Tips for Training as You Age

Written by Coach Mike

Seniors: What movements should I avoid? Why am I not getting stronger?

I’ve poked at this bear a few times in previous blogs and posts, but today I’m going to put my money where my mouth is when I say “you’re not too old” to train with us. 

The value in what we do is most clear and present amongst seniors. If you do little exercise and activity throughout your life and that continues into your senior years, that will not only impact the quantity of your years, but the quality of them. 

I know what you’re probably thinking.

“What’s this kid know about getting old?”

Fair…but over the last four years, I’ve trained athletes of all ages. I’ve worked around bum hips, bad backs, crappy knees, arms that can’t be raised overhead, arthritis, balance issues, and any other ailment or apprehension someone who is older might have to write off our style of training. 

And for every athlete in their 50s, 60s, and 70s that I’ve trained, I’ve had five conversations in my everyday life with people who desperately need functional movement, but write themselves off as too old or too out of shape to give it a try.

If you belong to a gym or have tried a gym before, I hope you find some assurance here that you’re on the right path. Stay consistent, keep coming, and keep an open dialogue with your coach on how you’re feeling so they can help guide you to appropriate modifications when necessary.

If you’re interested in trying the gym, even if not all of what I’m going to say in this blog will make sense, I hope you find some assurance that we will meet you where you’re at and not subject you to something that’s completely inappropriate for you. We’ve got your back.

So, in no order of importance, here are some things for aging athletes to know. 

Experienced Athletes: Don’t be discouraged if, on paper, you aren’t getting stronger.

I don’t like focusing on strength maxes with seniors, but I’m starting here because of the number of athletes I’ve seen get discouraged by hitting plateaus in their strength.That plateau isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather an expected fact of life.The peak of your physical potential is your late 20s to early 30s. For every year and decade after that, your strength and performance potential gradually decreases. Your maxes should decrease as you get older. You’re not really “getting weaker” if your maxes start going down. If you are a senior and on paper your max is a little less than it was five years ago, you’ve actually gotten stronger because you’re lifting at a higher percentage of your athletic potential for your current age. Moral of the story, STOP WORRYING ABOUT WHAT WEIGHT IS ON THE BARBELL. Focus on moving through the proper range of motion and activating the appropriate muscle group. Even if you don’t feel like you’re getting stronger, you’re doing what you’re needing to do. 

And to my point earlier, this is why it’s important for athletes of all ages to strength train. For younger folks, strength training will allow your physical peak to persist longer. For aging athletes, the rate of your physical decline will be more gradual and less intense if you strength train. 

What exercises should aging adults avoid?

A lot of this scaling will already be present in the Longevity track programming. There’s no hard or fast rule by a particular age, but at some point or another, you will want to reconsider high impact movements. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but things like box jumps, jump rope, jumping over a barbell, any form of kipping, running, handstand push-ups, etc. If the benefit associated doesn’t outweigh the stress that movement places on your joints and body, more often than not it’s not worth doing and there is a more appropriate substitutions that I would suggest for you. 

What about Olympic lifts?

I’ve heard many well-respected coaches say “there’s no point for a senior to do a snatch”. Quite frankly, that used to even be my point of view, but the more senior athletes I’ve trained who want to learn how to snatch or clean and jerk, the more I’ve been forced to reevaluate my perspective.

“There’s no point for a senior to do a snatch” is true from the standpoint of there being plenty of other strength movements that might have more bang for your buck for seniors. In several cycles in the past, we’ve experimented with substituting a bodybuilding style accessory session for longevity on Olympic lifting days. When we’ve tried that, we were leaning into the idea that for many seniors and longevity athletes, you might get more out of focusing on general strength exercises than the Olympic lifts, but it proved to be really hard for our coaches to lead two separate strength sessions at once and give everyone the attention they deserve. I mention that here because if you were someone who felt better or preferred to use our Olympic lifting time to do general strength accessory work instead, that option still exists through our bodybuilding track. If you’d like to substitute, let your coach know you plan to do so and they can answer any questions you might have prior to class. If you want to do this on more of a consistent basis, set-up some time with Coach Ryan to discuss and formulate your plan.

That being said, I no longer subscribe to the notion that the Olympic lifts are inherently bad for seniors. The high level of skill needed to complete the full lift might be unnecessary, but the key components of Olympic lifts: picking up an object off the ground, standing up out of a squat, balance, coordination, etc. are essential for seniors to continue developing. If the full lift is too much for an athlete, I will focus on one of those key components and try to get them the stimulus they need. The key thing I’m looking for when assessing whether or not the Olympic lifts are appropriate for an athlete is not age, but mobility. 

Does the athlete’s mobility allow them to safely complete the range of motion?

That barrier is actually pretty high because the value for seniors is more in the coordination, balance, mobility, and positioning and less the strength development. Even just working on how to properly move your body around a PVC pipe is extremely beneficial. For some athletes, I’ll have them focus on PVC Pipe overhead squat instead of the full snatch. If an athlete has knee issues, a lot of times I will encourage them to power clean first and then complete a separate front squat instead of catching the weight in the bottom of the lift. Or, if their knee is really acting up on that day, we can take the squat out altogether and just focus on the pulling portion of the lift. For most limitations, there is a flavor of this that will be effective to achieve the stimulus. The Olympic lifts will get you stronger, but it’s better to think of them more as a skill to practice and that’s something that can be achieved with a broomstick regardless of what level athlete you are.

As I start to see impairments in mobility, I gradually will move the athlete away from the full Olympic lift towards its more controlled components. For example, instead of clean and jerk maybe I’ll have that athlete work on clean grip deadlift or front squat. 

I have one athlete who can’t raise his arms overhead due to years of arthritis and prior injuries. He also cannot hold a barbell in a front rack. We focus on the squat, deadlift, or shoulder mobility with him on days we have Olympic lifts. For him, the stimulus of that day is achieved even though he’s never snatching or cleaning a barbell. 

Everything I said in the blogs about stimulus applies here: the key is working with your coach to determine what degree of Olympic lifting is most appropriate given your physical limitations, health concerns, and experience level. 

Think about the real-world application of the movements.

If you can’t think of a real world application for the movement and your coach can’t give you one, it’s not necessary for you to do. We do a lot of exercises that might work on valuable skills, but don’t have a ton of real world application. It doesn’t matter that handstand walking or wall walks are great tools for increasing your stability and balance or that double unders are great for your hand eye coordination. There is little to no real world application for those movements. Compare that to the squat or deadlift. If you lose the ability to stand up out of a chair or the ability to pick an object off the ground, that will impact your life in a significant way. Everyone hates doing burpees, but having the ability to lower yourself to the ground and stand back up is valuable. If you have an issue with an essential movement, work on your mobility and try to improve that range of motion and try to improve or reduce the pain is associated with it. If you’re having trouble with a non-essential movement, be willing to ask whether or not it’s necessary for you to overcome that as opposed to substituting and modifying to something more applicable.

Always remember: Be honest about your own physical limitations and health concerns. Slow down. Focus on form and technique. Talk to your coach.

-Coach Mike