In the past few months I’ve received requests by phone and mail and in person from men wanting information on how they should train. All were between the ages of 45 and 55 and had firm backgrounds in weight training. They realized that they needed to change the way they trained but weren’t sure exactly how to go about it. They were no longer interested in seeing how much weight they could lift but rather wanted to improve their overall fitness while maintaining a certain amount of strength as they set about enhancing other aspects of conditioning.
Each man, though, had come to the same conclusion—that he needed to alter his training program in some way. Trouble is, there’s very little useful information available for this age group. There’s much more out there for men in their 60s and beyond. What data are in print are typically no more than a watered-down version of programs designed for younger bodybuilders. Every magazine on the market is geared toward youth with the exception of IRON MAN and Milo, both of which present helpful articles for a wide spectrum of age groups.
These men are no longer young yet not quite old. They’re not eligible for membership in AARP, nor do they get senior-citizen discounts at the supermarket. None of them have had replacement surgery or any other major health concerns. They still lead very active lives with only a minimum of physical limitations on what they can do.
In one case the decision to make some changes was triggered by the death of a close friend of the same age. In another it was the recent diagnosis of high blood pressure and a high cholesterol count—not serious but worrisome. Yet another was alarmed when he found himself short of breath after climbing three flights of stairs at a motel and later on was appalled when he saw his sad physical state in the bathroom’s full-length mirror.
Regardless of the reason, these men concluded that they needed to take some constructive steps to alter their situation. A couple of them had not trained seriously for several years, while the rest were still lifting regularly. Even though people in this age group have lots in common with older men, there are also many differences. The typical senior citizen is generally in control of his daily schedule, which leaves ample time for leisure activities such as working out and cardio. That’s not the case for people in the 45-to-55 age group. They’re extremely busy earning a living, especially in the current economic downturn, are involved in their children’s sports activities and take part in many community activities. Time for training is limited. On the flip side, they have advantages over those who are older. They can still do just about every exercise in the book without any problem. That means they can do high-skill explosive movements, which older athletes need to avoid because they stress the joints far too much. That gives them a wide range of exercises to choose from when assembling a routine.
I believe that making the shift from heavy training to one that focuses on keeping the structure strong without abusing it is a critical stage in a trainee’s life. In particular, the joints have to be respected and not offended. The body is undergoing a great many changes, none of which I consider favorable. Loss of muscle mass begins at age 35, typically a half pound a year. At the same time unwanted bodyweight begins to appear at an average increase of a pound a year. So within 10 years a body can change dramatically on its own from fit to flabby. Organ functions—especially those responsible for digestion—diminish with age, often starting in the 20s. To add to the woe, fast-twitch muscles decline, along with flexibility and endurance.
There may be a backlog of injuries to deal with, some of which date back to childhood or the teens. Anyone who doesn’t reside in a bubble—except for a happy few—has experienced broken bones, dislocations, severe sprains, pulled muscles and so forth. Even minor dings seem to rear their ugly heads in the later years, maybe as reminders not to do something stupid again. They have to be reckoned with when setting up a fitness regimen.
Genetics comes to the forefront in the mid-40s as well, sometimes for the best. People who inherit a good genetic code from their parents may never suffer from arthritis. The fact is, however, that 85 percent of the U.S. population over 70 do suffer from some type of degenerative joint disease, and most started having symptoms when they were in their mid-50s—a good many even earlier than that.
Then there is testosterone, that marvelous hormone nature provided, that helps fight a variety of diseases, improves overall mood, enhances energy and increases sexual vitality. Great stuff, yet beginning at age 30, the body produces an increasingly short supply of testosterone, about 1 percent a year. The adverse effects show up in the early 40s. The rate of decline is variable, again depending on an individual’s genetics, yet someone who is blessed with a high test count even when he’s in his 50s will eventually join the rest of the population. Testosterone can also be destroyed by certain diseases, but the most common way it becomes depleted is through stress. That’s often the case for the age group I’m targeting. Job pressures increase as the salary goes up—unless you happen to be the CEO of a banking firm. The point is, the lack of testosterone in the system has to be dealt with in some manner. I’ll come back to that vital hormone, but first I want to address the training program I believe to be the best for those in the 45-to-55 age bracket.
Those who read the IRON MAN articles I wrote for older athletes—meaning those in their late 50s and above—know that I recommended very high reps and only static movements. Nothing snappy or dynamic. The object was to prevent stressing the joints while nourishing the cartilage that protects the articulating surfaces of the joints.
That approach does not apply to people in the 45-to-55 age range, however, since they’re not at as much risk as they will be in the next decade. At least most aren’t. The group I’m addressing can still lift heavy without any dire consequences. And I learned long ago that someone who’s still able to move big numbers is going to do just that. In many instances self-esteem is directly linked to how much weight one can lift in a certain exercise, generally the bench press. To lose that lift is to lose a large chunk of an ego.
Regardless of how physically gifted individuals may be, there will always come a time when they can no longer lift what they did previously. That’s a critical juncture in overall future health and well-being.
I don’t know for certain, but I’d hazard a guess that all lifters who have at some point elevated a considerable amount of iron fight the realization that they can no longer do so. It’s the nature of the competitive athlete. Some push on until they injure themselves so severely that they have to stop weight training altogether. That’s not good and will markedly influence the remainder of their lives.
There are also those who are so intent on being strong that they decide to use steroids to aid their cause. Steroids help, but only for a short time, and during the layoff strength plummets like an angry guillotine. That results in shorter layoffs from the drugs and increasing the doses for the next go-round. Just look at how many pro wrestlers and powerlifters have died in recent years while still in their 50s. I call it suicide by virtue of an enlarged ego. Drugs for older lifters are an invitation to disaster. They often cause things to grow that shouldn’t.
Some, when they discover that they can no longer be the best bencher or squatter in the gym, quit training completely. They simply cannot deal with handling only light poundages on exercises that they used to excel in or with being bested on their pet lifts by others in the facility. It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It’s stupid, and there will be negative consequences.
Here’s what I tell people who shun going to their former gym out of pride: Purchase some equipment, and train at home. There, no one will see how much weight is on the bar, and home training has many advantages. It gives you great freedom about when you can train, an important consideration for anyone who is extremely busy. You can work at your own pace and not have to be bothered about waiting for a station. You can experiment with new exercises and different set-and-rep formulas and pay closer attention to your form than when you’re in a crowded gym.
With a small amount of equipment you can do a wide range of exercises. Start with a power rack or squat rack. Add an adjustable bench where you can do flat, incline and upright presses and then a decent Olympic bar with as many plates as you can afford and a few dumbbells, and you’re in business. You can fashion a situp station rather easily. Find an eight-foot board, and use your lifting belt as a strap, and you can do situps and leg raises at various angles by placing a bench or chair under one end of the board. A chinning bar and dip bars are most useful, though not essential. You can also figure out how to do back hypers and reverse back hypers on pieces of furniture around your house or garage. I’ve done them on desks, tables and kitchen counters. If you’re unable to find anything suitable, you can always do good mornings.
I’m frequently asked, “When should I stop lifting heavy and go to a high-rep routine?” My answer: “When your body tells you it’s time to do so.” There is no cut-and-dried time frame for that. It really is an individual matter. Some of the clues that it is time: Your joints are not just sore the morning after a heavy session but are hurting miserably, and the pain persists for the next two days. You’re having to take pain pills in order to train, and you start dreading the gym.
A short layoff may be therapeutic; you can come back with a fresh approach. What you must have is a new perspective and a resolve to stick with the new program. Your goal should be to improve overall health and appearance. How strong you are is now secondary. If you really apply yourself, however, you’ll be quite strong, just in a different way from when you were doing low reps with heavy poundages.
Because nearly everyone in the 45-to-55 age bracket is extremely busy, three workouts a week are enough, If your schedule permits, slip in another session, but three will get the job done. The basic rules apply—one exercise for each of the three major muscle groups: shoulder girdle, back and hips and legs. Follow them with a couple of movements for the smaller groups. Two auxiliary exercises per session are sufficient.
The change is that you’ll be doing 20 reps on the primary movements. You can also do 20s for the ancillary exercises, although I like to run the reps even higher on those. Using a circuit is a good way to do the routine. If you haven’t been training for a while, just do one set of each exercise for the first week. Then increase to two sets the second week and move on to three once you feel you’re able to recover from two sets. Most figure the move to higher reps will be a walk in the park. It isn’t. In truth, it can be extremely demanding—and should be if you want to achieve results. You can use the first set as a warmup; it doesn’t have to be that tough. Load more weight on the bar or select a heavier dumbbell for the second set. It should work you. The third set should be hard, and the final five reps should tax you. If you could have done another half dozen reps, you need to use more weight. Learning exactly how much weight to use on the various exercises will take some trial and error. That’s all right. There’s no reason to be in a hurry.
You may want to try using this routine on just one primary exercise to see how it feels and stay with your regular set-and-rep formula on your other lifts. Let’s say fives and threes are working well for your back and leg exercises, but your shoulders and elbows are sending signals that the lower reps are hurting more than helping. Use three sets of 20s on all your upper-body exercises, and stay with the fives and threes for your squats, high pulls, deadlifts, bent-over rows and shrugs.
Another way to get acquainted with this method of training is to use higher reps on one bodypart for a month, then switch to another the following couple of months. Or try the higher reps for all three bodyparts for a month or two. It makes for a nice change from lower reps, and it gives the joints a much needed rest. Then, when the time comes—and trust me, it will come—for you to leave the heavy weights alone, you’ll be a step ahead in knowing how to do the less stressful program.
The first thing nearly everyone discovers when embarking on the higher-rep routine is how much more it involves the respiratory and circulatory systems. A set of 20 back squats or deadlifts done with a taxing weight will have you panting when you finish. Once you’re able to move from station to station with little rest between moves, you can elevate your pulse rate exponentially. That’s good because all older people need to do lots of things to improve the health of their lungs, heart and circulatory system. It translates to greater endurance, an attribute that wanes with age. More on that a bit later, but let me lay out a sample program.
Back squats 3 x 20
Bench presses 3 x 20
Deadlifts 3 x 20
Chins 3 x as many as you can do
Calf raises 3 x 30*
*If you don’t have the benefit of a calf machine, three sets of as many as you can do.
Lunges 3 x 20
Good mornings 3 x 20
Standing or seated presses 3 x 20
Straight-arm pullovers 2 x 40
Dumbbell curls 3 x 40
Back squats 3 x 20
Incline presses 3 x 20
Bent-over rows Alternating with shrugs 3 x 20
Calf raises 3 x 30
Dips 3 x 30
If you’re able to do dynamic movements, you can include such lifts as power cleans, high pulls and power shrugs. If not, stick with the static exercises. They’ll serve your purpose just as well. Prior to each session do an exercise for your abs, lower back and shoulders, such as a set of situps or crunches to max, a set of back hypers or reverse back hypers for 50 to 100 high reps, and one set of front raises with dumbbells for 40 to 50 reps. The warmups will ensure that your older body is ready for the workload ahead.
At the conclusion of the session, do another ab, lumbar and deltoid exercise: leg raises, then either back hypers or reverse back hypers, depending on which one you did in the warmup routine, and a set of dumbbell lateral raises. They’re not difficult, and you should add a bit of extra work for the important smaller groups. It’s what they call cooling down in the runner’s world, and it does seem to aid in recovery.
The entire workout can be done in an hour and 15 minutes. If you lean into the third sets, you’ll find that the muscles worked will be just a tad sore the following day. That’s what you want. A sore muscle is a good muscle. I prefer the circuit idea, but not everyone does. That’s fine, just so the work is done. Move through the workout expeditiously—not fast but not slowly either. You want to elevate your pulse rate and keep it up throughout the session.
That brings me to the second part of the training routine: cardio. I can see you cringing. Those who enjoy lifting weights invariably hate any type of cardio. In our younger years we gained a great deal of exercise for our cardiovascular and respiratory systems by participating in sports and recreational activities. As we grew older, we did less and less of it for a wide variety of reasons, lack of time being one of the most prevalent. There’s no sense in trying to build a muscular body, however, over a weak cardio system. Lifting weights is not enough to ensure health in the later years of our lives. We have to move and move often.
Whenever I bring that topic up to those in the 45-to-55 age range, the response is always the same: “I despise running.” Who said anything about running? Or biking, or swimming, or getting on a NordicTrack, or buying an aerobics video? I’m talking about walking, which research has shown to be just as effective as running for the heart and lungs, with none of the negative side effects, such as abusing the knees, hips and ankles.
If you’re not sure how to walk, DVDs are available, and if you need personal instruction, Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, offers a course called the Art of Walking. (Is that absurd, or what? People who need to be taught how to walk should make sure their health insurance is paid up because they’re going to need a wheelchair and a nursing home really soon.)
A large percentage of those who are in the 45-to-55 age group consider walking to be an activity for much older people. It is and it isn’t. It’s an excellent way to exercise for any age. President Harry Truman once said that all a person had to do to stay healthy and live a long life was to walk regularly. Maybe, but throw in a sensible strength program, and the odds shoot up considerably in your favor.
“How far should I walk and how often?” are the two questions people throw back at me when I suggest they start walking. Walk three times a week at the beginning, on nonlifting days. Start out at 15 to 20 minutes, and when that distance becomes easy, add five minutes. Continue doing that until you’re in motion for 45 minutes to an hour.
The great thing about walking is you can do it just about anywhere and at any hour of the day or night. Some like to walk when they get up in the morning, some walk during their lunch hours if they’re short on time, and others prefer to get in motion at night. Eventually, over the course of a year, those three days will stretch out to six or seven. I walk every day, and since I also train six days a week, I use my walks as part of my warmups for lifting.
More is better than less when it comes to walking. That advice has been around for a long time, yet it’s worth repeating. When you drive to Walmart or the mall to shop, park a long way from the entrance. If you go to a sporting event at a stadium, park as far away as you can. Rather than driving to the bus stop to pick up your kids, walk there. If their school is within walking distance, walk them there and back home again. Children can also benefit from the movement. Once walking instead of always taking the car becomes a habit, you’re well on the road to better health.
Walking is free, and you need little in the way of equipment. You will need comfortable shoes, and I find that double socks lowers the impact factor. You need to dress warmly in winter, be wary of the sun in the summer and carry water to stay hydrated. Other than that, all you need is a good dose of motivation, and you’re all set.
I’m often reminded of the time John Grimek—he was then 57—decided he needed to add running to his fitness program. The day after his first run, he came into the offices of York Barbell. I saw him walking toward where he and Gord Venables had put together Muscular Development, hobbling along as if he had a sprained ankle. I moved out of the office I shared with Tommy Suggs and asked, “What happened?”
“I started running last night,” he grumbled, trying his best not to limp. Which didn’t explain his condition.
“How far did you go?” I asked.
“Five miles,” he growled, not enjoying the conversation.
I looked at his shoes, the ones he always wore to work and that he trained in. They were old and scruffed, with worn-down heels, and he seldom bothered to tie the laces. “You didn’t run in those shoes did you?”
“Yeah, that’s all I had,” he said, and shut the door to the office to stop me from bothering him even more.
I had to laugh. Only Grimek would attempt to run that far on his first outing in a sad excuse for footwear and then wonder why his feet hurt.
Strength training and cardio are only part of the things that need to be done regularly when you’re trying to obtain optimum health. Next time I’ll go over the many nutritional supplements that can be most beneficial to those in the 45-to-55 age group, some ways to improve flexibility, balance, stamina and, most important, how to deal with the problem of diminishing testosterone.
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.com. IM