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Major I: Strength
If you're not strong, you're weak
Exercise is the major of all majors (law three), and strength is the major of all exercise.
The average person loses 1-3% of strength per year after after age 50 and 1-2% of muscle mass. It’s worse than inflation on our banks accounts. The gradual loss of muscle as we age is called sarcopenia, and it is the Highlander’s mortal enemy.
Quality of life is dictated by our ability to resist external forces, physical and mental. The number one obvious health decline with age manifests itself in frailty and feebleness. When your faculties weaken, it affects your body and mind. Weakness is life defeating you. When we are weak, we doubt. The most important goal of a Highlander is to be strong of body, and the mind will follow.
The way to defeat age-related physical decline is through strength training. The purpose of our training is not to make you the strongest you could possibly be or the most jacked or ripped you could possibly be. If those are your goals, you should do a different strength training program. The purpose of Highlander strength training is to be able to make tasks that were easy for us as 30-year olds easy when we’re 70 years old.
We measure this via Highlander strength standards. At age 70, the most important things we want to be able to do are:
Carry 0.70x bodyweight (women) or 1x bodyweight (men) in your hands for one minute.
Deadlift 0.70x bodyweight (women) or 1x bodyweight (men) five times?
Lift 0.25x bodyweight (women) or 0.50x bodyweight (men) over head?
Throw a 4lb weight (women) or 8lb weight (men) 8 feet?
If you are younger than 70, you should want to be able to do much more than these standards. See The Highlander Standard for standards by age range. You may not be able to meet the standard today, but The Highlander Program helps you train to get there via six exercise groups:
Humans were physically built to endure traveling long distances to tire out prey and carry our food back to camp. Endurance and the ability to carry weight is what distinguishes us from other animals. One could argue it is what makes us human.
In this context, the Highlander’s most powerful tools relative to exercise are weighted carries and zone 2 cardio.
Weighted carries are referred to as a “farmer’s walk” in the strength world. To perform a farmer’s walk, a Highlander holds dumbbells, farmer’s handles, or a trap bar and walks with the weight for some distance.
Carries not only help strengthen our lower bodies, they also help strengthen our grip. Grip strength is one of the most powerful indicators of longevity. Our hands are how we translate strength to the world around us. If our hands are weak, we cannot be strong. A Highlander must carry things.
A Highlander can use a heavy weight and slowly walk a short distance or a lighter weight and quickly walk a longer distance. The variables will change throughout the Program, but we will use carries at least once per week.
If we can’t pick something up and carry it, what do we do? We drag it.
Drags develop lower body strength without loading the spine or creating the muscle soreness that comes from the slow lowering (eccentric) motion of using weights. Drags also require minimal teaching of technique relative to other strength moves like a squat or deadlift.
To perform a proper drag, attach a harness to a sled, and pull the sled. You can pull the sled going forward to work your glutes and hamstrings, or you can turn around and pull the sled backwards to work your quads. A Highlander uses sled drags frequently to develop useful lower body strength to compliment weighted carries.
A hinge is a forward bend at the hips, for example to pick something up, then a return to standing via the contraction of our lower body musculature.
The most popular hinge in strength training is the deadlift.
Some argue the deadlift is the purest expression of strength: How much can you lift off of the floor?
While I love the traditional deadlift, the Highlander uses many variations of deadlifts to train the hinge pattern including trap bar deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and straight leg deadlifts.
Whereas carries, drags, and hinges primarily focus on using lower body strength, pushes and pulls focus on upper body strength.
The canonical push exercises are a push up or bench press. In either case, you are pushing a weight away from you.
Many people spend too much practicing to push things in front of them and too little time pushing things overhead. A Highlander must be able to exert strength in both planes through push ups, bench presses, and overhead presses.
The canonical pull exercises are a row or a pull up. In either case, you are pulling a weight — either your body or a bar — toward you.
The pulling movements train the same planes as the pushing movements — front and overhead. The antagonism between pushing and pulling on the same planes adds stability to the opposite motion, e.g. a row makes your push up more stable and vice versa.
The Highlander will use dumbbells, bars, rows, and pull down machines to train the pull motion. The more advanced Highlander will also use pull ups.
Throwing is about speed. Slow is weak, and weak is old. The Highlander must maintain strength in the context of speed.
A Highlander trains throws via both the upper and lower body. For the upper body, you might throw a medicine ball in front of you. For the lower body, you might simply jump. A jump uses your legs to throw your body into the air.
You don’t have to throw a weight far, but you need to be able to generate force to move an object through space.
The Strength Program
The Highlander Program keeps programming simple. Each strength training day is a full body training day that will include a throw, a carry or hinge, a drag, a push, and a pull, in that order.
Highlanders will spend most of their time training hinges, pushes, and pulls between eight and fifteen repetitions. While optimal strength development seems to occur via lower rep ranges with heavier loads, strength is still acquired using higher repetitions with lighter loads. The Highlander Program is designed for the beginners who may not have enough comfort with prescribed exercises to lift heavier loads. Using relatively lighter loads balances (law six) risk and reward for the Highlander. As a beginner progresses, he should feel comfortable increasing load and lowering repetitions.
Carries and drags will be programmed for time or distance depending on the current cycle. Throws will be programmed in three to five rep ranges.
What’s the difference between training for strength vs muscle size?
A lot. You may be surprised that training for strength and muscle size are not the same thing. In many cases, professional bodybuilders who have large amounts of muscle mass are not as strong as powerlifters of a similar weight who would appear to have much less muscle.
Large muscles are often strong, but they’re not required to be maximally strong.
The major difference between training for strength vs muscle size is intensity vs volume. In very general terms, training for strength requires a higher level of intensity as determined by lower repetition ranges with a high percentage of maximal load on the bar. Gaining muscle size — hypertrophy — requires more volume and pain which is often achieved via higher repetition ranges taken close to failure.
A Highlander should focus on strength over muscle mass. Training effectively for strength gain will likely result in sufficient muscle gain to live stronger for longer. If you want more mass for aesthetic purposes, you might add exercises or volume to the base program as you advance beyond the beginner phase.
What about squats?
As a former strength athlete, it’s hard for me to downgrade the squat, but squats are not a necessary tool for the beginning Highlander. Squats are the most technical of the power lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift). We can achieve the desired functional stimulus for the lower body for longevity through sled drags without squatting. If you want to add squats to your programming, I wouldn’t stop you.
My gym doesn’t have sleds or some other equipment. What can I do instead?
The Highlander Program is designed so that you should be able to find the equipment to perform the necessary exercises in any gym. Sled dragging is the only thing that may be difficult. As an alternative, you can do some light “sled” work on a treadmill that’s turned off. Use your legs forward and backward to push the tread. I’d ask a gym owner if it’s ok to do this before doing it.
Can I use machines?
If necessary, you can use machines for things like bench or shoulder press. The program is designed such that you shouldn’t need machines because we’re using carries, drags, and dumbbells for many movements that require only basic technique
I love doing Exercise X. Can I add it?
Add anything you want to The Highlander Program as long as you don’t skip the majors listed here.
I can’t do Exercise X. What should I do?
The Highlander Program is designed with minimal complexity in exercises such that most people should be able to perform the basics with some exceptions. If you’re very overweight, jumping may not be a good idea at the beginning until you lose some weight. The same may be said if you’re already in your older years. If you can’t do an exercise safely, skip it.
I have a bad back. Can I skip carries or deadlifts?
Skip them only if you want to keep a bad back. I say this only partly in jest. An inability to brace your back properly may be a significant contributor to your back pain. A Highlander needs to be able to use his back without compromise. Learn to fix your back problems. A good place to start is with Dr. Stuart McGill. He’s the foremost expert on fixing back pain, including in elite strength athletes.