I am hoping that the below write-up about my current training program might 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!
This year 2021 is the 45th year since I first started proper structured resistance training. During those years I have engaged in different forms of resistance 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 physically, I first became aware of age-related physical decline around the age of 37/38.
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 49 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 during training.
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. If I tried to raise my head off the floor, I would start to violently vomit. Though that didn’t always work, and my wife has told me that my record for continuous vomiting during that time was three and a half hours! I spent a lot of time just lying in bed
unable to move. 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 of this 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.
I can’t go out by myself. Though I have recently started to walk without a stick I still need to hold my wife’s hand so I can walk in a straight line and not stumble into the ditch on one side or into the road on the other.
Because of the balance and coordination issues I expend more energy doing everyday things like sitting down and getting up, negotiating stairs, walking in a straight line (which actually I can’t do anyway without holding my wife’s hand) and so on. So, I get tired quickly. I sleep around ten to twelve hours a night and often have a nap during the day.
I do not expect these things to improve much in the future.
But, incredibly and wonderfully I have started resistance training again! This has been entirely due to the expertise, efforts, and support of my physiotherapist. It was for a start her idea. I was talking with her about my deteriorating physical condition and she suggested getting back to weight training. She came up with a program and which exercises to try and how to modify them for my then state of health.
You see weight training does not require you to move around. You don’t pick up a heavy weight and start walking around with it. Yes, I know competitors in strong man contests do. But in general, it is not a good idea anyway.
I have had a good gym setup in my garage for many years. So, 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 what I have and come out the other end still upright and able to move around no matter how restricted that movement might be.
Let me start by telling you what I can’t do.
• Walk fast.
• Ride a bike.
• Climb Ladders.
• Stand on boxes.
• Do any form of calisthenics.
• Use a treadmill.
• Any form of physical activity lasting more than about an hour.
So, my actual weight training is very restricted. I have tried many different training routines but have now had to accept that I can’t do anything more than the bare minimum. I could describe the different approaches I have tried, all of which have exhausted and worn me out quickly, but really what matters is what I can do now. What actually works.
Okay so here goes.
I train one lift a day! Yes, that’s right one lift a day. If I try to do two lifts in a workout, I become overtrained.
I do just the four main strength lifts. The Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press and Overhead Press.
I train Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
I train first thing in the morning because I get really tired as the day goes on and it would be much harder.
I alternate each lift. So my programme looks like this –
- Monday. Squats.
- Wednesday. Press.
- Friday. Deadlift.
- Monday. Bench.
- Wednesday. Squat.
- Friday. Press.
And so on.
This means I do each lift every nine to ten days. Of course, I’m training each muscle more than that because the Squat and Deadlift use pretty much the same muscles, but in different intensities. And the Bench and Press likewise.
Your body does not know or care what day of the week it is. It does not care that the society you live in runs on a recurring seven day cycle.
I start each workout with two minutes on a cross trainer. Again, this was my physio’s idea. You see I can use the handles to hold to stop myself falling off and there are ‘cups’ to keep my feet in place. I then do warmup sets of the lift until I hit maximum weight on the lift. Triples for just one top set.
My warmup sets have also changed in a small, but significant way.
Let me look at an example Squat routine.
If I go back several years to pre-tumour 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
Now it would look like –
20kg (Empty bar) x 5 x 5, 70 x 5, 90 x 3, 110 x 3, 120 x 3, 130 x 3, 140 x 3, 150 x 3, 160 x 3
You will notice two important differences. In the old workout there were fewer warmup sets (7) and the weight jumps between sets was greater. Reps would have followed the technique called ‘singling-up’ were after the first four or so sets, the following sets are only one rep. So, the total reps would have been 26 reps.
In the current one there are more warmup sets (9) so the jumps in weight are smaller, but also I am doing more reps for the majority of the sets. I need more sets (9) and reps (36) to warmup my body for the final work set. This is I think due to a combination of age and the effects of the tumour and surgery on my neuromuscular system.
After a lot of stops and starts and a lot of learning, mostly to set aspirations of past abilities aside, I have at time of writing got my Deadlift to 185kg, Squat to 160kg, Bench to 110kg and Press to 70kg (all for triples). The Press is the hardest because I’m standing upright and extending my arms above my head. Which really tests my balance and coordination.
While this is no-where close to what I could do in the past, I think it is quite an achievement considering my condition. I know that some of my issues are due to my age now as well as my physical health problems.
The short workouts are something everyone needs to move to as they get older, with smaller rep range (3-5) and reduced worksets. (1).
When I have tried to do higher reps and sets, I have quickly developed tendonitis. And I don’t think that has been down to my illness. It has been mainly due to an aging body. Before my health issues I had developed tendonitis only twice in my entire life. Each time I was able to quickly identify the cause (which each time was down to me doing something stupid) and once the cause was removed (I stopped being stupid) it cleared up in a few weeks.
I do all my lifts inside a power rack. So, if I fall or drop the bar the safety pins in the rack will catch the bar. I also use the safety pins as guides. You see due to my balance, coordination and proprioception problems I can’t gage when I have gone deep enough in the squat. I set the pins so that when the bar touches them, I know I have hit depth and it is time to come back up.
Since I’ve started training again post-surgery I’ve had tendonitis seven, yes seven times. Each time it has not been down, strictly speaking, to me doing something stupid, but rather me doing things which my older body can no longer cope with. Also the tendonitis takes much longer to clear up once it has started.
I’ve had the dreaded tendonitis in my right shoulder due to doing three sets of ten reps side laterals. Why only right side? Who knows?
I’ve had really bad tendonitis in the form of tennis elbow in my left arm due to doing high rep (10) chins.
I’ve had tendonitis in the form of golfers elbow twice in my left arm. Once from needing to adjust my squat grip and second from doing dips.
I’ve had tendonitis in the form of tennis elbow in my right arm twice. Once due to doing 3×10 barbell curls and another time from doing alternate dumbbell curls.
I’ve had tendonitis in my left knee from doing too much cardio on the cross trainer.
Notice a repeating pattern here? Each time it has been caused by doing the exercise for high reps and multiple sets, or for a longer period as in the cross trainer. In other words, 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. So, I don’t do them anymore. I’ve also had to stop doing chins and even things like dips or push ups.
I use knee sleaves for my old knees. Of course, I used support equipment when I competed as a powerlifter. But now it is to reduce the wear and tear on my knees, not to help me lift heavier weight. The most important function of the 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 also use wrist wraps for my work sets on the Bench and Overhead Press as an added safety measure for my wrists.
And of course, I use a good weight lifting 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 on my work set of Squats, Deadlifts and Overhead Presses. You don’t need a belt for Benches. It can actually be a hindrance.
I train in the morning not just because my energy drains away so quickly as the day goes on, but also because it gets the workout over with and I can get on with the rest of my day. I’d hate to have to train in the evening, because I’d be always thinking about how I had it in front of me. Of course, it is easy for me to train in the morning as I am retired. If I had to train in the afternoon or evening I would do it!
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! When I was in my teens, twenties and thirties I very much enjoyed training. I couldn’t wait to get back in the gym to see if I could add another rep or another pound to an exercise. Even in my forties I still did enjoy it to an extent. Now I don’t mean that I hate it! But rather that now it is just something that I need to do. I often have to talk myself into it!
So why do I do it? Because I believe in personal responsibility. My health and physical condition is not solely my Doctor’s responsibility. I want to remain as healthy and active as I can for whatever period of time I have left. And 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 unnecessarily deteriorate. 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 or older than me, some of the things I’ve said may apply to you.
If you are training – brilliant – keep at it. If not – you need to start. 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.