Just tell me what to do: external structure, lifting weights, and a plan to feel good

10k training plan via halhigdon.com

A recurring theme for me is how successful I can be with a little help from external structure. Across different aspects of my life, I’ve responded well to deadlines: driving toward projects at work; taking technical certification exams to force myself to learn; registering for a race to develop a training plan and get every single run and rest day onto the calendar. (Ok that last one didn’t always work, especially in the past couple of years. But it worked really well for a while, and I think it’s still a potent tool.

Get me to the gym on time

This summer, my daughter was home from college. We were having lunch in our neighborhood, talking about finding some activities we could do together. Out the window, I could see a gym that I’d walked by many times, but never looked into. In a wonderful moment of grabbing the brass ring, we visited the gym after lunch, joined on the spot, and developed a plan to work out together.

Wind me up and make me work out.

About 6 months before that lunch with my daughter, I had stopped my workouts with a personal trainer at a different gym. My trainer, a power lifter herself, did a great job of creating tough but varied workouts, blending free weights, machines, and floor work. I really liked having someone just wind me up and point me at the equipment. I didn’t have to write anything down, read anything from a notepad. I could just grunt and complain about lunges. (I really hate lunges!)

However, I could no longer afford to pay for the trainer’s time, and wanted to try it on my own. I quickly got overwhelmed by trying to replicate the workouts I’d done with my trainer. I needed something simple if I was to be successful.

Is there an app for that?

That’d when I decided on Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program. The program, at the start, focuses on a small number of barbell exercises, focusing on form and building strength. There are several books, lots of videos on YouTube, and most important for me, a very good iPhone app. (There’s also an Android app, but I haven’t tried it.)

For beginners, the program starts slowly, but progresses quickly, as you build up. It was very simple. 4 different lift types, 3 per session, in an A/B/A/B type of order. The 4 lifts at the start: squats, deadlifts, and then either overhead press or bench press. Warmups were key, and that’s where the app was a lifesaver. Every step of the warmup and the working set(s) was calculated and displayed for me. Wind me up and go!

In the screenshot above, you can see that in a particular deadlift session (which followed squats and overhead press), I completed 5 sets of warmups, starting at 95 lbs (sorry metric types) and working up to 230 pounds. Then came 1 set of 3 repetitions at 270 lbs. The app goes further and shows which plates to put on each end of the bar. Every choice can be customized in settings, to reflect the equipment at your gym (or home gym): weight of empty bar, which plates you have access to, etc.

As the program advances, an additional lift, power cleans appear in the rotation. This substitutes for deadlifts on alternating sessions, once your deadlift weight exceeds your body weight (that was an amazing milestone to reach!). Then come chinups. I don’t want to talk about chinups. Ever.


That’s where I am to date. At some point I’ll move to an intermediate plan, and yes there’s an app for that.

End-of-workout summary, including warmup weights

A wonderful bonus feature of the app is an end-of-workout summary screen. It is a real motivator, as you stand there dripping sweat, with shaking legs, to see the totals for that session. Although I wish you could return to this screen later. I need to remember to take a screenshot at that moment or it’s lost. The log view doesn’t give the grand total.

A healthier body and a healthier mind?

To tie all this together, this was a real sweet spot for me and exercise: external structure (meeting my daughter to go to the gym 3 mornings a week meant not being able to blow it off and go back to sleep), tell me what to do (detailed instructions that could easily be modified, in the palm of my hand), and seeing progress, week after week. Plus, time with my kid!

I won’t tell her story here, but this program was also beneficial for my daughter. Not only did she get stronger, but she also had a plan for when she returned to school in the fall, and could walk right into the weight room with the bros and sling heavy plates with confidence.


Shortly after the summer ended, I contracted a nasty case of pneumonia. (Thanks health insurance for covering that hefty ER bill!) I lost about 6 weeks of gym time, and had to come back to lower weights. The silver lining to that very dark cloud? The Starting Strength app makes it easy to deload and recalculate the workouts. I’ll be a little while regaining where I was at the end of the summer, but it’s ok.

I’ve got a plan.

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