Get ripped and stay fit

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

Steve Herring slips out of the jacket that barely conceals his bulging biceps and makes his way to a bench in the weight room at the University of North Alabama, where he’s served as strength and conditioning coach for the past six years.

Herring, 62, is walking proof that heavy powerlifting isn’t reserved exclusively for the young athletes he trains each week. In fact, Herring will go so far as to say resistance training should become a weekly health ritual for anyone regardless of their age.

“After 40, your body really starts losing muscle. The only way to maintain that muscle is through resistance training,” he said.

Aside from a boosted metabolism and improved stability, Herring said strengthening exercises can also help build stronger bones, which is especially important for women who are at greater risk for developing osteoporosis following menopause.

While it might seem easy to jump on a treadmill and call it a workout, Herring said there is more that strength training can do for the body than walking, jogging, or even running can achieve on its own.

“Weightlifting gives you the biggest results,” he said, explaining that the 400 calories burned in a 45-minute walk are the same 400 calories burned in an intense weight room session, but the calorie deficit comes with a few added benefits.

“When you lift weights, it tears that muscle tissue down, so your metabolism stays elevated while it’s trying to heal,” Herring said. “When it heals, it grows back denser, so you’ve got your bone density, your muscle density, you’ve burned the same number of calories, but you’ve done your body better because you’re actually changing your body.

“A lot of people who control their eating and get on a treadmill, they’ll lose weight, and they’ll go, ‘Well, this is not the body I wanted.’ You see yourself getting smaller, but you don’t see the fit you. If you control your eating, you lift weights and then the weight is gone, you’re going, this is the body I wanted.”

While he isn’t discounting the health benefits of a good aerobic workout, Herring said adding some type of resistance training to the routine can only boost those fitness goals. He said toned muscles and a fit physique are added bonuses, but are usually what motivates people to start training in the first place.

At the same time, Herring said he’s always shocked to hear from potential clients looking for advice on how to stay fit without getting ripped, but he said he always reassures newcomers that even daily lifting won’t produce those immediate results.

“That has always amazed me,” he said with a laugh. “Women always go, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get big,’ but I’ve even had men say, ‘I don’t want to get real big and ripped like you.’ Well, it’s taken me 40-something years to get this big.”

As a lifetime, drug-free lifter, Herring said he considers himself lucky for being introduced to weightlifting and resistance training as a high school student in the late 1970s at a time when most schools in north Alabama couldn’t boast about a fully equipped facility.

When he joined the Rogers High School football team, the school had recently completed the then-new field house and brought in state-of-the-art weights and equipment.

“Most of the high schools in this area at that time had like just a universal machine,” Herring said. “Matter of fact, when I came to UNA to play football, we barely had a weight room. We just had a bench press, a bench, a few dumbbells, and like a cable machine. When I came here, I was lucky we had young coaches who were ahead of the curve and taught that stuff. I ate it up. I loved it.”

Even as a young child, Herring said he’d always been concerned with growing up to be “big and strong.” Weightlifting around football practice just reinforced those goals.

He began training others his senior year at Rogers and joined Bigger Faster Stronger (BFS), a physical education and character development program for students that was established in 1976.

“I started early in that kind of stuff,” Herring said. “Of all the hobbies I’ve had in my life — and I’ve played golf, I’ve rode bicycles, I’ve done all that kind of stuff — but the one thing that stayed consistent in my life is the weightlifting. I was a competitive power lifter for years.”

When he was younger, Herring said he set goals that focused on strength, but back then, he was just as concerned with his size.

“It was just about how big I could get — big as a house,” he said. “Then things just change. That’s no longer the biggest concern.”

As a powerlifter, Herring maintained his 220-pound weight to compete in his class. When he stopped competing, he said his weight began to fluctuate.

“I think when I took this job, I was 260-something. Even in my 50s, I was still large,” he said.

Though his heightened metabolism due to years of conditioning meant he never struggled to lose the 10- to 20-something pounds he’d packed on after retiring from competitive lifting, Herring said he wishes he had paid more attention to his eating habits when he was younger.

“In my mind, I would still like to be that big, but I would like to be leaner. I would like to be 240 with abs, but we’ll see. That’s all in the nutrition side of it,” he said.

“You know, I do this for a living, and I’ve taught people how to do it. It’s still just as hard for people who know how to do it. People who write the programs and teach all that stuff, we still fight the same battles. I like the cookies, cake and drinks as much as anybody else.”

Without diving too much into the specifics of a well-balanced diet, Herring said a good tip, especially for anyone working out regularly, is to incorporate the right amount of protein, nutritional carbohydrates and healthy fats into their daily eating.

“Sometimes it’s not as much about what you’re eating as it is how much you’re eating,” he added. “You know, you can eat chicken, rice and broccoli, and that’s great, but too much chicken, rice and broccoli, you gain weight. You may eat the right foods, but the portions are too large. Make sure you’re eating the right foods.”

For anyone struggling with their weight or their health, or anyone who feels it may be too late to start a workout routine, Herring urges them to start from where they are and add a little more to the effort as they progress.

Even a little movement and strength training is better than none, after all.

Consistency is the key, he said.

“If you’re saying, ‘I’m going to work out three days a week,’ then do your three days. It doesn’t have to be Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If you can do Monday but you can’t do Wednesday, do Thursday, but be consistent with what you do,” Herring said.

“Once you’ve established your consistency, bring the intensity,” he said. “If you could do 12 reps with the (20-pound weight), and then all of a sudden you could do 20 reps with the 20, well move up to the 25. Then get your 12. Increase your intensity.”

It happens often. Herring sees people who are motivated to change their lifestyle for the better, but it’s their self-confidence that stands in the way. He has tips for anyone falling into that category as well.

“There are two reasons people immediately jump on the treadmill — one, it’s easy. They don’t have the knowledge about this or that, so they turn on the treadmill and they walk. Two, they don’t worry about being watched or judged. Walking on the treadmill is walking on the treadmill.”

Rather than the intensity of the exercise, Herring said it’s usually a person’s thought distortions that prove to be their biggest adversaries.

“Man, I’ve never been in a weight room. What if I do the exercises wrong,” he listed as one of those common misconceptions he hears frequently.

“Most people don’t realize that if they go into a public gym, nobody cares what you do,” he said. “No two people are concerned with anyone else. If they have the best body, they are concerned for themselves. If they have the worst body, they’re concerned for themselves. The best thing you can do is ease your mind. Nobody cares. Just do your thing.”

For anyone who still prefers to go their fitness journey alone, he encourages them to seek help from a professional when they need it — even if it means consulting an app or reputable online resource. He also urges them to incorporate a buddy system into their routine with someone they’re comfortable working out around.

“I didn’t stop lifting heavy because I couldn’t lift heavy. I stopped lifting heavy because I didn’t have anyone to lift heavy with,” he said. “If you’ve got a friend, you’re in that battle together.

“I’ve done this my whole life, but I’ll get up some days, and I go, ‘I don’t want to hit it today.’ If I had my workout partner, they would say, ‘Yeah you are! Get your butt in here. We’re doing this today.’ It holds you accountable.”

One more tip for someone just starting out: Make your workout fun, and don’t be afraid to say you’re doing it for yourself.

“Even though people say it: ‘I want to be a healthier version of myself.’ No, you want to look great. Do you get healthy and fit along the way? Absolutely. It does all sorts of things to change you,” Herring said. “You get what you put into it.”