailors my program to fit my needs and limitations to help me reach my personal goals. She has also been very helpful in providing guidance on nutrition. While I had little knowledge of the process of lifting weights, I had even less understanding of the nutritional needs of my body when doing so and how to eat in a way to best position my body to respond favorably to weight training. Rebecca has helped me make realistic and achievable long term changes to my diet that have helped me feel better as well as gain strength.

“I would recommend anyone of any age to seriously explore barbell training with Rebecca. The confidence gained from getting stronger cannot be understated, and Rebecca is the ideal person to help you begin your journey.”


Mylan overcame his misconception that he was “not strong enough” for barbells and began training mid 2018. During his first week, he squatted 95#, overhead pressed 55#, benched 65#, and deadlifted 115#.  He trained fairly regularly 3x/week. We worked around his job, travel schedule, family obligations, and we made appropriate adjustments when necessary. Now he’s squatting 220#, benching 175#, overhead pressing 110#, and deadlifting 255#.

Season of Strength: Lora’s Story

Lora Dietrich is no stranger to the gym.  She has spent countless hours in the cardio room on an elliptical or a treadmill, in the pool swimming, in spin, TRX and Pilates classes, and in the free weight room lifting dumbbells.  In fact, that’s where she was the first time she saw me working with a small group of women in the squat rack.  Up until that moment, barbell training had always impressed Lora, but had seemed “out of her league.”  She says, “I did not see it as something the ordinary person would do.”  Watching other women about her age working under the bar challenged her perception.  Shortly after that, Lora contacted me to say she wanted to give it a try.  After consistently training for several months, and coincidentally celebrating a milestone birthday, Lora continues to add weight to her lifts is stronger than ever.

When Lora first started thinking about doing strength training with me, she was at a point where she felt she had hit a plateau; she was not increasing the weight she was able to lift, and she felt like her body was in a slump: “I was getting frustrated with spending hours in the gym and not getting the results I was looking for at this time in my life.  I wanted training that would make me stronger – training that would maximize the time I spent in the gym.”  In addition to that Lora was also becoming tired and frustrated by her seemingly endless quest to be “smaller.”  “The world bombards women with the idea that they should be smaller, skinnier, thinner,” says Lora.  “There is absolutely nothing wrong with being smaller … skinny is beautiful too, but when being smaller becomes an obsession… the focus of your life – that’s when it can become a problem.  I was getting caught up in that obsession part.”

Lora has found that strength training has allowed her to build herself up and get out of her exercise slump.  With practice, focus, and perseverance, Lora has been able to increase the amount of weight she can move and the amount of muscle her body has built.  It was a slow process initially, since we didn’t have access to some of the equipment she needed.  Once the gym (SPRFC) invested in bumper plates and a 33# bella bar, Lora has been able to progress her lifts significantly.  This process has been both empowering and exhilarating, (for both of us).  Lora describes the correlation between her increasing physical strength and a stronger sense of self: “With each lift I am a better version of strong.  I’ve at least doubled my working weights in all my lifts.  I could not do one pull-up when I started.  Now I can do sets of four.  I can lift more than my bodyweight in my deadlift.  I can use the full weight Oly bar on all my lifts now and ADD weight to it.  I don’t compare my lifts with anyone else’s.  It’s all about my individual bests, what I can do.  It has been very empowering for me… It’s so energizing and freeing to know that I am strong.”

While some may think heavy lifting might best be left to athletes and younger folks, Lora has found that she has maximized strength while minimizing risk of injury.  The lifts are controlled, full-body lifts that strengthen the body as one unit.  With strict attention paid to bracing and form, there is less risk of injury than in settings where speed of movement is encouraged at the expense of form.  Rest days are essential and are stressed with strength training in a way that does not always get emphasized in other fitness formats.  Lora says, “I chose this type of training because I’m in it for the long run and it’s what I need.  I’m 50 years old now.  As we age, we all lose muscle mass which can lead to many issues.  Strength training, using proper technique, is building my muscle.  It’s giving me more muscle mass so that as I age, I will stay strong.”

One of the most profound changes Lora has experienced in her strength training is a shift in her views on food.  Just as rest is emphasized with strength training, so too is proper nutrition.  Lora has learned to fuel her body for strength instead of trying to get away with eating the minimum amount to maintain an exercise habit.  She has readjusted her focus from being smaller to being stronger and healthier:  “I was always limiting my calories .. I think this was the main reason my body was in a fitness slump.  I did not eat breakfast and was not getting enough protein.  It was and still is a big mental challenge for me to fuel my lifts so I can get stronger.  No more size zeros for me.  But that’s okay.  I’m working to get my body in the shape it’s meant to be in and I feel the best I have in years.  … Just turning 50, I’m in this for the long run.  Stronger and healthier is what my body and mind need to enjoy the long run.  … Part of being stronger and healthier is being happier.  When I eat right to fuel my muscles and hit a lift goal …. So exciting!!!”  Lora has learned to celebrate each accomplishment, each lift, even on the days when she doesn’t nail all her reps.  It’s all part of the process of becoming stronger.  At the end of the day she says, “mentally, I know I’m strong.  I know I’m healthy.  I have a positive self- image.  And I’m working to stay that way, one lift at a time.”

Lora's Bench
Lora’s Bench

Lora's Deadlift
Lora’s Deadlift

Seventy & Post-Surgery Strong: Susan’s Story

Some people view retirement as a chance to relax a bit more.  Not Susan Wilson.  She saw her retirement as an opportunity to get started in the gym building the strength that she had lost over the previous several years “due to working too hard, illness, and a long commute.  Now that I’m retired, I want to get back to what made me feel and look good.”  She also specifically wanted to build the strength around her knees, which had been painful for a while.  She began training with me as part of small group strength training session and then continued with personal training.

123_1As a result of her hard work, Susan has noticed that her stamina, strength, balance, and flexibility have all improved.  “When someone has more stamina,” she says, “I believe it affects their self confidence, as well as their sense of well being and how they conduct their daily affairs.  I also noticed that my posture has improved which is good because my shoulders had become a little humped from all of those years of toiling over a computer.”  Susan enjoys the way exercise makes her feel, both the good feeling of exercise endorphins and the longer lasting feeling of being strong and healthy.  As her trainer, it’s fun to hear from Susan how her work in the gym translates into her everyday life.  For example, she recently told her husband she didn’t need any help carrying a 50# bag of dog food, because she knew the farmer’s carries she did as part of her training had prepared her for such a task.

Despite all the improvements to her health and strength that Susan experienced, her doctor discovered that some of her knee pain was due to a torn meniscus, so after a little over three months of personal training, she had arthroscopic knee surgery.  Her recovery has been remarkably smooth, which her doctor credits in large part to her pre-surgery strength training which specifically targeted the muscles around her knee.  The second day after her surgery, she began taking walks and doing some stretching exercises, as well as some of the strengthening exercises we had worked on.  Her pre-surgery training also allowed her to move more effectively, taking unneeded stress off her knee and making her recovery more comfortable:  “Because the hip hinge with and without weights was part of my training, I had a much easier time getting out of chairs or up from the couch.  Otherwise my previous way of moving put weight directly on my knee and caused pain.”  Susan is continuing her training as she recovers from surgery, working with a physical therapist twice a week, with me once a week, and exercising at home.

Throughout her life, Susan has participated in various forms of physical activity ranging from ballet, to skiing, to hiking and running, to yoga and most recently Qi Gong.  She continues to make exercise a priority, because from a young age, she realized the connection between healthy foods and exercise and overall good health: “I remember growing up and noticing how many people would begin to get sick with various ailments in their late 30’s, and I promised myself that that would not happen to me.  Fortunately, my mother always served healthy meals and used good products in cooking.  I am very aware of how exercise and a good diet help stave off many illnesses.”  As Susan approaches her 71st birthday, her goals are to continue to work hard to gain maximum strength and stamina and to improve her balance.

Less “Locker Room Talk”; More Training Room Talk

       I’ve written along these lines before but under different circumstances.  It starts with a basic observation of mine that in the weight room the strongest people I know rarely talk about how much weight they can move.  They never brag or self-promote or use their strength to tear others down. The people I’ve met in the weight room who have incredible strength are humble and supportive and encouraging.
       I train with men as well as women. At Fivex3 Training, there is one small bathroom; there is no locker room. Sometimes our language is raw: “I did split squats the other day, and my ass is killing me!” or after getting a heavy rep, you might hear “fuck yeah!”  But there is no “locker room talk”.  Nothing is said that would demean another trainee: male or female, twenty or seventy, republican or democrat.
       Instead we have training room talk.  We move metric shitloads of iron in the space of a few seconds, and then we have the conversations of people who have real strength, the strength to put aside their own egos to encourage and support another person.  Developing our strength as individuals does not come at the expense of another; it is not achieved by mining someone else’s self-confidence or security.  We are all on a mutual quest to be better and stronger than yesterday.  And we respect that process in each other.fivex3
       I think we could all use more examples of training room talk.

Strength to Walk Out of Darkness: Meredith’s Story

If you live in Anne Arundel county, MD, there is a sad chance that you know someone with a story similar to Meredith’s.  If you live in Severna Park, there’s a greater chance that this story is one with which you are already familiar, one that you read in the paper or heard from a neighbor.  On Tuesday 24 January 2012, Meredith McCandless’s husband, Jim, father of her three children and popular high school baseball coach, took his own life.  He had been battling depression for over a year.  Meredith’s job as a mental health consultant for Anne Arundel County made her more aware of the signs of his struggle than many of us would have been, but by their nature, depressive thoughts are deceitful, tricking those affected by them as well as their loved ones, and so Jim’s slightly unusual behaviors on that particular day didn’t seem to be red flags until they were viewed in retrospect.

In the midst of this tragedy, Meredith has been incredibly strong, both for her children and because of them.  In the days after Jim’s completed suicide, Meredith’s family and friends helped her cope: “My children saved my life!”  At that point, Meredith’s youngest child was 5 months old.  “I had to get out of bed, even when I didn’t want to.  I’ve had a lot of very lonely self-pity filled days and nights, and I fight off the bitterness daily.”  Somehow having children whose basic needs had to be met served as some of the glue that kept the pieces together on the days when everything seemed most broken.

The structure of regular workouts at the gym has also helped.  Meredith usually fits in 3-4 training sessions per week.  Additionally talking, sharing her story, and being an open book about all of this has also turned out to be essential in her healing process.  This was a choice that Meredith did not necessarily make herself: “…my devastation was front page news.  I couldn’t have hidden, even if I was that type of person.”  Her openness has been vital to those around her who are struggling with similar situations; currently she is in the process of assisting a college friend through the recent loss of her husband by suicide.  Meredith has future goals of starting a suicide support group and a spouse support organization with a child related component.  While there are some groups of this nature listed in our area, Meredith has found that they were no longer up and running.

imageAnother staple in Meredith’s life now and one of the ways she regularly helps to promote conversation about suicide is through her annual participation in the “Out of Darkness” walk, organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  According to AFSP, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 15 and 64 years in the United States, and it claims more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined.  AFSP’s mission statement targets five key goals: to fund scientific research, offer educational programs for professionals, educate the public about mood disorders and suicide prevention, promote policies and legislation that impact suicide and prevention, and provide programs and resources for survivors of suicide loss and people at risk, and involve them in the work of the Foundation.  This year’s walk is on Saturday 24 September.

Meredith’s purpose in being open about her situation is to support others and also to help change the mindset around suicide and mental health.  Meredith believes that the reason for the mental health stigma that exists in our culture is “ignorance about mental health as a whole.  We must start thinking of it as ‘brain’ health as opposed to mental health.  The brain is an organ, just like our heart or lungs.  We care for these organs without the stigma of embarrassment.  Why not the brain too?!  Suicide is the fallout of ignoring adequate treatment of that organ.  The more we talk about it, the less ignorant we are, which leads to less stigma and embarrassment.”

You can support Meredith’s walk this year by making a donation to her fundraising page and by helping to spread the word; be a part of the conversation that helps to end the ignorance and stigma around brain health.

Strength in her Stride: Suzi’s Story

Some type of exercise has been a part of Suzi Wood’s life since she joined the local swim team at the age of seven. She began running in middle school and carried a love of running with her into her adult life.  She enjoyed aerobics enough to become an instructor for nine years and also has had training in martial arts.  One of the reasons exercise has been such a cornerstone in Suzi’s life has a lot to do with the fact that she truly enjoys moving. If you have ever been in a group fitness class with Suzi you know what I mean. Her enthusiasm is palpable. She wears a smile on her face and a sparkle in her eye as she challenges herself each day to be a little bit better.  Suzi likes to push herself, and she loves physical challenge.

In the spirit of challenging herself, Suzi laughingly told herself that she would run a marathon by the time she was 50.  She completed her first marathon, the Philly marathon in 2014 at the age of 52.  She trained diligently with running partners who were experienced marathoners, and while she was physically very well prepared for the race, the event itself taught her the importance of mental training as well:

“I was scared! I didn’t know how I was going to feel. … I felt good going into the race but there are always questions in your mind: Am I going to start out too fast because I’m excited! Am I going to hit the wall? How is my body going to feel and can I get through the pain? Around mile 23 I felt like I wanted to cry! It was really weird. I couldn’t tell if I was crying because I was hurting or happy? I still felt pretty good but my legs hurt! At this point in the race you are running along the Schuylkill River on a two lane road, so you see the runners that are ahead of you nearing the finish. I was just very emotional. I had to calm down, I told myself I was wasting too much energy. A mile later I knew I had it and I had the energy to sprint across the finish line. It was an awesome high that I will never forget. I was proud of what I’d accomplished. So much of the race and the training was in my head. I did a lot of talking to myself…saying things like…slow down, you’ve got this, drink, look around enjoy the view, relax…”

Suzi Boston medal          Suzi boston

Suzi’s finish time allowed her to qualify for the Boston Marathon, so she registered for and ran the Boston Marathon in 2015.  This time she added strength training as another form of cardio to her preparation.  Moving light weights faster and body weight training, especially through kick boxing classes, was the approach Suzi took in her cardio-strength training.  “The energy you get from a good class where everyone is really ‘into it’ is amazing!” Suzi says, “It’s fun! You feed off each other!”  As a result, she developed a lot more upper body strength and speed and also strengthened her core. As an added benefit, she has more energy overall!

Nearly a year and a half later, this varied approach to training paid off as Suzi completed the Boston strong.  If you know the Boston marathon, you understand how hilly the course is; additionally the temperature for the Boston was much hotter due to the time of year.  Suzi found that her improved upper body strength allowed her to pump her arms better to attack the hills and her recovery time after the race was much shorter; her legs felt recovered by the next day.

Suzi’s best advice:  “Mix it up! Challenge yourself, push yourself, laugh and make it fun!!”  Suzi’s next goal: pull-ups!

Suzi bootcamp     Suzi work

Mission Altered; Mission Accomplished

The youth group from Our Shepherd Lutheran Church recently set out on their yearly summer mission trip to build homes for Habitat for Humanity, and while it takes a certain amount of physical strength to do the work of construction, that is not the focus of this real world story of strength.  This year’s destination was White Sulphur Springs, WV.  You may have seen it in the news.  By Thursday of that week, the area was hit with devastating floods that washed the roads out in all directions, and like the river, the mission trip took an entirely different course.  The group was being housed at the Civic Center, which in times of emergency is a Red Cross Disaster Relief Site, so not surprisingly at around 5pm, one of the youth directors, Alex, received a call from Joyce, the Civic Center Supervisor, to let him know the center was about to be activated; the gym would be opened, and people in need of shelter would be housed there.  The flooding was so bad, however, that while the relief center was there, the Red Cross were not able to get in.

News of the flooding began to hit the networks, and parents started calling and texting the leaders, worried about their children.  The leaders decided to gather everyone together.  What they saw before them was a group of visibly shaken kids.  Those kids had seen and heard about the river swelling, about cars floating by, about houses collapsing and lives being lost.  They were rightfully scared.

mission pixAlex looked out at the group and gave them two instructions:  “#1)  Call or text your parents.  Let them know you are safe.  Let them know you have food, shelter, water, and that you are residing in the safest place in White Sulphur Springs, in the Red Cross Disaster Relief Center.  #2)  Get out of your own heads!  Nothing is happening to you.  You are safe and have everything you need.  As of right now, our Mission has changed.  We are no longer “Habitat for Humanity”.  We are now the “Red Cross”.  Every decision we make from now on needs to be centered on ‘How can I help these people who have REAL problems?’  They’ve lost their homes, their possessions, and possibly loved ones.  You are to be the ‘Light on the hill’.  Now go and help!”

And they did.  With the help of some great coaching and a group of outstanding chaperones, those kids were able to move out of their own headspace, away from their own growing panic, and were able to get to work helping others.  They served those in need by setting up cots, distributing blankets and clothing, feeding and sheltering people.  This included people who were in shock, people who had lost homes and family, people who were trapped and uncertain about what they had lost, people with medical conditions, and people who could not locate loved ones.  Those kids did all that while simultaneously batting flooding in the Civic Center itself.  In the midst of their hard work and lingering concern, they were empathetic and kind.  To my mind, this is one of the ways that strength looks outside of the gym.  I believe that real strength is being able to put the genuine needs of others before our own self-centered and often imagined fears.  More than lifting tons of gravel, swinging hammers, and digging ditches, real strength is often as subtle and quiet as momentarily taming our own insecurities to be able to help someone else in need.

Real Strength

Over the last year I have met some incredibly strong people; people who can pull and push a lot of weight.  The majority of them are oddly reluctant to talk about how much weight they can move.  They definitely strive for PRs and are excited when they reach them, but they seem to take more pride in how much progress others have made than in what they can do.  They are humble in their success, encouraging to those who are just starting, and seem to have a clear realization that real strength is more than just moving iron.

A perfect example of this is Emily, who looks around her gym and explains, “This?  This is nothing.  This is just weightlifting.  Real strength is the way my sister lived every day as normally as possible for her children while she was fighting cancer.”

And that’s the truth.  Real strength doesn’t look anything like what we might first imagine.  It is not the superhero battling villains with superpowers. It is quiet and often goes unnoticed.  It’s the new mother trying to keep her calm on three hours of sleep.  It’s the soldier who has been on multiple deployments readjusting to civilian life.  It’s the kid struggling to believe in herself in the face of bullying.  It’s the family desperately hanging on after the death of a child.  It’s the parent who works everyday at an unsatisfying job to make a better future for the family.  Real strength is more like Clark Kent living an ordinary life, not mentioning a thing about being Superman, but continuing to watch out for the little guy.  Real strength is being secure enough in ourselves to treat everyone with respect and encouragement, instead of reacting to others out of insecurity and fear.  It is being able to put our own ego and concerns on hold to help others along.

Let’s celebrate the everyday examples of strength.  Please send them to me so we can share them under the “Stories of Strength in the Real World” heading.

An Invitation for You

This morning a new woman showed up for my 6 AM boot camp. She was fit and muscular and having a great time. After class I saw her in the lobby of the gym reading my page on the wall of personal trainers:

As a former college cross country runner and marathoner, I appreciate the physical and mental benefits of a long run.  However, after having four kids in three years (twins!), I now focus on strength training and healthy eating habits as the most time-efficient way to obtain overall fitness, real-world durability, and healthy movement patterns. I am a certified Personal Trainer with a Functional Training Specialty (ACE), certified group fitness instructor, Mad Dogg Athletics Spinning Instructor.

Philosophy: My goal is to make fitness and healthful living fun and accessible to all ages, regardless of where you are in your journey, for a whole life and a whole lifetime.

Her eyes were lit up with the same kind of smile I had seen in them when she was doing shuttle runs and bear crawls. She turned to me and said excitedly, “That’s my story too!  I used to run all the time. I still do; I just completed the Boston. But now I do a lot more strength training.  I’m having a lot of fun cross-training and it’s making me better runner.”

I think it’s a good world to live in when we can connect to each other through stories of strength, and not insecurities and fear.  Please send me your story of strength.  I’d love to share your story under the “Stories of Strength in the Weight Room” tab.  Let’s celebrate, but not brag.  Let’s build each other up, but not tear each other down.  Add photos, if you want – a picture is worth a thousand words.   Let’s encourage each other.