A Conceptual Blueprint for Training in Your 40s and Beyond

By making some intelligent changes to the way we think about our training, we can keep training until a ripe, old age.

Photography by Bev Childress

Remember those days where you could train hard, go out and party all night, get next to no sleep, eat a heap of junk food, and then crush your workout in the gym the next day? Yeah, me too, but those days are behind me. At some point around the age of 40, some things became more noticeable for me. Maybe I was more sore than I thought I should be from a workout. Sometimes I found I was still tired after workouts that didn’t appear that hard at the time. Aches and pains started to be a little more consistent. Injuries took a lot longer to bounce back from. I generally started to feel stiffer in my body, and, what I call the “old man groan,” became more audible getting up or sitting down. Maybe I was just more aware of my body and trying to keep up with the young bulls in training was just getting harder. Sound familiar?

Aging doesn’t have be a death sentence to the art of expressing the human body. It is just a number. Just like Riggs and Murtaugh used to say, “We’re not too old for this shit.” By making some intelligent changes to the way we think about our training, we can keep training until a ripe, old age. Training intelligently as you get older doesn’t have to be rocket science if you follow these five key concepts.

1. Health Before Fitness and Performance

In previous articles, I have written about the importance of getting both healthy on the inside and out before getting fit.

So many people are worried about fitness and performance, but have forgotten the basic health premises of:

  • Getting enough restful sleep
  • Eating enough vegetables and having a healthy whole food diet
  • Getting enough sunlight and fresh air
  • Moving often enough, especially just walking
  • Drinking enough clean water
  • Keeping stress levels low
  • Staying out of pain (addressing injuries)

If you haven’t got these things in place first, then this is where you need to start. At 44, I know of very few people my age or younger that actually have got this under control. If in doubt, start here. The affects will be resounding and noticeable straight away.

2. Look After Your Heart

The most important muscle in the body is the heart, especially when the leading cause of death in many countries, including Australia, is cardiovascular disease. Especially as the industry currently worships in the church of high intensity training, it sees few people investing the time and effort to undertake what is called cardiac output training.

Cardiac output work is a form of aerobic training that improves the amount of blood that can be pumped by the left ventricle of the heart on a per minute basis. The increased blood being pumped out per minute creates pressure on the ventricular walls from the inside. This pressure results in left ventricular eccentric hypertrophy, which is increased size of the ventricle by stretching it from the inside out. This is different than concentric ventricular hypertrophy, which is an actual increase in ventricular thickness that results from higher intensity conditioning methods. The more blood you can pump out on a per minute basis, the more oxygen and nutrients you will deliver throughout your vascular system and to your working muscles. This type of training results in decreased resting and working heart rates, and it is proven to be more beneficial than high intensity methods for cardiovascular disease. It is also great for recovery, and takes us more into our parasympathetic nervous system state (“feed and digest” or more relaxed).

Look to train at 120-150 beats per minute, a few times per week for 30-90 minutes. Based on some recent studies, running may be one of your best bets to stay on the planet a little longer.

3. You Must Build Muscle

A study from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) shows that the more muscle mass you have as you get older, the less likely you are to die prematurely. The findings add to the growing evidence that overall body composition is a better predictor of mortality than body mass index (BMI) alone.

BMI simply measures height to weight ratio and can be misleading. Total body mass includes fat and muscle which have different metabolic effects. The study was designed to test the hypothesis that greater muscle mass in older adults will be associated with lower mortality. What they found was that in fact there was an inverse relationship. So while this is good news for those that like to get “swole,” it still doesn’t mean that taking steroids, chugging multiple pre and post workout chemical shit storms, and eating a kilogram of red meat per day gets given a green light.

4. Risk Versus Benefit

When it comes to your exercise selection, weigh the risk of doing the exercise versus the benefit derived from doing it. Instead of getting caught up in the “which exercise is better” debate, what we need to be doing is asking what exercise is best for the individual based on injury history, limitations and restrictions, technique, and movement quality.

I don’t like to demonize exercises. More often than not, it is not the exercise that is the problem when it comes to exercise selection. It is often someone’s poor movement quality and technique, along with the load, volume, and density that is the problem.

Let’s take the good morning as an example. This very exercise humbled Bruce Lee and put him in hospital for many months, which is where he wrote a number of his books. With a dowel or broomstick, or a light barbell, this exercise can be a reasonable posterior chain exercise but loaded to the hilt, and with poor form, can be an absolute back breaker. In this instance, I can think of a number of double leg bilateral (trap bar deadlift, sumo deadlift) or single leg (single leg deadlift ) options that would be a better exercise selection and put far less stress on the lower back. If you start doing an exercise that puts you into pain, or if you are in pain after a session from a particular exercise, it should be obvious that you need to:

  1. Address your injury
  2. Improve or change your movement quality and technique
  3. Remove or change the exercise so you can train pain free

Just remember that not all things are for all people so, if in doubt, do something that you know your body responds well to.

5. Movement Variety Is the Spice of Life

Specialization, or doing the same thing over and over, is generally a recipe for injury. If you only do a lot of strength training, you probably need to do aerobic activity and more mobility or movement work. If all you do is aerobic work, you need to strength train and do some mobility and movement work. And if all you do is mobility and movement work, then you need to strength train and do some aerobic work.

From my personal experience, many people conform to a system or methodology—a dogma they follow that appears to use them, rather than the other way around. Not surprisingly in my classes, the most injured people are those that have rigidly followed one methodology or system of training, to the exclusion of all others. I find this interesting when these systems promote “balance.” The reality is that we all tend to gravitate to the things we are good at. Not surprisingly, some of my clients who are hypermobile have gravitated to yoga, and only yoga. This has unfortunately proven injurious for them. Now, they do strength and stability work, look for more movement variety and aerobic activity, and are more healthy and more injury free, as a result.

The same could be said for other clients who have naturally gravitated to strength work, and have only done heavy strength work. Their bodies are banged up from repetitive high threshold, high tension techniques and lifting. Upon improving their mobility and flexibility, picking up some aerobic work, and looking for opportunities to move differently have helped them to be healthier, aerobically fitter, more flexible, and injury free. The bottom line is this: The body likes movement variety.

Get Some Balance

In the last few months, I have had a number of students of some years ago contact me with injury woes. At the time I was training them, I was, and I still am, a big advocate of the health before fitness paradigm, training for longevity, and injury proofing. But it was lost on them. Being young, indestructible, and bulletproof, they blew it off and underestimated its value. Years later, with the body now riddled with aches, pains, and showing the scars of hard training, they had come back to me looking for a solution to their injury woes. They now valued something they hadn’t at the time. The thing is that if you are active, playing competitive and contact sports, and training hard, injuries are almost a rite of passage. But I would argue that they don’t always have to be.

And remember, you’re not too old for this shit.

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