Barbell and beef experiments—Lessons and customizations

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For the self-made lab rat, little is more fascinating than running spontaneous self-experiments to find ways to increase effectiveness, especially if it involves crushing at least some ill-founded conventional assumptions in the process—preferably multiple ones at a time.

While readers more often hear about my research into legal theory or bitcoin monetary economics, I do post an occasional entry on health (see my grand unified theory of evolutionary health). What follows is an update on the current state of my “barbells and beef” activities, which fill out the Nakamoto Institute-declared maximalist trinity of “bitcoin, barbells, and beef.” The emphasis this time is somewhat more slanted toward barbells, but beef is not wholly neglected—as it should never be.

I have worked with different weight-lifting systems for some years, starting only later in life, but I finally came across one, on the recommendation of Saifedean Ammous, that makes the most sense to me, feels best, and with which I am having the most success. This is the approach formalized by Mark Rippetoe in his books Starting Strength and Practical Programming for Strength Training.

The last thing I had tried was based on Body by Science by Doug McGuff. I ultimately found this program a miserable one to experience. I just felt bad doing it and didn’t want to continue. In contrast to McGuff’s system, Rippetoe explains, convincingly I believe, the superiority of natural barbell movements requiring whole-body integration and weight-bearing and practical balance, over isolated machine work. In addition, the idea of pushing reps to failure is not a very productive one and I felt it created a dismal participant experience of exhaustion.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to set up two 90-minute private lessons in June with Jeremy Tully, a certified Starting Strength coach at Bay Strength in Oakland, California. This was invaluable. Even though I believe I am relatively good at self-teaching from books and videos, the coaching still improved my form a great deal on all four basic lifts. This is a real savior as the weights gradually increase, for it is form above all that prevents injury and makes the lifts more ergonomically effective in terms of load physics.

What I find motivating about Rippetoe’s approach is that the workouts are largely the same each time, while the amount of weight lifted increases. Adding a similar small amount of weight each session sets up what is called a linear progression. This helps “gamify” the program by making progress objectively obvious, consistent, and easy to track.

Great on lifts; get diet advice elsewhere

One of the infamous problems with Rippetoe’s system is not its weight-lifting advice, but its dietary advice. The latter, which includes a gallon of milk a day, has often resulted in some adherents gaining weight that is NOT all lean.

Instead of this, I have been doing a different type of experiment in parallel since mid-September. I joined the “nequalsmany” human carnivore study, which has launched a new way for individual self-experimenters to coordinate their research and aggregate their data from similar programs. Dr. Shawn Baker has been instrumental in helping to organize and promote this. I have been on the program for the past 68 days, but I had already mostly transitioned onto it in the weeks before starting officially. During this time, I have eaten basically only meat and drank only water. Those interested in learning more about this strategy should go and read everything ever written by L. Amber O'Hearn at ketotic.org. There, that was easy.

I have lately begun to make a few exceptions due to some issues having to do with an unusual condition called histamine intolerance (speaking of that link, also go and read everything by Georgia Ede at diagnosisdiet.com). This condition is essentially an often-middle-age-onset sensitivity to foods that are aged, animal foods prominent among them. So I have to do a lot of extra work in relation to conventional supply chains to try to get the freshest possible meats. Even so, to help further mitigate the effects, I have recently added some dairy products, which do seem to help with my unusual symptoms, but I have nevertheless eaten perhaps 95% meat during the past two and a half months, the rest, only recently, being some lower-histamine cheeses and high-fat Greek yogurt. In other words, no plant foods in sight, and certainly no Rippetoe-esque milk gallons.

Provisional results

As many others before me have reported after successfully transitioning to a carnivorous diet, I feel better and more effective than ever, sleep better, and have lost some middle-aged excess around the waist. My natural concentration is now such that I should use a break timer because otherwise I can work for five or six hours or more at a sitting without noticing or looking up. This was NOT the case on previous eating strategies. In my bad old carb-eating days, I would start to think of a snack break after 90 minutes or so. Now, I eat once in the morning and literally have no thought of food again for approximately seven–nine hours, at which point I eat a second time.

Moving on to more quantitative results, with the combination of these two programs, my overall body weight has remained about the same for the past two–three months, though it is down slightly. However, since the beginning of September, the weights I have been lifting (for five-rep sets) have increased by a combined average of 17%, comprising 24% for one basic barbell exercise and 16% each for the other three. Thus, while my body weight has remained essentially stable, my strength has increased 17%. This represents a substantial increase in power/weight ratio, one of the most important variables in a great many physical endeavors.

Rippetoe’s program is by no means a “body-building” system. Such systems use quite different training methods, for example, far higher repetitions per set and more isolation exercises for the main purpose of gaining visible, though not especially efficient, lean mass. Nevertheless, for a strength program, too, some lean tissue has to be built as one of several types of physiological supports for the capability gains.

This means that my body composition has improved, with fat lost somewhat more than offsetting lean gained. As a percentage of body weight, my barbell weights have risen, slowly and steadily from early September through mid-November. The pace of increase should also be understood to reflect an age in the mid-forties as opposed to, say, the mid-twenties.

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Program customizations

I have made a few tweaks to the basic Starting Strength program with time.

The basic initial program looks about like this (5x3 = 5 repetitions x 3 sets):

A Day: Squat 5x3, Press 5x3, Deadlift 5x1

B Day: Squat 5x3, Bench 5x3, Deadlift 5x1

(The B Day drops the deadlift for other exercises before long)

One–two recovery days in between, mostly one.

The most common outside criticism of this program is what is said to be an overemphasis on lower-body work over upper, according to Jose Nino, who knows his way around different programming systems. So my first modification based on this observation was to drop the squat from every workout, placing it only on alternate workouts, just like all the other exercises. To do so, after some trial and error, I eventually came up with this:

A Day: Squat 5x3, Bench 5x3

B Day: Press 5x3, Deadlift 5x1, support exercises

One–two recovery days in between, mostly two.

This places one upper-body and one lower-body/back exercise on each day. This went on for quite some time, I was happy doing it, it didn’t take a huge amount of time (roughly 60 minutes per workout including warm-up sets), and progress continued. I put in an occasional extra recovery day at times such that the workouts averaged two–three times a week.

My next, very recent, program customization has been somewhat more daring in its departure from standard programs. After reading Practical Programming, I was struck by all the added complications in intermediate programming, except for the deadlift, which just went on its merry way linearly progressing at one work-set a week!

So I thought, Why not try something more in that direction with the other lifts too? That would be much simpler and easier. Laziness is the mother of invention.

My latest workout combines more lifts onto one day, but with just one work set for each lift. This makes it possible to hit each of these four lifts more often while going to the gym less often. This also enables dropping the number of warm-up sets for later exercises from four to three since the lifter is already warm from the previous exercises and need only revisit the form under a few different weights before proceeding with the main-event set.

Dropping to one set might also keep the linear progression going longer. If any theme emerged from Practical Programming, it is to keep the linear progression running as long as possible before moving to intermediate programming. And if any aspect of the linear progression rationale was emphasized above all, it was putting more weight on the bar, slowly but steadily, from each workout to the next for as long as possible within the linear model.

This latest customization looks like this (plus warm-up sets):

A Day: Press 5x1, Squat 5x1, Bench 5x1, Deadlift 5x1

B Day: Press 5x1, Squat 5x1, Bench 5x1, support exercises: 1x AMRAP pull-ups, dips, and/or weighted back extensions

Two recovery days in between.

This is still quite new, so I’m going to have to see how it fares over the coming weeks.

Facing up to diminishing marginal utility and rising marginal cost

The economist at the gym sees diminishing gains and rising production costs. Image from the Cover of Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Andy Baker.

The economist at the gym sees diminishing gains and rising production costs. Image from the Cover of Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Andy Baker.

Much of the weight-lifting literature, including Rippetoe’s, seems to assume the goal of indefinitely increasing strength further, and then pushes right on to the question of how to do this. But the meddling economist must interject. “More is better” does not reflect the marginal character of both costs and benefits.

As Rippetoe explains, as strength increases, more training time, and increasingly complex training methods, are required for additional gains. The law of diminishing marginal utility shows that each additional gain will be less useful for health and function than each previous gain was. At the same time, each such marginal gain comes at a higher and higher cost in training time and complexity. If narrower and less valuable gains are coming at an ever higher cost of production, it should make sense to find a plateau at some reasonable amount of invested time and effort. This is so unless, of course, one does have a more specific goal of pushing the outer limits of personal capability, such as for competition.

I suspect that I will be happy to plateau with these lifts on a simple advanced novice program and then discover natural maintenance weights at which there is neither further progress nor regression. This should enable improved capability while avoiding all the additional time and effort needed to eek out diminishing added gains. The results should cover most of the health and function benefits with minimal effort.

What I am curious about now is what lifted-weight levels this relatively simple customized program will end up plateauing at. At this point, the weights that should be increasing—the ones on the bar—are still doing so, and the weight that should not be increasing—the one on the morning scale—is either stationary or edging down. Both are happening together, a provisional success for this self-made lab rat.

P.S. A few lifting-related tips and tricks

1) Since most conventional commercial gyms do not have fractional weight plates, I ordered some through Amazon and take them to the gym with me each time (1kg, 0.5kg and 0.25kg plates so far).

2) Warm-up sets are important. My own customized warm-up sets, except for deadlift, now follow the pattern: 1) Empty bar 5x, 2) 40% of work weight 5x, 3) 60% of work weight 3x, and 4) 80% of work weight 2x.

3) I use the app Strong to track workouts and progress. The Starting Strength app worked fine to start with, but only implements the official program and does not allow for customization.

4) I ordered some Nike weight-lifting shoes and do like them. Some people swear by socks or Five Fingers, but socks at least are technically against commercial gym rules, though some people slip off their shoes anyway.

5) My favorite hack of all follows from the fact that many conventional commercial gyms ban the use of chalk for improved grip. Instead, one can take the small paper towels the gym provides to wipe down equipment and wrap them around the bar, one under each hand. This creates a solid grip for the deadlift without chalk.

6) I ordered up some Captains of Crush grippers for home grip training on non-barbell days.