Three Operational Training Principles for the Over 40 Lifter

Here’s what every over 40 lifter needs to understand...

1. If you want to stay healthy and lift forever, over 40 lifters need to start differentiating between wants and needs. Prioritizing strength and power while placing mobility and general health and fitness on the back burner is not the recipe for long term success.

2. Ignoring glaring deficits in one of the four major physical attributes, strength, mobility, endurance, and body composition, can be a slippery functional slope. Over 40 lifters need to be focusing on balanced programming and a holistic physical mindset.

3. Maintenance isn’t a dirty word, and guess what? It comes down to this; either you maintain your physicality as an older lifter or you can join the majority of older individuals in a rapid decline in both mental and physical health, function, and well-being.

4. Age is no excuse to throw in the towel on your physical health and wellness goals. Continuing to grow, learn, and develop new skills is the only way in which to achieve the holy grail of long-term health, fitness, and wellness throughout the life span. The choice is yours.

It took me quite a while to get comfortable with the idea of branding myself as an “over 40” athlete. Mostly because, to be honest, the principles and strategies involved are the same regardless of age, or gender for that matter. Sure, some older lifters start on a lower rung of the training ladder, and many of us progress at a slower rate than others, but in the end, the process is largely the same.

With all of that said however, I’ve identified a handful of unique and fundamental considerations that should be addressed when it comes to getting into peak condition as older lifters start tallying up the training years under their belts. Here are my three “master principles” you can use to guide intelligent decision-making in the over 40 lifter, and how to achieve the holy grail of training; how to lift forever.

Learn To Reconcile Wants With Needs

Although fitness training as a whole is a good thing, we’re all prone to focusing too heavily on the things that we’re best at, and/or the things that bring immediate gratification and feelings of achievement and success.

I’m a perfect case in point: I take pride in being strong, and as such, I really enjoy lifting heavy weight for low reps, and I’m always looking for opportunities to hit a new one rep max in my gym. I’ve been that way for most of my training career, and as a result (this could be taken as a positive or a negative), I’m a lot stronger than I look.

Now, at age 47, with three decades of training history, I still believe I have a lot of potential to grow additional muscle. Since I have spent three decades as a competitive bodybuilder, powerlifter, strongman, and now mixed martial artist grinding out multiple sets of everything from 1-12 reps while mixing in days where I focus on stand-up and grappling skills, I still carry a lot of lean muscle mass due to muscle memory, my understanding of strength and performance nutrition, and my ability to quickly adapt and overcome new training obstacles. Live and learn.

Why did I spend so much of my time lifting heavy weight for low volumes? Initially, it was because it delivers immediate gratification in spades — hey, it is fun smashing your PR’s, right? It wasn’t until I began bodybuilding that I embraced higher rep sets. Doing higher volume work isn’t nearly as glamorous, initially. Like eating your veggies and flossing, the benefits takes months and years to accrue.

For many guys, maintaining your mobility and work capacity require a similar willingness to delay gratification. For over 40 lifters this can become problematic — if a one-mile run takes you 18 minutes at age 26, it’s a relatively small matter to restore that time to respectable levels. At age 47 however, not so much. Same goes for mobility. I’ll elaborate on that idea a bit more in the next rule.

Don’t Allow Any Single Fitness Attribute to Deteriorate to Unacceptable Levels

General Physical Preparedness, or GPP, is the pursuit of a complete, well-rounded physical competency that targets and improves overall work capacity. Thus, GPP, aka “fitness,” provides a balanced physical conditioning in endurance, strength, speed, flexibility, and other basic factors of fitness. As a general rule, General Physical Preparedness is much more difficult to develop than it is to maintain. The older you get, the more this becomes blatantly true.

As an over 40 lifter myself, I think of my fitness development as having four pillars that embrace the Train for Life and Prepare for Anything maxim: strength/power, body composition, mobility, and work capacity/cardio respiratory endurance. Like most people, I don’t have the same level of interest or commitment to all four of these attributes, but I do regard it as important to maintain a minimally acceptable level in each category.

How might we define “minimally acceptable”? That will depend from person to person — it’s not something I can define for you. Believe me, I’m well aware that you’d love for me to spell out how strong (or mobile, etc) you “should” be, and I’m sure you’d love me to hand you a fitness test that you could use to see if you measure up. Unfortunately, that’s not possible.

What I can do, however, is suggest that you develop a quantifiable line beneath which you will not allow yourself to sink, or plan for a smooth transition to the next stage of fitness, Specific Physical Preparedness or SPP, where training duplicates what occurs during the execution of a specific skill by measuring your ability to perform and handle the rigors of your sport, whether it is powerlifting, MMA fighting, playing soccer, or running a 10K road race. For example, create a quantifiable test for each fitness attribute — perhaps a 1RM squat, deadlift, or bench press for strength; a 1.0 mile run for cardio respiratory endurance; a measured pathway for improvement in a martial arts discipline; the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) for mobility; and a certain body fat percentage as a measure of body composition. Then, for each test or skill, define your personal acceptable standard for each measurement. Later, once you’re reached that metric, you might raise that target even further to inspire your continued training.

Here’s a bit more elaboration on the four fitness categories we’ve been talking about: What Is Strength, and Why Do You Need It? But let’s start with arguably the most important physical attribute that can positively affect many others, strength and power.

Strength and Power:

This is the attribute that seems to be easiest to develop and maintain later in life, which of course, is why many older lifters focus on lifting as they get older. SPP concentrates on exercises which are more specific to the particular sport.

Given that most of us are already on board with the need to develop and maintain our strength as we age, I’ll move on to the other three characteristics that many of us need more work on.

Body Composition:

Getting leaner advances you toward almost any conceivable health or fitness goal: you’ll likely lower your risk of cardio-pulmonary disease and diabetes, as well as common orthopedic disorders, such as arthritis.

We lose muscle mass at an alarming rate when we get older. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a bodybuilder or anything remotely close. This concern gets covered even when doing a “low rep” strength program, but this ties into the final point…

You will look better, jump higher, and run faster (and longer). Your relative (pound for pound) overall power and strength will improve by default, as will your agility and speed. Exercises like chin ups, push-ups, and dips suddenly improve. And, you’ll be able to eat more food with less negative consequence to your overall mental and physical health and well-being.

Mobility and Flexibility:

While a high level of health and fitness does not require exceptional mobility, once you get to a certain age, improving your flexibility and range of motion becomes difficult, to say the least. And, needless to say, that’s exactly why many older lifters don’t do a lot of work in this area — we suck at it, it hurts, and the results are slow to see.

The good news however, is that if you’re super tight and exhibit poor range of motion, even a small improvement in mobility can go a long way. Common trouble spots for older lifters typically include the shoulder region, thoracic spine, and hip flexors.

Recovery and Injury Prevention:

Recovery is by the most important issue and challenge when time manifests itself. In fact, the importance of recovery is at the core and is the basis for most guidelines when it comes to strength training and conditioning programs. But regardless of what program you implement, you must follow the basic guidelines of recovery, and no, none of them cost any money or require you to tell a therapist your bad dreams while submerged in cold water. Stress is stress, and you have to be able to recover from it regardless of if you do full body, etc. Within the scope of recovery according to importance are sleep, diet, hydration, mobility/flexibility, and aerobic/conditioning work.

The second challenge is to program a challenging strength and conditioning program that navigates physical limitations, as prior injuries can predictably influence and restrict the lifter’s movement and overall capability. You have to be able to program around and through these limitations.

Understanding the role of assistance work in recovery and the prevention of injuries is fundamental for success. For an over 40 lifter, assistance is very important as it can allow the lifter to work longer and harder without experiencing enormous amounts of physiological stress on the body. This can be accomplished a variety of ways but needs to be addressed. Assistance work for an older lifter doesn’t have to be “normal” exercises, rather movements: sled work, finishing exercises, agility ladder, jumping rope, cone drills, etc. - exercises that get your body to do work that you normally wouldn’t do in your everyday life. The more you train like an “athlete” (balance, not just lifting) the better, stronger, and healthier you will be.

So do whatever program that interests you - I highly encourage people to change things up while retaining the same lifting fundamentals and principles. Have some fun. If the effort and principles remain the same, you will thrive.

The Later Years Are About Balance

While it’s common for most people to specialize in a particular athletic interest when they’re young, in our later years, we’re better off becoming generalists, at least to a degree. If you’re a masters-level powerlifter, bodybuilder, and strongman like me, you don’t need to run 5k’s or have the flexibility of a yogi.

If you’re a competitive distance runner, you don’t need to be able to deadlift 400 pounds. That being said, no matter what your primary interest, if you allow any single fitness component to deteriorate beyond a certain point, not only will your overall health and fitness be negatively impacted, you’re going to have a hell of a time restoring your lost capacities. My advice to you, while you’re still young enough to manage and improve your general health and physicality, shore up any serious deficiencies. Once you’ve done so, maintaining these areas will be a relatively simple matter.

Maintenance Isn’t a Dirty Word:

As we age, it becomes difficult to accept that our physicality will gradually plateau, and ultimately, decline. At age 47, I’m pretty much in the plateau phase, with regular PR’s coming less frequently and occasional small PR’s becoming the norm.

While I certainly applaud the idea of an all-out fight against atrophy and age, at the same time, holding your own during years when the vast majority of your peers are rapidly declining isn’t exactly “losing.” In fact, I fully expect to have my present physique and fitness level 10 years from now.

When Push Comes To Shove, Seek Out New Challenges:

Finally, consider that a big reason that many over 40 lifters are at a plateau isn’t so much our age, but rather, the fact that we’ve been working on a particular trait or attribute for many years and as such, we’re at the tail end of the learning curve. If this sounds like you, consider a lateral move in a fitness discipline: perhaps investigate a new sport or discipline, like Muay Thai or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or start working on a fitness attribute that you’ve been neglecting for years. Working on a new challenge puts you on a new learning curve — one that offers expansive possibilities for continued growth and development.

Stay Strong,

Brett Place