Ageless Strength Training, Pt. 3

/ Posted 07.24.2008
How to make high-rep routines work for you.

I want to cover aspects of keeping the older body strong, fit and healthy that I didn’t elaborate on in previous installments of this series. First, a recap: Older athletes should train with lighter weights and use higher reps so as not to strain their joints the way heavy poundages and lower reps do. Older joints, for a great many reasons, can’t handle the stress of being pounded repeatedly with heavy resistance. Using lighter weights and higher reps makes a lot more sense. The movements flush nourishing blood to the joints and strengthen the cartilage, which is primarily responsible for the articulation of the joints. That’s a good thing—strengthening the joints without stressing them. In addition, the higher reps work the muscles very directly. It’s a two-for-one deal—enhancing muscle and cartilage strength while avoiding a great deal of involvement with the attachments. Tendons and ligaments, of course, play a role in any exercise, but with the higher reps, it’s a minor role.

While the overall workload for a high-rep workout may be close, or even equal, to that achieved with heavy weights and low reps, the intensity is going to be much, much less. That has two implications. One, it’s easier to recover, and two, you’ll need to train more frequently. Unless you can still handle heavy weights without any problem, three days a week isn’t going to be enough to help you gain, or maintain, a high level of overall strength fitness. With the high-rep routine you need to train five or six days a week in order to work your muscles sufficiently.

Many balk at that idea. It takes up too much time, they say. Okay—take time from doing what? What could possibly be more important to an older person than good health? The answer—nothing. Certainly not money. If you aren’t able to stay healthy, all your loot is going to gush down the drain in a hurry. Not family either, a typical excuse. You’re not going to be any help to your family or be able to share moments with them if you don’t take care of your health.

What I’m talking about is dedicating two hours a day to the physical shell you reside in. In the overall scheme of things, that’s a drop in the bucket. An hour and a quarter training with weights, 45 minutes doing cardio and a small amount of time trying to improve flexibility and balance. Okay, I realize that adds up to more than two hours—but not by much because on some days you can complete the weight work in less that an hour and a quarter. Don’t evade my point: As you grow older, you have to allot a certain amount of time for your physical self.

Some argue that they’d much prefer to train for a longer period and stick with three workouts a week, rather than expanding to five or six. Granted, there are some who can get away with that approach, but most older athletes can’t. I said that a high-rep routine is easier to recover from than a low-rep one, yet if the workout lasts for two hours plus, that’s no longer true. The workload for a long session is often double what you take on in a shorter one, and few can recover properly from it. Mostly that’s because older athletes are lacking in that critical recovery hormone, testosterone. More on that later.

Also keep in mind that it takes longer to complete a high-rep set than one done with lower reps. A set of five reps can be knocked out in half a minute or less, while a set of 125 may take seven or eight minutes. I know because I timed how long it took me to do 125 reps on a flat bench using an Olympic bar. The two sets that day used up 20 percent of my training time—more, actually, as I had to take a break to bring my pulse rate down between sets.

That means you need to restrict the number of exercises in your daily program—no more than five total, not counting warmup movements. Three for the major groups and a couple for the smaller ones. Even when you move quickly from one exercise to another, you still won’t be able to squeeze in more. Nor do you have to try: You have five or six days to spread out the workload.

Since you should give every muscle group some attention during the week, three sessions aren’t going to feed the bulldog. I like six days of training. That way you can hit all the large muscles at every workout from slightly different angles. For example, you can work your shoulder girdle six times a week by alternating flat benches, inclines and overhead presses every third day. Change the set-and-rep formula if you want some variety. The same idea goes for the back: deadlifts, bent-over rows and shrugs.

You might recall that I discourage older athletes from doing any explosive exercises, such as power cleans, power snatches, high pulls, shrugs or jerks. I think shrugging is beneficial, but athletes of a certain age need to shrug in a relatively slow, static fashion. No other exercise involves the traps to such a degree, and having strong traps is extremely important to maintaining a strong back.

You can work your legs completely with just two exercises: back squats and lunges. While I really like front squats for younger athletes, they don’t fit into an older athlete’s routine. Few older athletes are flexible enough to be able to rack the bar across their front deltoids correctly. That’s fine; just work the other two movements diligently, and you’ll obtain the desired results.

Also be aware that every exercise needs to be done deliberately—and not just the big-muscle movements. I’ve watched men jerk a light dumbbell up and down in a motion vaguely similar to a curl for more than 100 reps, then complain of extremely sore elbows. Well…duh. As usual, the biggest culprit is the bench press. Just because people are using a relatively light weight, they figure they can rebound the bar and press it in any upward direction they choose as long as they do x number of reps. Very, very wrong.

Using improper form with heavy poundages usually makes for a failed rep. Not so with light weights. Instead, the sloppy technique is incessantly repeated, sometimes for the entire set. It will eventually take a toll on the offended joint or joints.

Those starting in on a high-rep routine generally assume that it’s going to be much easier than one involving low reps, and in some ways it is. In other ways, however, it’s more difficult. The hardest part of doing a high-rep workout is having to concentrate on each and every rep from beginning to finish, and on really high-rep exercises that can go on for five minutes or more. It’s quite easy in the midst of one of them to let your mind wander.

High-rep workouts are very similar to the kind of work you have to do in a rehab program. Every rep needs to be performed precisely—no rebounding the bar off your chest on a flat or incline bench. Rather, you should pause at the bottom of each rep. The same holds true for squats, deadlifts, bent-over rows, lunges and all the auxiliary exercises. Any exercise, however harmless it may seem, can cause trouble if you repeatedly employ faulty technique. An exercise can also be a problem when overworked to the extreme. Case in point: the old stand-by, pushups. Jam up and down too fast or push the reps up too rapidly, and your shoulders, elbows or wrists are going to signal you to make some changes.

It takes time for your body and mind to adjust to a different type of training. There’s really no need to rush. You’re not qualifying for the Olympic trials. Start conservatively, learn what you can and cannot do, and center all of your attention on every set. Make haste slowly is a good motto. Don’t try to go balls out from the very beginning. If you feel that you can do 50 reps on some exercise, start with 30 or 35 and slowly move up. Think more about form than numbers. Add reps deliberately and only a few at a time. A 72-year-old pen pal of mine started out doing 10 pushups every other day as part of his six-day-a-week program. He added one rep every other week, and the last time he wrote, he was up to 65 reps.

Include at least one core exercise for the three major groups—back, hips and legs, shoulder girdle—at every workout, along with a couple of movements for the smaller groups—biceps, triceps, calves and deltoids. I like working in a circuit for several reasons. It creates a more balanced development. I can get more done in a shorter period of time, and it improves cardiovascular fitness while strengthening the body. In fact, I can run my pulse rate up much higher moving through a fast circuit than I can while walking. I simply can’t walk that fast, nor can anyone else I know. I don’t want to run, by the way, as the pounding isn’t going to sit well with my ankles and knees.

In cold weather, however, I often do certain exercises back to back rather than as part of a circuit because the working muscles stay warmer. Example: the deadlift. I previously mentioned that I no longer use the heavy, light and medium system for high-rep training the way I did when I was using lower reps. Rather, I follow a difficult workout with one that’s just a bit less demanding, then another that’s tougher and then back to one that’s not as hard. The slight change does wonders for the weekly routine. If I stack too many demanding days on top of one another, I start dreading having to train. That I do not want. I want to look forward to my weight sessions. I don’t want to be thinking, “I have to train today,” but, “I get to train today.” To me, training is a privilege, a blessing that gives me a great deal of control over how I look and feel. Being fit gives me freedom to move about and enjoy life. Not being able to do so isn’t a pleasant thought.

I also vary difficult weeks with lighter ones, not on a regular basis but whenever I feel the need to do a bit less for whatever reason. While I don’t normally use a light day in my weekly routine, I have one ready for days when I know I’m on the brink of overtraining. It may be just a certain area that requires a break, yet I pull back on everything for that day to make sure. Those days usually come along every three or four weeks, usually on Wednesdays. At those workouts I spend 45 minutes concentrating on abs and lumbars. Instead of leg raises and situps, I do crunches and reverse crunches for 10 minutes without a break. I also do hyperextensions or good mornings and reverse hypers. Then I finish off with multiple sets on the wheel.

The change from my normal routine always pays dividends. My lower back and abs get nice and sore, and when I resume my regular exercises, they’re fresher, and I can handle more workload. While you may never need such a break, it’s good to have one in your repertoire just in case.

Besides the primary exercises, you should work your abs and lumbars at every session. Perhaps leg raises and hypers prior to working out with weights, then situps and reverse hypers at the end. It’s absolutely critical that you maintain a strong core, regardless of whether you’re using heavy or light weights. The exercises for those groups get them nicely warmed up at the start of the session and serve as cooldown movements at the conclusion.

I suggest that anyone starting in on a higher-rep routine do three sets of 20. How you proceed from there depends on what equipment you have available and your personal disposition. Some like to stay with a set amount of weight and run the reps up. Others prefer to keep the reps fairly constant and increase the resistance. Yet others find their sessions more productive if they mix and match the two ideas. Perhaps deadlifts with heavier weights and a constant number of reps and flat-bench presses with the same poundage at every workout and the reps being continually pushed higher and higher. I recommend trying both approaches and then determining which fits your needs. It’s really not that important how you set up your overall program, as long as you do it consistently and with determination.

It’s critical that you stay flexible about what you do on a given day. You should have a definite idea of what you’re planning on doing that day, yet if things go south, be ready to make adjustments. Let’s say that you plan to do 75 reps for three sets on the squat. The first set goes smoothly, but when you reach 50 on the second set, you get a sharp pain radiating from your left knee. Stop. Don’t push through the pain. Rest; then try again. If it happens again, leave the squat alone, ice the knee, give it an extra day of rest. Then, when you do squat again, lower the reps to 50. No matter how careful you are about selecting poundages and adhering to perfect form, there are going to be setbacks. Learn to recognize them and go with the flow.

Now I want to address three other aspects that are necessary for overall fitness: cardio, flexibility and balance. Your capacity for them wanes with age, but they should be incorporated into your program in some manner if you want to live an active lifestyle.

Cardio first. I realize that the vast majority of older athletes who love to lift weights absolutely hate the notion of doing any form of cardio. Yet without healthy circulatory and respiratory systems you’re not going to be strong and certainly not fit. Cardio is complicated only if you make it so. Its simplest form—aerobics—is walking, which you can do anywhere and at any time during the day. You don’t have to power-walk unless you want to, and the results, according to experts, are equal to running. Of course, you may enjoy some other form of cardio—swimming, hiking, dancing or working out while watching a video of one of the countless quick-fix programs being marketed on television.

Find something that’s pleasurable. Otherwise you’re not going to do it on a regular basis, and it’s crucial that you do it every day. It took me a while to get into walking after running for 20 years, but now I look forward to my daily constitutional. While I lift six days a week, I walk seven, unless the weather is nasty. (President Harry Truman said that walking was the only exercise a person needed to stay fit.)

Start off doing 20 minutes and proceed from there to 45 minutes to an hour. You can walk before you train or after, or both. More is better when it comes to walking. Not only is it beneficial to all your internal systems, but it also helps with weight control, which is often a big problem for older athletes. Also, you don’t have to walk or do any other form of cardio in close proximity to your weight work. Walking early in the morning or in the evening may appeal to you. You feel stronger in midafternoon, however; that’s when you lift. It’s how much work you do throughout the day that counts. Just make sure that the cardio activity you select is low impact. Otherwise you may end up doing more harm than good.

Over the years everyone, athlete or not, loses flexibility in the shoulders, backs, hips and legs. Why that happens varies: arthritis, old injuries and not doing anything to maintain a complete range of motion. Unfortunately, you’re never going to regain the same degree of flexibility in your joints as you had when you were younger, but you can improve it. The key point here is, easy does it. Older joints are extremely susceptible to injury, so you never want to force any stretching move. In addition, individuals vary greatly as to their potential ability for developing a complete range of motion. Besides, you’re not going to be competing in a Greco-Roman wrestling match or getting ready for a hot date with a contortionist. You just wanting flexibility sufficient for simple tasks—gardening, picking up objects from the floor, reaching up in a cabinet for a box of cereal.

I call these moves activity-specific training: preparing your body for whatever you plan to do that coming week. You need to make certain you’re flexible enough to perform ordinary tasks without hurting a joint. You don’t have to approach it as a strict discipline. Yoga postures are good. Pick out a few, or a lot, that fit your needs, and practice them regularly. If your hobby of choice is golf or bowling, do stretches that enable you to enjoy those sports free from worry that you might ding a joint.

Here’s how I work flexibility training into my daily fitness routine. About six hours after I’ve trained, I take a couple of magnesium-calcium tablets to help me relax as I prepare to go to bed. Then, while watching “Seinfeld” reruns, I slowly twist and stretch in all sorts of directions, seeking out tight joints and muscles. I move like the old Chinese men who practice the ancient martial arts, but I’m not attempting to follow any definite system. I’m only looking for tight areas. When I find them, I move around until I feel them relax. It takes only about 15 minutes and really helps.

Balance is another attribute that diminishes with age—again, because it isn’t used nearly as frequently as it is in youth. For those who want to remain active, though, it’s critical to maintain a certain standard of balance. Several months ago I read in the AARP magazine that men and women lose their ability to balance themselves rapidly after age 50. By the time they reach 70, they can stand on one leg for an average of only seven seconds. As I’d participated in nearly every sport imaginable and had done well in some that required a high degree of balance, I was confident that I could exceed that average by a large margin. To my consternation I managed to balance on my left leg for only eight seconds and my right only seven. I tried several more times, and the results were basically the same.

Then and there I vowed to change that and started practicing the skill, usually at the same time of night when I did my flexibility movements. It took little physical effort but did entail intense concentration. What I quickly discovered was that my lower legs weren’t strong enough to support me for very long. I added one-legged partial squats to my routine. I also started moving up on curbs during my walk and balancing on one leg if I got stuck in a slow-moving line at a store checkout.

I haven’t progressed to the point where I’m ready to try out for a high-wire act, but I’m up to half a minute on both legs and am steadily improving. I can also feel the difference as I move about during the day. It’s really a matter of recognizing weak areas and making the necessary adjustments.

Although I’m quite aware, from reading Bill Clark’s newsletter PL/USA and letters from friends, that there are many older men who are still moving impressive poundages, I believe most older athletes would benefit from following the fitness philosophy of that remarkable nonagenarian Jack LaLanne. Even if you don’t feel you’re quite ready for a high-rep program, it’s a smart idea to understand what to do when you are ready.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.comIM

Testosterone

While testosterone is extremely beneficial to every male, it has particular significance to those wanting to stay fit and healthy and maintain a pleasing physique. Testosterone does a great many things for overall health and well-being. It lowers the risk of heart disease by reducing low-density-lipoprotein cholesterol. It’s necessary for muscle growth and enhances recovery from physical effort. Up until the age of 40, on average, the hormone controls the distribution of fat through the body, spreading it around rather evenly. As the supply of testosterone gradually diminishes, however, with males moving toward the proverbial three score and 10, fat begins accumulating in the lower abdomen. That’s commonly referred to as “gray fat” and produces the dreaded potbelly.

Much more than appearance is affected. A study conducted in Amsterdam found links between belly fat and capillary inflammation, which is a contributor to heart disease, and between belly fat and insulin resistance, a precursor of diabetes. Also, as most of you probably know, lower testosterone equals lower libido and less energy.

So must we simply sit back and experience the inevitable? That was the case not too many years ago, but no longer. Ask your doctor to check your testosterone. If you’re eligible for a senior citizen’s discount, odds are that your count is low. Prescriptions come in gels, creams, patches, pills and injections. Raise your testosterone level, and you’ll be able to avoid many of the health problems associated with testosterone decline and be in a position to do battle with unwanted gray fat.

Many who use testosterone therapy report elevated moods and a more positive outlook on life, and for good reason. Anything that helps you gain strength and muscle while making you healthier and more virile should make any male happy. —B.S.

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