Leg Day Observer

How to keep weight lifting, even when life gets in the way

You can create a workout plan compatible with your schedule.

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New lifters encounter a series of challenges, both ones they expect and new ones. It can be a struggle for lifters to advance past beginner milestones, or for intermediate lifters to come back after injury. But what’s hardest to anticipate might be the biggest hurdle: time. Can a lifter keep lifting when real life gets in the way? Is it possible to be serious about lifting if you don’t have the time?

If it is possible, it’s definitely harder. For lifters following programs, the work done at the gym is in some ways the least important part of the lifestyle, and in most ways the smoothest. Workouts, while not easy, are simple: It’s fun to show up, pick the right exercises, and get psyched up for sets. The real work is the logistics of those workouts and reorienting your life to revolve around them.

Lifters who want to get strong need (and it’s not really negotiable) plenty of sleep, quality food, and recovery. Inserting these extras into a busy life requires time, money and space, and makes other responsibilities, hobbies, and extracurriculars expendable. But the trade-off between lifting and lifestyle doesn’t need to be zero-sum.

Individuals with disparate goals or life routines — a travel-heavy job, raising a family, a deep-seated desire to watch very long films — may run into friction, and will face choices if they want to work out seriously. The timing can be difficult. Since lifting can progress is often based on progressive overload — increasing the resistance in a workout compared to the one previous — workouts lend themselves to regularity and routine. Folks with real extracurriculars or irregular schedules may have problems fitting into these routines. But few programs, if any, have workouts on all seven days. And so lifters can modify plans if they need to.

How you can change your lifting routine:

Lifters who travel a lot, or run into hangups, can certainly still lift and make serious progress.

But they will have to adjust. Luckily, there are a number of ways for them to do so. Olympic and powerlifting gyms seem to be everywhere, and online databases make them easy to locate in different cities and work out on the road. Lifters who can’t make time for those places can stay in fitness hotels — the ones with foam rollers and weights in the room, or good gyms — though those are rare, strange, and not recommended.

It’s likely that folks who travel for work may have less downtime to lift, but even that doesn’t need to destroy a routine. Travel days seem tailor-made for rest and mobility work, and the lifters with enough time to drop into their chain hotel gyms — admittedly sad spaces — have a number of resources available to maximize their workouts there. (Band and bodyweight workouts are also an option.) Substituting homemade reverse hypers for heavy squats won’t help a lifter win a competition, but it can help gains stick around until a real gym appears.

Lifters who want to keep working big lifts but can’t hew to a schedule still have plenty of options, some of which go against regular lifting conventions. One option is clustering exercises or staggering them. A traveling lifter might save heavy workouts for when they’re back home, or even do two workouts in one day, which is, to be fair, very extreme. In reality, lifters can afford some time off. But overtraining occasionally can work in a pinch.

Are cluster sets effective?

Clustering workouts have gotten a bad rap. Most programs assume lifters have spacious, regular schedules, and slot in their workouts to allow ample time for recovery. But competitive lifters are defined by a time crunch — the Olympics, or powerlifting meets — and so workaday lifters under a time crunch can train heavy too.

Clustering rest days and going heavy one day after another are one option. Another is going heavy every day. National-level Olympic lifters squat heavy every day after their workouts, sometimes a few times a day, and have incredible squat numbers. This approach has been modified for workaday lifters as the Bulgarian program, a term that’s not entirely accurate. But these programs test a max every day and can do in a pinch for lifters who have days that are off-limits.

Indeed, there’s something to be said about the volume principle of training. Professional lifters — Olympians, sponsored powerlifters, and the like — turn out two-a-day workouts regularly, for a length of time that feels impossible. For workaday lifters it’s tough. But compressing a seven-day powerlifting split into a handful of consecutive days once in a while is doable, and might help adapt a lifter to serious volume.

This scheduling shouldn’t be done if a lifter’s not well-trained — and if you are, this is likely not news. But it could work to place heavy workouts together, and then on the road take some much-needed rest.

Lifting through life — On vacations, similar caveats apply. Lifters benefit from regular breaks from their workouts and tracking their diets. These fallow periods— no exercise, or the same reps at less weight, or fewer reps, same weight — are prescribed at the highest levels of lifting, often after a competition, or max-weight attempts.

But they work just as well for vacations, or when life gets in the way. (Similarly, taking a pause from a diet has been found to be helpful, as calorie restriction is easier if it’s broken up into shorter time periods.)

The key here, at higher levels of lifting, is that breaks aren’t permanent. It might feel like a chore for a lifter to do something every day, even by choice, but eventually, they’ll get itchy — and want to return to the gym.

"The trade-off between lifting and lifestyle doesn’t need to be zero-sum."

Aging lifters, meanwhile, may find themselves at a crossroads. How long do they keep going? Though training with weights works across ages, a lifter who’s been going heavy for a while may feel like moving away from the barbell after a while, and towards something less taxing. (Maximum deadlifts can be especially exhausting.)

Luckily, there are many options with fairly robust muscle-building capability. Lifters can sub in alternate exercises — like belt squats or reverse hypers — that don’t load the spine. Programs that focus on bodyweight exercises — from Reddit-based ones to classic Marine and SEAL bodyweight workouts — and chin-up programs, can get serious results with the right diet and rest. (A workout’s aesthetic properties depend more on a lifter’s diet and effort than the exercises themselves; low weight, as long as it’s done to exhaustion, can lead to hypertrophy.)

Aging lifters may want to go half-powerlifting half-hippie, or stretch out their rest. It might feel verboten since so many beginner lifters are tasked with just doing the programs. But it’s not: An adapted lifter who wants to trade in intensity for recovery, and who can handle their goals taking a backseat, can do that. As long as the sets in a workout are intense, they can be spaced out. Though in these situations, lifters should talk to their trainer.

The bit we know about lifting pales next to what we don’t know. Lifting is so broad — there are so many inputs, exceptions, goals, and limits. It’s difficult to explain it fully, and sufficiently, with a sort of grand theory. There’s no top-down approach.

But one thing we do know is it’s short on external factors. Unlike careers, relationships, and friendships, success depends only on the individual. Effort and results exist in a vacuum — it’s simpler than real life. Though we might never master a triple-bodyweight squat, we can all certainly try, since it’s really only up to us. A ceiling gets smashed, and another appears. A busier life doesn’t preclude strength training; it only makes it harder. And so what’s another challenge in a path full of them?

Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.

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