Masters Athletes Usher in a Golden Age of Weightlifting

Douglas Perry

Technology, Cycling, Swimming

Fitness, masters athlete, strength and conditioning, weightlifting

 

This is a tale of an ordinary athlete doing things that would have been considered extraordinary a few decades ago. This is not about breaking personal records or competing. It's about acknowledging that we don't know nearly enough about what the human body is capable of as it ages. This is an article about the people who are creating new data points and histories, changing our perception of what the norms of activity are for older athletes. It's not hyperbole to say that the over 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond are creating experiences that were not available a generation ago. This is about a shift in lifestyles for an aging population, an almost revolutionary movement that is kind of giving a middle finger to traditional notions of what you should do as you get older. Most importantly, it is about what is potentially within reach of everyone as they age and not just competitive athletes.

 

 

Scott Miller was born in 1965. He is a legal advisor to a member of the Public Employment Relations Board, essentially the labor board for most public-sector labor disputes in California. He works out of the Glendale area. He probably spends a lot of his time on freeways like most other Angelenos. Unlike his fellow commuters, he is dividing his mileage between gyms like Takano Weightlifting, Barbarian Barbell, and Barbell Brigade. If you map that out, it's one significant sign of his devotion to the sport of weightlifting. It's also telling that at this stage in his life, Miller is doing better than he has ever done before, and there are very few signposts for him, and people his age, to follow.

 

What made you take up weightlifting? What drew you to the sport?

I got introduced to training with weights (but not weightlifting) when I was a high school kid playing football and did some weight training off and on, mostly off, during college. The adult supervision was minimal and it did not involve snatching or cleaning and jerking, just things like pressing, squatting, maybe deadlifting or upright rowing. When I started weight training again in my 30's, these were the only things I knew how to do with a barbell or a set of dumbbells. I was never particularly strong or ripped but at some point in my 40's, after finishing law school, I got bored with these slow lifts and decided I wanted to do something different. I got on the internet and got interested in learning the competition lifts. I guess it was the fact that it required more speed and athleticism than, say, bench pressing, that attracted me. 

 

At first, I didn’t know where or how to go about learning the lifts, but I eventually got in touch with a CrossFit gym, where the owner assured me that I could learn the Olympic lifts. So, I joined that gym and did CrossFit for about a year and a half during which time I tried to learn to snatch and clean and jerk.

 

I’d always preferred military presses over bench presses, so my overhead strength and shoulder mobility were decent, but frankly, my lifts were horrible then, especially the snatch. My squat technique was also pretty bad. I was used to using my glutes and hips instead of my quads and didn’t have the torso strength to stay upright for the amount of weight my legs could lift. 

 

In August 2010, when the CrossFit gym announced a six-week class for learning the Olympic lifts, I signed up immediately. When that six weeks ended, the gym owner was good enough to let me and another guy from the class continue lifting in a corner of the gym. We did that for a few more months until Bob Takano started coaching weightlifting at that gym in January 2011. For the next three years, until January 2014, I trained approximately five days a week with Bob’s club, which, at that time, was known as the Phat Elvis Weightlifting Club.  

 

In January of 2014, the gym where we trained closed down and Bob was busy planning to open his own gym but that didn’t happen until maybe six or seven months later, so at that point I started training more or less on my own. I mean, there was almost always someone else around, or I dropped in at various gyms, but I basically had to start doing my own programming then and looking for a coach when it came time to compete.  

 

Emmy Vargas, who had been one of Bob’s lifters and who was starting up her own coaching career, was someone I knew from meets and other events. I contacted her when PHAT Elvis closed down and she was gracious enough to allow me to train with her club whenever I could make the drive, which is usually only about once or maybe twice a week. Emmy has been incredibly helpful in correcting a lot of my most glaring technical deficiencies, and she’s done it without the opportunity to supervise my lifting on a regular daily basis.

 

We joke about her providing adult supervision for me, but I really can’t stress enough how much her instruction has helped me. Of course, she bears no responsibility for any remaining deficiencies.

 

How does a typical week of training look to you?

I typically train five days a week. Sometimes, during a preparation meso-cycle, I’ll add a sixth day with lighter weights and an emphasis on technique for some aspect of one of the lifts where I’m weak. During a pre-competition meso-cycle, essentially the last four weeks before a competition, I will reduce the overall volume and occasionally the number of training days a week to four, but I like to keep it at about five days a week to constantly reinforce the muscle memory. I find if I take too many days off or go a whole weekend without some lifting, I feel rusty the next time I’m in the gym. 

 

My workouts are about 2-2.5 hours long, including warming up, foam rolling, and a little dynamic stretching. Generally, every workout will involve some form of snatch, some form of clean and jerk and usually front or back squats. That’s a programming trait I picked up from my years of training with Bob Takano and, at least in my experience, it’s also one that seems to work for me. I’ve seen a lot of programs, including from people I really respect and admire as coaches, that devote one day to snatching and snatch pulls, another day to cleans and clean pulls, and yet another day to jerks and overhead accessory work, and then bring it all together at the end of the week. That sort of programming undoubtedly works for a lot of people, and it might even work for me but, knowing my own limitations, I guess I’m skeptical. The biggest challenge for me is staying consistent in my technique. That’s something that I think comes easier the more frequently I practice the lifts, especially the full lifts, to reinforce the muscle memory. That may mean I have to reduce the amount of volume a little on a particular day, but lifting five or even six days a week just seems to work better for me than trying to cram a whole week’s worth of the competition lifts into one or two a week and then being destroyed neurologically, and so sore that I can barely walk on the days in between.  

 

On average, I probably work the full competition lifts about three times per week and do the power lifts or blocks or some other partial lift or variation the other two days. During the preparation period at the beginning of a cycle, I might use blocks or partial lifts even more frequently, and by the end of the cycle, I may be doing the full lifts as often as four times a week. One of the many things I learned from my time with Bob Takano is that the power variations and partial lifts are good for maintaining and improving speed, which is an important consideration as we get older, so I always include those and take them seriously, instead of just treating them as a jerk off day in between doing the full lifts.   

 

As for the squatting, I have decent leg strength relative to my best lifts. (My best back squat is 181kg, front squat is 160 kg and my best snatch and clean and jerk are 105 and 130). I know a lot of coaches would probably not advise squatting so frequently, especially when my leg strength is already good, or at least good relative to my lifts, but, again, I find it’s easier to spread the squatting volume out over the course of five days, rather than try to recover after, say, two or three days, of heavy or high-volume squatting per week. I also do pulls, presses and good mornings about twice each week.  

 

I’ll do some bodybuilding or accessory/conditioning work (dips, push-ups, pull-ups, rows, flyes, etc.) and even some cardio work on the rowing machine occasionally, but, to be honest, the bodybuilding and accessory stuff is always the last thing to go into writing a program and the first thing to get sacrificed when I’m pressed for time, which is more often than I’d like. That’s probably not a popular position these days. We’ve all seen those incredibly ripped Chinese weightlifters doing all kinds of bodybuilding and crazy accessory stuff when they are just two days out from a competition. I guess the thinking is that if it got you this far, why sacrifice it now just because you are about to compete.

 

That may make sense for them, but I’m not an elite athlete with a top notch metabolism and all the recovery aids known to modern science. I’m a genetically average guy who’s on the wrong side of 50, so often, by the last couple weeks of the cycle, even with reduced volume, I’m struggling just to recover from the accumulated fatigue so I will be fresh on game day.   

 

I’m also not particularly diligent about stretching and foam rolling after training. Everybody wants to be a supple leopard and all that, but usually, by the end of a session, I’m ready to just drink some protein and get in the car to go home and take a shower.  

  

How have you changed your workouts over the years, as you have grown older?

For most of the time when I trained with Bob, I followed his standard program, which back then was geared toward a Candidate for Master of Sport, which is considerably above my level as a lifter. The volume was way more than I could handle consistently, but I always tried to power through it, even when my speed and technique suffered. Since I’ve been on my own, I’ve become much better at recognizing and accepting my own limitations and not programming so much volume in the first place, but also, regardless of what the program says, recognizing in the moment that things are not going well, and putting my ego aside, if I’m too tired or beat up to finish the program as prescribed. Everyone likes to finish the program as written, but it doesn’t do any good to practice bad reps.  

 

Bob’s book includes a very useful methodology for determining what level of annual volume is appropriate for your level of proficiency as a lifter, and then how to break that figure down into coherent training cycles for each time you plan to compete or max during the course of a year. In terms of Bob’s classification system, I’ve pretty consistently been a Class II lifter, which is better than a complete beginner but still mediocre in terms of numbers. Since going up a weight class to become a 94kg lifter, and especially within the last year, I’ve seen significant increases in strength and come close to breaking into the Class I lifter category but still have not quite done it. My competition numbers on both the snatch and clean and jerk are good enough to get me into the Class I category, but the problem is that I have yet to put together both lifts in a single competition and get the total needed to move me to the next level.  

 

Planning and following the appropriate level of volume for your level of proficiency is tough because the basic principles at work in weightlifting are stimulus and response and supercompensation and, in particular, the notion that the more you can train, the closer you can get to your full potential. At the same time, age and other physical limitations are a reality and can’t just be ignored, especially if I want to maintain good form and practice good reps with some modicum of speed and crispness.  

 

One of the things that has changed for the better since I trained with Bob is that I’ve gotten a lot better educated and open to using supplements. When I trained with Bob, I didn’t take anything and, frankly, I wasn’t even very smart about eating after training. I had about an hour drive home from where we trained and usually would not even eat until after I got home.  

 

Now, I take whey protein immediately after training to reverse muscle breakdown and jump start protein synthesis. I also regularly cycle on and off creatine, which is one of the only supplements on the market with some scientific research to back up its effectiveness and its safety. The great thing about creatine is that it is also practically dirt cheap, especially when compared to all the other fancy supplements on the market whose effectiveness and safety are still unknown.  

 

A few years ago, I also discovered the supplement hydroxy methylbutyrate, or HMB, which is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine and is used to prevent muscle breakdown. I take HMB pre-workout, which seems to prevent a lot of the stiffness and muscle soreness that usually comes with resistance training. I’ve cycled off of it a few times, including after my most recent competition and really noticed the difference.  

 

I have no medical training so here is my layperson’s understanding from reputable sources like Examine.com: Unlike most supplements that are billed as recovery aids, HMB, when taken before a workout, prevents muscle damage in the first place. I believe it was developed for HIV patients to prevent muscle wasting. I think it is also used in some of the nutrition supplements that are marketed to old people. In any event, although it’s got some sort of anti-catabolic effect, it’s not anabolic or muscle building, so it’s not a banned substance.  

 

Now, I get that the idea behind resistance training is that you break down muscle tissue during a workout and then the body repairs and rebuilds it even stronger afterwards, so one might ask: Why would you want to prevent the muscle damage that is going to stimulate the body to repair and overcompensate? It’s hard to argue with that logic if you are looking at it from a protein synthesis or muscle building aspect. But the other way to look at it is the simple fact that, if I’m too sore from one particular workout, then I can’t train as hard or maybe even at all the following day or two days, and weightlifting is not only about building muscle and getting stronger, but also about being able to move fast and developing consistency in technique, something that only comes with practicing a lot of reps on a consistent, day-in, day-out basis. Again, I’m all about frequency in training, rather than trying to kill myself in any one particular workout.    

 

The other major change that has happened since I started training on my own in 2014, and one that is probably related to being more proactive about eating properly and taking supplements is that I have continued to put on muscle, even through my late 40's and now in my early 50's. The first time I competed, which was in November 2010, I missed lifting as a 77kg lifter by less than one kilo. So, when I started training with Bob, I was at the light end of the 85 kg weight class. Within a year or two, I grew into the 85 kg class and then found myself having to cut weight just to stay there. In fact, I had put on over 25 pounds since starting weightlifting and, I guess I had the idea that, at my age, it didn’t make sense to let my weight get too heavy. So I continued for at least a couple years going through this roller coaster of cutting weight for competitions and then immediately gaining it all back, and then some, during the high-volume squatting of the preparation meso-cycle. I think the worst was when I had to cut 13 pounds to make weight.  

 

It will come as no surprise that my numbers started to stall. I continued to make slow progress on snatches, but cutting weight just destroyed my clean and jerk and, consequently, my totals, since the clean and jerk is where the real money lies. In most competitions, I was lucky to make just one of my three attempts and avoid bombing out.   

 

Finally, I think it was in November of 2015, I resigned myself to just lifting at whatever my weight happened to be, which, practically speaking, meant lifting at the bottom of the next weight class, the 94 kg category. It made a tremendous difference. My first competition in the 94 kg class, I PR’d my clean and jerk by something like six kilos and my total by nine kilos. And that was at age 50! Granted, I had only been lifting since my mid-40's, but to make that sort of sudden improvement was really kind of eye-opening. I’ve since grown into the 94 class and now regularly compete at about 92 or 93 kg body weight. I think I’ve destroyed four pair of dress pants and a pair of shorts just bending over to tie my shoe. Just ripped the seams apart in the seat of the pants.   

 

Sure, I miss seeing my abs and sometimes I think I should lose a little of the belly fat around my middle, but most of the 30 or so pounds I’ve put on since I started lifting over six years ago is muscle and there’s just no question that I’ve gotten stronger. That’s the great thing about weightlifting. The numbers don’t lie. My snatch is anywhere from 5-10 kg better than when I lifted in the 85 kg class, and my clean and jerk has gone up by closer to 15 kg. When I hear guys, especially young guys who are maybe newer to the sport, talk about how they want to drop a weight class or even two classes, because the qualifying totals for nationals are lower, I just roll my eyes and tell them: “Dude, you will destroy your clean and jerk and even if you don’t, you’ll stunt your growth as a lifter."  

 

The only major injury I’ve had in weightlifting was a severely herniated L4/L5 disc that happened on my first clean and jerk attempt at State Games in 2012. It happened during the clean but somehow I managed to finish and even make the lift. After than, I couldn’t even straighten my back but I had two attempts left. I tried hanging from a bar to see if the weight of my lower body would help re-align my back, but it wasn’t happening. I finally had Bob put me on a bench and use his knee for leverage to straighten me out, just so I could make my last two attempts. I made my second clean but missed the jerk, and on the third attempt, I couldn’t even make the clean. After that, I was in some of the worst pain of my life for the next couple weeks. I eventually had to have a couple of epidural injections, which took care of about 85 percent of the problem but I was stiff and had some footdrop and sciatic pain for the next nine months or so. In fact, I’ve never regained the flexibility I had before that incident. I used to be able to touch the floor with my palms without bending my knees but now, I’d be lucky to reach my ankles.  

 

I didn’t touch a barbell for three or four months and even after I returned to the gym, I avoided cleans and heavy squatting a few more months. When I did return, I completely changed my pulling stance and technique. Before the injury, I’d lift with my hips relatively high. In fact, like a lot of newer lifters with underdeveloped leg strength, that was a frequent problem for me. My hips would rise too fast during the pull. After the injury, I started sinking my hips as low as they would go, using my legs more and lifting with a much more vertical torso. Within a year, I was surpassing my pre-injury numbers on both lifts, and that’s after going maybe four months without snatching and almost six months without cleaning after the injury. In hindsight, I guess it was the best thing to happen to my lifting, but I wish I could have just made those technique corrections on my own without having to herniate a disc to figure it out.    

 

The injury has limited my mobility some but not really in any way that has affected my weightlifting. Certainly, weightlifting is a sport that requires a lot of flexibility in some places, such as the ankles, shoulders and wrists, but when it comes to the torso, it’s more about holding yourself rigid and not getting all bendy during a lift.  

 

If my workout starts with squatting, then, other than maybe a few passes with the foam roller, I don’t do much in the way of stretching or warming up. I find having the weight sitting on my back or torso is enough to help stretch out the hammies and push me into the correct bottom position. By the time I’m done squatting, I’ve got a good sweat going and may only need to do a little stretching for the shoulders before I start snatching.  

 

On the other hand, if my workout begins with snatching, as it typically would towards the end of a cycle, when I’m getting ready for a competition, then I have a particular snatch warm up that I go through religiously. It involves a couple of muscle snatches, followed by a couple of drop snatches and then a couple of presses behind the neck in the bottom of a squat (aka: squat snatch press or press in snatch). I’ll usually do that a couple of times with just the bar and then a couple of more times with 40 kilos before starting with my 60 percent.  

 

I work a desk job and sit in traffic a lot, so sometimes when I get to the gym, that first set of snatch warmups is pretty brutal and I wonder how I’m ever going to get in the correct bottom position for my lifts. But the second set invariably feels better than the first and by the third or fourth set, I’m ready to go, or at least as ready as I’m going to be for that day.  

 

The same goes for workouts when I squat first. I don’t bother squatting with just a bar. I just throw on my 60 percent and take the first set, which sometimes feels pretty awkward and stiff, but it never fails that when I move on to my 70 percent for my second set, the movement feels so much better, even though the weight is heavier. Over the seven years I’ve been lifting, I’ve just learned to accept that the first set of anything is probably going to feel like shit but the next set will feel better.  

 

Is there anything in your background, sports or fitness related, that you think makes weightlifting easier or harder for you compared to someone else your age?

Well, whether in sports or the classroom or the workplace, regardless of where I’ve been, I’ve never considered myself the smartest, fastest, strongest, or most talented person in the room. I’ve always felt like I had to work harder than most other people just to keep from falling behind according to whatever metric is being used. As a result, I like to think I’ve developed a certain work ethic and degree of stubbornness that maybe a lot of more talented people don’t have.   

 

And, as I mentioned earlier, although I’m not particularly talented in strength, coordination or speed, I have at least been able to put on muscle even into my late 40's and now early 50's, so I suppose I didn’t come away from the genetic table completely empty-handed.  

 

Another thing about my situation that is maybe a little unique is that I’ve never been married or had kids. Whatever the benefits of family life, my perception is that it requires a lot of time commitments and sacrifices that are not conducive to developing your own weightlifting prowess. We could debate the relative merits of weightlifting versus family life, but I’m pretty convinced that the two tend to work at cross purposes.  

 

How long do you think you will keep weightlifting? Is there an ultimate end goal?

I’m really not sure. Just recently, I hit a new personal competition best in the snatch at 105kg and came dangerously close to 107kg. I can’t imagine I would walk away as long as I’m still hitting PR's. Although my competition numbers in the clean and jerk haven’t been all that great the last couple competitions, I’d like to think there is still a PR or two left for me in that discipline as well. After that, who knows? I'd like to think I will continue with it even after my athletic abilities decline, as a physical fitness activity. There are just so many aspects to resistance training in general and weightlifting in particular that seem beneficial to the elderly population: strong bones and muscles, balance, coordination, flexibility and even the mental aspect.   

 

And there you have it. As you age, you tend to think about your physical sense in very practical terms. Miller wants to be strong and healthy. He gets to do something he loves. Twenty years ago, not only were there very few people looking to start weightlifting later in life, there were practically no facilities for them to go. 

 

Miller may be lucky living where he does in Southern California: there is a pool of great competitive-lifting coaches within driving distance for him to choose from. However, you can find lifting platforms almost anywhere these days, even popping up in big box gyms near the ellipticals and treadmills. You can also find a lot more older trainees taking up the sport This is probably a golden age of weightlifting, a time when people like Miller are better ambassadors for the sport than the drugged up champions who have threatened the sport's very existence in the Olympics. 

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