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Training Routine for the Totally Out of Shape
(Initial Training Routine; Spring to Fall 2002)

Part Two

By Gary F. Zeolla

As indicated in Part One of this two-part article, about two months after I started my walking/ stretching program I began lifting weights. At that time, I was still rather stiff from my stiff person syndrome. I was also still experiencing pain and fatigue from the fibromyalgia. Moreover, my strength and bodyweight had dropped considerably. In fact, it was very difficult for me to lift more than a couple of pounds without feeling pain somewhere.

The walking and stretching were helping, but I knew that the best way to improve in all of these areas would be to lift weights. I was very familiar with weightlifting given that I had competed in powerlifting in college (1979-83). I had also worked out with Nautilus equipment from 1998 to the spring of 2001. Then I worked out with free weights from the spring through fall of 2001. But I was forced to cease all exercise activities in the fall of 2001 when my health problems worsened. So when I decided to start lifting weights again in June 2002, it had been about nine months since I had done of any kind strength training.

Start with Dumbbells at Home

Given my health situation and the length of time it had been since I had lifted weights, I knew that I needed to consider myself a "newbie." So I devised a program for myself that would basically work for anyone who had never lifting weights or wants to start lifting again after a long layoff.

But in my case, given my health situation, I was not even sure if I would be able to lift weights again. So rather than spending money on a gym membership only to find out I couldn't workout at all, I decided to started by lifting weights at home.

I started by borrowing my mom's two and three pound dumbbells. Yes, two and three pound dumbbells! That may sound incredibly light, and it was very disheartening for a former powerlifter. But I had to start somewhere, and given my health situation, even the using the two-pound dumbbells proved difficult.

Not only was pain a constant problem, but also given my lack of flexibility, it was difficulty for me to even do the exercises. For instance, the first exercise I wanted to do was squats. By rule in powerlifting, you need to squat down so that your thighs are just below parallel to the floor. But given my lack of flexibility I could barely squat down at all! But I did it anyhow. As discussed in part one, I knew that I had to get moving or I would only get worse. So I forced myself to do the squats and the rest of the exercises as best as I could.

I did my first workout on June 26, 2002. For it, I did one set of ten repetitions (reps) for each exercise without any weights. Then I used the two-pound dumbbells for a second set of ten reps, one dumbbell in each had for a grand total of four pounds. I proceeded to lift three days a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), while still walking and stretching on the three opposite days (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday), taking Sundays off.

I used the same pattern for my first four workouts of doing one warm-up set without weights and then one work set with the two-pound dumbbells, except I began adding a couple of reps so that by the fourth workout I was doing up to 15 reps on the second set.

I then moved up to using the three-pound dumbbells for a couple of workouts. I then purchased a pair of five-pound dumbbells and used them for a couple of more workouts. So by July 13, I was up to using ten pounds for up to 18 reps for each exercise.

Back to the Gym

At that point, I was ready to try using some heavier weights. So I had a decision to make. Either I could purchase some heavier dumbbells or I could simply go back to the gym. I decided to do the latter. At this point, I knew I would be able to continue to workout, so I figured it was time for this step.

I started back at the gym on July 15. When I did, I started with the lightest weight possible on all lifts. So for the powerlifts (squats, bench presses, and deadlifts) I used just the bar, which weighs 45 pounds. At this point, I continued to do one warm-up set without any weights, then two work sets of ten reps for all exercises. I continued to workout three times a week, gradually adding weight on each subsequent workout. I added 10-20 pounds a workout on squats and deadlifts and 5-10 pounds on benches and other major exercises like overhead presses.

In retrospect, I think I actually might have been better off if I had tried going a little heavier on the powerlifts for my first workout. Using just the bar was actually a little too light. I might have been better off using about 95 pounds on squats and deadlifts and 65 pounds on benches and then only adding five pounds a workout. This way, my progress would have been more gradual.

The idea is, it would be best to initially use a weight that is heavy enough that you need to work a little bit and then gradually increase from there. But whatever the case, after a couple of weeks I was up to using the "big weights" (45 pound plates) on squats and deadlifts. With the 45-pound bar and a 45-pound plate on each side, this gives a total of 135 pounds. I was also up to using 25-pound plates on benches for a total of 95 pounds.

This really isn't that much given that when I powerlifted in college I used to use 135 pounds on squats and deadlifts for my first warm-up set. But I had to keep reminding myself that it was really rather amazing that I was lifting at all. For that matter, just being able to lift, carry, and place the 45 pound plates on each end of the bar was rather miraculous.

Initial Exercises

Below are the exercises I did at home and then at the gym during this time-period.

  1. Squat
  2. Deadlift
  3. Stiff Leg Deadlift
  4. Calf Raises
  5. Bench Press
  6. Flyes/ Dumbbell Bench Press
  7. Overhead Press
  8. Bent-over Rows
  9. Curls
  10. Side Bends
  11. Crunches
  12. Reverse Crunches

I did this workout three times a week. So I was doing a total body workout using the same exercise three times a week for the first month.

But it should be noted, it is generally best for beginners to stick with "compound" movements (exercises that work several muscles at once, such as squats and dead lifts). But I included a few isolation exercises (movements that concentrate on one muscle area, such as flyes and calf raises) to more directly address some of the specific problems I had been having. Each of these exercises helped to stretch out and strengthen areas that had been particularly tight. But I dropped these exercises as I progressed. 

Also, stiff leg deadlifts are generally considered to be an "advanced" exercise. They are a very effective exercise, but if they are not done properly, one can easily get injured. So beginners should generally avoid them. I also did more exercises than was really necessary.

So a more basic beginner’s routine would be:

1. Squat
2. Deadlift
3. Bench Press
4. Overhead Press
5. Bent-over Rows
6. Curls
7. Crunches
8. Reverse Crunches

Change in Routine

By August, I was now using heavy enough of weights and working hard enough that doing squats and deadlifts three times a week was just too much. So I changed my routine and began doing squats and deadlifts on separate days. So I squatted one workout and then deadlifted the next, still working out three times a week. I also started alternating exercises for other body parts. I set up two different routines and alternated them. I did the first workout on Monday, the second on Wednesday, and the first again on Friday, the second again on Monday, etc. But note that I was still putting in a total body workout three times a week; it's just that I was using different exercises each day.

So my new routine looked as follows. Optional and variant exercises are given in parentheses for those who might want to follow such a routine:

Day One

  1. Squat
  2. (Calves)
  3. Bench Press
  4. Close Grip Bench Press
  5. Bent-over Rows
  6. Reverse Curls
  7. Side Bends
  8. Crunches

Day Two

  1. Deadlift
  2. Stiff Leg Deadlift (or Low Back Machine)
  3. Overhead Press (or Incline Bench Press)
  4. Dips (or Decline Bench)
  5. Dumbbell Bent-over Rows
  6. Curls
  7. Bicycle Ab Exercise

I was now doing fewer exercises each day, but with using heavier weights and working harder, a lesser number was required to keep from overtraining. Also, I was now not only doing a warm-up set without weights before each exercise but also one with weights. I would then doing two work sets of 8-10 reps.

I used this routine until the end of August. And throughout August I usually added five pounds each workout to most lifts. So I was very gradually increasing the weights, and by the end of August was back to using some rather decent weights on the powerlifts and other exercises.

Specifically, by August 28, I was up to doing two sets of the following:
Squats: 160 pounds for 10 reps
Benches: 115 pounds for 8 reps
Deadlifts: 190 pounds for 10 reps

A Major Setback then a Comeback

Unfortunately, starting after my workout on August 28, I had a major flare-up of my stiff-person syndrome. I barely made it home before ending up totally paralyzed, and I remained totally or almost totally paralyzed for the next ten days. I was so bad I wasn't even able to make it to my doctor.

To say this was disheartening would be to put it mildly. Later, when I had recovered enough, my anguish over this situation led to my writing the two-part article Suffering and Spiritual Struggles. But to continue with this story, finally, by September 11, 2002, the stiffness finally let up enough that I was able to get to my doctor. I remember the date as it was the first anniversary of 9-11.

My doctor wasn't able to determine what had caused the flare-up. But with the progress I had made over the summer, she could only encourage me to go back to doing what I had been doing. But let me tell you, I could have easily just given up at that point. But determined not to lose all of the progress I had made, I started back at the gym on September 12.

I had to drop the weights down some after the two-week lay-off, but very quickly I was able to get back to where I had been. And then I continued to be able to gradually add weight over the next several months. My training during this time is detailed at Training Routine and Five Phase Cycle (9/12/02 to 2/1/03). And posted on the site are all of My Training Routines I have used since that time. So by following the links you can see how I have progressed.

In fact, I progressed so well, that I decided to enter a powerlifting contest. Yes, a powerlifting contest! I competed in the Iron House Classic on April 12, 2003. This was the first time in 21 years that I had competed. With all I had gone through health-wise, that was a major comeback. And I have entered four additional contests since that time. My most recent contest was again the Iron House Classic, April 16, 2005. For all of these contests I have been competing in the 114-pound weight class, in the open (all ages) and masters (40-44 years old) divisions.

My best lifts to date are as follows:
Squat: 410 pounds
Bench: 215 pounds
Deadlift: 410 pounds

So in a span of less than three years, I have gone from using four pounds on squats and deadlifts to squatting and deadlifting over 400 pounds! As I said, small but steady gains add up over time. It should also be noted that all of these lifts were good for International Powerlifting Association world records. In fact, I now hold 15 IPA world records and am the #1 ranked, master powerlifter in the USA in my weight class (see Summary of Powerlifting Contests, USA Ranking, Records, and Times Bodyweight).

Conclusion

I have written this two-part article as an incentive to the person who is totally out shape. Whether you got that way by simply not trying to stay in shape or due to some health problems, if I can come back from being totally out of shape and from such serious health problems to compete successfully in a very demanding sport, then you can make progress as well. You just need to try. And I hope the pattern I have laid out will aid you in getting started. Of course, get your doctor's approval first, but with that, get moving.

Training Routine for the Totally Out of Shape (Initial Training Routine; Spring to Fall 2002). Copyright 2005 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article first appeared in the free FitTips for One and All newsletter.
It was posted on this site June 3, 2005.

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