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Prime Time Training

It’s been a couple of years since I wrote a series of articles aimed at the older athlete. I’ve received a sizable number of letters from the AARP set telling me what they thought of some of my ideas and seeking advice about their training. From those letters I learned a great deal about training problems that older athletes were having. So in this installment I’ll provide a few answers for some of the difficulties facing people in their 50s and beyond.

Perhaps a short review is in order. My basic philosophy of training for older athletes revolves around doing higher reps and working out more frequently. It’s almost the direct opposite of how I train younger athletes, who need to handle heavier poundages so they can attack their attachments—tendons and ligaments—which are the seat of pure strength. When the body ages, however, stressing the attachments isn’t a smart idea. To do so repeatedly usually results in some sort of injury. My approach is to feed the muscles and, more important, the cartilage by using high reps. To be sure, that involves the attachments but nowhere near as much as lower reps do. High reps bring nourishment to the joints without aggravating them.

That’s certainly not a new idea. I just took what Jack LaLanne preaches and adapted it to my program. It worked well for me and others who followed my routines. By the way, no two programs are ever identical. Each individual has his or her own needs, and the chosen program reflects differences. Even so, the underlying principles remain the same: lighter weights for higher reps.

The second part of the idea comes out of necessity. When you use higher reps, your overall workload might be rather expansive, but the lack of intensity will be much lower—in effect, the work is much less demanding than when heavy weights are part of the routine. In addition, because some exercises take rather a long time to do, you can’t pack as much total work into a workout that lasts an hour and 15 minutes—long enough for any older athlete’s training session. You can also recover more easily from a high-rep workout because your attachments aren’t stressed nearly as much as they are in a low-rep session; muscles recuperate at a faster rate than tendons and ligaments.

So if you’re going on a high-rep regimen, you need to train, not three days a week but five or six. It’s the only way you’re going to get in a sufficient amount of work to improve your degree of fitness. Some people have tried to cram all their exercises into a three-days-a-week schedule but found it didn’t bring results. Exercises done at the tail end of the workouts were not at all productive simply because the athlete was out of gas by that time.

Far better, therefore, to spread the work out over a five- or six-day period so that you can do every movement with plenty of energy. The good news: Most older athletes have ample free time and can train often. Besides, when you’re approaching 60 or are already on your way to threescore and 10, your primary concern should be your health. “Happiness,” said Albert Schweitzer, “is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” Bottom line: You need to give your body priority every day. Nothing else really matters. If you let your body get lazy and out of shape, the range of activity you can handle becomes extremely limited.

While I’m dropping names of famous people, let me say that I’m also with Thomas Jefferson, who declared that two hours a day should be set aside for exercising the body. I believe the older athlete needs to do an hour-plus of strength training and at least 45 minutes taking care of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. That’s what I do six days a week, and it adds up to two hours. I’ve done it without fail for the past 9 1/2 years. My days are organized around walking and training—just as they were when I was a competitive Olympic lifter and when, later, I still trained with heavy weights.

I want to return to the concerns that older athletes have written me about. First up and the most frequently raised issue: the shoulder girdle. While readers liked the concept of using lighter weights, they were having trouble doing enough for their shoulder girdle to keep it strong and pain free. They’d been able to maintain a strong shoulder girdle in their younger years by working their upper backs with really heavy weights: power cleans, power snatches, high pulls, full cleans and snatches and shrugs. Once they got to “a certain age,” however, they couldn’t do the dynamic movements, which inflicted too much pain on the shoulder joints.

I knew what they were talking about because I’d encountered the same situation. For starters, you need to understand that the shoulder girdle is just that: a girdle. It doesn’t have two separate planes, front and back, but a continuous band of muscles that take in the pectorals, deltoids and trapezius. True, the biceps and triceps are not technically a part of the shoulder girdle, but they do play a role in keeping it stable. When you exercise triceps or biceps, you feed blood to the shoulder joints; both groups are attached to them.

There isn’t any particular problem in keeping the various groups that make up the shoulder girdle strong, except for the most important one: the trapezius. Most older athletes neglect their traps, chiefly because they believe they’re too old to need a strong upper back. They pound away at the front of the shoulder girdle while giving little attention to the rear. Over time they create a disparity in strength between the front and rear parts of the shoulder girdle, and problems arise when the front delts and upper pecs get considerably stronger than the rear delts and traps. The weaker groups can’t hold the shoulder joints in proper alignment, which results in a rounded shoulder. Almost always, there’s pain in the shoulder joint, which usually starts with a nagging ache after a workout. If corrections aren’t made, the ache escalates to a sharp pain that can curtail arm movement.

Younger athletes aren’t immune to problems like that—for example, somebody may go ga-ga over the bench press and completely ignore the upper back. Old habits sometimes prevail, yet in most cases the older athlete tries like crazy to maintain proportionate upper-body strength. Because the older athlete uses lighter weights, the front-rear disparity in shoulder-girdle strength doesn’t show up nearly as fast as it does when heavier weights are involved. It eventually does show up, though, and it has to be dealt with. The traps have to stay strong in order to keep the shoulder girdle intact and functioning properly.

The trapezius is potentially one of the body’s strongest muscles. Shaped like a trapezoid, from which its name is derived, it’s located on the upper part of the back and lies just under the skin. It’s formed of four overlapping layers and originates in the neck at the base of the skull and at a row of spinous processes of the vertebrae from the seventh cervical to the last thoracic in the middle of the back. From the back of the neck the muscle fans out to the shoulder and inserts in the rear portion of the clavicle (the collarbone), the top of the acromion of the scapula (the shoulder blade) and the upper borders of the spine of the scapula. Then it swings downward in the shape of a V to the middle back.

The trapezius is the keystone of strength for the shoulder girdle. No other muscle group is as critical to overall upper-body health. When you neglect trap work, problems invariably occur, especially if you’re trying to improve your fitness. In addition to rounded shoulders, you can experience shoulder shrinkage, even when you diligently exercise your delts and arms. Without sufficient trap strength, however, the support system is lacking.

Here’s the training problem: How can you work your traps hard enough to keep them strong when doing any type of explosive movement is out of the question? The answer: lots and lots of static shrugs. You can do them while holding dumbbells or a weighted barbell. Keep your arms straight and shrug your traps as high as you can. When you feel them in full contraction, hold them there for a second or two, then go on to the next rep.

How many reps am I talking about, and how much weight should you use? That depends on where you now stand in terms of trap strength. If it’s been a long time since you’ve hammered your traps, you need to move conservatively. Start out doing 50 reps using 20-pound dumbbells or a bar loaded to 135. If that much effort makes them sore, stay with those same numbers until that workout no longer brings out any soreness the next morning.

Soreness, of course, is your gauge throughout the process. It tells you when you’ve done enough, and its absence lets you know you need to up the ante a bit. That won’t even come close to the kind of trap soreness you experienced when you were shrugging 500-plus pounds; something much more subtle is going on. Still, you’ll notice it when you scrunch up your shoulders the next morning.

Slowly add to your workload by either using heavier resistance or increasing the reps. I heard from a man who said he’d just moved up to where he was doing 300 reps on the shrugs while holding 20-pound dumbbells. Another reported that he was doing 150 reps using an Olympic bar plus two 45-pound plates. He did two sets at every shrug session. He also explained that he’d tried adding weight instead of increasing the reps but that it always seemed to irritate his shoulders. So he stuck with the higher reps. He added that he felt he could get stronger contractions with the lighter poundages and always had more soreness with the higher reps than when he put more weight on the bar.

Another big difference between the way older and younger athletes work their traps is training frequency. Younger trainees can build strong, impressive traps by hammering them once a week, but older athletes just plain can’t work the traps severely enough at one session to get the results they want. Even if an older athlete managed to knock out three sets of 300 holding 20-pound dumbbells, the intensity wouldn’t be close to that of the younger athlete who did five reps with 135, 225, 315, 405 and 495. The workload for the higher reps would be way up there, but the attachments wouldn’t be involved nearly as much as they would with heavy weights. Don’t forget: Attachments take much longer than muscles to recuperate.

So high reps enable the muscles to recover rather quickly, which in turn means that you can work the same group again on the following day. Older athletes who need to improve upper-back strength can shrug five or six days a week and get away with it. I suggest following the hardest routine in your trap program, with one workout not quite as demanding. On that score, I picked up some ideas from my pen pals. A gentleman in his mid-70s doesn’t have a squat rack in his home gym. Solution? He squats holding dumbbells. After each squat he does a shrug. And he uses the same method when deadlifting: deadlift, shrug, deadlift, shrug. I’ve tried both of those ideas and like them; the trap work is almost free. If I’m having a tough day with the deadlifts, however, I do my shrugs separately so I can put more juice into them. I could add them right behind lunges with dumbbells, though I haven’t tried that yet.

One small thing that helps me get a bit more sore after I shrug with a weighted bar is to lock my final shrug into an isometric contraction and hold it for eight to 10 seconds. When my traps start screaming for me to stop, I know I’m on the right track.

The reason I emphasize trap work in my athletic programs is that a strong upper back can save the cervical spine from being injured. I particularly pushed athletes who participated in contact sports—football, soccer, lacrosse—to punish their upper backs. Those who did never sustained any serious neck injury. That idea applies to older athletes as well. I realize that nobody over 60 is going to be playing tackle football, but we encounter plenty of risks as we go through our daily lives, such as getting rear-ended in a car accident, taking a tumble on icy ground or slipping in the shower. As Forrest Gump told the world, “Shit happens.” So stronger traps may prove to be a savior from more serious injury.

There’s no doubt that traps are the weakest link in the shoulder girdles of most older athletes, and those athletes must spend time and effort to make them stronger. Even so, if you want to make your entire shoulder girdle more stable, you must give some attention to every muscle that forms it—the three heads of the deltoids, the upper portion of the chest and the biceps and triceps, along with the traps. Exercises for those muscles are easy to figure out. For the front deltoids you can do any form of presses, dips and front raises. You can strengthen the upper portion of the chest with flat- and incline-bench presses and straight-arm pullovers. You can hit the lateral delts with lateral raises and the rear delts with dumbbell rows. Of course, any form of curling will take care of the biceps, and dips, any type of presses, pushdowns performed on a machine and straight-arm pullovers will do the job on triceps.

That may sound like a lot of exercises; you’re also going to be doing something for your abs, lower and middle back and legs and calves. Remember, however, that you’re spreading the workload out over five or six days. Try to keep the movements for delts in balance with one another. Use the same amount of weight and number of reps on the front and lateral raises, as well as the rows. That will go a long way toward helping you achieve proportionate strength in your shoulder girdle. Don’t be concerned if you think your traps are moving ahead of the other parts of the shoulder girdle. There’s no such thing as having traps that are too strong—just as your lumbars can never be too strong.

One way to make sure that your shoulder girdle is strong and the various groups are in balance is to do a full range of movements for your shoulders and chest. For instance, overhead presses work the upper chest a bit differently from the way incline-bench presses do. Flat benches hit the pecs differently again. Dips, meanwhile, involve the chest, delts and triceps in way different yet again from the three pressing movements.

I’ve always been a big fan of dips and have done them ever since I came across my first dip stand. The exercise poses a problem for many older athletes, however, because they don’t have dip stands at their disposal. I’m in the same boat and, frankly, hadn’t bothered with dips for quite a long while. Well, about a year ago I visited a friend who has a home gym that includes a dip stand. I wanted to see if I could still do them. I managed a dozen, but I could tell the movement was stressing my shoulders. I’m a firm believer in testing a new exercise for a couple of sets; in many instances the first set hurts but the next one doesn’t. I did another dozen, and they didn’t bother my shoulders as much. I stopped there. On my drive home I felt a tingling in my triceps. I’d activated some new muscles and decided I had to find a way to bring dips back into my routine.

My first step was to figure out how to do dips in my apartment, using what I had available. There weren’t that many options. I moved a stout table close to a window, leaving space between for my body. I placed one hand on the windowsill and the other on the table, lifted my legs and proceeded to do a few dips. It’ll work, I decided, but I needed to strengthen that part of my triceps before doing too many. So I started doing chair dips with my feet on a stool. That warmed my shoulders and triceps enough to enable me to do some freehand dips without bothering my shoulder joints.

I started out doing 20 chair dips and two sets of 10 on the dips. Then I began moving the numbers on both up, a few reps per week. After a year, I was doing more than 100 chair dips and closing in on 100 on my freehand dips. Once I reach that goal, I’ll add resistance in the form of a 10-pound dumbbell, drop the reps on my dips and start building them back up again. It’s a slow process, but I’m not in any hurry. Time takes on new meaning as we grow older.

The main reason I felt I needed to dip was that I started having a nagging ache in my right shoulder. I knew I was missing something, and after I did my first dip in a long time, I realized what it was. That motion is so different from any other for the shoulder girdle. It has to hit the deltoids and triceps in a new way, and that’s what I was missing. I might add that the pain in my shoulder did finally go away, but not until I’d gotten my shoulders and arms strong enough to do two sets of 50 freehand dips. Point is, sometimes you have to stick with an exercise for an extended period of time before it brings the results you’re looking for.

As my trap and dipping strength slowly improved, so did all of my other upper-body exercises. I moved from 100 reps to 150 on my flat-bench, incline and overhead presses in a matter of a few months—once I’d made significant gains on my shrugs and dips. I’ve recommended that idea to older athletes who wrote to me for advice, and all of them reported experiencing the same response. They either moved up the poundage they were using for the various pressing movements or improved the number of reps they were doing on a certain exercise.

Most people don’t think of using their traps when they do bench presses, inclines or overhead presses, but traps play a major role in those exercises. When you contract them before pressing a weight or while doing pushups for that matter, you’re providing a more solid foundation for elevating the weight. Back when the overhead press was still part of Olympic competition, some of the best pressers in the world would use their traps to drive the bar upward off their shoulders. Competent bench pressers also know how to involve their traps in the initial move off the chest.

I believe it’s important for older athletes to constantly set training goals. Keep leaning on the numbers. Once you get complacent, you’re going to slip slowly backward. That’s just how the body works. It has to be pushed—or, in the case of older athletes, nudged. The rate of improvement doesn’t have to be that great, just so you can look at your current exercise numbers and determine that you’re doing more work now than you were six months or a year ago.

If you aren’t working your traps, start doing so! Not only that, exercise them in some manner at every session. Alternate a hard workout with one that’s not so hard. Likewise, if you aren’t including dips in your routine, figure out how to do them with what you have available in your gym or at home. All you need are imagination and determination. Improving strength in your traps will go a long way toward stabilizing your shoulder girdle. That in turn will enable you to move more weight on every upper-body exercise. Dipping builds strength in the shoulders and arms like no other exercise, and you can quickly convert your new strength into a wide range of movements. The work you do on dips will also be evident in your shoulder development. Wide shoulders on an older athlete are rare, but someone who has them attracts attention. Not a bad deal all around.

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 IM

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