Getting to Expendables X: A Guide for Mature Lifters

Getting old is a fact of life, but there is no reason to let that affect your physique composition and your performance.

Count on Sylvester Stallone, who’s on his third successful movie franchise, to exploit that in “Expendables”, a series of movies about a bunch of semi-retired special ops vets who can still kick ass.

Someone very dear to me, who had just seen the movie, pointed out the contrast in youthfulness between Stallone and Schwarzenegger. An active lifestyle can leave a few scars. Overtime, damage accumulates on anyone, whether one is affected by injuries or not, and can impede performance in the gym or on the set. Mature trainees are especially at risk, since they have been training for longer. Although age makes you wiser (most of the time!), you can’t entirely avoid this process, but here are a few tips to reduces its impact

Work Toward Structural Balance

One of the concepts that lead to my success as a strength coach early on in my career was my ability to produce athletes that resisted injuries in the field, and to design training program that minimized aches and pains. Most of the time, this type of training would even help alleviate previous injuries. There is no secret to this, however impressive that claim seems to be. It’s just a matter of adequately assessing the athlete’s musculoskeletal system to find out the weakest muscles and then strengthening those. But I’ve taken this one step further in creating a set of relative strength ratios between muscles that can be evaluated through lifts in the gym. This provides you a road map to prescribe more appropriate exercises in the routine. Thus, you could, at once, make a trainee leaner and stronger while preventing injuries and resolving older issues.

This is my kind of functional training: making one stronger and more efficient. I called it structural balance, and it’s been an important part of my courses for the last 20 years. My most successful students have made great use of these concepts, especially in ice hockey. For example, Ben Prentiss, the trainer who has the most NHL pros in his gym, helped Max Pacioretty get back on the ice after his spine fracture.

Although it’s rather unpopular advice in the physical therapy realm, getting stronger is a great way to prevent injuries. But there is a caveat: only getting stronger in a smart way will prevent injuries. That means building strength using a variety of motor-patterns and changing the big compound lifts often, even if slightly, to make sure that all angles are covered. I’m a big believer in changing types of grip, stances width and using thick-grip or uneven grip implement to build strength that’s applicable in the real world as well as tapping into new motor units that will help build a compact physique. No amount of standing on a Bosu ball will do that.

Dr. Ken Leistner, one of my favorite authors in the strength training realm, was also adept of this concept, advising that muscles should be worked in synergy to avoid imbalances that could lead to injury. This means working equally agonist and antagonist muscles such as wrist flexors and extensors, which is a quick way to solve elbow tendonitis. All of these notions also have an impact on tendon thickness, an important factor in joint integrity and health.

Of course, adding a good mobility and flexibility routine to vigorous and smart training won’t make you a bad person. In fact, it’s one of the things I wish I’d done earlier for myself.

Take Care of Your Neurotransmitters

Thanks to the military and security agencies around the world, the spotlight in training is now turning to the brain, or more precisely to neurotransmitters. Those little chemical messengers are responsible for every action your neurons make, from contracting your biceps to just thinking clearly. Their actions in the human body are vast and not completely understood as of yet. The brain uses quite a few substances to ensure its own proper function, but 4 of those chemicals stand out: acetylcholine, GABA, dopamine and serotonin.

Although much remains to be discovered, one thing stands out clearly: they become depleted with a variety of factors, age being one of them. So it is capital to ensure proper nutrition and supplementation in key nutrients to make sure that the body receives enough raw elements to make those vital chemicals. Another factor that is important to know: training is one of the most significant considerations in the depletion of neurotransmitters.

One thing you must know about neurotransmitters is that since they are so powerful, the body tends to use them, then breaks them down when they have performed their intended action. So let’s say you have an intense workout with heavy weights; this is going to require a lot of your dopamine and acetylcholine stocks. Once those are gone, you need to make more. If you have a reduced enzymatic capacity to do so due to aging, and few substrates to do so as a result of nutritional deficiencies, you won’t be able to perform or even function as well.

But the physical capacity to activate a muscle via the nerve impulse your brain sends to motor units is only a part of the equation that explains why neurotransmitters deserve such merit. Drive, focus, even attention are all under the control of neurotransmitters. No matter the task, from being vigilant if you’re a Secret Service agent, shooting accurately in a stressful situation if you’re a tactical response officer, or just having the drive to crush the weight in the gym, you’ll need an ample supply of neurotransmitters to do it. The more information your brain has to process in a given situation, the more neurotransmitters it uses up and the fewer are available for other tasks.

The age-related decline in your capacity to make and use neurotransmitters is believed to be one of the factors involved the cognitive and physical decline that goes with growing older. But by taking care of the nutritional and supplemental aspects of neurotransmitter production, which involves things as diverse as healing your leaky gut to ingesting the right form of substrate, it is possible to dramatically improve drive, mental clarity, and physical performance.

Mind Your Hormonal Status

Sure everyone will think about testosterone on this one, and they would be right in that it is an important element of male decline, physical wellness and youthfulness. There are however two factors that I would present as equally important, if not more so. They are the stress/cortisol management and insulin resistance. And yes, both are connected in not so subtle ways to King Testosterone.

Let’s say you are a potter. Not a magician but someone who makes objects out of clay. You have many choices of objects: from jars to teapots. The only thing is, you have a finite amount of clay. So if you produce more teapots, you will have to make fewer jars, right? The same applies to testosterone and cortisol, which both derive from pregnenolone. If you are stressed out, you won’t be able to make as much testosterone, a phenomenon known in medical circles as “pregnenolone steal.” This is compounded by cortisol’s ability to inhibit testosterone production by reducing the activity of the HPT axis via action on GNRH.

The ability to resist stress efficiently diminishes with age, so not only do we produce less testosterone, but we also have less basic material with which to make it, on top of having to cope with all of the detrimental health effects of a high cortisol level.

A fact one must appreciate is that stress can be both mental and physical, and multiple sources of stress add up. Think of it as having multiple faucets trickling water in the same bathtub instead of having a single one pouring in. The result will be the same. This is why chronic stress is one of the top killers in industrialized nations.

Another thing that worsens with aging, all other factors being equal, is insulin resistance. The more insulin sensitive you are, the more your metabolism will run smoothly, the less inflammation you will have, and the less glycated hemoglobin you will produce. Glycated hemoglobin, or HB-A1c, is the most important marker of aging and also reflects the state of your vascular system. Functional medicine doctors have a saying that you are as old as your arteries.

Insulin resistance is the progressive resistance of your cells to the signal that insulin sends them, which is to open up and absorb macro-nutrients. The more insulin resistant you are, the more insulin you will have to produce to have the same effect. In other words, if you eat a slice of bread, you will need fewer insulin if you are sensitive than if you are resistant. And insulin resistance has a scale. The more resistant you are, the closer you are to type 2 diabetes and a host of metabolic diseases. Oh, and did I mention it also affects your gains in mass? This is why I’m against senseless bulking phases: they make you progressively more insulin resistant, thus making it more difficult to gain muscle in the gym, or retain it.

Aging is no fun for your hormones, but it gets worse when you become aware of the relationship between cortisol and insulin. Cortisol is a “fight or flight” hormone, and as such it provides the energy to either fight or run away from danger. This energy comes in the form of glucose, released in the bloodstream. Insulin is called the “storage” hormone, because its role is to send macro-nutrients, fats, proteins and carbohydrates, in the cells. So when blood sugar is high, you produce insulin to lower it. If you produce too much insulin because of high cortisol and insulin resistance, you move that much closer to insulin resistance and diabetes. But with high insulin levels, blood sugars come crashing down. The body’s reaction to this is to produce cortisol, which will elevate blood sugar again. This see-saw, titter-totter relationship between cortisol and insulin is a vicious circle that produces a lot of stress on the body and could be avoided with simple dietary guidelines. It also produces a lot of inflammation, the underlying cause of many health issues.

And another thing that comes with aging: higher bodyfat levels. Although mostly avoidable, most people put on a few pounds each year. This accumulated fat, with the aforementioned insulin resistance, produces an enzyme called aromatase. The role of aromatase in the body is to take testosterone and to turn it into estrogen. In other words, the fatter you are, the more you are feminizing yourself.

So although all those factors are important at any age, they become critical as we get older, especially if we want to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle, and kick ass into an advanced age. Put into practice, I’m sure that those guidelines will help Stallone, Schwarzenegger and the rest of the Expendables to show up to the younger guys for a few more sequels, at least.

Stay Strong,

Brett Place

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