Ageless Strength Training
Bill StarrConsiderations for the Older Athlete Part 1
Everyone who does any type of weight training is seeking greater strength to some degree. Strength enables you to handle heavier weights and larger workloads, which in turn makes you more proficient in any sport you choose. It results in a feeling of pride and accomplishment. To be able to say that you can bench-press 400 pounds or squat 500 elevates self-esteem.
The strength that you gain through countless hours of hard work and dedication is something you value and want to retain for as long as possible. When we’re young or even in our 20s, 30s and early 40s, we’re optimistic that we’re going to be able to stay strong and perhaps even increase the numbers on certain lifts in the future. Unless something interrupts regular training, that’s what happens.
For those who are genetically gifted, the ability to handle heavy weights seems ageless. Icons like John Grimek and Karl Norberg were able to remain impressively strong and healthy into their late 70s. In the end, of course, gifted and nongifted alike will come face-to-face with the hard reality that at some point they’re not going to be able to lift as much as they did previously, no matter how determined they might be. Those who fight the inevitable get injured—no conjecture on my part but rather a basic fact of life.
As you grow older, your body goes through many changes, and none of them are good for someone attempting to maintain a high level of strength. Beginning at age 35, men start to lose muscle mass, typically about a pound a year. At the same time, unwanted bodyweight is easier to gain. Organ functions also diminish as you age, sometimes as early as your 20s. The number of fast-twitch fibers declines, while flexibility, balance and endurance also wane.
For men, the most important alteration in regard to gaining and retaining strength is by far the decrease of testosterone manufactured by the testes and adrenal cortex. It begins in their 40s and continues for the remainder of life. For many in their late 50s or early 60s, the hormone is severely lacking. The implication of that loss to anyone who’s still trying to move heavy weights is obvious, or should be: that it’s not going to happen,
Eh? Howzzat? Stay with me, gentlemen.
I’m very aware that individuals vary considerably in the amount of testosterone they produce at any age, but everyone eventually has less than he used to have in his system and will face the same problem as those who have had less for some time. Insufficient testosterone has other negative influences for anybody who wants to stay fit and look good. Ever wonder why the vast majority of older men have beer bellies even when they’re not overweight? Testosterone decline. One of Mr. T’s primary roles is to allocate fat to your legs, hips, glutes, back, chest and arms. When Mr. T ain’t what he used to be, though, that same fat accumulates inside your lower abdomen, and absolutely nothing detracts from a fit appearance more than a potbelly. It’s often referred to as “gray fat” and is extremely hard to get rid of.
So much for strike one. Strike two is the high incidence of osteoarthritis in the United States. If either of your parents had any type of osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis or some other degeneration of their joints, then odds are you’ll encounter it as well. Eighty-five percent of all people in the United States over the age of 70 suffer from degenerative arthritis, and most of them became symptomatic in their late 50s or early 60s.
Strike three: injury. No one, no matter how careful he’s been, is immune from getting hurt. Over the years, injuries begin to add up. In most cases, they’ve occurred outside the weight room, perhaps on a sports field. More often than not, they’re the result of an accident. Take my case: Two areas of my body that I have to constantly be aware of when I’m training are my left shoulder, which I dislocated 25 years ago in a fall, and my left ankle, which I blew out when I and my Trans Am did battle with a high-line pole. Over time I’ve dinged or outright injured every joint and muscle in my body at least once. I’m not in the least bit unique in that regard. All of my friends of a certain age have similar tales to tell about their injuries. It’s par for the course when you train heavy and for a long time. In addition, a great many older athletes have had some sort of surgery, usually dealing with a joint, at some point in life. All of those factors must be in the mix for you when you’re setting up your training program.