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Five practical strategies for older lifters

This is an excerpt from Elite Physique With HKPropel Online Video by Chad Waterbury.

Let’s make one thing clear up front: You don’t have to stop doing everything you enjoy in the weight room and switch to an “over 50” training program. An older lifter is still a lifter. But to continue lifting safely and successfully, you need to acknowledge your body is different from a young lifter’s.

That’s not really bad news. Your experience has made you smarter. You know what works for your body, and you probably do it with better form than the crazy dudes whose workouts would leave you with crippling pain. (I say “dudes” because we rarely see young women lifting near-maximal weights with poor form.) Here are some simple ways to take advantage of your hard-earned knowledge.

Volume

All the program design principles in chapters 8 and 9 are still in play for an older lifter, except one: volume. More is rarely better. For you, less can sometimes be more. But getting more done with fewer sets requires more focus on each one. You aren’t just grinding out repetitions. You’re feeling each rep, especially as you get near the end of a set. Make sure the targeted muscles are doing the work and achieving the optimal level of fatigue. Get it right on the second or third set and there’s no need to do a fourth, fifth, or sixth.

Frequency

Different bodies recover at different rates, and different muscles within each body also recover at different rates. Thus, there’s no single standard of ideal workout frequency for all lifters in their 40s or 50s or beyond. They will most certainly tell you that the older you get, the longer it takes for your body and your muscles to recover. They won’t care if research can’t confirm it (Deschenes et al. 2019; Fell and Williams 2008).

Even if your schedule allows you to do long, challenging workouts five or six days a week, as you did with great success in your 20s or 30s, that’s almost certainly too much for you in middle age. Forget the idea that if you train chest one day and back the next day, you aren’t working the same body parts two days in a row. You are.

Your pecs, lats, biceps, triceps, and deltoids all act on the shoulder joints. If there’s a weighted object in your hands, your forearm muscles are involved. You can’t avoid using your elbows if you’re pushing or pulling those weights. Your traps work to move or stabilize your shoulder blades in almost any exercise worth doing. Same with your core muscles.

Older lifters typically do well with three full-body training sessions a week, alternating two workouts that focus on different movement patterns. Here’s an example:

Workout A: horizontal push, horizontal pull, knee-emphasis movement (squat, lunge, or leg press)
Workout B: vertical push, vertical pull, hip-emphasis movement (deadlift variation)

If you have the time and ambition to work out more often, try some low-impact cardio—walking, cycling, swimming. Those activities speed up recovery without beating up your muscles or joints and have been shown to elicit an anti-aging effect on your arteries (Seals 2014).

Exercise Selection

Older lifters often want to cling to their youth by continuing to push their bench press, squat, and deadlift, no matter how much their bodies protest. It’s the weight-room equivalent of buying a new Harley. But if a barbell bench press makes your right shoulder ache, or a back squat causes radiating pain down to your pelvis, or a traditional deadlift from the floor tweaks your lower back, you have to stop doing them and seek council from a reputable physical therapist who can determine which pains can be fixed. If you don’t get help from a qualified professional, those exercises will likely never become less painful, and the pain you feel may actually understate the damage you’re doing to those joints.

I’ve already mentioned how structural differences in your shoulders and hips can make some exercises easier or harder for individual lifters. But it’s actually more complicated than that. Human bodies aren’t perfectly symmetrical. The same person can have significant differences in the shape and positioning of their hip joints. Your shoulders may be wider on one side, and your arms may have more or less internal or external rotation. Ignoring those anomalies sets you up for injury, especially when you’re training with a barbell that forces each side of your body to work exactly the same way.

Here are some joint-friendly alternatives to three powerlifts:

  • Barbell bench press: My favorite alternative is the standing one-arm chest press with a cable, band, or tubing. Besides working your chest and shoulders, it’s one of the best core exercises you can do. Mix those with dumbbell bench presses with one or both arms, and experiment with different degrees of incline or decline. Generally, a slightly declined bench is less stressful on the shoulders.
  • Barbell squat: You can get results with goblet squats with a dumbbell or kettlebell or front squats with two kettlebells. These variations allow you to adjust the exercise to your anatomy and achieve a full range of motion with less strain on your lower back. The most back-friendly variation of all is a belt squat, which is terrific for building lower body strength while sparing your lower back.
  • Barbell deadlift from the floor: Very few lifters have the long arms and short legs that make them ideally proportioned for traditional deadlifts from the floor. Many will do well if they elevate the weights a few inches off the floor, using weight plates, boxes, or the supports on a squat rack. And almost everyone can deadlift successfully by using the high handles of a hex bar. You can also elevate the hex bar on one or two weight plates to further shorten the range of motion and make it a little more back friendly.

Training to Failure and Pursuing PRs

Pushing yourself to momentary muscular failure is a technique you want to use sparingly. It works best with body weight or single-joint exercises. Most of the time, you want to stop a set a few reps short of failure, and before you need to change your form to achieve a repetition.

As for PRs, you can still pursue them, with two caveats:

  1. If you just turned 40, think of every set you do as a new PR for you in your 40s. Same if you just turned 50 or 60. There’s no point comparing your current lifts against what you did in your 20s or 30s.
  2. Don’t think of them as a one-repetition max. Establish a 5RM on a joint-friendly exercise like the dumbbell bench press or hex-bar deadlift. Push yourself to surpass it once or twice a year, but back away if it feels uncomfortable or if you have to change your form to go heavier.

Rest

This is the most important rule of all. If you feel like you need an extra day between workouts, you do. Same for those days when you get to the gym and realize everything feels a little “off.” Spend that workout doing light cardio, or go home and give your body the rest it needs. The gym will still be there tomorrow or the next day or the next week.

Understanding your body’s signals is one of the biggest benefits of the aging process. You’ve earned these insights the hard way, with thousands of workouts and perhaps dozens of injuries. If you listen to your body at the right moments, you’ll enjoy thousands more workouts with minimal risk of inflicting new aches and pains.