How to Keep Breaking Records and PRs at 70+
Laurie Nelson is 72 years old. She is a professor in sports medicine at Pepperdine University and, a pre-health advisor.
At the 2017 US Masters (March 9, 2017) she came in 1st place in the W70 category for her weight class (63 kg). She is also a national record holder for her age. Before she was national weightlifting champion, she was an over-60 CrossFit Games competitor.
In her day job, she advises people on professions like medicine and other health related topics. Outside of work, she has advice for people, too: She wants seniors everywhere to know that they can do things that they may not have thought possible. Nelson lives the lifestyle that she now wants to evangelize.
In some ways, it has been easier for Nelson to get into competitive sports at a later stage in life than earlier on in her career.
Title IX - Inspiring Masters Women Today
Speaking about her early interest in being fit, Nelson says, “Back then, there was really no sports for women. I was at UCLA, just about graduating from UCLA, when they finally got sports for women in college. I missed the whole window of being a competitive athlete when I was younger.”
For many women today it is hard to imagine what it was like for a generation that grew up without competitive sports less than a generation ago..
Nelson says, “In high school we had something they called GAA. It was just getting together after school and playing volleyball or whatever. It didn't have anything to do with teams or anything.
“At UCLA, we didn't have any sports for women either. Like I said, it started just as I was getting out or leaving. But, I loved activities, so I took every opportunity to do whatever I could do. I would just play volleyball and tennis and walk a lot, hike, swam when I was younger.
“I did all kinds of activities, and I was a PE major at UCLA, a physical education major. In fact, all of my degrees are in physical education. We did everything. We did modern dance and fencing.”
After getting a Masters in physical education from UCLA, Nelson went to USC for her PhD. While most of her early graduate and post-graduate work was mostly in science-backed disciplines, her doctorate was in administration.
Her first job was as a women’s athletic director at Pepperdine. As Nelson’s education was coming to an end, Title IX was beginning to take hold.
As Nelson proudly proclaims, “I founded the women's volleyball team, the women's tennis team, the women’s basketball team. Here, we started those three and I was in charge of them.”
While college sports for women were beginning to take off, the parity with men on opportunity was still limited.
“My PhD dissertation was done at USC with the athletic director, Dr. Perry, who was there for many years, but also who was on the faculty, and he and I came up with the idea to look at men's and women's athletics at the time and see if the women wanted the same thing that the men had. In other words, at the time, men had scholarships and so on for their teams, and the women did not. Everyone was making the claim that the women didn't want scholarships.” Says Nelson.
Title IX , scholarships and greater opportunities for women in sports would come. However, for many women who came before Title IX, there were no real opportunities to compete, let alone be compensated for their athleticism.
Nelson believes that is why so many older women are competing now.
“When I started competing in CrossFit, there were only 60 women competing in the over 60 category. Now there are, I don't know, 400.” She says.
In the intervening years, before CrossFit came along and now, weightlifting, Nelson would have to rely on intramural sports to fulfill her desire to compete.
She recalls, “ I played a lot of intramural sports here: volleyball and tennis and softball and all kinds of things, but I never had the same kind of outlet that I did once I joined CrossFit.”
Beginning CrossFit at 65
Mike Anderson, the owner of CrossFit Malibu that Nelson started with, was a former student. They had known each other for 30 years. It was Anderson, some 7 years ago, when Nelson was 65, who got her interested in the sport. Not that she was as interested as you might think.
“I really didn't want to spend the money. I'm in fitness myself. I didn't want to pay to go to the gym.”
But Neslon had never really lifted before. “I mean, I've done weight machines in a gym, but I've never lifted free weights, ever. One summer after he (Anderson) had been there a year, I just decided to go to his beginner class, just try it.
“I went, and I really enjoyed it. There were two other people my age also in the class, which was really cool. I found myself getting so much more fit overall. I was able to do things that I hadn't really been doing for quite a long time. To learn snatches, clean and jerks, and so on just with a PVC pipe was kind of fun.
“I wasn't very good. I didn't pick up the movements like that, but I did them, and then I got into it. I decided after the month that I really wanted to continue with it, and I stopped hiking as much or biking as much and spent more time at Crossfit Malibu.”
The real question is how do you get into something like CrossFit starting at 65?
“It was funny, because in the beginning, he (Anderson) would say, row 500 to warm up, something like that, and I'd row 250. I just modified it in my own way to do whatever I felt I should be doing. But after a while of being with him, he's pretty good about the age related part of it.
“Some gyms are, some aren't. Some have coaches that would really understand that, and some don't. He was good. He gave me appropriate workouts.
“My motto about working out is I don't want to get too sore or too tired after a workout that I can't do my life. If I'm sore for three days and I can't walk up and down stairs, I did too much. I'm always mindful of doing some to get sore, but not so sore that I can't participate.”
Nelson didn’t have anyone to really model herself on when she first started which is why we are glad to talk to her, and people like Deborah Robinson, about their training because, today, there are real role models for over 60 weightlifting, CrossFit, you name it.
However, Nelson does go on to say, “After I started competing, I found other 70-year-olds, 65-year-olds, and that was really fun, because we formed a community and we're all in touch with each other.
“Even in the competition season, even though we're competing against each other, we're talking constantly, because we needed to know what we were doing at our age, not what somebody 50 or 40 or whatever was doing.
“It just wasn't relevant. It was real important to share information, and I found several women that were happy to do so. I also even did some of the open workouts with a friend of mine, Lynn McTaggart, who's 70 and also in my situation.”
We asked Nelson when she first got competitive and how she got started in competition.
She replied, “Well, I looked online. I did the same thing with Olympic weightlifting. I looked online and I said, whoa, I can do that. CrossFit puts up the profile of the competitors. I go, well, I could do that. I'm doing that. There were some things I couldn't do, and so I had to work on those weaknesses.
“Handstand pushups, eventually dips, which I still really haven't gotten to. I've got to do one, which was all I needed to do.”
“It was about a year later that I saw in the (CrossFit) Open competition that I could probably do what they were asking.
“I competed in 2012 when I was 66 in the Open, and I did qualify. You have to come in the top 20 of the people competing, and I came in, I don't even remember, tenth or something, no seventh even.
“I went to the actual Crossfit Games and came in tenth. That also having a lot to do with the fact that I got quite sick in between the time that I actually qualified and the time of the competition. I was out for, I don't know, a month or more with a sinus infection. I had to play catch up when I was trying to get back in shape again.
“Anyway, I did compete, and it was a lot of fun, and I continued to compete in CrossFit for the next few years. Even this past year, I did do the open up until the very last workout, and in the 70 plus category, I was only one of two individuals doing it, what they called RX, as prescribed.
“Everybody else was scaling it. In the 65 and older category I was coming in in the top five. In the 70 and older I was coming in first.”
Eventually, Nelson switched to Olympic lifting. Her snatch and clean and jerk had always been her weakness compared to the other women her age.
She says, “I can out back squat any of them, and a bunch of other things. I was always, in CrossFit, I was a very even competitor. I wasn't really good at anything and I wasn't really bad at anything, I was always just right in the middle. That was good. It was a good thing. Once I got to be older, I knew that I wasn't going to make the top 20 of the 60 and older category in CrossFit, and they haven't added a 65 and older.”
The Rapidly Changing Years - From 65 to 75
It’s worth noting that the changes over a short time span as you get older are more dramatic than when you are in your prime physical condition years.
Nelson says, “Honestly, I think the change in 60 to 70 is comparable to the difference between being 15 to 25.
“It's huge, just huge. You can see it by the numbers, because every year in CrossFit I go ahead and make a custom leaderboard, so I can see where I was at the 65 and older and the 70 and older. First of all, the number of competitors drops way off, which is why they're not making a category for it. Like I say, the 70 year old group, I was one of two people doing the workouts Rx.”
“I mean, just two out of maybe 60 or so that are putting their scores on. That's way different. Then in the Regionals maybe 100 people started, and only 40 women would actually finish the workout, because it was handstand push-ups and a bunch of really hard things.”
Whatever the competitive situation and limitations in CrossFit, there was no doubt in Nelson’s mind that she could do better at the Olympic lifts. So, she started to train around the established weightlifting gyms in the Los Angeles area, Waxman’s and Takano’s, eventually setting in the San Fernando valley with Takano because of the proximity.
However, Nelson admits that she may mess up her own weightlifting ambitions with her training routine, “I've been doing CrossFit with Olympic lifting, I've probably made my progress in Olympic lifting a little more difficult, because CrossFit kind of interferes, actually, in my case.
“I'll tell you one thing, when I competed in Opens last year, the Olympic weight lifting way helped me. There were so many things that depended on strength. One of the first workouts was walking lunges with a certain amount of weight overhead.
“Those kind of things that I did, I would never have been able to do as well as I did without having been at Takano's. It was very additive and very beneficial. I just don't have that time and energy to keep up with both at a high level.”
So it is that Nelson is a national record holder and champion in Masters weightlifting. Beyond her own ambitions and experiences, she wants other people of her generation to know that they can get stronger and get into weightlifting just like her.
She laments, “I wish I could say that there's enough weightlifting gyms around that would be a good place to start. Obviously in our area there are here, but if you're talking universally, what is available is CrossFit gyms are available.
“If you can find one that has very good instructors, very good coaches, generally you'll find one that's really popular, that's a good start. Just go check it out, and make sure that they can work with someone your age and start you at the appropriate place and not make you too sore or too tired and understand what that is for you.
“See if you can start to get your overall fitness greater and stronger. To specialize in Olympic weightlifting, you need an Olympic weightlifting gym. If there is one around. It's lovely that Bob Takano himself is my age. He really understands.
“You need somebody who has some understanding of an older body. Bob and I worked right in the beginning to figure out that I wasn't going to do three or four repetitions of things. I was only going to do two, for instance.”
As you get older, the main theme is around avoiding injury, soreness, and have time to recover properly. Volumes are low. Number of sessions are lower. Time spent on workouts are controlled and tight.
“In the weight lifting arena, less is more for me.” Says Nelson, “It would be better probably for me to come in way more frequently and not do as much. I'm going to get tired after 30 snatches and 30 clean and jerks and so on. I try to keep it maybe two repetitions times five, or times four, or sometimes three, something.
“The only time that would be more would be with back squatting or front squatting or pressing or something like that that's just a strength component. Then I'll do more repetitions per time.”
Age is Not a Blocker
And yes, Nelson still does CrossFit.
She says, “In CrossFit, I really have to, at this point, be careful. Honestly, I could do whatever CrossFit threw at me for many years there, but as I've rounded this 69, 70, I just have to make sure that it's not the 100 or 200 repetitions that they do of things, you know? Or a much lighter weight. One of the two. Something that just isn't going to cause soreness.
“Soreness is very important to monitor. When I was competing in CrossFit four or five times a week, I think there was more carry over, such that if you did a bunch of pull-ups and you were going to be doing a bunch of pull-ups at least a week later, and so whatever you did mattered for the week later.
“Right now, when I'm only doing two or three times a week, I would do 50 pull-ups and then I might not see 50 pull-ups again for a month or more, and so I'm going to get sore again a month later.
“If you're doing CrossFit all the time, there's enough overlap of it that probably I wouldn't get nearly as sore, but since I am trying to see what I can do with Olympic weightlifting,” she pauses, “It's just a challenge.”
Interestingly enough, Nelson’s real goals, when she first started lifting were modest, to say the least. She just wanted to be able to lift her own luggage into the overhead rack in the airplane. Practical reasons that anyone could relate to and would probably be happy to work towards.
Nelson says that when carrying her own groceries people will ask her if she needs help and she is thinking, no , I am using these bags as weights and this is my workout, too.
In fact, Nelson says, “It’s been really nice to be older and be as strong and capable.”