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tl;dr: I’m 36; working out (weightlifting) is “something I also do with my life”; I’m not keen on dramatic lifestyle changes due to feeling chronically overwhelmed finding time for work+chores+gym+people+vidya+sleep. I hit the gym 3-5 times a week using a complicated routine, eat “not bad but not great.”

My progress is modest but so are my goals: look better, build strength to counter ageing and desk work, make the 1RM estimates for the benchmark lifts crawl up.

If I were to plateau with my current approach - or even right now - what do you think is something I could change to restore or improve progress that’s likely to give me the biggest bang for my proverbial buck? (In terms of time, money, and headspace.)

Wall of text for context and clarification:

When I first started looking into lifting, the general consensus from research (primarily Liam Rosen’s guide and the r/fitness wiki, and whichever other material seemed to have more answers for a newbie than raised additional questions) centered around two points:

  1. stick to a fairly simple Starting-Strength-like routine until you milk it for all it’s worth
  2. drastically restructure your diet to include several times more protein and a good chunk more calories than before

I wouldn’t say I was particularly good at follow-through with either back then - living with ADHD means that you forget half the things you were meant to be doing and everything else takes longer than you think it does, so you end up cutting corners in one place to keep a much more important plate from crashing down.

Around my 30, training mostly 3x5+-some arms and calves I’d plateau somewhere just shy of 100%BW back squats, which I understand to be an underwhelming result all things considered. I did gain about 10kg during this time and looked better as a result. Two rough years wiped a good chunk of that out and I’d bottomed out at 65kg BW thanks to 60h work weeks, anxiety, and modafinil while trying to put out the worst fires.

Fast forward to last summer, I hit 35, got a new gym membership, then a few months later switched to a 6-day push/pull/legs powerbuilding split that I usually do 3 days on, 1 day off (-ish); a far cry from starter routines. This let me move past all my plateaus, while sticking to eating decent-but-not-optimized.

This has left me questioning the general advice as being entirely appropriate for my circumstances and set of priorities. It seems that most of the hard science and conventional wisdom comes from or is based on young men training to be athletes; i.e., a lot closer to their prime, and able+willing to commit more resources. Similarly, a lot of online fitness culture is based on the attitude “well if you’re not willing to do what it takes there’s no helping you”; more power to those guys, but I have things I enjoy (and things I don’t but have to do anyway) that aren’t chasing gains. Like what I assume is most people, I have to budget my life between all of them with compromises all over the place.

Say re: programming, my intuition is the complex routine has a lot more recovery time for a given muscle group; and that despite being relatively untrained in terms of lift standards, my age means I benefit from more intensity+longer recovery.

As for diet, I recall seeing an answer elsewhere on the site mention that after 30, I can reasonably expect to gain around 1.5kg of muscle per year; in light of this, advice telling me to take in at least 150g (or more) protein every day - almost 55kg a year - seems wildly disproportionate. It’s a massive outlay of time and money to get to that number, and I’d rather not go through the bother to have 97% of it end up as very smelly pee.

(I do try to have at least a whey shake, then finish the carton of milk after a workout, which should handily clear my RDA on its own. Anything beyond that is somewhat incidental: the only high protein food I keep in stock is eggs and eat them regularly but not daily; close to never buy raw meat of any kind but I do eat it when I have lunch out.)

Or, of course, I could be wrong about some/all of the above; but it’s hard to research these specifics for a lay person. (Most of Google hits for things like “working out in your 30s” give me generalities for an audience that’s never lifted a weight in their life.)

Generally, what I’m interested in is: am I doing something glaringly wrong by straying from things which are advised for beginners where my physique probably belongs? And are there changes I could implement that would bring a significant improvement given the cost of implementing them?

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    This is well thought out, and has several good points of discussion. It's a bit hard to answer it rather than chat about it – which is a criticism of the Q&A format, not you, because this kind of thing lends itself to a Socratic or dialectic approach. – Dave Liepmann Aug 23 '20 at 7:15
  • @DaveLiepmann yeah it goes on a bit because a bunch of things emerged around what I thought were the central points of “I ignored this Big Rule and flat out violated the other one and got better results faster than before when I tried following both, what gives?” I’m not sure where SE culture has shifted on this sort of question - it might not have a definitive canonical answer; but I think it does afford productive and fact-based answers like “you stumbled onto something therefore do X”; “the discrepancy has a different explanation therefore stick to Y”. – millimoose Aug 23 '20 at 7:26
  • I'm over in chat, maybe a little back and forth could help – Dave Liepmann Aug 23 '20 at 7:28
  • I’d be open to paring it down except for where I’m too in the dark about this to really know off-hand which angle is the most actionable, and what of the context is essential to it. (Even though I can imagine “How to get the most out of fitness in two hours a day or less” could make up a whole book.) – millimoose Aug 23 '20 at 7:34
  • Oh no, I count as an older lifer =( – DKNguyen Aug 26 '20 at 2:55
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Direct answers

Do the rules of thumb “keep it simple” and “eat a lot” and such necessarily hold true for older lifters?

Yes. Eat enough, lift enough, recover enough. What that means varies for each person but the formula doesn't really change.

What do you think [would be] likely to give me the biggest bang for my proverbial buck?

Eat more and remove stress from your life. I know that's not easy.

am I doing something glaringly wrong?

No. Not every beginner needs to do a three-exercise powerlifting novice progression. Your program is probably perfectly fine. I might personally change a few things at the edges but it's not a big difference. The big difference is made through consistent effort, pushing yourself, eating enough, and clearing out obstacles in your life so you can recover well.

Workout programming

6-day push/pull/legs powerbuilding split that I usually do 3 days on, 1 day off (-ish); a far cry from starter routines. This let me move past all my plateaus, while sticking to eating decent-but-not-optimized.

This sounds solid. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and remember that the workout plan that you're doing consistently and that is working for you is worth five that are optimized and recommended by the internet.

[Meeting my daily protein intake goals is] a massive outlay of time and money to get to that number

As we discussed in the chat, I think there are ways to hit that amount of protein without too much hassle. Some options:

  • once-weekly meal prep involving meat (e.g. chili, bolognese, steaks, roast chickens)
  • 2-4 eggs for breakfast
  • hard boiled eggs for snacks
  • tinned fish
  • supplemental yogurt to top off each meal

my intuition is the complex routine has a lot more recovery time for a given muscle group; and that despite being relatively untrained in terms of lift standards, my age means I benefit from more intensity+longer recovery.

I agree with your analysis here about the effects of age, but I don't agree with your intuition. I think that because of your diet and limited training history, a low-variety linear progression was difficult for you, which was solved by switching to a high-variety program with slower progression. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this gave you the programmatic slack necessary to slowly increase the intensity.

That's good, and it also suggests qualities of other programs which might work, for instance a slow linear progression combined with some sort of high-variety work. People often go to 5/3/1 for this. Personally I enjoyed a concise A/B program for lifts (deadlift + press / squat + pull-ups, adding weight or reps weekly) followed in each workout by a HIIT medley with bodyweight or dumbbells. The idea is to slowly and steadily push the weight on the bar towards reasonable benchmarks for laypeople like a double bodyweight 1RM deadlift.

Miscellaneous remarks.

“How to get the most out of fitness in two hours a day or less”

Two hours a day is a tremendous amount of time. If that's really your budget, you're lucky, and I recommend a fifteen minute routine of dynamic & static mobility soon after waking, half an hour of meal prep, an hour of heavy lifting in high-ROI exercises, five minutes to recover, and ten minutes of a bodyweight, dumbbell, or kettlebell circuit done for high-intensity cardio. Two to four days a week skip the lifting and go for a walk, hike, yoga session, or bikeride, or maybe double or triple the length of the mobility routine.

advice telling me to take in at least 150g (or more) protein every day - almost 55kg a year - seems wildly disproportionate.

You don't build it once and keep it forever at 100% efficiency. Turning the protein from an egg into your trapezius is lossy. Keeping a trapezius is hard because it fades if left unfed or at rest.

I’m not keen on dramatic lifestyle changes

Is this true? Or are you keen, but it's hard to know what to do and implementation is a legitimate challenge? Recognize that the minimum is not easy. It may be simple but it is not easy. Staying the course is hard as fuck.

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