Strength training and the older athlete, Part 1

From HARDGAINER issue #50

By Bill Starr

I receive more inquiries from men in their thirties, forties and fifties than any other group. While their specific needs are somewhat different, their basic concerns are very much the same. Most want to know if they are still able to do certain exercises. Or if they can expect to really gain any strength. Or whether should they be content with a mild routine of toning exercises. These, plus several other concerns, I will address.


Strength training considerations associated with the older athlete

When an older person wants to improve his overall level of strength fitness, he is faced with a few different problems than his younger counterpart. Once he gets in his late thirties he begins to lose muscle mass, typically a half pound each year. At the same time the number of fast-twitch muscles decline and the amount of testosterone produced is greatly reduced.

For many, the quest to get back into condition comes after a long period of inactivity, or lack of regimented physical activity. During this time excess weight has slowly accumulated and muscles have become, if not flabby, certainly out of shape. Flexibility has waned, not so much because of the lack of elasticity in the muscles, but because of disuse. Time is also a major factor for most older men. Because of business and family obligations, they can afford only so much time to spend on their physical selves, regardless of other factors.

Then there is the difference in motivation between a young and older trainee. The young collegiate athlete can set lofty goals for himself in a number of exercises, and chase after them enthusiastically and without any apprehensions. But the older person understands his limitations and is faced with more realistic numbers and achievements. Most older men desire a higher state of strength fitness, they aren’t at all interested in setting any world records. “Just help me get stronger so I can do some of the things I enjoy doing,” they tell me. “Like strengthening my legs so I can hike for an hour without becoming fatigued.” Strength training is a means to an end, not the end itself.

One of the greatest differences between older and younger strength athletes is the number of injuries. Older individuals have over the years hurt themselves in a variety of ways. Most injuries are not a result of anything they did in the weight room but rather from all those mishaps which naturally occur from living. A troublesome rotator cuff from a fall while painting the house; a bum ankle from a car accident; a lower back that screams bloody murder because of an injury which happened in a seemingly harmless touch football game.

If I had to point out one attribute which all older athletes display when they request advice on doing any sort of strength training, I would have to say it is fear. Fear of doing something wrong and injuring or reinjuring themselves. Fear of trying some new exercises. Fear of doing too much and becoming overtrained. Whereas a younger athlete will dive into any routine without the slightest thoughts of hurting himself, the older athlete is much more reluctant.

There is certainly no question that an older person should approach strength training with caution. But, by the same token, if he is too wary he will never reach his intended goals. Once an older person finds a routine that fits him nicely, then he has to dig in and apply himself fully. No one gets stronger going half speed, regardless of age.


Positive strength training considerations associated with the older athlete

The beforementioned points are the down side for the older athlete, but he also has many things in his favor. Three huge factors: discipline, patience, and knowledge of how his body works and feels. Discipline is much easier for older people simply because they have had to learn and utilize this attribute throughout their lives. They had to have it in the military, or while they went through college, or while they built their business and family. So when they decide that they really do want to do something about their physical states, they stick with the program. And since I regard consistency of training as one of the most important factors of all, this puts the older athlete a step up on a younger person.

Patience is another factor in which the older individual comes out ahead over his younger counterparts. An older person can look down the road much easier and not be adversely affected by the time it will take to gain some degree of strength fitness. Tell an older man that it’s going to take him a full year to get his lower back as strong as it needs to be, and he will not flinch. This is not the case for a younger athlete. He wants results right now and cannot even comprehend the notion of working for twelve hard months to achieve some goal.

An older person has a more thorough understanding of what he can and cannot do with his body. He has learned this usually at the school of hard knocks. It can only be achieved through time. There are no texts on the subject. This knowledge is invaluable when it comes to formulating a strength training program. The older individual knows his limitations and his strengths. He fully realizes that he would be foolish to hope for a 500-lb deadlift because of a recurring problem with his lower back anytime he tries to pull heavy weights off the floor. But he has always had strong shoulders, so aiming for a 200-lb overhead press, 250 incline or 300 bench are not out of the reach of reality.

He also is more intuitive when it comes to training load. Some know that they can work out hard four times a week. In fact, this is the only way they can make gains. Others recognize that they need lots of rest between workouts. Anything over three times a week only brings on instant overtraining.

Lastly, the older athlete generally knows which exercises he can do and which ones he has to avoid. This he has learned through trial and error. He may not be able to do flat benches because of a shoulder problem, but he is not deterred in the slightest since he can do overhead presses and inclines. A younger person is not this flexible when it comes to the flat bench. Since this is often the only exercise he really cares about, he will often pound away at an injured area until he is forced to halt all upper body work.

There is one other characteristic of an older person which gives him an edge over a younger man—his ability to handle hard work. This is not based on any scientific research, but it has been my observation. When an older person discovers any exercise to be beneficial, he will apply all his efforts into improving it no matter how difficult it might be. He doesn’t mind having to grind through the tough reps on deadlifts or squats. I have to say this is not the case for many younger men. They avoid many useful exercises not because they bother some old injury, but because they do not like to put that much effort into their workouts.

The reason behind this is that nearly every older person has, at some time in his life, had to exert himself physically just to get by. It wasn’t a luxury or a game, it was a necessity for survival. Few young people have ever been faced with a manual job. To most, mowing the lawn is gruelling. As a result, most programs are filled with rather easy movements, mostly for the upper body.


Strength training expectations

Now to answer a very big question, “Can I really expect to gain significant strength at my age?” “My age” generally meaning in the forties or fifties. My reply is “Absolutely, positively, unequivocally yes.”

The older body responds to strength training the same as a younger one, howbeit at a slower pace. The older person can gain 40-50% strength, but only if he adheres to the principles of strength development. If he trains foolishly, he may not achieve any gains, but this is not a factor of age. It’s a matter of following proven concepts.

My friend William is a sterling example of what an older person can do when he approaches strength training correctly. William trains himself, in his garage, but calls me for advice every so often since we follow similar programs and are the same age, 59. Two years ago, he became seriously ill. Having an aversion to doctors, he put off going to any medical person until it was almost too late. He was diagnosed as having epididymitis. In the meantime he had lost 30 lbs and gotten pitifully weak. All his core lifts dropped a hundred pounds or more.

Naturally, he was quite depressed for he had always taken great pride in his strength and physique. I encouraged him for I honestly believed that if he trained sensibly, he could regain his former strength. He was not as sure, which is understandable for he better comprehended how he felt. But he was determined and this greatly helped him in his quest. He gave himself a full year to get back to the strength level he was at before he got sick. And he decided not to gain all his bodyweight back. Before he got sick, he weighed 210 and he felt this was an opportunity to lower his bodyweight to under 200. He decided the extra 10 lbs was not only not needed, but excess baggage at close to 60 years of age.

He started in conservatively, primarily keeping close tabs on his workload. The intensity factor on the various exercises took care of itself, but by figuring workload he kept himself from becoming too overtrained. I say too overtrained, because there were workouts and weeks where he did push too hard and did too much. But this is not always a negative. Once he saw the numbers and felt the tiredness, he pulled back for a bit, then pushed forward once more when he was able to recover. Eventually, he gained back 20 lbs and his lifts began to improve. This, he told me, was the most dangerous time of the entire process for his ego wanted him to charge. He made himself hold back and take the gains more slowly.

I don’t believe a younger person could have displayed such control. To insure that William didn’t move too rapidly he used a system which I believe is super. Whenever he increased any lift, he stayed with the same weight and number of reps for at least two weeks. This let him know for certain that his base was solid before trying more weight. If in doubt, he stuck with the same weights for a month.

In less than a year, he was back to where he had been on all his core lifts, and actually ahead on some others. For the beginning, he gave his legs and lower back priority, so he moved his squat up to 375 for three and his good mornings to 220 for eight. His deadlift and shrug also matched his former best. His shoulder strength was the last to come around, but this was part of his design. He didn’t feel that he could improve all his lifts at the same rate. I totally agreed with his plan for this was the approach we used at the York Barbell Club. The Olympic lifters knew they could move two of the competitive lifts, but very seldom all three at the same time. So we concentrated on improving two, then switched our programs to bring the third in line. Once he got his leg and back strength where he wanted it, William began giving priority to his upper body.

There was one important fact which helped him in his comeback, while another was totally against him. The illness sent his testosterone levels to a dismal low so he never really had the benefit of that hormone in his training. While I do believe that testosterone is useful to anyone trying to gain strength, William is a perfect example that it is not critical to the process. If it were, he would never had been able to regain his former strength. The positive factor he possessed was “muscle memory.” Since he had previously handled all the weights, he didn’t have any trouble with mental barriers. And, again, his knowledge of how his body functioned was of tremendous value.

Thus William was able to rejoin the ranks of the strong even after a terrible sickness had invaded his body. And he did this when he was closing in on 60 years of age. It goes without saying that his background in weight training helped him a great deal, but my point is that if an older person can regain a high degree of strength after a severe illness, then so can any healthy older person.

While I do believe that caution is necessary when an older individual does any form of strength training, I do not believe he should become so cautious that he keeps himself from progressing. My philosophy for the older athlete is exactly the same as it is for the younger one. Once you have selected the correct exercises, formulated your plan for number of days a week, and fixed your goals, then attack the weights.

It is important to understand that the exact same principles of gaining strength apply to the older athlete as they do to his younger counterpart. This means that the strength training routine must include some overloading and take into consideration concepts like proportionate strength, the heavy, light and medium system, and all the other tried and true precepts.