Pragmatic Strength

Pragmatic Strength

Let's start this post off with something important: I am not a professional in anything I'm about to talk about. I have rather strong opinions on what a successful and fulfilling life looks like, and you are welcome to disagree. This post represents my approach to strength training and programming, and you're welcome to adapt my ideas into your own or just ignore them.

I am an aspiring athlete. That is to say, I aspire to one day be almost athletic. As a baseball player, and a pitcher at that, this has not been an easy road. At one point I learned about power production and force curves and how to apply those to my weight training, but it never really translated to my performance. Real athletes can focus their many-hundred-pound squats into singular efforts on the field of play, whether it be a sprint to beat a defender to the goal or a fast break to a powerful dunk. But just because I don't have it doesn't mean I can't try.

The real goal is to never be outmatched by a day-to-day activity. Walking up a hill should never be hard, nor should walking groceries home or wrangling a small child into a car seat. These might seem trivial, but you'd be surprised how many people struggle. They might say things like "I don't like carrying the groceries to the car", but they really mean "I'm too weak to carry the groceries to the car comfortably." And we can haggle on whether life should be comfortable or not till the cows come home, but I view that approach as a sign of weakness.

Breaking it down, there are 4 main movement patterns we might encounter in a normal, modern life:

  • Picking something off the floor
  • Lowering something to the ground
  • Holding something in front of you
  • Lifting something overhead

Conveniently, these translate pretty well into standard lifts. And since 4 days a week is a very reasonable number of times to work out, I've made an adapted version of the Juggernaut Method to suit my goals.

Picking things off the floor

I deadlift on Tuesdays.

The most likely place for us to hurt ourselves in the house, in my experience, is picking something off the ground. We're likely to twist and lift with our legs because the box couldn't possibly be that heavy, and yet it was and now we're on stuck to the couch for a few weeks.

Deadlifting is also my favorite lift. I'm a rather lanky person and have reasonably strong glutes, so I've historically done very well deadlifting. But the point of the day is not just to deadlift: it's to practice picking things off the ground. There are a few exercises that fit the bill as accessories, but I generally find that I'm pretty wrecked after 8 heavy deadlifts. Because of the toll heavy lifts take on the body, I treat this as a light cardio day and don't add many accessories:

  • 3x8 deadlifts
  • 5xFailure Bulgarian split squats with front leg further out, rep matching to my weaker (left) side

When I get stronger I'll start adding in good mornings, nordic curls, and leg presses to the routine, but deadlifts can really sap your strength so I think pushing myself hard on split squats is better return on investment. Currently, Tuesdays are my shortest day time wise but my longest day to recover from, even though I'm just getting back into the lifting habit. On a quick day I might be out of the gym in 15 minutes, and use the jog to and from the gym as some moderate cardio.

Maybe it goes without saying, but in my program, the last rep in each exercise should be pretty darn near max effort. Working hard is necessary to make progress, even if it means grunting a little.

Lowering things to the floor

Front squats are king. I lower things to the floor Thursday.

Once you've lifted something, you're going to have to put it down. Doing that safely is an important part of aging gracefully. What's the point of lifting something safely if you're just going to hurt yourself as soon as you try to do something with it?

Front squats are my least favorite squat variation (so far!), but I think the most important as they stress your mobility and stability much more than a back squat. That's not to say back squats are pointless, I just hold the front squat in that high of regard. Again, accessories don't need to be complicated here, though I make sure to do 3 different exercises on these days. Because I'm still struggling to find my front squat position, I've opted for more sets of fewer reps, but this will change as I improve.

  • 8x3 front squat
  • 3xFailure Romanian deadlift, myorep-matching the first set's rep count
  • 3xFailure Bulgarian split squat with front leg closer, rep matching to my weaker (left) side

Again, as I improve exercises can be added, though right now I can only really think of leg presses right now.

Holding things in front of you

Bench press and bent over rows on Mondays build the box-carrier in you.

You can lift things up and put them down safely, but can you hold the thing securely while you move to a different location? Every Monday, I prepare for my future carrying boxes in and out of a garage for no real reason. The goal here could be phrased as "strength in the horizontal plane": can you hold things to your chest and then push them away?

There are far too many exercises that could be beneficial to this goal to list. And I generally take a free market approach to the problem: if the benches are all taken, I can change the order of exercises around, or switch up accessories to only use dumbbells, or whatever.

What's particularly exciting about these and Friday's muscles is that they recover more quickly that your large leg and butt muscles from Tuesday and Thursday. More on this later, but right now it means that we should be able to up our set and rep counts without compromising performance.

  • 4x8 bench press
  • 4x12 bent over row
  • Some chest accessory

Lifting things overhead

Now that you can move heavy things around, we can spend Fridays dealing with the most compromised position: putting heavy things over your head.

I've also thought of this as "strength in the vertical plane." As someone who likes to climb occasionally, this strength is particularly valuable since it's the most productive for moving up the wall. As a former baseball player, it's super useful for keeping my damaged shoulders moving and strong enough to resist painful positions.

My issues with these movements is that because of my baseball past, the muscles involved here love going all out and so I find longer sets awful. I've decreased the rep counts and bumped the number of sets to account for this. I also use this day as my "prehab" day, where I do work on all my stabilizing muscles around the shoulder, but don't list them out in the primary workout just like I haven't listed out cardio and core work.

  • 8x4 press
  • 4xFailure pullup
  • 4xFailure upright row, myorep-matching the first set's rep count


I hope you see the vision behind my current workout plan. It's been going well for a few weeks now, even as I've eased back into being able to hold a barbell. The motivations for each day keep me interested, as I can visualize what I'm training for with each movement and put myself into the mindset of an 80 year old remembering all the work he put in 50 years before to keep up with his grandkids.

A program like this also cuts through all the fluff that I see in other programs running around: every day focuses on one primary lift, and everything else is a rather minimal accessory to that lift. With tactics like myoreps, you don't need that many exercises or sets to stimulate growth. And with the shorter workouts, I can spend the extra time running or doing core exercises or working on my mobility; it's meant to be flexible around this movement core.

Plus, once I start climbing again I don't know how much direct upper body work I'll really have to do, but that's still months away for now.