Strength Training for the Low-Priority Lifter
By: CJ Gotcher, BLOC
Two steps forward, one step back (TSFOSB), as a programming outline, focuses on longer-term progress while planning for, or anticipating, interruptions. I hold out hope for every lifter, but most low-priority lifters on a TSFOSB program don’t stick with it. Their limitations, perceived and real, tend to lead to early stalls, inconsistent training, and the decision to quit altogether. What separates Tim from the majority who fall off the wagon isn’t necessarily his program but his mindset towards training.
Strength Training for Low-Priority Lifters: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Tim Tollefson is about as far as you can get from the ‘ideal’ Starting Strength lifter.
He’s 40, incredibly lean, and strength training isn’t the highest priority in his life. He works on an irregular schedule as a firefighter and Air National Guardsman, sometimes catching workouts at home and sometimes at the station gym. Before Starting Strength, he had been doing some general strength programs (Wendler, power ladders) but nothing consistent, and he had occasional back pain from training on his own and AC joint pain from life.
In addition to a challenging work schedule, every year Tim takes his bow and gear into the woods for weeks at a time to hunt elk. He loses weight and strength on these trips, undercutting the gains he’s made in his training. But, for Tim, training is secondary when he’s in season, and he doesn’t want to gain more than 10-15 pounds a training season because of how it affects his hunts.
In short, Tim is a low-priority lifter, someone who cares about strength but balances it with other concerns in his life. This is a tough place to be and most aren’t successful with this balance, but Tim is a great example of how you can get stronger despite other priorities.
Tim started with Barbell Logic Online Coaching in 2017, coached by Jayson Ball for four months (May to August). After that, he worked with me for four months (November to March) and then again for four months later in that year (October-January). In that time, his numbers have improved slowly, but steadily:
Deadlift: Sets of 5 from 205 to 310
Squat: Sets of 5 from 150 to 250
Press: Sets of 5 from 95 to 125
Tim consistently improved despite missed and moved training days due to work and hunting trips. There were long intervals between training blocks, and between each of these training blocks, he lost some strength and bodyweight on his backcountry hunting. Still, he finished each one stronger than the last, all while keeping his body weight around 185 lb. on a 6-foot frame.
Beyond the strict lifting numbers, Tim continues to improve in other ways. As a lifter, he’s developed a better eye for his own lifts and significantly improved his technique by implementing what he learned during our conversations. He has managed to avoid re-injury, and even more importantly, he’s taken the lessons learned during his coached blocks to his training between blocks with tangible results. Each time he comes back in for coaching, he starts the cycle stronger than he started before, leading to a “two steps forward, one step back” (TSFOSB) approach that will serve him for years to come.
As a programming outline, TSFOSB focuses on longer-term progress while planning for or anticipating interruptions. During a training block or cycle, the lifter will make progress. This is the “two steps forward” part. Then there is a period of reduced training stress. This can be a planned de-load for the more advanced lifter, a training season, or a lifestyle disruption that gets in the way of training. During this period the lifter loses strength, taking “one step back.” When the next training cycle begins, the lifter can’t start from where he left off, but he will be at a higher level than where he started the previous cycle.
I hold out hope for every lifter, but most low-priority lifters on a TSFOSB program don’t stick with it. Their limitations, perceived and real, tend to lead to early stalls, inconsistent training, and the decision to quit altogether.
What separates Tim from the majority who fall off the wagon isn’t necessarily his program but his mindset towards training.
Manage Your Expectations
Disappointment and frustration are often the result of unmet expectations, not the training itself.
I’ve worked with older lifters and those recovering from serious injury who were happy with slow and steady progress for years, and I’ve had younger, initially-enthusiastic trainees quit in just a few months despite what I’d consider phenomenal gains.
If you want a body like Lu Xiao Jun and the lifts of Michael Wolf, you’re not going to get there on 4-6 months of training a year, an hour a day for 3 days a week, no matter how good your program and coach are.
You can, however, continue to make progress in spite of your limitations if you remember two things:
- You should still be moving forward.
- Consider what you will not give up to become stronger.
Each of these represents a trap for most low-priority lifters.
Many don’t keep track of their improvement or really care if they get stronger, spinning on the carousel-of-no-progress.
Others lack a clear understanding of what their highest priorities are and are likely to get antsy when things don’t move quickly enough. When they push for more than they can handle, their training interferes with these real priorities and life slaps them back to reality.
Tim embodied these principles in his feedback to me:
“[missed a lift for grip], but still more than I’ve done since I was 28 and 10-15 lbs heavier, so I’m happy. I’m going to keep plugging away at it.”
“[reaching the end of a training block] I know I said I wanted to do some “Max” lifts… but that doesn’t seem to be in line with staying injury free. So let’s just keep my programming as if I wasn’t ending soon.”
He’s training, not exercising. It’s still about getting stronger—putting more weight on the bar—and it matters that he’s hitting later-life PRs. He also acknowledges his priorities in hunting, work, and life, and he wants to minimize his injury risk while still getting stronger, so he makes compromises. Hitting new 1RM PRs may feel good, but would they be any better for Tim, with his goals, than taking his sets of five up for another 2 weeks? Probably not.
Making it Work
Tim’s situation may not have been ideal for training. So to continue to make gains as a lightweight, busy, 40-year-old lifter, he had to optimize what he could.
First, Tim was consistent. This was especially important because the relationship between work-done and results-seen isn’t linear. People who give 100% in their diet, recovery, and dedication to the lifting program almost always get what they went in for. Those who put in 90% commitment, perhaps allowing some life stress and a poor diet, tend to still make great progress, perhaps 80-85% of what they could have. Those who commit 60%, especially in the face of other compromises, often see no results at all past the first few weeks. Tim was exceptionally consistent, hitting every scheduled workout on time and submitting video quickly to get feedback to apply to the next session.
Tim is also an excellent manager of his own lifestyle and fatigue. He knew which gym he would be able to get his workout in, budgeted his time, and ate quality food with plenty of protein. During our first block together, he gained ten pounds over the course of 4 months. He would weigh himself consistently and eat correctly for slow, steady improvement. Combined with getting as good sleep as he could with his work schedule, better choices here prevented him from suffering needlessly or improving slower than he did.
Tim communicated well. Although this is an important skill in every coach-client relationship, it’s especially critical online when dealing with competing priorities and shift work. Tim would frequently message me when he’d have to shift a workout, let me know how recovered he was (or wasn’t), and direct my focus to specific technical issues in his lifts that concerned him. This helped me catch subtle but important details in his technique and avoid getting caught up in the irrelevant, saving valuable training time. When time is short and gains come slow, every training session counts.
Finally, Tim was a student. Each block, he’d ask questions and apply what he learned to his own programming and movement. Even though he didn’t intend to become a coach, these questions made him more expert on his own body’s response to training and set him up for success. Not only was this great for his progression, but it got him closer to the coaching relationship of an advanced trainee, where the lifter takes more ownership of the day-to-day of their training.
On Being the Exception
No improvement comes without hardship, but we often assume that “hardship” is just gritting our teeth and doing more. When life and other priorities prevent us from doing more in our strength training, we can be discouraged.
This is the primary reason why lower-priority training usually looks like ‘half-assed’ training and quickly becomes “yeah, I could bench 350 back in college.”
The “ideal” lifter may have the energy and time to put in hours of training daily if needed, to rest, and to eat plenty of good food. Because they’re recovering quickly and improving in strength, they can hit each session brutally hard. That’s one type of hardship. The compromised lifter has to deal with other hardships if they’re going to continually make small gains. It could mean having the discipline and organization to prioritize their life goals, carve time out of a busy schedule, manage stress, and eat right. It could take humility to accept slow progress and freely communicate limitations.
It’s what makes lifters like Tim—successful low-priority lifters—the exception.