Advice for Lifelong Training: “Gray Hair and Black Iron”

A mature athlete’s guide for adjusting training to accommodate the merciless Father Time.

Today there are more books available on weightlifting and strength training than ever before. When I first broke into the sport there was almost nothing, and we all learned how to press, snatch, clean and jerk, and squat by coaching one another. Sometimes that worked out all right and other times it didn’t. We were simply prisoners of our lack of information.

One thing that has not changed over the years is the dearth of information for the mature strength trainer. Nowadays, just as it was way back when, most information is geared to the young athlete. But with the greater interest in lifelong physical activity, writers are missing out on an opportunity to cater to the group that has been lifting for so many decades that it has become a part of their DNA. These athletes still need advice on how to adjust their training routines to accommodate the merciless Father Time.

One man has taken time between sets to produce a tome for those of us iron-heads who are now getting a bit long in the tooth. This great service has been provided by Brooks D. Kubik in Gray Hair and Black Iron – Secrets of Successful Strength Training for Older Lifters.

A 4.5 Star Thumbs Up

Unlike most other “how to” books the author does not go through the familiar introductory material for anyone taking up the sport. There is nothing on the technique of the Olympic lifts or the type of equipment you will need. Best of all, there is no dogma as to what the best exercise is or the best way to train. It is assumed that after long experience you’ve already figured this out. The entire book only concerns itself with how the older lifter can best navigate the weight world, a world that may be getting a little more difficult for him or her as the decades pass. That alone is refreshing.

Another theme that got an immediate white light from me is that when Kubik talks about strength training, he means strength training. His references are to weightlifting, powerlifting, and barbell training and not bodybuilding, except perhaps as remedial exercises. He also discusses the best exercises for older lifters, the exercises that older lifters should avoid, and the role of auxiliary exercises, joint health, cardio, and core training.

Training doesn’t have to end as you age. [Photo courtesy of CrossFit Empirical]

He talks a lot about rest and recuperation because this is imperative for the older lifter. The workouts that used to require two days to recover from now may require three days. The reader is encouraged to accept this fact of aging and not worry if they can’t put in as much work as they used to. I have felt guilty for not doing three pressing days in a week, something I was still able to do until relatively recently. But after reading this book I have cut pressing back to two days and have seen no negative effects on my performance. What was an easy week in my youth is now full-tilt boogie in my late 60s. And now I can live with that.

He discusses the need for decreased sets, reps, number of exercises, and other modifications with an interesting observation. We all remember in our youth that some people were easy gainers and others were hard gainers. Hard gainers were often the most enthusiastic about getting stronger, but most of us with any degree of success in the sport would have probably been classified as relatively easy gainers. I use the past tense here because Kubik proposes that all mature lifters, i.e., those over 40, have to think of themselves as hard gainers regardless of what they were in their youth. Acknowledging this may be difficult for veterans to accept as true. The days of setting personal records in the main lifts are long gone and are replaced with days where we are merely trying to maintain current strength levels. This can be depressing, but Kubik discusses it in such a way that helps us accept that we’re only human after all.

Old Age Is Not an Excuse

In order for this to be a real book review it is incumbent to comment on its shortcomings. There are not too many of such in this book, but one recommendation is that there should be more segmentation in his target audience. The book is written for the older athletes and there is not any distinction once someone crosses into their fifth decade. The same is the advice to those at 40 is also meant to apply to those over 70. I would have liked to see Kubik talk more about how training differs in the 70s from the 60s the 60s from the 50s and the 50s from the 40s.

As a barbell lifer, I got much out of this book and find myself rereading it often. Other older lifters will surely feel the same way. Even the younger lifters might enjoy the book, especially if it gives them an idea of how to avoid troubles in the decades to come. With our aging population and the consequent interest in over-40 competition, the nature of this book has long been overdue. I look forward to seeing more, from Kubik or others.

Now grandpa, get out of that recliner and get back to the gym.

Training into your golden years:

It’s Not the Years, It’s the Miles: Training After 50