Bodybuilding is much different from most sports that the general public follows. Basketball, baseball and football all rely on speed, agility and hand-eye coordination, physical attributes that inevitably fade as we reach middle age. Bodybuilding, on the other hand, is one of the few sports that allow you to make improvements into your 40s, and you can still compete (if you so choose) well into your 70s and 80s'provided you do it right and make the proper adjustments as you age.
Although the great Arnold Schwarzenegger retired from competition at the very young age of 28'before making a comeback five years later'other legends of the sport, including Chris Dickerson, Bill Pearl and Frank Zane, reached their physical peaks after the age of 40. Of course, we can't forget the great Albert Beckles and Ed Corney, who didn't even hit their stride until after they hit the 40 mark. In the bodybuilding world today, Vince Taylor is showing us how it's done. He's won the Masters Olympia five times and made a very strong showing at the last Mr. Olympia contest at the age of 45.
So there's no doubt that you can continue bodybuilding well into middle age, but the question arises: What changes should you make to your training as you get older? Although I haven't received my AARP card yet (I'm 38), I have seen many bodybuilders in the gym who continue to train heavy and hard despite their age. Nevertheless, it's a fact that the body changes as we age, and we must take that into consideration in our training. The first change inevitably affects recuperation. Do you remember when you could bomb your muscles with heavy, hard workouts with little or no repercussions except for bigger, stronger muscles? That miraculous recovery ability doesn't last much past the 30s.
Most serious trainees who are in that age range or older train each bodypart only once per week. The seven-day rest period is usually ideal for people who train intensely. The muscles, tendons and joints'as well as the body as a whole'need the break.
My current routine reflects my increased recuperation needs. As a teenager I used to train six days a week, working each bodypart twice a week. As I got bigger and stronger and began having more intense workouts, my training partner and I decided to take a day off from the gym after every three days of training. The added recuperation day paid off immediately. I made dramatic progress in my physique in only a matter of weeks.
Several years later I decided to add another day of recuperation. I was still training my whole body over a three-day period, but I now threw in an extra day of recuperation after two days of training. My old routine looked like this:
Day 1: Chest, arms, calves
Day 2: Abs, legs
Day 3: Delts, back, calves
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Cycle begins again
With an additional rest day the new routine looked like this:
Day 1: Chest, arms, calves
Day 2: Abs, legs
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Delts, back, calves
Day 5: Rest
Day 6: Cycle begins again
That extra day of recuperation translated into training each bodypart once every five days instead of once every four days. It also allowed me to train heavier. The rest day between my leg and back workouts gave me more rest time for the all-important lower-back muscles, which eventually allowed me to use more weight on the squat and deadlift.
My next step up the recuperation ladder involved spreading out the bodyparts, training my body over four days instead of three. Here's how my new program looked:
Day 1: Chest, triceps, calves
Day 2: Abs, legs
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Delts, calves
Day 5: Back, biceps
Day 6: Rest
Day 7: Cycle begins again
Now I was training each bodypart every six days instead of every five. I was also getting more rest between leg day and back day. I'd begun to notice that my lower back needed more recuperation time between those two workouts. Exercises such as squats and stiff-legged deadlifts on leg day and barbell rows and deadlifts on back day all stress the lumbar region of the back. If you don't take recuperation into consideration when designing a training program, you can easily strain or injure that very important area of the body.
My training routine remained like that for several years, until I finally decided to add another rest day so I'd have a full seven days for each bodypart. Here's what my new routine looked like:
Day 1: Chest, triceps, calves
Day 2: Rest
Day 3: Abs, legs
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Delts, calves
Day 6: Back, biceps
Day 7: Rest
Day 8: Cycle begins again
ALLNot only did this program give me more rest and recuperation, but it also fit well into my work schedule at the time. With this schedule I always trained chest, triceps and calves on Monday, legs on Wednesday and so on. It was easier to schedule my workouts around my life instead of the the other way around because I was on a consistent weekly schedule.
In fact, it's the routine I currently use. The only change I've made in the past year is to schedule a week off from the gym every six to eight weeks. The planned recuperation period is mentally uplifting because it allows me to train extremely hard for six to eight weeks knowing I'll be rewarded with a well-deserved week off.
Although my new training schedule encourages better recuperation, I'm well aware that, as the body ages, the threat of injury always looms overhead like a dark rain cloud hanging over a picnic celebration. In order to avoid injury and make uninterrupted muscular gains, bodybuilders need to be more active and search for ways to get more recuperation.
When I prepared for competition last year, I decided to take advantage of weekly deep massage therapy and chiropractic adjustments. The massage sessions helped immensely to loosen up certain muscle groups that had become very tight from my heavy lifting'particulary my lower back, hips, glutes and front delts. The chiropractic adjustments helped to keep my body aligned correctly. By using those two additional treatments, I was able to help my recuperation even more and avoid injury.
One area that I used to avoid during my training was stretching and flexibility. I'm like many bodybuilders: I simply don't enjoy stretching. To me, it's very uncomfortable and even painful.
Yet the benefits of stretching are undeniable, particularly as we get older. Just as our bodies naturally lose muscle mass as we age'except for the smart bodybuilders who continue to pump iron'we also tend to lose flexibility. The problem is compounded for lifters who train very heavy all the time. My hips, glutes and lower back get especially tight after being bombarded with such exercises as squats, deadlifts and barbell rows.
I now try to include some form of stretching every day'even if it's only for 10 minutes. On my training days I always include 15 to 20 minutes of stretching before my workout begins. My massage therapist has suggested that I also do an additional 10 minutes of stretching after I'm finished training, especially on heavy back and leg days.
The stretching exercises prevent injury by releasing much of the tightness in the muscles. If I'm going to squat heavy that day, I need my glutes and hamstrings to be flexible in order to do the movement correctly. If those muscles are tight, I'm going to be more likely to use bad form and could end up straining my lower-back muscles.
Another problem for bodybuilders as they get older is joint pain and stiffness. I can vividly remember how things were when I was in my early 20s. I'd come into the gym and just plop down on the bench and start training. No warm-ups, no stretching'just put the weights on the bar and lift. My shoulders didn't hurt, there was no sharp pain in my elbows, and my knees felt no pain. Ah, the good old days!
Today, the situation is obviously much different. From what I understand, the body produces less synovial fluid (the valuable substance that surrounds the joints and provides cushion) as we get older. I don't need to read the research papers to substantiate those claims. I'm well aware that my synovial fluid levels aren't what they used to be as I warm up with the 10-pound dumbbells.
I've discovered as I've gotten older that warming up is absolutely essential before I start training. The problem areas during the pushing exercises are the shoulder and elbow joints. My hips, lower back and hamstrings need attention before I start bombing my legs and back. Finally, my knees (oh, my poor knees!) definitely need some serious warming up before I even attempt to squat or do leg presses.
On the advice of my chiropractor, I do specific exercises for the rotator cuff muscles before I begin my shoulder and chest workouts. When I arrive at the gym cold, I begin by performing some very light (10-pound dumbbells) standing dumbbell presses and standing alternate dumbbell curls. I twist the dumbbells on the presses, using a modified version of the Arnold press, and I exaggerate the supination of the wrists to warm up the elbows and wrists as much as possible.
After that short warmup I do two sets each of a series of rotator cuff exercises. I've performed those exercises consistently for the past five years, and I'm happy to report that I haven't experienced any shoulder problems during my chest and delt workouts. The exercises and warmup don't take much time, but they do wonders for preventing injuries.
Before my all-important leg workout I usually train my abs. I've found through experience that exercises such as incline situps and hanging leg raises also indirectly work the quadriceps. They warm up my legs and get them ready for the upcoming leg exercises. Since squats and leg presses put a lot of stress on the patella tendons of the knees, I always ride a stationary bike before beginning my actual leg workout. Six minutes of intense biking really pumps blood into the quads, and my knees feel warmed up enough to handle those heavy poundages. I also think it's wise to pyramid the weights as you train. After I've completed my warmups, I always begin with a light weight for my first set and then gradually add poundages for each succeeding set. The pyramid method has been around for decades, and there's a reason'it works!
If you use the above training methods as well as seek out professionals in the massage therapy and chiropractic fields, I think it's possible to train heavy and hard as you get older. Obviously, you've got to take care'unlike those wonderful, carefree days of youth'but it's still possible to keep the old machine running. Treat your body like an older car that needs more maintainence to keep it running at top efficiency. Never forget, however, that it's your one and only body. You can't trade it in for a newer model.
Editor's note: For those trainees interested in a new book devoted to over-40 bodybuilding, check out Bob Paris' Prime. Bob is a former Mr. Universe and IFBB pro. He's 41 and gives a lot of good advice in Prime on subjects such as philosophy, self-improvement and, of course, specific training routines and diet suggestions. Prime is available from Home Gym Warehouse for $17.95 plus shipping and handling. Call 1-800-447-0008 or visit www.home-gym.com to order.