Getting in Shape for Good

Ask different people what getting in shape means to them, and you will likely hear some combination of function, performance, and health. I’ve done my best to distill all of these different versions of “getting in shape” down to a cohesive, more descriptive goal that is better defined: get stronger and encourage body recomposition. Specific aspects of your physical condition change in very specific ways, so your training regimen shouldn’t be general. It should address and counteract those changes that are disconnecting you from your healthy youthfulness.

Getting in Shape for Good

By: Noah Hayden, BLOC Staff Editor and Coach

Most people fully intend to put in the dedication and consistency needed to “get in shape,” but the concept is so vague that it lacks a sufficient definition for real accountability. Getting in shape can take many forms—Pilates, yoga, running, cycling, CrossFit, rucking—but without some fundamental metrics for judging outcomes, people’s choices are usually driven more by preference than what will work best in the long run.

Of course, we may quip that getting in shape is a journey, not a destination—but a journey without direction is pretty pointless. The truth is that we’re all heading in the same direction eventually. The inevitability of age gives all of us some common ground and common definition of what “in shape” looks like.

Ask different people what getting in shape means to them, and you will likely hear some combination of function, performance, and health. For some, a lower number on the bathroom scale, by any means necessary, equals success. If the bathroom scale was the final say on being in shape, however, then being severely dehydrated or losing a kidney would easily lower the number five pounds. Of course, that wouldn’t be ideal for long-term health. So let’s redefine what real (healthy and sustainable) success would look like. Losing weight sans all other context is a dangerous and self-defeating game. What you really want is to carry less body fat while still being happy—an important distinction. The number on the scale doesn’t really matter; you just want a different body composition.

Others define getting in shape as not getting winded while doing physical tasks—like playing a sport, doing yard work, or when trying to keep up with their kids or grandkids. Most people would agree that being stronger and having better cardiovascular conditioning is what’s needed here. Having more lean tissue (muscle and bone, etc.) increases your metabolism and helps regulate your endocrine profile, which is good news for those who are primarily interested in just losing body fat. Maybe others might consider getting in shape to mean being healthier—as in a better yearly physical exam and bloodwork results. Nutrition, of course, plays a huge role here, but again, exercise that encourages a recomposition toward a stronger, leaner body will deliver the results you’re after.

I’ve done my best to distill all of these different versions of “getting in shape” down to a cohesive, more descriptive goal that is better defined: get stronger and encourage body recomposition. From there, targeted changes to help you get into shape follow from a few specific questions: What physical attributes are hallmarks of a healthy, durable human? What has happened to you that led to getting out of shape? These offer clues about what needs to change to achieve your goals. Part of the answer comes from what happens to your body as you age. As you get older (older than mid-20s), you don’t just generally atrophy and decline. Specific aspects of your physical condition change in very specific ways, so your training regimen shouldn’t be general. It should address and counteract those changes that are disconnecting you from your healthy youthfulness. Let’s explore what a couple of these changes are.

The Aging Process

The human body is an efficient organism, meaning it adapts (restructures) itself to more easily exist in its environment. (Your environment is what you eat and what you do and what you think.) This isn’t necessarily a good thing for long-term health and wellness. Changes or adaptations are only to allow the organism to complete required tasks with a minimum of energy and material expenditure. This “frugal accounting” is what aging is all about.

As you age, your body maintains only as much bone density as is necessary to accommodate your lifestyle (which is the environment it exists in). This isn’t good news for a person who works in a sedentary career or “takes it easy” later in life. It’s easy for an average modern human to have dangerously frail bones by late middle age—especially women (because of other hormonal changes going on). It’s important to recognize that this isn’t happening because of a dietary deficiency of minerals; it’s a lifestyle deficiency: if you do not need denser bones, taking more calcium (or some other supplement) won’t fix the problem.

Another major element of aging is an atrophying of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Your body loses volume in these fibers preferentially as you age, far more than slow-twitch fibers—probably because fast-twitch fibers are metabolically more expensive to maintain, among other things. Regardless, the average modern lifestyle doesn’t require these fibers (more on this later), so your body adapts by relying on fibers that fit your activity habits and are “cheaper” to maintain. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are characterized by (you guessed it) faster and more forceful contractions, meaning they facilitate powerful, short-duration activities. These will be important elements to remember when selecting exercise habits later on.

All of this means that even if your body weight doesn’t change much over the years, your body’s composition most certainly does. The same body weight with less bone and muscle tissue means your durability is diminishing—your independence is slowly degrading into a less able-bodied person. Also, all that lean tissue required an abundance of resources and calories to maintain. Now that it’s gone, your metabolism is heading in the wrong direction. Partly because of this, most adults gain some weight as they age (usually mostly fat), furthering the body composition slide towards unhappy and unhealthy.

The Usual Attempt

Watching these changes, you naturally want to stop or reverse the decline. Unfortunately, the usual attempts—less food and more cardio—simply promote a slower metabolism and a further adaptation toward relying on slow-twitch fibers. Why? Starving yourself tells your body you are in famine times. It responds very rationally to this stimulus by reducing your energy expenditures as much as possible: slowing your metabolism, shedding muscle and bone wherever possible, and suspending ovulation, among other things. It will staunchly resist using fat stores because it clearly is going to need them when the food completely runs out. Do you see how this is already the opposite of what you hoped would happen?

Crash dieting will eventually lead to weight loss (for as long as you can maintain being miserable), but not the weight loss you were hoping for. And, as soon as you cheat on the diet, your weight will bounce back. But the weight you gain back will be primarily fat since your body is still storing as much as possible during famine times. Every trip through this cycle leaves your body composition worse off than where you started, and it causes very real metabolic damage to your remaining muscle tissue.

Couple this signaling with long bouts of cardio, like jogging, and you can make the cycle worse. Endurance exercise like this requires a relatively low level of force production, sustained over a long period of time. This can only be accomplished with slow-twitch fibers. It’s what they were designed to do. How can your body adapt to perform this task more efficiently, which it desperately needs to do since you’re starving? It can make every step easier to take by making you lighter, which it accomplishes by further reducing muscle size and bone density. Think about it: you don’t need big muscles to take 10,000 steps (as the body composition of every Olympic marathon runner shows us). Small, frail bodies win endurance races.

Again, long bouts of endurance exercise encourage this undesirable trend in body composition changes. This combined approach effectively accelerates the aging process. Let that sink in for a minute.

A More Rational Exercise Approach

What style of exercise does address these changes that—like it or not—are taking place in adults? There are perhaps many possible answers here, but the exercise modality you choose must specifically adapt the body in a way that counteracts these changes.

The only way to increase bone density is to load the skeleton with weight—a reasonable amount of weight that increases slowly over time at a safe rate. This causes micro-fractures in the bone matrix, signaling a very real need for a denser matrix. Problem solved.

In order to keep and grow fast-twitch fibers, two things need to be present in an exercise regimen: (1) exercises must require high levels of force production, and (2) each bout of effort shouldn’t last longer than about 45 seconds. This is because fast-twitch fibers are the last fibers in a muscle group to be recruited or “turned on” when producing force. So, “light” exercises don’t meet your needs. That might not sound like fun, but luckily you don’t have to maintain that level of exertion for very long. (By definition, if you can sustain an effort for longer than the approximately 45-second window, it generally doesn’t require enough force production for your needs.)

What exercise modalities satisfy these needs? I explored these considerations and more in greater detail in this article. Spoiler alert: strength training with barbells in a lower rep range satisfies these requirements exquisitely. It may seem like my opinion is biased—being a staff coach with Barbell Logic—but I assure you I became a barbell-based strength coach after arriving at this conclusion. No other modality comes close to the ability of barbells to safely and precisely dose the stressors needed to combat the aging process and deliver you to a healthier, more “in shape” state.

A Sustainable Approach to Nutrition

Sending your body all these growth signals from training means you need to send the same signals with your eating habits. You’ll need plenty of protein and micronutrients in regular supply to build all this new tissue. Some of these nutrients require the presence of fat to be absorbed, and fat is also needed in the production of sex hormones (trust me, you want this to continue happening). Carbohydrates are needed to fuel training sessions (because bioenergetics) and help power all the other processes going on.

That’s a lot of food to eat! From your body’s perspective, these are clearly no longer famine times; this is time to grow and increase metabolism, because there’s plenty of material available in your environment to build with and there’s a clear need for it. There’s no longer a need to ration fat stores. You may be surprised to find that you actually gain weight, and yet your fat stores decrease steadily. Best of all, it’s psychologically far easier to sustain eating plenty of food every day than it is to deal with the cravings, misery, and irritability of crash diets.

What About Everything Else?

To be clear, I’m not saying this means yoga and hiking are a waste of time. Sure, they don’t effectively address osteopenia or sarcopenia, but they can serve another valuable purpose: fun! Humans need to have active lifestyles outside of short, intense bouts of training. Barbells are not enough! They are just one part of a healthy lifestyle—just like effective nutrition habits.

Find some physical activities you enjoy, and have fun. Even jogging, cycling, swimming, and the like (traditional endurance exercises) can fit this role. But won’t that encourage reliance on slow-twitch fibers? The key difference between endurance exercise and active lifestyle activities is casual fun. When you are exercising, you are pushing yourself past comfort for a predetermined amount of time. When you’re having fun, you should be able to comfortably talk to your companions—and stop and start whenever you feel like it. This simple distinction is all you need to keep in mind.

There is another crucial benefit to fun physical activity: stress relief. It’s easy to get caught in the grind of daily life and not set aside deliberate time for relaxation and fun. I think most adults might even feel guilty or lazy for not doing the maximum amount of “work” every day. Don’t fall into this trap! If you care about your health, then you should care about your mental health as well. Learn to say no to enough “work” that you can regularly enjoy the company of your loved ones and fun physical activities.

If you enjoy jogging because it helps you let go of work and life stress—then go jog! As a coach, I wouldn’t put this type of exercise at the top of my recommendations to my clients. It tends to interfere with barbell squats and can beat up your knees, hips, and lower back over time. But everything doesn’t always have to be ideal. You are looking for a lifestyle that leads to the healthiest, happiest version of you—not academic hypothetical perfection.

Barbells Are Not Bodybuilding

A lot of people that are new to the idea of barbell training still don’t think it’s for them. Despite the benefits of lifting weights and rationale above, you might not want to risk getting too muscular-looking (especially for women). I am by no means recommending a bodybuilding regimen for getting stronger and encouraging body recomposition. Bodybuilders use sport-specific programming that intentionally increases their muscular size and definition. That approach is vastly different from what I have outlined here.

You will get stronger—you might gain body weight—and you certainly will look better as your body fat decreases. But, in my professional experience coaching middle- to late-aged adults, you’d never notice my clients in public. They aren’t transformed into freaks of nature, shamefully scuttling around their errands, embarrassed by the horrible mistake they made. They look like normal, healthy, fit adults. This is a result of my general fitness programming that focuses on changing composition, not necessarily increasing size.

Older clients especially do not generally get much larger muscles. They tend to notice feeling and being more able-bodied and capable, but they’re still your lovable grandparents. Middle-aged lifters will probably notice clothes fitting differently, in a good way. Genetics and hormones play a part here, in how the appearance of different muscle groups react to barbell training. Some people naturally have larger calves, quads, glutes, chests, or arms—and training will accentuate these traits. Because women have less testosterone, their upper body muscles do not gain significant size easily. Taking all this into account, I remind my clients that their bodies are simply trending toward what they are supposed to look like—what nature intended. It is a thing to be celebrated, not fearful of.

Barbells are Not Powerlifting

Barbell training is also not powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting. Of course, many of the same (or similar) implements are used—but again, those are competitive sports where the goal is to win meets.

You can also compete if you discover that you love it. If you employ a competent barbell coach, you certainly will have excellent technique in the contested lifts of those sports. But just like bodybuilding, the programming can look very different for an athlete trying to score as high as possible in competition. You’re not a powerlifter just because you train with barbells, just like you’re not a marathon runner because you jog on a treadmill.

Are Barbells for Me?

Finally, it can be intimidating to go into a commercial gym and begin barbell training with no previous experience. It may have been your perception up until now that the benefits of lifting weights were reserved for young athletes, gym bros, and prison yards. But give it a chance. Enlisting the help of a coach can take all of the guesswork out of trying this new activity, which frees you to simply experience what strength training has to offer. You will probably find that the lifting community has some of the most helpful and encouraging people you can meet. And you might finally find a way to get in shape and stay in shape for good.

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