Finishing Circuit One of 5/3/1 And Why Strength Training is Critical for Seniors

arnold squat
Photo credit:

I didn’t want to get out of bed but for once, I was reasonably clearheaded and felt ready to lift as the morning got started. Still, that first cup of coffee and a banana for the carbs really hit the spot before I headed out to the gym.

Weather’s a tad warmer and no rain, snow, or fog got in the way of my short drive, and I arrived in the gym’s parking lot about three minutes before the hour. A small group gathered at the front door about a minute til, and I noticed none of them were free weight lifters…until Don showed up.

I and another fellow held the doors open to let everyone else in, but the second I gave the receptionist gal my member number, I got rid of my hoodie and headed for the squat rack.

Fortunately, Don seemed more interested in working on his biceps with dumbbells this morning, so I had the squat rack guilt free. Good thing, since I needed it for both of my main lifts and that means dominating the rack for 30 minutes or more.

Here’s how I started Thursday morning and ended my first full 5/3/1 cycle (reboot).


Main Lifts

Overhead Press in Squat Rack

5x 45lbs/20.4117kg (warm up)
5x 55lbs/24.9476kg
3x 60lbs/27.2155kg
4x 65lbs/29.4835kg (1+)
1x 75lbs/34.0194kg (joker)
1x 80lbs/36.2874kg (joker)
1x 85lbs/38.5554kg (joker) PR

Rack Pull in Squat Rack

5x 145lbs/65.7709kg (warm up)
5x 160lbs/72.5748kg
3x 175lbs/79.3787kg
3x 205lbs/92.9864kg (1+)
3x 225lbs/102.058kg (joker)
1x 250lbs/113.398kg (joker)
1x 265lbs/120.202kg (joker) PR

Assistance Lifts

wide stance deadlift
Photo credit:

Bent Leg Deadlifts (5×10) 145lbs/65.7709kg

10x 140lbs/63.5029kg
10x 145lbs/65.7709kg
10x 145lbs/65.7709kg
10x 145lbs/65.7709kg
10x 145lbs/65.7709kg

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press (5×10) 22.5lbs/10.20583kg

10x 25lbs/11.3398kg
10x 25lbs/11.3398kg
10x 25lbs/11.3398kg
10x 30lbs/13.6078kg
10x 30lbs/13.6078kg

Core Work

Roman Chair Back Ext (Bodyweight)


This being the last day of my first rebooted 5/3/1 cycle, I really wanted to hit some PRs. However, the overhead press is one of my weakest lifts, so I was dubious of being able lift an 85 pound barbell over my head. After my warm up, I felt pretty strong up through 65 pounds. I chose to do singles for my jokers which worked fine at 75 and then 80 pounds.

Then I put 85 pounds on the barbell (remembering that the bar itself is 45 pounds), lifted it from its pins, bracing it on my upper chest, I did the walk back, set my right leg behind me and lifted.

I did it. In fact, I felt so successful, I tried for a second rep. Alas, I stalled at halfway up, but I still did it for 1 rep. I set a new post-personal training PR for the overhead press. Admittedly, in the “bad old days,” 85 pounds was my PR as well. I need a way to get up to 90 and more.

But one thing at a time.

rack pulls

Don was still around and shaved head guy and his teenage daughter had arrived. She was using the smith machine as I was setting up for rack pulls, and since the squat rack and the smith machine are only a few inches apart, it made for some awkward maneuvering. Meanwhile, shaved head guy was working on his bench press, Don was finishing up, and a few of the regulars and semi-regulars were in and out of the free weight room.

I did my warm up set at 145 pounds, which for rack pulls, is rather modest. Then I started adding weight. I cruised through 160 and 175 pounds and the bar only started feeling heavy once I hit 205.

And then the jokers.

I decided not to mess around and went right to 225 pounds for the first one. My PR for rack pulls last week was 235 pounds and I wanted to beat it. Throwing caution into the trash heap, I increased the weight on the barbell to 250 even and pulled out a single rep. One more joker to go.

The heaviest rack pull I’ve ever managed was 260 pounds for 3 reps. That was on December 7th right when I started my personal training sessions with Chase. But I got over-confident after that, because on December 13th, I tweaked my back doing 3 reps of rack pulls at a “mere” 235.

For the final joker this morning, I increased the barbell weight to 265 pounds, squatted down by the bar, used a mixed grip, set my lats, tightened everything up, and pulled.

The barbell felt really heavy but it came up nicely. Not wanting to be stupid, I settled for that single rep, set it down, and called it good. Besides, I’d been in the squat rack for over half an hour, and I still had to face deadlifts and dumbbell shoulder presses.

As I set up for my deadlifts, I really wanted to be done. Setting a new PR for the rack pull took a lot out of me. In fact, I wasn’t paying enough attention when I loaded the bar for deadlifts. I put a 45 pound plate and a 5 pound plate on one side of the barbell, but only a 45 pounder on the other.

Since the difference in weight between the left and right sides of the barbell was only 5 pounds, I didn’t notice it as I pulled it out of the rack and set it on the floor.

It felt like the first set was kind of light and that’s when I discovered my mistake (it couldn’t have been too light, the difference is only 5 pounds).

Oh well, it is what it is. I put the other 5 pound plate on the barbell and did the other 4 sets of “boring but big” deadlifts at the programmed weight.

2013 Open workout descriptions with Julie Foucher
Photo: 2013 Open workout descriptions with Julie Foucher

My form was generally good, at least as far as I could tell in the mirror, but I still have the tendency not to get my butt down far enough, which results in me using more back and less leg to lift. I had to keep consciously reminding myself to squat low and push up with my legs. My quads and hams feel sore several hours later as I walk around, so I guess I didn’t take legs out of the game after all.

During each set, I felt fine and the weight was very manageable. Between sets, I was huffing and puffing. No light-headedness, but I was sweating pretty good. Of course, the sweating really started during my heavy rack pulls.

I was feeling kind of fried and glad to sit down for dumbbell shoulder presses. Though, based on recent performance, I had scheduled a dumbbell weight of 22.5 pounds, I decided to start out with a pair of 25s just to see how far I could go. I thought maybe 1 or 2 sets at most before I’d have to lighten the weight.

I was surprised at how light the 25 pound dumbbells felt. I blew through sets 1, 2, and 3 and still felt strong. On a whim, I decided to do the fourth set with two 30 pound dumbbells. I figured I’d only be able to manage one set before having to go lighter again.

The fourth set was challenging, and especially my left arm had a difficult time with the last several reps, but it didn’t feel so weak that I had to lighten my load. I tried for the last set using the 30 pounders and although it was tough toward the end, I did it. At rep 9, I told myself all I had to do was one more rep and forced my arms to push up. It was a near thing, but I powered through.

Surprisingly, I still had time on the clock when I finished my assistance lifts, but not much, maybe 6 or 7 minutes.

Just enough time for 5 sets of roman chair back extensions to stretch things out a bit and continue to strengthen my lumbar region.

That finished, it was still about a minute before 6 and I decided it was time to call it.

I sometimes feel a reluctance at the end of a workout, like I want to stay and do more. It’s as if the squat rack calls to me saying, “is that all you’ve got?”

Actually, when I was finished with the squat rack, a couple of other guys used it, first a younger guy who always wears a woolen hat and leggings when he lifts, and then tall, formerly foot broke guy.

The young guy was doing front squats, which I’d never seen performed in this gym before. He only did 155 pounds, but his form was flawless. I’m always amazed that formerly broke foot guy squats since his legs are nothing to write home about. Still, he gets the barbell up to 225 pounds and just watching him, I can tell he knows what he’s doing.

How do I feel at the end of my first 5/3/1 cycle? Tired, sore, good, even great. I can feel the load at the base of my spine when the barbell weight goes up, but no pain. The pressure reminds me of what I’m risking, so I try as best I can to employ what I learned in personal training to protect my back and lift correctly.

Dr. Jonathon Sullivan, Photo:

A few days ago, on Facebook, I saw a link to a podcast put on by something called the Senior Rehab Project. This podcast is called Barbells-Just what the ER Doctor ordered…with Dr. Jonathon Sullivan, MD, PhD hosted by Dustin Jones. Sullivan is not only an attending physician in an Emergency Room at a major trauma center in Michigan, but he is a coach and gym owner.

Dr. Sullivan’s gym is called GreySteel which specializes in strength training for people in their 40s through their 70s (and beyond).

Sullivan is a “Starting Strength” trainer (think “Mark Rippetoe”), although in the interview, his presentation and attitude seemed much more approachable than Rip’s. On the GreySteel website’s front page, it says:

The mission of Greysteel Strength and Conditioning is to help people of all ages get stronger, but we are particularly dedicated to improving the strength and health of those in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond using the Starting Strength model.

This is NOT bodybuilding. This is NOT “toning” or “sculpting.” This is NOT a weight loss program. This is training for strength, power and performance. This is training for health. This is training for life.

I’m sure training at Dr. Sullivan’s gym is pricey (I couldn’t find any cost info on the site), but I’d love to train at a place that understands strength training and older guys, even if just for a few sessions.

In case you’re interested, the outline of the podcast is:

  • What a day in the ER looks like…
  • What trends is he seeing in older patients in the ER…
  • Why he started a gym…
  • How he screens his older clients for barbell training…
  • How does he program and progress his older clients…
  • How he uses more weight to correct movement…
  • The empowerment effect of weight lifting…
  • What he views as the most important attribute in life…
  • & much more!

The podcast is about an hour long (which is a long time for me to sit still and listen to anything), but it’s illuminating, both regarding Dr. Sullivan’s perspective on ER care, but why he decided to open a gym and coaching seniors in strength training. His reasons are scary stuff, and should be really scary to you if you’re older and sedentary.

It should scare you a lot.

If you’re someone over 40, 50, 60, or more and you want to work out, or are working out but want a reason to up your game beyond messing around with weight and cable machines at light to moderate weights, listen to the podcast, go to the GreySteel website, and visit the GreySteel Facebook page.

One last thing. Historically, three of the regulars at my gym have been an older mother coming with her adult daughter and son. The son was in an auto accident at some point in the past and as a result, he lost his sight. They haven’t been coming lately, but I noticed that the sister and brother have just started up again. One of the other regulars told me that the mother died of a heart attack. She passed just as she was getting ready to go to the gym one day.

Lou Ferrigno at age 64

I don’t know any of the details about her health and I don’t know if her workout helped her live longer, did something to harm her health, or made no difference at all. All I know is that we are all vulnerable and we become more vulnerable and draw closer to our mortality as we get older. Exercise and eating well doesn’t cure everything, but someone who works out and eats right has a better shot at living longer and staying “young” longer if they challenge themselves.

That’s a lot of what’s behind Dr. Sullivan’s philosophy of providing semi-individual strength training to older people. That should be the philosophy of every older person…all of us. It beats declining into being the fat, sick, impaired American old person.

Dr. Sullivan says that he believes in “prescribing” strength training as medicine. Lifting is empowering. You can be powerful. You can improve your health in the gym just by lifting heavy barbells. Get started or start doing more. You don’t have all the time in the world.

There’s more to life than training, but training is what puts more in your life.

Brooks Kubik


2 thoughts on “Finishing Circuit One of 5/3/1 And Why Strength Training is Critical for Seniors

  1. I had listened to Dr.Sullivans podcast a few days ago,and have read some of his posts on the SS forums in the past . He is coming out with a book for elder strength trainees soon. His ideas are similar to Rippetoe’s . If you do a goggle search Dr.Sullivan starting strength you should find his posts.


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