Here’s What You Need To Know…
1. If you want to stay healthy and lift forever, older lifters need to start differentiating between wants and needs. Prioritizing strength and power while placing mobility and general health and fitness on the back burner is not the recipe for long term success.
2. Ignoring glaring deficits in one of the four major physical attributes, strength, mobility, endurance and body composition, can be a slippery functional slope. Older lifters need to be focusing on balanced programming and a holistic physical mindset.
3. Maintenance isn’t a dirty word, and guess what? It comes down to this; either you maintain your physicality as an older lifter or you can join the majority of older individuals in a rapid decline in both health and function.
4. Age is no excuse to throw in the towel on your physical health and wellness. Continuing to grow, learn and develop new skills is your only move if you want to achieve the holy grail of lifting forever. The choice is yours.
It took me quite a while to get comfortable with the idea of branding myself as an “over-40” older lifters fitness expert. Mostly because, to be honest, the principles and strategies involved are the same regardless of age, or gender for that matter. Sure, some older lifters start on a lower rung of the training ladder, and many of us progress at a slower rate than others, but in the end, the process is largely the same.
With all of that said however, I’ve identified a handful of unique considerations that should be addressed when it comes to getting into peak condition as older lifters start tallying up the training years under their belts. Here are my three “master principles” you can use to guide intelligent decision-making in your own fitness training as an older lifter, and how to achieve the holy grail of training; how to lift forever.
#1 Learn To Reconcile Wants with Needs
Although fitness training as a whole is a good thing, we’re all prone to focusing too heavily on the things that we’re best at, and/or the things that bring immediate gratification.
I’m a perfect case in point: I take pride in being strong, and as such, I really enjoy lifting heavy weight for low reps, and I’m always looking for opportunities to hit a new one rep max in the gym. I’ve been that way for most of my training career, and as a result (this could be taken as a positive or a negative), I’m a lot stronger than I look. Or, put another way, I’m kinda skinny for an older lifter who spends half of his life in the gym.
Now, at age 56, with a three decades training history, I probably don’t have a lot of potential to grow additional muscle. Had I spent more time grinding out multiple sets of 8-12 reps over the years, I might be carrying a lot more lean muscle mass these days. Live and learn.
Why did I spend so much of my time lifting heavy weight for low volumes? Initially, it was because it delivers immediate gratification in spades — hey, it’s fun smashing your PR’s and bragging about it on Facebook, right? Doing higher volume work isn’t nearly as glamorous. Like eating your veggies and flossing, the benefits takes months and years to accrue.
For many guys, maintaining your mobility and work capacity require a similar willingness to delay gratification. For older lifters this can become problematic — if a one-mile run takes you 18 minutes at age 26, it’s a relatively small matter to restore that time to respectable levels. At age 56 however, not so much. Same goes for mobility. I’ll elaborate on that idea a bit more in the next rule.
#2 Don’t Allow Any Single Fitness Attribute To Deteriorate To Unacceptable Levels
As a general rule, fitness is much more difficult to develop than it is to maintain. The older you get, the more this becomes blatantly true.
As an older lifter myself, I think of my fitness development as having four pillars: strength/power, body composition, mobility, and work capacity/cardiorespiratory endurance. Like most people, I don’t have the same level of interest or commitment to all four of these attributes, but I do regard it as important to maintain a minimally acceptable level in each category.
How might we define “minimally acceptable”? That will depend from person to person — it’s not something I can define for you. Believe me, I’m well aware that you’d love for me to spell out how strong (or mobile, etc) you “should” be, and I’m sure you’d love me to hand you a fitness test that you could use to see if you measure up. Unfortunately, that’s not possible.
What I can do, however, is suggest that you develop a quantifiable line beneath which you will not allow yourself to sink. Create a test for each fitness attribute — perhaps a 1RM deadlift for strength, a 1.5 mile run for cardiorespiratory endurance, the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) for mobility, and a certain body fat percentage as a measure of body composition. Then, for each test, define your personal acceptable standard for each measurement. Later, once you’re reached that metric, you might raise that target even further to inspire your continued training.
Here’s a bit more elaboration on the four fitness categories we’ve been talking about: What Is Strength and Why Do You Need It. But lets start with arguably the most important physical attribute that can positively affect many others, strength.
Strength and Power
This is the attribute that seems to be easiest to develop and maintain later in life. Which of course, is why many older lifters focus on lifting as they get older. Given that most of us are already on board with the need to develop and maintain our strength as we age, I’ll move on to the other three characteristics that many of us need more work on.
Getting leaner advances you toward almost any conceivable health or fitness goal: you’ll likely lower your risk of cardio-pulmonary disease and diabetes, as well as common orthopedic disorders such as arthritis. You’ll look better, jump higher, and run faster (and longer). Your relative (pound for pound) strength will improve by default, as will your agility and speed. Exercises like chin ups, pushups, and dips suddenly improve. And, you’ll be able to eat more with less consequence.
While a high level of health and fitness doesn’t require exceptional mobility, once you get to a certain age, improving your range of motion becomes difficult to say the least. And, needless to say, that’s exactly why many older lifters don’t do a lot of work in this area — we suck at it, it hurts, and the results are slow to see.
The good news however, is that if you’re super tight, even a small improvement in mobility can go a long way. Common trouble spots include the thoracic spine and hip flexors. Dr. John Rusin always has a lot to say on This Topic, so I’ll refer to his expertise on the subject.
Work Capacity/Cardiorespiratory Endurance
I’m relatively famous (or perhaps infamous is the better word) for the various anti-jogging articles I’ve written, highlighted by this quote:
“Jogging is probably the most effective form of non-surgical gender-reassignment available for men.” – Charles Staley
In truth, my issue isn’t with jogging per se, but the tendency for people to regard it as the holy grail of fitness and weight loss. Jogging aside, you should maintain some type of minimally acceptable cardiovascular capacity.
About six months ago, I began to wonder how difficult it would be for me to run a mile — something I hadn’t done in decades. After a few weeks of pondering this, I decided to bite the bullet. Waiting for nightfall would reduce the strong possibility of personal humiliation, I reasoned. I laced up my shoes, walked out of the house, and headed for a one-mile route I’d mapped out the previous day. I started jogging. I felt heavy and lumbering — each step jarred my spine like heavy squats and deads never did. Light on my feet I was not, and I was grateful for the cover of darkness.
Amazingly, I managed to complete the mile in 11.45 — if you’re an actual runner, you won’t be impressed, but given my particulars, I was pleasantly surprised. I tell this story to illustrate my earlier suggestion of developing testing metrics for the four fitness pillars, and then occasionally testing yourself to ensure you’re maintaining acceptable standards. For me, if I can run a mile in under 12 minutes, I consider that acceptable. If and when my time deteriorates, I’ll spend more time working on my aerobic capacity.
The Later Years Are About Balance
While it’s common for most people to specialize in a particular athletic interest when they’re young, in our later years, we’re better off becoming generalists, at least to a degree. If you’re a masters-level powerlifter like me, you don’t need to run 5k’s or have the flexibility of a yogi.
If you’re a competitive distance runner, you don’t need to be able to deadlift 400 pounds. That being said, no matter what your primary interest, if you allow any single fitness component to deteriorate beyond a certain point, not only will your overall health and fitness be negatively impacted, you’re going to have a hell of a time restoring your lost capacities. My advice? While you’re still young enough to do it, shore up any serious deficiencies. Once you’ve done so, maintaining these areas will be a relatively simple matter.
#3 Maintenance Isn’t a Dirty Word
As we age, it becomes difficult to accept that our physicality will gradually plateau, and ultimately, decline. At age 56, I’m pretty much in the plateau phase, with occasional small PR’s coming less and less frequently.
While I certainly applaud the idea of an all-out fight against atrophy, at the same time, holding your own during years when the vast majority of your peers are rapidly declining isn’t exactly “losing.” In fact, if I still have my present physique and fitness level 10 years from now, I’ll be thrilled.
When Push Comes To Shove, Seek Out New Challenges
Finally, consider that a big reason that many older lifters are at a plateau isn’t so much our age, but rather, the fact that we’ve been working on a particular trait or attribute for many years and as such, we’re at the tail end of the learning curve. If this sounds like you, consider a lateral move: perhaps investigate a new sport, or start working on a fitness attribute that you’ve been neglecting for years. Working on a new challenge puts you on a new learning curve — one that offers expansive possibilities for continued growth and development.
About The Author
Charles Staley is an acclaimed coach, author, and presenter. His self-effacing demeanor and ability to clearly communicate effective fitness strategies have landed him appearances on the NBC TODAY Show and CBS Morning Show. A 3-time master’s raw powerlifting World Champion, Charles runs a successful online coaching service, and hosts a popular blog at www.TargetFocusFitness.com