Training the Aging Athlete

dave-ricks(Photo credit: A. Blight; Lifter: David Ricks)

I have a confession to make.

I, my friends, am an aging athlete.

Most days I don’t feel old. In fact, in a lot of ways I feel every bit as good as I did 10-15 years ago.

Other than the very rare hangover that lasts for 2-3 days instead of 2-3 hours, life is pretty darn good.

But I get all these subtle reminders that I’m not 20 or 25 years old any more.

Weekends consist of working on projects around the house, spending time with the family, or simply trying to rest and relax a bit.

I own two businesses that keep me incredibly busy.

And I simply don’t have as much time to train nowadays as I did back then.

Does this mean I shut it down?

Throw in the towel?

Take up knitting or stamp collecting?

Absolutely not – but it has definitely made me take note of where I’m at in life, and come up with workarounds for any perceived limitations in my training.

If you find yourself in that weird time of life when you still love training, but either you don’t have as much time, or your body is starting a slow revolt against your torrid love affair, this article is for you.

Here are four big ticket items to keep your training on track and focused for years to come.

Be Realistic About Training Time

As you get older, other things get in the way of your once precious training time.

The biggest thing to note is you probably don’t have 2-3 hours to train any more. Once faced with this realization you have two choices:

  1. Keep shooting for that “perfect workout,” only to end up frustrated, pissed off, and angry, or
  2. Come to grips with this fact of life, adapt and overcome.

Here are a bunch of quick tips to help get through your workouts faster, or at the very least, make them more time efficient.

Cut The Rest Periods

StopwatchComing from a powerlifting background, it wasn’t a stretch for my warm-up and ensuing squat and/or deadlift session to take up to 1.5 hours.

And while that’s probably the “optimal” prescription (taking 4-6 minutes of rest in between sets), it just doesn’t always work in the real world when you’re pressed for time.

In this case, try working on 2-3 minutes rest instead of going for full neural recovery. It’s not perfect, but its’ better than nothing.

Get Your 80% Done

Far too often we get caught up in the training minutiae and forget to focus on the big picture.

Dan John uses the following analogy (or something close to it):

Imagine you only have 15 minutes to train. Are you going to spend that time squatting? Or doing biceps curls?

I think you know the right answer. And not coincidentally, Jim Wendler talks about this in his 5-3-1 manual as well.

If you’re really pressed for time, go in and crush your warm-up, do your big lift for the day, and go home.

Use More Supersets and Circuits

I never used to use supersets or circuits in my personal programming, but they’re a necessary evil at this point in time.

And lucky you, there are tons of options based on how much time you have available, and what your current training goal(s) include.

Here are just a few ways to use supersets and circuits to get through a workout faster:

  • Use push/pull supersets on upper body days. Do this with all your big lifts, and even for direct arm training.
  • On lower body days, hit your main exercise (squat, deadlift, etc.) and then perform all your assistance work in either a superset or circuit fashion.
  • Perform the entire workout as a superset (this works best with smaller lifts and exercises).

This is far from an exhaustive list, but each one has merit.

Hit 1 or 2 “Big” Workouts Each Week

Often you’ll have one or two days of the week where you have more time than usual to workout. Maybe it’s a weekend day, or you have a day off during the week when you have more time to train.

This is the opportune time to crush a big workout.

This past summer I was as busy as I’d ever been. The best times for me to train were on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

I could only squeeze in a 40-50 minutes workout on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but on Wednesday mornings I’d have 1.5-2 hours to train. This was my “big” lower body workout and I’d try to get some serious volume in on front or back squats, deadlifts, etc.

This way even if I only got in single-leg and accessory/supplemental work the rest of the week, I still had that big workout to lean back on.

deadliftThe only rule to this workout is to make sure you’re hitting a ton of big, compound movements. You can pump, sculpt, tone and blastify those little movements any other day of the week, but not on your BIG day!

Even if the rest of your training week is lower in volume and intensity, you can still see some great progress by pushing yourself on that one workout.

Buy a Kettlebell

Last but not least, I’ve come to the realization that there are certain times of year when I’m super busy, and not going to be able to get in a proper workout.

And yes, I see the irony here, considering I own a gym. More on this later…but I’m probably going to put a platform and squat rack in my garage soon.

But I digress.

In this case, I have a 16 and 24kg kettlebell at my house that I can lean on in a pinch.  When I was at my busiest with work and life, instead of just being a slob and doing nothing, I told myself I would get at least 100 kettlebell swings in that day.

Ideal? No.

But effective in a pinch? Absolutely.

You can spread them out across the day, or simply do sets.

10×10, 5×20, 4×25 – the sets and reps really don’t matter, just put in the work.

For most men, I’d say a 20, 24, or 28 kg ‘bell is great, depending on your strength levels.

For most women, a 12, 16 or 20 kg is great (again, depending on strength).

We all have times when we’re busier than usual, but don’t use that as an excuse to wither away. Get those 100 reps in, and you’ll be rewarded by feeling better both mentally and physically.

This first portion was a lot of focus on damage control and how to work within a training session.

Next, let’s look more at the big picture, including ways to get more miles out of your body.

Mix Up Your Training

As we get older, our body doesn’t tolerate/handle stress as well as it did in the past.

While we can blunt a lot of these effects via smart recovery (covered later), we can also get smarter about how we’re training.

If you’ve followed Dave Tate’s training career, you know he’s progressed from full-blown powerlifter into someone who rotates his training emphasis throughout the year.

Here’s a very loose representation of how Dave does this:

  1. Corrective/Movement Focus (3-4 month block)
  2. Strength Focus (3-4 month block)
  3. Transformation/Bodybuilding Focus (3-4 month block).

If your goals are more performance based, you could rotate emphases like this:

  1. Movement/Foundation Phase
  2. Strength Phase
  3. Athletic Phase

The second example is more where my training is going at this point in time. If I break it down appropriately, I can spend the first training block re-building and improving upon my movement foundation.

The second block I can take that awesome movement foundation, and throw a serious dose of strength on top. This would be the ideal time to push big lifts like the squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press.

strength-vertical-jumpFrom there, if you’re feeling frisky take that strength and convert it to power, and eventually to power endurance. Just imagine how much ass you’d kick in the rec league kickball tournament training if you’d actually trained like an athlete for the previous year!

And if the joints are feeling beat-up coming off the strength phase, switch it up and to 3-4 months of higher repetition bodybuilding work like Dave does.

The point I’m getting at here is this:

Instead of pounding your head against the proverbial training wall of one physical quality (i.e. strength, endurance, etc.) consider rotating emphases throughout the year.

The people that I work with who are the most beat-up share (at least) two qualities:

  1. The focus almost solely on one physical quality of training (at the expense of others), and
  2. They do little, if nothing, to make their training more general and preventative in nature.

Please, don’t be one of those people!

Now that we’ve covered training, let’s talk about the little discussed aspect of improved training at all ages: Recovery.

Get Smarter About Your Training and Recovery

When I first started powerlifting, we had to work around the schedule of the other Ball States sports teams if we wanted to work out together.

One semester we trained at 6 am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

A few semesters later, we trained at 5 or 6 pm every night.

My last semester, we had to get our squat workouts in at 4 or 5 pm on a Sunday. Which wouldn’t have been a problem, but I’d estimate we partied as a team on Saturday nights 75% of the time.

You can see the dilemma.

I hate to break it to you, but you’re not the spring chicken you once were.

But you can offset a lot of the aging related process by simply getting smarter about your recovery, and being more precise as to when you push your body.

Here are just a few things I like to focus on with my athletes and myself.

Get More Sleep

Sleep is a hot topic with me for two reasons:

  1. There’s a ton of new information coming out lately about sleep, sleep debt, it’s impact on the body, etc., and
  2. With a 2.5 year old that’s working on potty training, and another child on the way, there’s no way I’m getting enough sleep these days.

I read somewhere that the average American sleeps approximately 6.5 hours per night, and that that average has dropped significantly over the past decade or two.

I make it a goal to sleep at minimum 7 hours per night, but I also know that if I’m getting 8 (instead of 7) my training, work and life in general are significantly better.

One other ninja tactic with regards to sleep and training: If you work a strange or irregular schedule, do your best to plan key training sessions around the time(s) when you’ll get the most rest.

Don’t Forget about Foam Rolling, Mobility and Stretching

“What got you here, won’t get you there.”

I love when someone meets me for a consult or assessment and brags about how little stretching, mobility work, and foam rolling they do.

Yet strangely enough, they’re standing in front of me because they can’t train or compete at the level they’d like because they’re injured!

As we get older, we have to get smarter and more diligent about recovery. We can’t just sleep more – we have to do all the little things that we probably ignored in the past.

In the original Bulletproof Knees manual, I talk about the decade rule. Here’s how it works:

If you’re in your 20’s, you can probably get away with (at minimum) stretching/foam rolling twice per week in the evening. If you’re in your 30’s, you should get at least three recovery sessions in per week.

And as you can imagine in your 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, the amount of time you need to spend on recovery goes up drastically.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it works well for a lot of the clients and athletes I work with.

Get smarter about recovery, and I guarantee your performance goes up as well.

Start Tracking Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

Last but not least, one tool that I really like to help understand recovery better is heart rate variability, or HRV.

BioForceI have all my clients use the BioForce HRV system, as it tells me several key pieces of information, including:

  • Their level of readiness for that given day/training session,
  • How well they are recovering between sessions, and
  • If the program is giving me the intended/desired result.

One of the best things about tracking HRV (and recovery in general) is that you (or your client) can see how all those little things they do affect recovery and HRV score.

That night you only got 3.5 hours sleep?

The day you ate every crappy morsel of food in sight?

Or that night where you drank enough booze to sink a battle ship?

All of those things are reflected in your HRV score.

I can tell you first hand, when an athlete has a tangible number or score as to how their extracurricular activities affect their training and performance, you immediately have a more compliant athlete to work with.

Summary

You, me, and everyone around us is getting older.

It’s one of those things in life we really can’t change.

But by getting smarter about how we train and recover from our workouts, we can continue to see positive changes in our strength, physique and athleticism for years to come.

Use one (or all!) of the tips provided above, and let me know how they work for you.

Live long and train hard my friends!

Best

MR

21 Comments

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  1. Mike, I am a lot older than you and still train hard and make gains. I do think that the best work I do is with shorter rest periods, and I also monitor my pulse during the workouts. The rest is so critical and I am even watching what I eat.

    • Al – I love hearing this man. I didn’t mean to imply that I’m “old” – just that I’m getting older (and hopefully a bit wiser)!

      Keep it up!

  2. Do I relate to this. I am 66 and doing small group training for seniors (that is someone 10 years older than me). Less is more for my own workouts. I do one neurologically challenging lift and then do density work or clusters to improve functional stamina. I usually don’t come back to the same heavy lift for 5-8days depending how all my body parts are behaving. Thanks for your good work I use it alot with age adaptations.
    John

  3. I totally agree and this is a great post. I have been doing short workouts for awhile now and they are easier to recover from and still make it worth my time.

    • Jeremy – Sometimes you just don’t have the time to go full tilt. I think mixing it up is a smart approach that will pay dividends over the long haul.

  4. I’m 70… and still train with intensity. There aren’t many like me in the gym.
    If you still have the desire to be the best that you can be, over the years you will recognize the importance of body prep, variability in training, always having a goal, eating well, and be able to listen to your body to recognize your limits.
    The key is desire. It doesn’t matter your age, if you want to move better, look better, and feel better, then you’ll make the time and put in the shift!
    Great article Mike.

    • Dave – This is awesome to hear! I love it when I hear others are continuing to push themselves and forget about perceived limits.

      Keep training hard my friend!

    • Hi
      69 and ballroom dancing is the passions so much cross training goes into this for the ‘slightly more mature’! Swimming cycling and moment classes to name but a few.
      It’s all good. Longer recovery time is my hardest pill to swallow
      Jeanette

  5. Mike, I love this article!!! And, I love hearing these other comments from 70, 66 year old athletes too. I’m almost 53 and in all honesty, I feel like I’m in my 20’s. I still workout 5 days per week, with two MRT sessions, one or two HIIT sessions and a volume session each week. Intensity is my focus, but for a limited amount of time…usually 20 – 30 min., no more than 40 min. daily. I follow every one of the steps you listed above, except for sleeping more…I’d like to, but my mind won’t allow more than six hours a night…although I do get an afternoon nap in two or three time per week. Keep up the awesome posts!!!

    • I agree wholeheartedly Greg. And I’m a big believer in the afternoon naps as well – helps make up for the nights where I only get 6 or 7 hours sleep!

  6. MIke, I didn’t even start to seriously train until I was 45 years old while I had a full time job, two kids still in school and was President of my Toastmasters Club and PTO President! At age 58 (as of Monday), I look better and am stronger than I have ever been in my life. I’m almost afraid to admit this, and maybe it’s just how I see it, but it was not THAT difficult. I love your advice and there really is no excuse. I am now a personal trainer at a gym in Indy and I am always telling my clients that it is never too late for them to be in great shape…no matter how hectic their schedule. Thanks again for all the great info you provide!

    • Annie – This is inspiring! I love that you’ve taken your love of fitness and used it to help others.

      And if you’re in Indy, I hope we cross paths sometime in the future!

  7. Mike, this article couldn’t come at a better time. Lately I just have been dealing with the ever pressing idea that time is just ticking away. I see it in my face, my muscle tone, my skin, my mom and my dad becoming more feable. it’s some scary shit. I still feel pretty damn good and athletic, still able to train but ultimately this is a bit of a depressing feeling knowing that every day that goes by well… you know the rest. The kettlebell purchase has saved me greatly, I too own and run 2 business, which sometimes I just don’t even get out of the house at all. Those kettlebells are awesome to do in between rounds of work. Amazing article. Spot on.

  8. As a 52 year old stay at home Mom of 5 (ages 12, 10, 6 and 4 year old twins), I have fully embraced fitness. I got certified to teach Bodypump and Tabata (HIIT) at 51 and CXWorx at 52. I now teach 8-10 classes a week at two different gyms. I was a competitive runner and cyclist before kids with a full time job. Now I mix it up with HIIT, spin, core conditioning, foam rolling (when my kids are not using the roller as a toy) and weight training. I am getting older but I fitter now than I was when I only ran or biked.

  9. Awesome reminder – all very true 🙂 And congratulations – another on the way! I would have loved to, but I think the ramifications would kill me 🙂

  10. Hey Mike I’m 59 so who cares about getting older I just celebrate what I can improve on…Thanks for your contribution.

  11. This is great advice. As a physical therapist I see way too many injuries from people trying to set PR’s and world records every week. Everyone likes to go 100mph everyday these days. It’s great to see someone out there advocating healthy, smart, life long focused lifting. This is a must read for anyone that lifts, because unless you’re a vampire, we all get older every day.

  12. While not a power lifter (I’m a 30yr old tennis player) I searched for advice on managing my lack of time and frustration with “not being as good as I once was”. A lot of your tips can be translated/transferred into my sport and I greatly appreciate the advice, I’ll be sharing this article. Thank you!!

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