Training appropriately for your age is the key to lifelong fitness success. This doesn’t mean you should stop pursuing lofty goals or forgo barbell training once you hit 40, but you do need to make some tactical tweaks to your routine in order to keep progressing without crushing your body.
This advice isn’t limited to lifters, of course. Stories abound of middle-aged rec league hockey players suffering on-ice heart attacks and overly ambitious runners dropping dead mid-race. It’s true that many of these cautionary tales are more urban legend than factual news, but that doesn’t mean the risks aren’t real.
Recently, I conducted an informal poll among a small group of fellow grey-bearded weightlifters and confirmed something I’ve long suspected: Regardless of what our chronological ages may be, many older lifters – especially the dudes among us – approach training as though they’re hormonally charged 19-year-olds. Young bodies are often more resilient than those with some mileage on them. Their joints can handle high-volume programs; their bodies stay loose and pliable without extra mobility work or recovery protocols. They can also bounce back from marathon lifting sessions much easier.
If you’re an older athlete (however you choose to define those terms), you can’t just dust off the ol’ skates or sneakers and expect to perform the way you did back in your glory days. Concessions must be made in order to avoid a debilitating injury, ego be damned. Your brain sees that barbell resting in the squat rack and recalls the time you crushed three plates for 10 reps back in college, but I assure you your body is begging for a bit of restraint.
In a few months I’ll turn 39, and over the past 10 years, I’ve never missed a day of lifting owing to an injury. Chalk it up to luck if you will, but I prefer to think it’s because I’ve adopted the following protocols. If, like me, you plan on being a jacked 80-year-old who gives the young’uns a run for their money, listen up.
Make lighter weights feel heavy
You can’t get big and strong unless you continuously stimulate both the muscular and nervous systems with sufficient resistance. This form of linear progression is the essence of weight lifting. The thing is, you can’t simply keep adding weight to the bar lest you shred your joints into confetti.
Making simple modifications so manageable weights feel heavy will challenge your muscles while sparing your tendons, ligaments and joints. You can pre-exhaust the target muscles with some plyometrics (jump training) before hitting your main lifts (think squat jumps before squats or plyo push-ups before benching); you can increase the diameter of your dumbbells with some Fat Gripz; you can even restrict the blood flow to your limbs with tourniquet-like bands, a freaky-sounding trend that’s become more mainstream thanks to its effectiveness. All it takes is a bit of creativity to keep the gains coming without hurting yourself.
The stress response from exercise isn’t all that different from that of, say, cycling across a busy street during rush hour or having to beg a parking enforcement office not to ticket your car – cortisol and adrenaline are released, your heart rate and blood pressure rise, glucose is dumped into your bloodstream, gastrointestinal functions are suppressed. Living in a state of chronic stress, intentionally induced or otherwise, can lead to a litany of health problems. It also prevents the body from healing itself after a rigorous training session.
Your days off from lifting should involve passive forms of exercise or self-care. Yoga, foam rolling, meditation, massage, sauna, power walking – all of these activities will help to reduce stress and speed up the recovery process so you’ll be ready to hit the gym hard come training day. And of course, getting that doctor-recommended seven to eight hours of sleep will work wonders, too.
Cut back on the volume
The single biggest mistake mature lifters make with their programming is they simply do too much – too many sets, too many reps, too many exercises. Cutting back on the overall training volume will help to take care of both of the above issues (joint stress and recovery).
Five or six exercises a session is more than sufficient, if those five or six exercises are picked properly. Compound, multijoint exercises such as squats, deadlifts, push-ups and rows provide the most benefit and should be prioritized over machine-based isolation exercises. When lifting heavy, two or three sets of six to eight reps is plenty. Take each set a couple of reps shy of failure and you’ll leave the gym feeling powerful rather than defeated.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. Follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.