Home Lifestyle COLUMN: Iron In My Diet: Returning to the Gym

COLUMN: Iron In My Diet: Returning to the Gym

My little girl is part of the recreation soccer league here in Rockingham. Pre-game, there is a ritualistic gathering of player relatives and supporters.

I don’t know any of these folks, but it sounds like I do once the game starts. That’s because we are all calling out the same advice to our respective daughters on the field, reminding them to stay engaged, to pass, etc. Then we turn to each other and lament a missed goal opportunity. Much of the sideline is over 40 years old, and you can’t be that age at an athletic event and not sometimes talk fitness. The biggest gym enemy is time if you are a parent with a job. That is the one thing I constantly hear.

I remember transitioning from competition running in my 20s to fooling around with boxing and bodybuilding in my 30s and 40s. I gleaned my gym routines from various fitness magazines, knocking out 15 or 20-set workouts per muscle group. I can still exercise like that, but then I don’t go to the gym for three or four days.

At age 50, I’m in charge of many things at work. Then I must get my daughter from school and practice. With so much hanging over my head, the gym becomes pure drudgery that I crowbar into my day. I have to shop and cook and do all kinds of single-dad stuff. Once upon a time, the gym was fun. I enjoyed figuring out what workouts I could pull off and what weight I could handle.

The gym can be fun again if you adjust your perspective.

Are you trying to buff up for that first trip to the beach and out-pose your beer-drinking buddies on Memorial Day weekend?


Do you want to look relatively fit, feel better, and be able to move the occasional piece of furniture without herniating a disc?

Probably. Be honest with yourself, and clarity will find you.

I don’t look much different doing 10-to-12 sets than doing 15-to-20 sets. I’m out of the gym in a half hour if I do one muscle group. So, set slimming is change number one. And if I am going back to the beginning, I’ll consult the man who changed all gym life, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The paradox of Arnold is that as much as he loved to live in the gym, he was super-efficient and would get out in record time — for an obsessive professional bodybuilder. In many workouts, he used supersets to simultaneously work on corresponding muscle groups, i.e., chest and back.

But if you strip the volume and ferocity out of Arnold’s golden-age workouts and apply them to only one muscle group at a time, you get effective, time-friendly fitness routines.

As per the first edition of “The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding,” Arnold would do a set of chin-ups and then go right to a barbell incline press set without rest and repeat this superset four times. The next superset would be a dumbbell fly exercise for the chest that goes right into a set of upright rows for the back. Then he would combine a bench press with more chin-ups. It got crazier from there.

Insanity. I used to do this stuff. If you take Arnold’s principles and focus on only the chest, you get my workout now. Everything is three sets of 10.

Machine Bench Press superset with the pec-dec fly machine
Incline dumbbell press

Time elapsed: 30 minutes.

Arnold worked his shoulders all by themselves, but he applied a tri-set principle that you can see in my back workout.

Tri-set (2 sets of 10 reps):
Lat pulldown via a cable machine
Lat pullover via the same cable machine
Seated row via cable machine

Superset (3 sets of 10 reps)
Bent-over dumbbell rows
Hyperextensions for the lower back

Time elapsed: 35 minutes.

Upon a second open-heart surgery in 2018, Arnold’s doctors advised that it was time for him to give up lifting hefty weight. Thus, he started incorporating machines into his workouts more than ever.

Machines and dumbbells are wonderful. Machines are easier on your aging joints, and many times there is no loading and unloading of plates. Just set the weight, do your sets, wipe it down and move on. Dumbbells are grab-and-go as well. I don’t need to load an Olympic bar and deadlift at my age. I can work my lower back on a hyperextension bench with a dumbbell.

A high-efficiency approach reinvigorated WWE Hall-of-Famer Steve Austin. He retired in 2003 due to many injuries, including a broken neck.


For three years, Steve remained in a funk, “livin’ off beer and enchiladas” (which sounds lovely), before talking himself back into the gym and pursuing movies. In 2010 he was working with Sylvester Stallone on “The Expendables.” He looked better than when he wrestled, and Steve bragged in multiple interviews about how fast he could get in and out of the gym.

Here is Steve Austin’s eight-set Thursday:

Do 6-10 reps x 2 sets of each of the following:
Barbell rows
Dumbbell rows
Barbell shrugs
Dumbbell shrugs

There are three 24-hour gyms in Rockingham. With the responsibilities of age and parenting, you need that flexibility. Also, it is more courteous and practical to superset during non-peak hours. There are a few guys at my gym roughly the same age. We see each other in the odd hours — 5 a.m., late evening, smack in the middle of lunch hour. We’re all in the same boat, whether shift work or dad duties.

We’re not walking around with Avenger physiques, sporting grapefruit-size shoulders, but we older fellas are holding it down. I think I speak for anyone over 50 that it is not exactly a compliment when someone says, “you look good for your age.” That sounds like, “You look good for someone who shouldn’t look good.”

Last week I spent five efficient days (roughly 2.5 hours) at the gym and hit every muscle group. On day one, I finished my back workout in 35 minutes and jumped back in the car. I thought I’d do that same workout next week but with heavier weights and fewer repetitions. It was easy yet productive, and I was psyched for tomorrow.

For the first time in years I declared, “I’ll be back.”

Then I got a beer and an enchilada at the Taco Factory.

Sean Patrick Smith is a freelance columnist and author of “Three Miles of Eden.” A catalogue of his work can be found on seanpatricksmith.com

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