Don't let age limit your training. Here's how to gain strength and get your head right.
My most recent contributions to T-Nation have evoked several LiveSpill comments asking about my thoughts on how older athletes should be training.
It occurred to me that I do in fact have a few things to say about the subject, given that I'm in my 50's and have been training for nearly three decades.
As it turns out, successful lifting for Masters athletes is remarkably similar to the way that younger guys should train, but there are a handful of strategies that can make the process more efficient and fruitful.
Here then, are my 7 principles for Masters lifters.
1 – Maintain A High Protein Intake
As you age, your ability to digest protein gradually declines, necessitating a higher protein intake than you needed when you were younger.
This is something I've just begun to appreciate, and as I mentioned in my 6 Important Discoveris article, I've recently doubled my personal protein intake with fantastic results.
After 4 months at 250 grams/day, I literally can't train hard enough to get sore. The effect of protein on satiety, body composition, and recovery are indisputable as well.
Although high protein diets do not necessitate supplementation, a good protein powder that you personally like can make life much, much easier. I mix Metabolic Drive® Low Carb with frozen fruit in shakes, and also mix it into oatmeal and Greek yogurt to increase the protein content of meals I already like.
If you don't want to look and perform like everyone else, don't eat like everyone else! This morning while at the grocery store, I scanned several people's carts as I passed them – and most carts weren't characterized by high carb or high fat foods per se, they were noteworthy for low protein foods.
2 – Choose The Right Activities
I remember having a recent conversation with Dr. Stu McGill about Asian versus European hip structure. McGill's belief is that not all people have the necessary structure to safely do deep squats or deadlifts from the floor.
For such individuals, McGill recommends partial squats and/or rack pulls from whatever starting position he deems safe for your individual structure. McGill doesn't view these modifications as compromises, but as smart training decisions designed to increase safety and performance.
The take-home point is, try to find training movements and/or sport(s) that you can do safely, and ideally, succeed at. While there are, for example, guys in their 60's and 70's who can compete in Olympic weightlifting, strongman, or powerlifting, that doesn't necessarily mean that you can do the same.
Successful ageing is about being healthy and pain-free, first and foremost. What good does it do to say that you compete in strongman contests if you're downing a bottle of Ibuprofen every month just to keep yourself in the gym?
Better to make wiser choices that allow you to get stronger, leaner, and faster (or whatever your goals happen to be) without rearing up to bite you in the ass 5 or 10 years down the road.
Pain isn't an inevitable part of training in your later years. I used to think it was until I had my first pain-free year ever, in 2012.
What do I mean pain free you ask? Aside from a slightly tweaked low back early in the year, which left me a bit stiff for a few days, I literally had no orthopedic pain or symptoms whatsoever. And during this year I deadlifted 501, power cleaned 230, squatted 403, and benched around 260. So my lack of pain wasn't due to sticking with light weights, it was due to smart exercise choices and programming.
In the interest of transparency, I should confess that I'm currently struggling with some pain in my right shoulder (a combination of low-bar squatting and bench pressing), but I'm being smart about managing this by using exercise and load adjustments.
More specifically, I've switched to using a Buffalo bar for squats and close-grip bench presses instead of wider grip, and I immediately stop what I'm doing if and when I experience pain on any level.
So far, the shoulder is responding very well and I expect to have a very successful powerlifting competition coming up in April.
3 - Recalibrate Your Expectations
I'm somewhat atypical in that I'm experiencing my best training results right now, at age 53. Most Masters lifters, however, were in their prime in their 20's or 30's. If you fit into the latter category, it's pivotal that you manage your expectations in a way that keeps you motivated and making progress.
Base your expectations on your current status and rate of progress, not on what you did "back in the day." Personally, my attitude is, "What have you done for me lately?" As such I wipe the slate clean every New Year's Day. In other words, I don't boast about PR's I did 10 years ago.
Sure, I'm always trying to beat last year's personal records, but what really counts in my mind is what I can do currently.
4 – Restore Optimal Testosterone Levels
I'm not talking steroids here, which are expensive, illegal, and potentially dangerous. I'm referring to Testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), which is legal, medically supervised, safe, and a lot easier to do than most guys think. Here's how you can get started:
Google "Testosterone replacement" or "Low T" for your local area. Once you've found a nearby clinic, ask if they'll take your health insurance (there's a very good chance that your policy will cover TRT). If they don't take your insurance, ask what the monthly "out of pocket" cost is.
Next, set up an initial appointment. Most clinics will conduct a brief medical exam, a health history interview, and a blood test. If your total Testosterone is less than the required threshold (which varies from state to state – in Arizona where I live, it's 500), you qualify for Testosterone replacement.
Typically, TRT patients go to the clinic weekly for injections, but some clinics allow you to inject yourself at home. Testosterone cream is also sometimes prescribed, but this is less common.
Injections are usually done in the upper glute, and they are not at all painful – I'd say that 8 out of 10 injections are (for me anyway) barely perceptible.
When I first got my total Testosterone tested at age 49 it was 434. Today I'm nearly double that number and the effects on my energy, recovery, body composition, and overall mood are undeniable. If you weren't aware of, or have been on the fence about TRT, I strongly urge you to look into it.
5 – Don't Be So Sure That Age Is Your Achilles' Heel
A few years back, I took stock of my overall preparation and made a list of everything that could be considered a potential weak-point. It looked like this:
- Orthopedic health/status
- Training environment
- Life stress
- Social support
- Overall health
I then ranked each item from 1-9, according to how significantly each item negatively impacts my ability to make further progress.
For me at least, "age" wasn't number 1 on the list – orthopedic health was. I doggedly addressed that item until it was replaced by nutrition, which I then took steps to correct.
Currently, age is at the top of my list – and that's the way it should be. There's nothing I can do about it anyway, so it's not really a problem.
I strongly urge you to construct your own list and evaluate yourself as I did. It's a very enlightening process.
6 – Ruthlessly Maximize Training Economy
One of my better-known sound bytes is, "Everything you do in the gym has a cost, but not everything has a benefit."
I probably don't need to explain this in much greater detail, but I will say that many lifters have a dysfunctional relationship with pain. In our formative years in the gym, most of us noticed that hard work pays off, and that it's necessary to get out of our comfort zone in order to make progress.
Unfortunately, many of us take the "no pain, no gain" philosophy too far, and end up doing much more work than what's needed to make optimal progress. As we age, it takes longer to recover from workouts and it also takes longer for injuries to heal.
Instead of thinking, "What else could I do?" I suggest adopting a miserly approach to training. Think, "Will I really benefit from doing this, or am I better off skipping it?"
Don't misinterpret the above to mean that I'm a HIT advocate or a "twice a week" guy by the way. If you look at my training journal, you'll see that I typically train 4 days a week, implementing multiple sets per exercise.
With that said, however, I'm very careful to make sure that the exercises I choose are safe (for me), effective (for my personal objectives and bodytype), and not redundant.
I also take care to make every opportunity count – while I do plan my training, I'll always "strike when the iron is hot," looking for any opportunity to hit a PR whenever I can. New PR's (which can be 1RM's and/or "rep records") are very important for psychological and emotional reasons, and they also provide feedback on your current performance status.
7 – Specialize, But Don't Let Yourself Suck At Anything
I'm currently competing in powerlifting and have always valued maximal strength and power over other athletic qualities, but I've always had a theory that as a Masters athlete, you shouldn't let any physical quality or capacity erode to "suck" levels.
Now I don't know what "suck" entails for each quality or what it means for you personally, but I'll give you a rough idea of what I'm talking about.
For me, even if I can deadlift 500 pounds, I find it unacceptable to get winded after climbing a few flights of stairs, or to be unable to touch my toes while maintaining a neutral lumbar spine.
In other words, I have a set of personal standards that are important to me. These criteria may not have any objective, rational basis whatsoever, but I don't really care – these are my standards, so I make the rules.
Incidentally, I'm careful of doing my best to avoid "typical" old-guy mannerisms, such as groaning when rising from a chair, or saying dumb shit like "age is just a number." And I never, ever allow myself to think or say anything that ends with "...for my age."
Now don't miss my point – I'm acutely aware that, at age 53, my body isn't the same as it was in my 20's. It's most certainly different, but not entirely in a bad way. In most respects I'm fitter and more capable than I've ever been.
There's a "sweet spot" when it comes to having a positive attitude about ageing – it's not productive to be in denial about reality, but you don't need to be a pussy about it either.
As a final thought on this point, I do find a lot of value in "acting as if." In other words, if you want to be a certain way, act that way first – even if it really is just acting at first.
Everything starts with attitude, so you might as well start off on the right foot.