Programming Strategies for the Old (ish) Meathead

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“You just wait until you’re my age….and we’ll see if you’re still training like that.”

That was a quote I received – on more than one occasion – from a handful of older guys who, after watching me complete a set of heavy deadlifts or some crazy metabolic circuit, would give me the standard pat on the shoulder, subsequent “just wait” speech, and sometimes top it off with handing me a  Werther’s Original.

Get it?  Old people loooooove Werther’s Originals……LOLs!!

This was when I was 25 and just started my first job as a trainer in corporate fitness. Unlike the commercial gym setting, in corporate fitness my job was to be “present” for all the employees of the establishment where I worked.

The company I worked for would be brought in to run another company’s fitness center with the objective of getting people to move and to lead healthier lifestyles.

It was our job to be in the gym to facilitate workout programs for the employees whether they came in prior to their work day, during their lunch break, or even after hours.

In addition, we also did stuff like organize fun runs and build fancy, colorful bulletin boards on a monthly basis.  But I don’t like to talk about that.

Too much glitter paint for my liking.

As the resident “meat head” however, I was generally the one who would hang out in the gym and introduce people to weight training and/or workout alongside some of the employees (guys and girls included).

And it was there where I’d receive some of the push-back or dialogue as follows…..

Why do you lift so heavy? I just want to get toned.

I don’t want to get too bulky!

You just wait till you’re my age.

Blah blah blah.

I’d actually get sort of pissed whenever one of the guys would tell me I’d change my ways once I got older.  I felt it was a cop out to garner such a mindset.

Some would even go so far as to say, “metabolism slows down and you lose muscle as you age anyways, so what’s the point of working so hard?”

Actually, dick, it’s not that our metabolism slows down or you lose muscle due to old-age, it’s because as we get older we tend to be less active.  It’s not so much an age issue (although, to be fair, there is a metabolic drop off, just not as profound as we think), as it is a laziness issue.

Of course I was a bit more tactful in my response, but it only served as a way to advocate that weight training was an important component of a well-rounded, healthy lifestyle.

What MAKES muscle KEEPS muscle, as I like to say.

So, what’s the point of all this?

Now that I’m the age of some of those guys who busted my balls back in the day (37), I have to say…………they were right!

Well, kinda.

My buddy Bryan Krahn said it best in a recent Tweet:

I’m not 40 (three more years baby!!!!), I by no means think I’m old, and still like to think that I get after it in the gym. However, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t changed the way I train to a degree.

1.  I still place a premium on STRENGTH and still perform a fair amount of low(er) rep training with the big lifts (squats, deadlift, bench press), but I’ve definitely toned down my frequency.

Rather than EVERY session – like I did in my 20s and early 30s – I’ll now perform 1-2 “strength-based” days per week and then revert to more high(er) rep, hypertrophy based training the other 2-3 days.

It looks something like this:

My training week starts on the weekends, cause I’m cool like that.

Saturday: Lower Body Strength – Deadlift emphasis.

We have a great crew that trains at CP on Saturday afternoons, and I like taking advantage of the camaraderie and fumes of Axe Body Spray.

Sunday:  Hill or Stadium sprints.

Nothing crazy, but it’s amazing how much better hill or stadium sprints feels on the knees compared to flat ground.

For those with cranky knees this is an excellent option as you don’t have to decelerate your bodyweight as much.

Monday: Upper Body Strength – Bench Press emphasis.

Tuesday: Legs – high-rep squat/deadlift technique emphasis.

Wednesday: Chest/Arms – higher rep bench press and, you know, arms.

Thursday: Back/Shoulders

Friday: OFF, hang out with my cat.

This approach still allows me to hit my big lifts hard, albeit not at the expense of having my joints flip me the bird 24/7.  Plus, as an aside, adding in a bit more of the “silly” bodybuilding work has been fun and has made my training much more enjoyable in the grand scheme of things.

I mean, dude, I have an arm day!!!!

2.  Something else I’ve tweaked as of late is implementing some LIGHT lunges BEFORE I squat.  You can call this “Pre-Priming,” “fucking stupid,” or whatever you like, but the goal here is to allow some additional blood flow into the hips and knees to help warm them up prior to squatting.

It flies in the face of traditional programming practice, but like I said…..I’m doing LIGHT lunges here, nothing crazy.

I’ve found that my joints – my knees in particular – have welcomed the change.

3.  I love training back, and it’s not uncommon that I train it EVERY training session to some capacity.  I like this approach for most people as well given most are sitting in front of a computer for 8-12 hours per day playing Candy Crush or taking their 17th “selfie.”

Again, this isn’t a scenario where you have to go gang-busters every session, but even on your lower body days it wouldn’t be a bad idea to toss in some light cable rows or high-rep face pulls to help offset the incessant flexion most of us are in on a daily basis.

Video credit to Mike Robertson.

4.  Along those same lines, I’m also not opposed to adding in some form of squat pattern into the mix daily.  I’ve actually “extended” my warm-ups to the point where after I perform my foam rolling and dynamic drills, I’ll toss in 2-3 sets of LIGHT Goblet Squats and Swings to “groove” the pattern(s) and to help get my heart rate up.

Some other, random, things to consider:

- taking a yoga class once a week.

- perform more Turkish Get-ups throughout the week.

- get your beauty sleep.  8-9 hours per night. Not kidding.

- eat more gluten.  Just cause.

- And, just to reiterate…….never stop trying to get stronger!!!

And those are just a few subtle tweaks I’ve made to my programming now that I’m not 25 anymore.  They’re no where near concrete, and will probably change within a few months, if not weeks, and they may not fit into YOUR goals and needs, but I do feel all the above hits on a number of components that will help most dudes in the long run.

While I don’t feel I’ll ever blurt out the phrase “wait till you’re my age,” I can now appreciate where all those guys back in the day were coming from.

That, and Werther’s Originals are delicious…..;o)

Have your own insight to share?  I’d love to hear them.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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  • FreakSammy

    I’m the opposite. All through my 20s and 30s, and then into my 40s I did body part, higher rep training. I wish someone had told ME back then, “you just wait until your elbows scream with pain every day”. Thank god for people like Tony G and Jim Wendler, among a few others, who steered me into real strength training with higher rep sets saved for accessory work. I’m now stronger than I’ve ever been, in the best physical shape of my life and have the least amount of body pain than ever before. I feel YOUNGER than I did at 35.

    • TonyGentilcore

      That’s fantastic Sammy, and glad to hear it!

  • Midlife Realist

    Can you recommend any programs (e.g. Eric Cressey’s High Performance Handbook) for us “mature” guys with back and knee issues?

    • TonyGentilcore

      Mike Robertson’s Bulletproof Knees or Bulletproof Athlete would be a nice option.

      As is happens, Mike put Bulletproof Athlete on sale THIS week ($50 off): http://bit.ly/1kqcTPb

  • Andy

    Well, just wait til you’re MY age. I’m 61. Unfortunately, I didn’t start training until I was 53. I have some (mild, really) knee issues and some back issues. Can you predict how you’ll tweak your training 20 years from NOW?

    • TonyGentilcore

      Either way Andy, you’re a step ahead most guys your age. At least you didn’t use your age as an excuse NOT to start in the first place. Good on you!

      I’d like to think that how I train now will still allow me to train the same 20 years from now.

  • Krista

    I love this! I’m 43 and struggling with my programming because I’m just not recovering like I used to. It’s time to change things up a bit. While I can’t see myself adding in an arm day :) I do like bodybuilding type work and I’ll be happy to add some in. Great recommendations!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Glad it resonated with you Krista. Another approach would be to drop down to 3 full-body sessions per week. I’ve often found that that helps a TON in that it forces me to reduce my training frequency and recover a bit more.

  • Jeff

    Awesome- I cannot wait for you to program arms into next months program. I also have to add in the benefits of walking. Just find some time to do some walking. Get off the subway a few stops early, walk at lunch, etc

    • TonyGentilcore

      Funny you should mention walking – I was actually going to include that but felt I was getting too wordy to begin with.

      LOVE going for walks not only from a recovery standpoint, but from a brain function standpoint too. It’s been shown that people who walk are more creative than those who don’t.

  • Bob G

    Hey Tony I’m 37 and stronger than I’ve ever been. Dead lift PR of 590 last week going on two training days per week for the past…5 years. I thought I was giving attention to recovery but I find that *life* kind of forced me to cut back…work, wife and kids, mow the grass, fix the kitchen sink, visit the in-laws…that kind of thing. But I’m super consistent and hungry to train when the time does come.
    Tuesday is Bench usually warm up then 3 heavy sets of 3 to 5,
    Deadlift similar
    single leg split squat 2 to 3 sets of 6 to 10 each leg…these SUCK awesomly
    plus some kind of core-type finisher and bicep curls.
    Friday – sprints and plyos. Yes I’m an old(ish) man and still do plyos. Last week I did a front flip over 46″ just for fun and I have video evidence!
    Saturday – Heavy chin ups, Some overhead press variation, and *gulp* 20-rep squats. Yes you can do 20 rep squats consistently when you’re only squatting once per week.
    Anyway, I’ve found that this gives me the best mix of progress, recovery, and time management. The secret is hard work and consistency in the big lifts…imagine that!

    • TonyGentilcore

      That’s awesome Bob! I’ve found too that I’ve had to reduce my training frequency. At this stage in the game, maintaining strength is A LOT easier with just a handful of heavy sessions per month. I don’t need to “kill it” every session. It just took me a while to understand that….;o)

      AWESOME pull by the way. 590???? You couldn’t just slap on another 10 lbs and hit 600???…..haha.

  • James Wise

    I’ll chime in at 57. I’ve been following Lou Shuler’s New Rules books for years. The programs are mainly 3 days a week, full body. Biggest thing I’ve noticed is how much more I need to warm up. With squats, I may need to go bar, 95, 115, 135, 155… If you try to ramp up too fast, something is going to say “I don’t think so”. I tried to do box jumps Monday after a weekend of cycling and the knees just said “no”. After I had done some light squats and step ups, I tried the box jumps again and everything was OK. You make so many changes in your life to compensate for aging, you eventually forget what it was like to be 20. It ain’t too bad getting old.
    jc
    P.S. I have that old dudes pic on my wall in my office. It says “Growing old is not for sissies”.
    Amen, brother!

  • David

    Hi Tony,
    I’ve had the good fortune to be working with Greg at CP since about January; I can only get out to CP once a month but Greg programs for me and I train at my neighborhood gym. I’ve just turned 48, and while I’ve trained off and on since I was 16–so over 30 years–it was only when trying to fend off midlife that I got more serious and found my way to you guys. I feel like the only concessions Greg and I have made are around doing more warmup, lots of foam rolling and mobility work. It takes me about 30 min to get through it all (!), but I think it helps. Beyond that, I may take a day off more often than I’d like, but that’s less about age, I think, and more about family demands. But my philosophy overall is to train without thinking I’m older, just train as hard as I would at any age, and if I’m overdoing it, my body will tell me, not my mind; I’m not going to decide to cut back, as that seems like it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    David

  • David

    I guess I’d add one other thing if I can, and I think a blog by you or anyone at CP would be great on this, and that’s about diet in the older athlete. When I started reading things by guys like Jim Wendler, or anyone on T-Nation, but even also by Eric, there’d often be some remark along the lines of “don’t eat like a girly-man,” and I feel like I need to keep a tight control on my diet (quality and quantity) if I want to have the midsection I want. Not interested in being strong but looking fat. I sometimes wonder if I’m leaving strength/mass gains on the table by not eating more, but I like my weight so I tend to err on the side of eating less.

  • Shelley

    I’m in my late 30s. One thing I’ve noticed that’s changed – I avoid injury at all costs!! Not that I went looking for injuries in my youth, but I was definitely more of a risk taker. Now I lift so I can maintain an active lifestyle and raise active kids, so for some lifts (i.e. deadlift) I could probably pull a lot more, but I’m just not willing to risk aggravating my discs to find out.

  • Shelley H

    I’ve read (in a Human Development textbook) that our physical peak actually happens in our 40’s. Not sure if that’s true but it’s definitely encouraging.

  • Charles Staley

    Great stuff Tony. At 54, I’m basically healthy & pain-free, and still competing in master’s powerlifting, but am finding myself becoming more and more interested in diversifying my physical capacities. Although I’d love to bring my deadlift from 510 to 550, I also need to consider the costs and risks of doing so, as opposed to (perhaps) working more on my mobility, cardiovascular capacity, body comp, etc. If you’re mobility or cardiovascular capacity sucks when you’re 24, it’s pretty easy to regain it. At 54, maybe not so much. AT least that’s how I’m thinking lately

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks for chiming in Charles! It’s an honor that you stopped by….!

  • Steve Gurtowski

    Hi Tony,

    Terrific post. I’m 45. I’ve been lifting since I was 16, for football in high school and college, and afterwards just ’cause I like it. This topic is something I think about. A few thoughts.

    For anybody interested, read the articles entitled “The Fountain of Youth” from The Complete Keys to Progress by John McCallum. These were printed in the late ’60’s and early 70’s. Very informative. I don’t recommend following the program as laid out on p.119 but if you understand the concepts you’re in the right direction.

    I think the most important question to ask yourself is; “What will make me stronger AND move well?” Answer: it depends on you and your goals.

    Spend more time on the warm-up integrating movements that you might want to train more frequently. For example, the squat pattern or thoracic mobility drills.

    Personally, I do a simple 2 to 3 day a week circuit of hinge, squat, pull, push followed by 5 min. of either farmer’s walks or crawling (see Original Strength by Tim Anderson). Off days are Get-ups and windmills. I alternate the exercises of the circuit every 5 – 6 weeks, but if I’m making good progress I might stick with it for awhile. The biggest change I’ve made is my rep progression. I move from 3 sets of 3, to sets of 5, to sets of 7 for total reps of 9, 15 or 21 per exercise per circuit. For example, I might be doing RDL’s as my hinge movement for 3 x 5 and doing KB military presses for 3 x 7 in the same circuit. So rep scheme is different for each drill and each exercise. When I can comfortably do 3 x7 I add weight. The plan allows for lots of variety of exercises which keeps things interesting and keeps me motivated. Following this plan, I FEEL better, I MOVE better, I have energy for family, work, and recreation, and I get stronger without beating myself up.

    One last thing, don’t neglect grip strength as you get older. Don’t overdo it, but don’t neglect it. You gotta be able to open the pickle jar when you’re 80. John Brookfield’s Mastery of Hand Strength is a great resource.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Excellent points all around Steve – thanks for sharing!

  • Shane Mclean

    Very nice work Tony. I’m not one of “those guy’s” who say wait till your my age. I’m sure in your position you’ve seen incredible feats of strength from guys who are much older than you. Know i have. As we get older, we can still get after it, we just need to place more emphasis on recovery, warm up and mobility work.

    Who said ‘”if it’s important enough you do it everyday”? Im not sure but i follow that philosophy.

  • John

    I’m 58 been lifting since HS. Very frustrated now since in the last 14 months I’ve had 3 shoulder surgeries plus a week hospitalization for sepsis last summer (still getting endurance back). Torn long head of bicep tendon was fixed 3 weeks ago and can’t wait to get back at it. About 10 years ago the mobility issues really started to hit me. I’ve had an office job plus 1.5 hours of driving commute since college. Hips and shoulders really took a beating from all the sitting. I was lucky that about 10 years ago, the Mike Boyles, Eric Cresseys, Mike Robertsons, etc of the world started getting the word out and I have been concentrating on working the mobility/flexibility along with strength since then which really helps.

    • TonyGentilcore

      It’s going to be hard to trump decades of sitting even with the most dedicated of mobility workouts John. Sucks that you’ve had to go through everything. BUT, I have a feeling that you would have had all those issues pop up earlier if you hadn’t been training, etc.

      Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery on your end!

  • Brian

    Thanks Tony. I recently read an article by Mike Robertson (http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/high-reps-low-reps-which-rep-scheme-is-best.html) in which he recommends not combining low rep “strength” training and high rep “hypertrophy” training within a week, but to do a cycle (say 4-8 wks) of strength, and then a cycle (say 4-8 wks) of hypertrophy, etc. Would you say that this approach is correct but just maybe not for the “older meathead”? Thanks.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I think different things work for different people, and it’s about finding which approach works best for YOU.

      I can make an argument for either approach, but at the end of the day, the one that’s going to work the best is the one that you’re actually going to be consistent with.

      • Brian

        Great — that’s pretty liberating to hear, since sometimes one can get the impression that there’s a right and a wrong way, period. Thank you.

  • sandiegopete

    Well said; now that I’m in my 40s I ‘juice’ regularly. Lemme ‘splain: both high volume training (to fatigue) or heavy resistance training promote the body’s production of anabolic steroids (anabolic = growth, steroid = hormone that interacts with the nucleus of a cell). F*** the non-stop ‘Low-T’ commercials on ESPN, you want more T? Lift heavy or lift to fatigue, eat lots of protein and natural fats (HDL cholesterol is an important component of T) and SLEEP (T and GH are produced during REM cycle sleep). LOVE your split… BTW I’m on a 34 year macrocycle to be the fastest 76-year old sprinter – I ain’t fast, but if I can maintain my current speed I’ll own the master’s track circuit

    • TonyGentilcore

      Well said Sandie!!! Appreciate you reading and chiming in with your experience. I think it’s FANTASTIC that you’re not using age as an excuse to be lazy.