I’ve had the chance to look over a new program from the folks at Critical Bench called 40 Strong. This one is of special interest to me since I am now over 40 years old (I hit the big 4-0 a few years ago). Here’s my review:
Let’s face it, a lot of guys in their 40’s (and older) are completely out of shape. This can happen for several reasons:
*Other things take priority over planning exercise and training.
*The aging process is accelerated by bad habits (an unhealthy lifestyles).
*Testosterone levels can plummet if the natural decline is further accelerated by obesity, poor diet, etc.
*The “mid-life crisis”–men feel like their life is not where it should be.
You get the idea. Needless to say, a workout/diet program cannot solve all of these issues. But it may be a starting point for those who want to improve their fitness level and overall quality of life. And a well-designed program can also help those who have been consistently training but want to mix things up a little in light of new priorities and goals.
This is where 40 Strong comes in. The authors have designed it to be something that can be incorporated into the “typical” life of a man with a career, family, and all the other responsibilities that life brings. I’ll give you a little information on the training and nutrition philosophy behind this program:
Nutrition: I’ve noticed that as I get older I’m a lot more sensitive to the foods I eat. In other words, I can quickly feel the difference between a few days of eating healthy food vs a day or two of junk. The nutrition parameter gives you some general guidance for choosing healthy foods.
Training: The exercise component of 40 Strong is designed with more mature trainees in mind. It incorporates cardiovascular training (steady-state cardio as well as circuit type training), stretching/mobility, and strength/hypertrophy training. One nice thing is the exercise descriptions link directly to a YouTube video–you can watch and see exercise (or exercises) demonstrated. The workouts get longer and/or more intense as you progress through eight weeks.
Let me give you some ideas on the type of man that 40 Strong would be most beneficial for:
*Men in their 40’s who have neglected their health and want to start getting back into shape (losing fat, building muscle, becoming more flexible, etc).
*Older/experienced trainees who simply need a change of routine. Guys who have been weight training for years, for example, may need to spend some time on cardiovascular training an mobility.
*Men who need to focus on diet and fat loss while maintaining their muscle/strength. I see a lot of older guys who train but are just too fat. They would look (and probably feel) better if they focused some of their efforts on getting leaner.
If this sounds like you I think you could benefit from this program. You could spend 8 weeks on it then move on to something that is a little more advanced or specialized.
Most young men walk in the gym with dreams of looking like a bodybuilder, NFL wide receiver, or maybe even a UFC fighter. Trainees may desire different levels of musculature, but most of them want the one centerpiece that all great physiques have in common: washboard abs, also known as a “six pack.”
Having shredded abs is an admirable goal. But there are some cold, hard truths you should embrace before hanging all your hopes and dreams on the status of your midsection. You’ll be much less frustrated if you keep some of these things in mind.
1. Diet is THE Key to Six-Pack Abs:
Some sectors of the fitness industry continue to perpetuate the myth that abdominal training is the key to having a washboard stomach. We’ve all seen that infomercial with the incredibly lean, tanned, well-oiled fitness model using some kind of gadget designed to train the abs. And you can look like him for a few easy payments of 20 or 30 bucks.
You might as well hold on to your credit card, because the key to having visible abdominal muscles is having a low percentage of body fat. And the key to having low body fat is diet. Yes, exercise definitely helps–I’d highly recommend lifting weights combined with some form of cardiovascular conditioning. But it is virtually impossible to do enough exercise to overcome a poor diet.
Getting really lean will require you to put as much planning in your eating as you do your training. There are several effective diet strategies you can use (I prefer an intermittent fasting approach), but all of them will require you to use more calories than you consume for several weeks (or even months, depending on your current level of fitness).
2. Genetics Play a Role in Visible Abs:
Like it or not, some guys will have a much easier time achieving and/or maintaining six pack abs than others. Some men have low body fat levels because of their parents–they are genetically “programmed” to be lean and can stay that way with minimal dietary adjustments. We’ve all met that guy who eats a steady diet of fast food, trains sporadically, and still looks incredible with his shirt off.
The role of genetics doesn’t stop at overall body fat levels–it also has a huge influence in where you store your fat. Men naturally tend to have more fat around the midsection (women tend to carry it on their hips/thighs). But there is great variation in the proportion of fat we store around our stomach vs. other parts of the body. Some men can be quite lean through the arms and legs yet have large waistlines. Others store fat more evenly. These differences in fat distribution mean some can have visible abdominal muscles with a higher body fat percentage than others. Some will have to get their body fat level very low in order to have visible abs.
3. A Picture is Worth a Thousand Crunches:
Remember the picture of that bodybuilder you wanted to look like? Chances are he doesn’t look like that 99% of the time. Bodybuilders, fitness models, and even actors usually spend several weeks preparing for a single show, photo shoot, or scene. They undergo a strict diet and training regimen that, if properly executed, will get them to their desired level of leanness at the right time.
The “shredded” look often requires more than getting lean–subcutaneous fluid/water has to be carefully manipulated to make muscle definition more visible. Hugh Jackman began intentionally dehydrating himself 36 hours before his shirtless scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Bodybuilders often resort to using diuretics drugs, sometimes with fatal consequences.
To summarize, the strong physiques you see in magazines and movies are often temporary illusions–you may be looking at someone who is weakened by dehydration and calorie/carbohydrate restriction.
4. Getting Shredded May Lower Your Testosterone:
Here’s something else you should know: extremely low body fat levels (or the process required to get there) can have disastrous effects on testosterone levels. One study followed a natural bodybuilder as he prepared for a contest. He began with 14% body fat and worked his way down to 4.5% body fat over a period of several weeks. His testosterone went down 80% by the time he had reached his goal–80%!
It is incredibly difficult to naturally maintain strength and vitality when body fat drops into the lower single digits. This is one of the many reasons anabolic steroids have such great appeal to those who get ripped for a living. These synthetic hormones help offset the body’s natural response to several weeks’ worth of calorie restriction.
It is possible to diet and train your way to 5% body fat with no “pharmaceutical assistance,” but be prepared for a serious drop in testosterone.
5. Women May Not Care:
Let’s just assume you are able to get completely shredded without losing your interest in the ladies (remember that testosterone thing). Chances are they will not be nearly as impressed as you had planned. Yes, most women appreciate a lean, muscular physique. But don’t expect them to line up just to look at your abs. It just doesn’t work that way.
Attraction tends to be a complex thing for women, and most of them will simultaneously weigh several factors before giving you their attention. Personality, sense of humor, communication skills, success/ambition, and a long list of other characteristics are going to be more important to her than your shredded six-pack.
Believe it or not, I’m not trying to discourage you from pursuing physical excellence. Find a good program. Go to the gym. Clean up your diet. Lose that gut. Put on some muscle. Build some strength. Your genetic makeup may allow you to get a six-pack with a reasonably low body fat level. But you may need to settle for a good shoulder-to-waist ratio and flat stomach. Don’t despair: you’ll look and feel great at this level of fitness. And you’ll be within striking distance of the “shredded” look if you decide you want to take it that far.
Every once in a while I get asked about the form of supplements known as prohormones. I’ll share what I believe to be an informed opinion (along with some personal stories for your amusement), but keep in mind I’m not a doctor or pharmacist.
The History of Prohormones
Some of you may know that I spent wasted a lot of money on supplements in the 90’s. That era was in many ways the the “wild west” of supplement industry.
Prohormones came on the scene the mid-90’s, not long after anabolic steroids had been reclassified as schedule 3 controlled substances (since big biceps are apparently as dangerous as heroine).1 They were still legal because they were supposed to be precursors to anabolic hormones–converting to testosterone only after passing through the liver.
This was also around the time of the internet boom, so all kinds of stuff was being sold online. I remember GHB, the “date rape drug,” being marketed since it induced a deep sleep which would theoretically help with growth hormone production.
Androstenedione was the first prohormone to be heavily marketed (and given the nickname “andro”). This one was made famous when a sports reporter “accidentally” spotted a bottle in Mark MgGwire’s locker–some believe he put it there to draw attention away from allegations of steroid use (which he denied for years).
I was a naive 20-something who had been training for over a decade. I was eager to find an edge to make me bigger and stronger (ironic, since I considered myself a “natural” trainee). I tried several prohormone formulas: androstendione, 4-AD, 1-AD, etc. I even tried some unusual administration routes, like spraying them on my skin (which was supposedly superior to taking them orally), and even spraying them up my nose (which supposedly helped with focus and aggression, since that’s a more direct route to the brain). Did I mention what a naive consumer I was? I can’t help but laugh thinking back to some of the moronic things I tried.
I used prohormones on and off from the mid to late 90’s, but I can’t say they made any difference whatsoever. If I had it all to do over I would have simply enjoyed the gains that come from being in the peak years of my natural testosterone production (and saved some of my hard-earned cash). My best lifts of that decade came from simply adjusting my training methods—not from supplements of any kind.
At some point I discovered just how unpredictable prohormones were. Androstenedione, for example, was shown to raise the level of certain female hormones–not what I had in mind!2 I had never experienced any feminizing side effects, but the illusion of inducing a legal, side effect free testosterone boost was completely shattered. I never bothered with prohormones again–part of the hard lesson I had learned about trusting the supplement industry. I’m extremely grateful for reaching this conclusion because the worst was yet to come.
The hype regarding prohormones lived on in the 2000’s even after some were banned by the Steroid Control Act of 2004. “New” products came up that were not covered under the current law. I would see brands/names mentioned on bodybuilding forums, complete with testimonies of muscle/strength gains. But I was done–I wasn’t about to potentially tamper with my natural testosterone production based on endorsements in forums.
Prohormones and Toxicity
I have since learned that most of the prohormones were not really new at all–they were originally developed in the 60’s by chemists that were trying to create new steroid formulas. These compounds were abandoned because they were found to be ineffective and/or extremely toxic to the liver. Unscrupulous companies had essentially repackaged toxic waste of the 60’s as muscle builders. Apparently some the formulas that were resurrected in the 2000’s were more toxic than what was sold/used in the 90’s–a few unfortunate users required medical intervention due to liver toxicity.3 The FDA eventually banned these new/old drugs as well.
So here we are, about 20 years after prohormones were first introduced. I don’t know if any “new” versions are out there and I could care less. I’m content to lift, live and just optimize my testosterone levels naturally.