I am hoping this write-up about my current training program may help others who are old(er) or perhaps not in perfect physical health/condition. Hopefully encourage them to keep going or if they have for some reason stopped, to re-evaluate their situation and consider if they might still be able to do something.
I’m going to be completely honest with you. Don’t you hate it when anyone says that to you? I think “So you’ve not been honest with me up to now?” What I mean is that I’m not going to hold anything back. I’m going to give it to you without any sugar coating. Getting older sucks! Getting older and sick sucks big time!
But its not all doom and gloom! Like George Burns said when he was asked how he felt about turning 100 “Considering the alternative it feels fine!”. Now, thank God, I’m not anywhere close to Mr Burns age, but I recently realised that 2021 is the 45th year since I first started proper structured strength training.
During those years I have engaged in different forms of strength training including bodybuilding, Olympic lifting and Powerlifting. For most of those years I was able to do pretty much anything I wanted physically. I was extremely fit. I was fast and had excellent reflexes and coordination. I had a 32” Standing Vertical Jump. The average for a healthy fit young man is 20-22”. My guess would be that my current Standing Vertical Jump, even if I was able to do one, might be 15”.
As someone who was always pushing themselves to the limit physically, I first became aware of age-related decline around the age of thirty-seven. It wasn’t bad, but there was just this realisation that I couldn’t quite do what I had previously been able to. The next time I became aware of this was in my mid-forties. But I was still pretty damn active even then. I was forty-nine when I competed in my first powerlifting meet. I could still do five sets of five across (five sets with the same maximum weight) in all the lifts.
Then the bottom fell out of my world when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour! Things got bad fast! At the worst I was crawling around my house on all fours with my head touching the floor. I finally had surgery in Leeds hospital in England. It seemed to be successful, but it was a long and difficult road back to any kind of ‘normal’ life. The long-term effects are that I can no longer work. I have permanent physical problems with damaged balance, coordination and proprioception as well as issues with cognitive function and hearing which causes problems with communication, which is especially bad in public areas where there is a lot of background noise.
I was talking recently with a friend, and we were discussing this. As I thought about it, I realised that if I was to say that my previous best physical condition/abilities was 100% what I have now is maybe 20%, being generous.
But incredibly and wonderfully I have started strength training again! This has been entirely due to the expertise, efforts, and support of my physiotherapist. It was her idea. I was talking with her about my deteriorating physical condition, and she suggested getting back to strength training. She came up with a program and which exercises to try and how to modify them for my then state of health. I’m not going to talk about this in detail because it would not help anyone else as the process would be unique to me.
I have had a good gym setup in my garage for many years, I just had to learn to use it again. It has been a journey. Stops and starts. Ups and downs. The stops and downs have mainly been due to my having to learn what I am now capable of.
Sufficient time has now passed since then that I feel I have learned enough to impart some of my experiences to anyone who has endured health issues and come out the other end still upright and able to move around no matter how restricted that might be.
I train two days a week. I don’t try to lift heavier and heavier weights as I am at the stage in my life when I can’t get stronger and am trying to keep what I have left.
When you’re training for maintenance, the following approaches are essential.
1. Be flexible
First and foremost be very flexible about training. If you’re tired, if something hurts, you need to change your routine to accommodate these issues.
This will involve things like –
- Postpone your training to the next day to give you more rest and allow your body to heal.
- Changing which exercise you’re doing.
- Changing how you do them – sets and reps.
- How often you perform each exercise.
Hopefully these changes will only be temporary.
2. Minimum Dose Principal
Train as efficiently as you can and still retain strength. This is known as the Minimum Effective Dose Principal. Any more will just exhaust you and hurt your joints, tendons and ligament unnecessarily. Apart from simply wasting your time at a stage of your life when you don’t have time to waste.
3. Simplest Effective Approach
Train as effectively as possible. Don’t do exercises which give you little return for your time and energy. Bench presses are the most effective upper body exercise, don’t include dumbbell presses, dips, upright rows, triceps extensions or lateral raises. None of these will help retaining strength. On top of this they will put massive wear and tear on our joints!
Putting in all together
Putting the above guidelines into effect, I do just the four main strength lifts and two assistance lifts. The Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press and Overhead Press are my main lifts with the Seated Row and Pulldown as my assistance lifts. I train first thing in the morning because I get really tired as the day goes on.
Training twice a week allows for a great degree of flexibility. Your body does not care what day of the week it is. So, each workout can be done on any day which suits you in terms of your schedule and how your body is feeling on any day. Just try to keep a minimum of two days rest between any two workouts. Though if you really must, you can train two consecutive days.
So how exactly do I train?
I start each workout with two minutes on a cross trainer. Again, this was my physio’s idea. I can hold onto the handles and the ‘cups’ keep my feet in place.
I then do warmup sets of the lift until I hit maximum weight. My warmup sets have changed in a small, but significant way.
Let me look at an example Squat routine.
If I go back several years to pre-tumour (and younger) days my routine (for say 160kg squat) would have looked like this –
20kg (Empty bar) x 5 x 5, 70 x 5, 90 x 3, 110 x 1, 130 x 1, 145 x 1, 160 x 5 x 3
Now it would look like –
20kg (Empty bar) x 5 x 5, 70 x 5, 90 x 3, 110 x 1, 120 x 1, 130 x 1, 140 x 1, 150 x 1, 160 x 3
You will notice two important differences. In the old workout there were fewer warmup sets (7) and greater jumps in weight. Now I need more warmup sets and smaller jumps in weight. This is I think due to a combination of age and the effects of the tumour and surgery on my neuromuscular system.
The actual programme should (when everything feels okay) look like this –
Workout one (Squat and Seated Row)
Workout two (Bench Press and Overhead Press)
Workout one (Deadlift and Pulldown)
Workout two (Bench Press and Overhead Press.)
Yes, that’s right! I do Squats and Deadlifts only every other week! Every other week is really all you need for maintenance. Now this is not my idea. I got it from the American strength coach Mark Rippetoe. That is how he has trained for several years for maintenance.
If you want to know more about training when you’re older he is probably the most knowledgeable coach in the world. Check out startingstrength.com and there are lots of his videos and podcasts on youtube. Mark is a colourful character who calls a spade a spade. “I can’t cure stupidity!” is perhaps my favourite quote of his. He is not shy about expressing his opinions on other subjects. If you’re a snowflake stay away.
Another great resource is Dr. Jonathan Sullivan’s book The Barbell Prescription.
Tendonitis is the scourge of the older trainee.
When I have tried to do higher reps and more sets, I have quickly developed tendonitis. And I don’t think that has been down entirely to my illness. It is mainly due to my aging body. During my first thirty-five years of training, I had developed tendonitis only twice. Each time I was able to quickly identify the cause (me doing something stupid) and when I stopped being stupid it cleared up in a few weeks.
Since I’ve started training again post-surgery, I’ve had tendonitis eight, yes eight times! Each time it has not been down to me doing something stupid, but rather doing things which my older body can no longer cope with. Also, the tendonitis takes much longer to clear up. Each time it has been caused by doing the exercise or activity for high reps and multiple sets. Too much volume.
I have formulated the opinion that doing any kind of isolation work (like lateral, raises and dumbbell or barbell curls) is a bad idea for older people. You can’t do them for low reps because the weights quickly become too heavy and risk injury and high reps cause tendonitis. I’ve also had to stop doing chins and even things like dips or push ups.
Safety, Safety, Safety
I do all my lifts inside a power rack. If I fall or drop the bar the safety pins will catch the bar.
Of course, I used support equipment when I competed as a powerlifter. But now it is to reduce the wear and tear on my joints, not to lift heavier weights.
- The most important function of knee sleaves is to keep my knees warm while training. This greatly improves long term knee health. I use the sleaves when squatting and when deadlifting. I put them on before I start training and keep them on until I’ve finished my last set.
- I use wrist wraps for my work sets on the Bench and Overhead Press as an added safety measure for my wrists.
- I use a good weightlifting belt. The same one I’ve used for over thirty years and wore in competition. It is a two-prong, 4” (all the way around) wide and half inch thick belt. I use this on my last couple of warmup sets and work set of Squats, Deadlifts and Overhead Presses. You don’t need a belt for Benches. It can be a hindrance.
Make back gains when you can.
By the time you need to do maintenance training you will almost certainly be less strong than you once were. In term of my lifetime PRs, all my lifts are down by at least 25%. But as with all periods in your life, as you get older you will still have good times and bad times. When you are having a good time, you feel more energetic, things don’t ach as much, you should try to regain back some of your lost strength, even if it is only a pound.
The problem is it is difficult to setup a progression when you’re only doing one workset of three reps. But I have devised this approach.
Say you are benching 100kgs x 3 reps and want/feel you can increase this.
- Next workout load 100.5kg and do three singles 100.5 x 1,1,1
- Next workout do a double followed by two singles 100.5 x 2,1,1
- Next workout do two doubles 100.5 x 2,2
- Next workout aim for a triple 100.5 x 3
Rest five minutes after your last warmup set and then five to ten before further worksets.
If you’re doing Squats and/or Deadlifts add one kilo. For Press add a quarter kilo.
You might only be able to add a half kilo (.5kg) to Squat and Deadlift, a quarter kilo (.25kg) to Bench and an eighth kilo (.025kg) to Press.
Don’t get hurt!
As you get older injuries don’t heal as well. Though actually no injury ever heals completely to its pre-injured state. When I was thirty-eight, I tore my left calf muscle. (Not in the gym). I did everything right to rehab the injury, but the muscle has never felt the same since. If the next rep feels too much don’t!
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth
I said at the start of this article that I was not going to hold anything back. So, with that in mind I am going to end this article by admitting that I no longer enjoy training! Now I don’t mean that I hate it! But rather that now it is just something that I need to do. I often must talk myself into it!
This is also why I almost always train first thing in the morning. I like to get it over with and then get on with my day without it hanging over my head.
So why do I do it?
Your health is not just your doctor’s responsibility.
Because I believe in personal responsibility. My health and physical condition are not solely my doctor’s responsibility. I don’t want to find myself years from now needing help to get out of my chair because I have allowed my body to become frail. Or worse having brittle bone disease or even type two diabetes. This responsibility is not just to myself but my wife and those others in my life.
I hope this has made you think about your own situation. Even if you are younger than me, some of this may apply to you. If you are training – brilliant – keep at it. If not – if I can start again and keep going after my problems, then there is a good chance so can you.
But at the end of the day, it is entirely down to you. It is your life and for you to decide how you’re going to live it. No one else can tell you how. Whatever you decide good luck.