I first started lifting in high school, as part of wrestling practice, but I didn’t really get serious about it until college. I was an 18-year-old kid but had as much fire as anyone — and I was convinced that I had to push my body as hard as I possibly could, right now, because by the time I was 30, I’d be burnt out, banged up, and basically, out of commission. My heaviest training days would be behind me.
Obviously, I was wrong.In fact, I didn’t even begin to hit my stride in powerlifting until I was 29 — despite training hard for all those years — and now, at 31, I still don’t believe I’m at my peak. And now I plan to compete, at the highest level, into my 40s, 50s, and hopefully beyond.
Age limits weren’t the only thing I had wrong at 18. The truth is, I really didn’t understand how to train, and how to make the most out of my “formative” lifting years. That sucks; I can’t get that time back and I missed my chance to become a junior-class champion. But on the flip side, I’ve since learned how to regulate my training and my mindset to reflect the fact that I’m not as young as some of the beasts out there in their teens and early 20s, and I can’t train like them.
That’s actually a good thing! Having to do less makes everything much simpler. And, while I have to do less in order to recover, I truly believe that had I done less when I was younger, I would have been much more successful as a lifter at an earlier age. That’s why I generally recommend a pretty conservative approach, and why I believe that these tips will work well for anyone — not just guys over 30.
Older Guys Will Get Injured More Easily, and Take Longer to Heal.
When I was in undergrad, I remember tweaking my shoulder on multiple occasions and never giving it a second thought. I’d just push through that shit, and by my next training session (12 hours later), it’d be good to go.In my brief strongman days, remember bitching to my first boss out of undergrad about how I had strained my neck doing heavy log presses and needed to take a single day off the gym. He cautioned me to take ibuprofen and wait until at least one day after I felt 100% before getting back at it, and I scoffed. Yeah, I was stupid, but hey, I felt invincible.
That all changed when I tore my bicep trying to flip a 1000 pound tire, and was forced to both actually take time off and make my way through a real rehab. It sucked, big time, but I began to actually respect my body and give it the rest it needed after injury. Still, for a long time, I’d only get injured when doing something obviously stupid — overreaching by training too heavy, too long, or using movements that didn’t fit my structure.
Now, I’m both old enough and strong enough to get hurt in the normal course of training, even if I’m doing everything “right.” I accept that: it’s part of the game, and I fucking LOVE the game, so I ain’t giving it up no matter how old I get. But I also accept that as my body has evolved, my approach to injuries needs to evolve, too.
Now, I spell out my current approach to rehab in this article, and — while I don’t want to make any specific recommendations regarding injuries — I do think that it’s a sound one. If you’re an older guy, though, you might want to consider the following in your own rehab process (with, of course, the support of a knowledgeable doctor or physical therapist):
- Give yourself a bit more time during the acute phase of injury before returning to activity. While I try to get moving again 24-48 hours after a minor strain, if you’re older, you might want to wait longer (maybe much longer). That’s because if you exacerbate the injury even a little bit, you might extend your healing time exponentially. On the other hand, you won’t lose anything by taking an extra day or two of rest.
- Take longer to ramp up to pre-injury weights. The logic here is the same as the point above, but it’s worth reiterating, because of how tempting it can be to throw weight on the bar once you’re no longer hurting. Oftentimes, however, it won’t be evident that you’re only partially healed until you’re really pushing yourself. Giving yourself more time to work up to your previous bests will help minimize that risk.
- Consider a broader range of contributing factors when deciding how to prevent future injury. As I mentioned in the last article, a lack of balance is often the underlying cause of injury, and I think that’s true regardless of age. However, as you get older, it’s much more likely that your imbalances are stemming from nutrient, mobility, or cardiovascular deficiencies, rather than just uneven strength levels. Paying attention to your diet, stretching, and doing cardio will go a long ways towards keeping you in the game as you age.
Obviously, that’s not an exhaustive list of rehab revisions, but I think it’s a good place to start. As always, I cannot help to diagnose or treat individual injuries. I strongly suggest that you work with a professional, in person, whenever you’re dealing with injury, regardless of how old you are.
Older Guys Need to Conserve Recovery Resources.
God, this one sucks.I used to not worry about whether I slept 8 hours the night before a training session or just 3 — I’d be able to push through no matter what.I could do whatever I wanted — lift for hours, twice a day, every day of the week. And to gain weight, I’d have to cut out all cardio and force-feed myself 6000 calories a day. Any less than that, and it would just melt off.
Nowadays, I need my full 9 hours at night — plus a nap if I can get it — if I want to have the perfect day at the gym. Obviously, nothing’s perfect, and that rarely occurs, but my point is simple: sleep becomes more important as you get older, because your overall recovery resources are more limited than those of a younger lifter.
Unfortunately, the opposite goes for food: generally, as you age, your metabolism slows down, and you won’t be able to get away with the same eating habits as you could when you were younger. This isn’t always a bad thing, though! Force feeding isn’t a healthy or sustainable method of gaining weight, and I don’t have a stellar appetite in the first place, so as a 20-year-old, I was struggling as a skinny 170-pounder. When my metabolism began to slow, yeah, I had to eat less — but it became so much easier to gain muscle.I’ll take that trade off every day of the week.
And man, I need to be pretty minimalistic in the gym. Gone are the days of set after set after set of bench followed by arms, calves, and abs — I just can’t recover from all that in a single session. Gone too is my habit of maxing out for months on end (not that it was very productive in the first place). I can’t train at intensities over 90% for long periods of time without getting hurt or overreaching.I’ve dealt with that — very successfully, in my opinion — by relying on more moderate levels of volume, frequency, and intensity than I used to. While it sometimes sucks having to train less than I’d like, the benefits of excellent progress far outweigh that.
What To Do About It
So, if you’re an older guy, how should you adjust your training to reflect the need for better recovery? If you’re following UYP or my 12-Week Powerbuilding Program, you don’t need to. As I explained above, I’ve come to always rely on a more conservative approach, because I know it works for almost everyone. The flip side is true, too: if you’re a younger guy, I’m not giving you permission to add a bunch of shit to your training. That won’t help — and it might hurt. Your faster recovery means you’ll make faster gains using the same amount of work, but if you add work and “spend” that recovery, that probably won’t be true.
Got your own tips for older trainees? Please share them in the comments below!