When you notice that first gray hair rearing its ugly head, there are more important things to do than rush to the store for a bottle of Just For Men. Hard-training fitness enthusiasts over the age of 40 need to make some pretty serious adjustments to their workouts if they want to continue to make progress and remain injury free.
In your 20s and early 30s you can lift heavy weights much more frequently, loading the spine and joints with reckless abandon. As long as you don't do anything too crazy, you'll usually be okay. But once you start creeping north of 35 and getting closer to the big four-oh, you might not be so lucky. Below is a list of important changes you need to make to your training program.
1) Reduce frequency of spinal loading. I often have younger lifters squat two to three times per week or squat one day and deadlift another. However, this is not such a good idea for the older lifter. The lower back takes longer to recover than any other part of your body, and as you get older this becomes even more noticeable. Therefore, it's best to put all your lower back intensive exercises like squats, deadlifts, good mornings, etc., all on one training day so that you have a week to recover.
2) Cut lower body sessions to once per week. As you get older, it becomes more important to do some extra conditioning work like jumping rope, running hills or pushing a sled. This is both for your cardiovascular health and for keeping body fat gains at bay. Because of this, you'll want to cut your lower body strength workouts down to just one day per week (in most cases). That will allow you to still get out and run or play without running into any recovery issues or over-stressing your knees.
3) Limit heavy pressing to one day per week. Heavy pressing is great for building up the chest, shoulders and triceps, but it also takes a toll on your rotator cuff muscles and all the tendons and ligaments surrounding your shoulder joint if you do it too often. The over-40 crew is better off limiting their heavy press work to once a week and substituting in more joint friendly variations like suspended pushups and higher rep dumbbell presses on their other upper body workout of the week.
4) Eliminate (or drastically reduce) low-rep training. Working up to heavy sets in the one to five rep range is awesome for building strength. But these sets can also beat you up pretty good. Older lifters will have a much harder time recovering from excessively heavy weights and thus would be well served to keep the majority of their sets in the eight to 12 rep range. As long as you train smart and keep a log book you can still make tremendous strength gains in this rep range while sparing your joints. The other great thing about training with higher reps overall is that it will help you preserve muscle mass. Guys in their late 30s will naturally start to lose muscle mass as they age. By training with moderately heavy weights in the range of eight to 12 reps, you can reverse this and will actually be able to build some more muscle.
5) Do longer and smarter warm-ups. When I was in my 20s, I used to walk into the gym and immediately put 50 percent of my first working set on the bar. That was my warm-up. Nowadays, having learned my lessons the hard way, I take a full 10-15 minutes to warm up properly by doing mobility drills for the shoulders, hips and other injury prone areas. Guys in their late 30s and 40s absolutely have to make time for this. Other important parts of the warm-up include some light calisthenics, foam rolling to improve soft tissue quality, muscle activation drills for the upper back and glutes as well as some dynamic stretching. Whenever you're pressed for time, it's better to cut out some of your workout than it is to skimp on your warm-up.
With those five minor adjustments you can continue to train safely and make progress well into your golden years.
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