If you’ve been training since your teens or 20s and you’re now over 40, you know, of course, you’re hooked. You can’t let go. But then conventional wisdom slaps you in the face and tells you you’re in for a change in your training and expectations.
Being well past my 40s, I’ve discovered that the most intimidating enemy in the process of advancing years is conventional wisdom. Constantly we’re told that we must hold back, that training, regardless of age, stresses our muscles, which leaves slight tears, which in turn leaves scars, eventually resulting in injuries, and that the older we get and the longer we train, the more injuries accumulate. Caution must be the order of our days as we pass 40.
Decreasing muscle response and increasing skin elasticity also take their toll, we’re told, so look for other benefits. Don’t expect to make gains. Give it up. Settle for maintenance.
For a few years in my 40s, I submitted to conventional wisdom. I did hold back, feeling the accumulated injuries of more than 30 years of bodybuilding, especially in my shoulders, elbows and lower back. The injuries were real, and their persistence convinced me that I could no longer train as fast as I had in my youth, that I required longer recovery periods, that my durability wasn’t what it used to be and that, where I once went for that last rep, I must hold back or else possibly suffer another injury that might halt my training for good.
I persuaded myself I should simply be glad I’m alive, that, along with cumulative injuries, age brings compensatory gains in wisdom and that I should put that wisdom to use by accepting age gracefully. Now I see that just as the mere awareness of age can affect your ego and attitude, so can a more confident and determined attitude awaken you to the fact that the other side of 40 holds a valid promise for improving your physique.
A hint of that has always been with me, even in my more timid years. There’s not much difference in my training now vs. when I was in my 20s. I’m still doing some of the same things—old-fashioned stuff I was doing years ago—and I do them now with as much vigor and enjoyment as I did then. In fact with more enjoyment than I had then.
No longer do I have the apprehension when approaching my workouts that was there when I was younger. I also notice I’m reluctant to hold back, that I love to push to the limit. That’s when I’m happiest, and age has not at all been able to quell those feelings.
Bodybuilding’s new popularity fed the feeling. It’s no longer a subculture but embraced by the public, and seeing it around me fuels my enthusiasm all the more.
Just as I’m constantly reminded of cumulative injuries when I train, I’m constantly reminded by those around me of my love of bodybuilding.
My marriage to Laree revived that spirit, and opening our World Gyms enabled it to range. I see lots of youngsters around me training vigorously, and I yearn to do it also. I want to be part of the training. Gradually I stepped out of the maintenance level and looked toward greater intensity in my training, reincorporating that same locomotion and thrust in the movements that I’d always had, always loved and still do.
I’m looking for what I can do at this new stage of my life in pursuing gains, but there’s a difference now, one that can come only with maturity. I find myself wanting to practice wisdom and not be foolish. I see myself progressing in my weights, but instead of gulping it all at once, I’m now sipping it gradually, savoring it and enjoying it more, taking my time to get up there, stretching out the goals.
Never have I competed with others in my workouts. Never have I tried to keep up with others in the gym. That’s even more important now. I’ve always been in competition only with myself.
I do feel fortunate to be entering a new stage of life hand in hand with nutritional advances such as amino acid technology and better supplements. Modern innovations allow me to get a tighter rein on my body and its improvement. They also enable me to remove many perceived restrictions to over-40 training and instead set more goals, approaching my training aggressively rather than defensively. I do everything I have to do with more attention and more experimentation rather than just plunging forward and pounding away.
At my stage of life, I don’t need as much work because I know how to train better. In fact, I suspect that I’ve overtrained all my life. Now, by holding back somewhat, watching my training and having another kind of patience, it’s possible that I can step forward and make some significant gains. Once you’re accustomed to overtraining, however, it’s difficult to relax or cut back, regardless of your age.
Even now I experiment with power training, going for single reps here and there. That’s mingled with supersetting, although just once a week I do a heavy squat day and heavy benches.
Reduce Your Workouts
Since I’ve reduced my workouts from six days a week to three on/one off, I encounter fewer injuries, plus my strength is coming up. The biggest problem is adapting to it and breaking the old habit, even though the new system is, I’m now convinced, a better way to train. That’s why stepping out of an overtraining schedule, persuaded by the issues of age, may enable me to proceed to another plateau.
I also find that my mental focus is now on the finer mechanisms of the body rather than on simply a brutish workout and ego gratification. I now use more full-range movements and quality training with a good flow. Certainly I also do more stretching and warming up, especially for the lower back, hamstrings and shoulders.
I’m working chest and back one day, legs on day two, and shoulders and arms on day three. That gives me upper body, lower body, then upper body again and a day off, and it gives each bodypart more recuperation time. Aerobics have also increased, specifically in my use of Lifecycles and Stairmasters.
I’m looking forward to gradually increasing powerful workouts. For chest and back it’s four sets of bench presses supersetted with wide-grip pulldowns, but now incorporating more power. I love that. After the supersets, however, I do two or three more sets of bench presses, taking my time, in the attitude that it’s my profession—more of my profession than it’s ever been—since I currently own a gym.
I want to appear good to the people there, set a good example in both physique and performance of the exercise movements. It’s fun, and they like to see it. I also now do some single reps, putting power behind them, primarily for the fun of it.
As the power increases in my workouts, I’m also dropping my reps from 10 to 12 to more like eight to 10. You resist age just as a young bodybuilder builds mass: If you want to maintain, go with the higher reps; if you want to proceed, you have to lower them. Just be careful how far you push it; don’t always do that one last rep.
Good Eating Is a Must
I also notice that I have to do lots of good eating—plenty of good protein and complex carbs every two to three hours. The body must be constantly fed for both repair and fuel during a hearty workout. I keep my electrolytes higher and am experimenting more with branched-chain amino acids. Essentially, I’m trying to put everything in my favor as age advances—keeping my workouts slower and more concentrated, making sure I harness that hyperenergy in my movements, doing regular deadlifts instead of stiff-legged deadlifts, paying attention to reps, thinking about my lower back and knees and trying to go consistently heavier.
On leg day, I warm up with leg extensions and go right into squats, then extend that into pretty much a power routine. While a certain training approach worked for me when I was younger, I’m facing the question of what will work best for me now, at a later age. What can I now do not merely to maintain but to actually improve?
I feel there’s probably one plateau from ages 40 to 45 and another from 45 to 50, but with each one I can strive to go a little above the one that preceded it. I have to keep adjusting my goals according to my capabilities, but I always keep my goals out there, and they generate a good energy, constant and fresh. As a gym owner, I’ve taken another new step in my life, and such attempts outside training help generate that energy.
The most profound discovery I made after passing 40 is that life is more and more a learning experience. In youth, education seems to be the lowest of priorities, for there are appetites to be explored and egos to be nurtured. Beyond 40, however, a maturity normally occurs in which your appetites change. That’s a result of time, and we’re struck with the realization that there’s so much more to life that can provide gratification than we can possibly assimilate. Suddenly our simple hungers seem insignificant.
That’s when the journey beyond 40 becomes a reward. It’s a reawakening to what more there is to life. It’s an awareness that you’re just starting—actually, that you’re always just starting. What I’ve learned over the past 10 years I want to triple over the next 10. I find that I have so many more feelers out there trying to absorb everything. I noticed that I didn’t learn what I should have in previous years, so now I’d better scurry around and pay a lot more attention.
These days I realize how blessed I am to have the energy and desire to train as I do, and I thank the Lord for that. Everything I’ve said must seem obvious, but little of it may sink into a young mind. A “youthful mind,” on the other hand, absorbs so much more. Perhaps that’s the greatest irony of aging: You don’t acquire a youthful—hungry—mind until you’ve been liberated from being young.