I’ve been lifting weights for decades. I was pretty consistent about it for a long time. For years while I was working at a regular job, Jackie and I would go to the Fitness Center and lift before I went to the office at least two, often three times a week, using whatever machines they had (three or four different brands/styles of machines over the years). I saw pretty good gains the first six weeks or so that I was doing this, but they leveled off. I kept at it for years after that, with very little to show for it.

All that time I imagined that the issue was intensity—to make more gains, I needed to lift more and harder. I now think that was wrong. I think the problem was just that machines are a crappy way to build strength or muscle.

Four and a half years ago we moved to Winfield Village, which has a pretty good set of free weights. I’ve been using them—once again without much to show for it. In this case, the issue is not a matter of using the wrong equipment or a lack of intensity—it’s that my consistency has fallen off. I get on a schedule of lifting two or three times a week, but only keep it up for a week or two and then miss a few workouts.

Happily, this month I’m doing pretty well. In 21 days I’ve gotten in 9 lifting sessions, which is just about exactly my target. (I aim for every other day, so when I miss an occasional day it still comes in at 3 times a week.)

I’m seeing some nice strength gains (although after just three weeks I can’t be sure I’m not back in the situation of “anything will build strength for six weeks”). I’m also putting on some weight—probably just because I’ve been eating too many carbs, which I’ll fix here shortly, but in the meantime I’m choosing to imagine that I’m adding some muscle as well.

Understanding that consistency is the key, maybe I’ll be able to keep it up. (Watching my older relatives become frail due to sarcopenia, I’m determined to avoid that fate.)

I’m pretty sure I’ll manage okay until the weather turns and I have to start balancing the lifting with the running and hiking. (I’ve only gotten in one run this month, because of ice and cold.) We’ll have to see after that. But as I say, I’m determined.

I’ve been lifting weights regularly for at least 25 years–shortly after we got married I convinced Jackie to start lifting with me, and we lifted together all those years until we moved and let our membership in the fitness center in our old neighborhood lapse.

Any time during that period, if you’d asked me what my goals were, I’m sure I’d have told you that functional strength was what I was going for. I’d have just called it strength, but functional strength is what I’d have meant: The ability to do things that took muscle power—to pick up heavy things, carry heavy things, climb stairs with heavy things, etc.

The actual exercises I did, mostly with machines, were poorly selected for developing that strength, but that’s just because I didn’t know better, not because I was secretly going for something else.

As a secondary goal I’d have told you I was interested in the general health benefits of being strong—stronger bones, more metabolic activity, etc. Once I learned about lower insulin resistance I’d have included that.

One thing I was never interested in was hypertrophy. That is, I was only interested in bigger muscles to the extent that they’d be stronger and provide the associated metabolic advantages. If I could have gotten that with small muscles, I’d have been totally fine with that. In the privacy of my own brain, I was even a little disdainful of people who lifted for the aesthetics of having bigger muscles.

I did know that stronger muscles and bigger muscles pretty much go together. Competitors in sports that involved moving your own body—and especially sports that involve your body up a hill or mountain—have always sought ways to make their muscles stronger without making them (much) bigger. It’s possible—just barely, at the margins, to a limited extent—but by and large getting stronger means getting bigger.

I mention all this because I’ve taken an interest in hypertrophy, for a very specific reason: At my last physical, my doctor suggested that I should quit losing weight.

I’m not quite sure why—I’m just about at the mid-range for “healthy weight” (based on BMI, which has its flaws, but which probably provides pretty good guidance in my case) and well above underweight. Maybe he was just concerned in case I wasn’t in control of my weight loss. Maybe he was worried that I might be losing muscle as well as fat. I’ll ask him at my next physical.

At any rate, that left me with a minor dilemma. My weight, at the midpoint of the healthy range, is just where I want it. (Even before my doctor mentioned it, I had already decided to quit losing weight, when I realized that if I lost much more weight I’d no longer be size “medium” and would start being size “small,” and I didn’t want to be small.)

However, I still have more subcutaneous fat than I’d like. To lose that fat without losing weight, really my only option is to build more muscle.

So, for about a year now I’ve been working on that, with pretty limited success. Hypertrophy is hard. It’s also harder to measure than weight, which makes it hard to know if I’m having any success or not. In fact, I haven’t even tried to measure my muscle hypertrophy. (Measuring my chest and biceps and such puts me a little too squarely in the group that I mentioned being privately disdainful of, although I probably ought to get over it.)

In any case, so far I’m sticking with just measuring strength and figuring that hypertrophy will follow.

And let me reiterate just how weird it feels to have even this much of a focus on hypertrophy.