Weight training isn’t just for the young, fit twenty-something gym bunny – it has incredible benefits whether you’re 22 or 82.
Science shows that resistance training has myriad health benefits for men and women whatever their age or training history – from better body composition and brain function to improved health, metabolism and blood sugar control.
These benefits become even more important for health as we age and head into middle age and beyond to help us stay feeling young, strong and vital.
As we get older, we might not be able to train with the same ferocious intensity and passion as a 20-year-old rugby player, but we can still train hard if we train smart.
Yes, wear and tear to the body is inevitable, especially for older hard-training lifters. But that doesn’t mean you have to hang up the lifting straps just yet.
It just means you have to have strategies in place to stay healthy and keep progressing.
Here are 12 training tips you can use in your training…
1. Perform a thorough warm-up
A younger lifter may be able to get away with jumping right into a workout. But for the more seasoned lifters, it takes a little more time to prepare the body for an effective training session.
It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. A few minutes of cycling, brisk walking, or callisthenics will increase the heart rate and get the blood flowing.
Then you can proceed to the first exercise or series of exercises planned for the workout where you’ll do 3-5 progressively heavier warm-up sets for each.
The heavier your starting weight, the more warm-up sets you’ll need. Three sets may be all that’s needed for dumbbell curls, but 4-5 sets is more likely for squatting or deadlifting.
A lifter planning to do working sets with 100kg might warm-up like this:
20 kg x 10 reps
40 kg x 6 reps
60 kg x 4 reps
80 kg x 2 reps
90 kg x 2 reps
Multiple low rep warm-up sets will get you ready for work sets without creating fatigue.
Taking 10 minutes to adequately prepare the body for the workout will lead to a more productive and safer session.
Everyone is busy and pressed for time. But it’s never appropriate to skip the warm-up, especially older lifters.
2. Try a “multiple wave” rep scheme
Wave loading, popularised by Australian strength coach Ian King, allows you to gradually work up to your most demanding sets.
Some examples of wave loading rep schemes are:
6 x 9, 7, 5, 9, 7, 5
6 x 8, 6, 4, 8, 6, 4
6 x 7, 5, 3, 7, 5, 3
6 x 5, 4, 3, 5, 4, 3
6 x 4, 3, 2, 4, 3, 2
You’ll want to be conservative with weight selection for the first three sets, leaving a rep in the tank on each one. Every rep should be crisp.
Think of the first three sets as primers for sets four, five, and six. They should be heavy enough to wake up the nervous system, but not so heavy that you’re grinding through reps. You should feel invigorated after the first wave, eager to push hard the next wave.
A workout for a lifter with a 140kg bench press one-rep max using wave loading might look like this:
Set 1 – 100 kg x 7
Set 2 – 110 kg x 5
Set 3 – 120 kg x 3
Set 4 -110 kg x 7
Set 5 – 120 kg x 5
Set 6 – 125 kg x 3
By the time you get to the second wave you will have accumulated some volume, lubricated your joints, increased blood flow to the working muscles, and stimulated the nervous system, all without beating yourself up.
Two waves should be sufficient for most, but an exceptionally strong lifter may even need a third wave to get to top weights, for example:
9 x 4, 3, 2, 4, 3, 2, 4, 3, 2
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3. Use a safety squat bar or cambered squat bar
Squats and Good Mornings are great bang-for-your-buck exercises, but they can be tough on the shoulders when done with a standard barbell. The safety squat bar and cambered squat bar allow you to still perform these exercises, but without being locked into external rotation.
4. Use a neutral grip when pressing
If you have achy shoulders or have been through shoulder injuries in the past, consider using a neutral grip when pressing. A neutral hand position tends to be more shoulder friendly than the more commonly used pronated grip.
Swap out pronated grip dumbbell presses for hammer grip dumbbell presses. And swap barbell presses for football bar presses, if you have access.
5. Try reverse bands
When pressing, the shoulders can take a beating. The bottom portion of the range of motion can be particularly troublesome. In that case, you don’t have to ditch bench-pressing altogether. Instead, try using reverse bands. Reverse bands allow you to perform the full range but with a lighter load closer to the chest.
Attach the bands around the top of the power rack or safety pins set high on the rack, then loop them around the collar of the barbell. The bands should be stretched and tight in the bottom position providing assistance in lifting the weight. As you press, the band tension will decrease, providing zero or very little help at lockout.
Competitive strength athletes commonly use average to strong bands for overloading the top end of the range. But for lifters just looking to take some stress off their joints, mini or light bands should suffice.
6. Train with Chains
This same concept can be used with squats or deadlifts if the back, hips, or knees are irritated at the bottom of the range.
Chains work in a similar fashion to reverse bands. In the bottom position, more links of the chain will be on the floor making the load lighter. And as you lift, more links come off the floor making the weight heavier closer to lockout.
Chains can be used for squatting, deadlifting, or benching, and those with elbow issues will love them for triceps extensions.
7. Utilise partial reps
Another option if the bottom portion of the range causes pain or vulnerability is to use partial reps in a power rack. Eliminate the portion of the range creating the problem by setting the pins 1-2 inches above the range that creates pain.
Be sure to include some full range work with more joint-friendly assistance exercises.
For example, if you do Top ½ Incline Press from Pins in your “A” series, you might choose Decline Hammer Grip Dumbbell Press for your “B” series exercise.
Or if you do Top 2/3 Squat from Pins in your “A” series, you might choose Dumbbell Split Squats for your “B” series.
8. Use super slow tempos
Most lifters are familiar with using slow eccentric tempos, but it’s rare to see someone using a deliberately slow concentric tempo these days. You’ll almost always see lifters accelerate through the concentric portion of the range, only slowing down as a result of fatigue.
Super slow training was briefly popular amongst bodybuilders in the 1980’s. They would use a 5050 tempo. That’s five seconds up, five seconds down, with no pausing at either end of the range. So, a single rep takes 10 seconds to complete.
Though it has lost some of its popularity, super slow training still has value. It’s easier on the joints and provides a high amount of muscular tension without forcing you to constantly chase heavier and heavier weights.
It’s not necessary to stick with a 5050 tempo exclusively. Try different combinations of 3-6 seconds on both the eccentric and concentric portion of reps.
The longer the range of motion of an exercise the slower you can make the tempo. While 6060 will work well for snatch grip deadlift from a podium, 3030 should suffice for a triceps extension.
For the most part, you’ll want to keep sets at 70 seconds of time under tension or less, so adjust your rep ranges as needed. But if you’re up for a challenge, try ending your next leg training session with two-minute sets of a super slow squat or leg press variation.
Three sets of 15 reps with a 4040 tempo are excruciating. Don’t cheat yourself! No pausing. Maintain your pace and tension for the entire two minutes. You’ll create a great deal of metabolic stress, which is great for hypertrophy.
9. Perform 1 ¼ Reps
Adding a quarter rep at the start or finish of each rep of your set leads to a higher time under tension and more work performed in the designated portion of the range. Be sure to keep the tempo smooth throughout the rep. Don’t rush through or bounce the quarter rep.
Reduce your typical poundage by about 25%.
Say you would normally use 40 kg for 3 sets of 10 on Incline Dumbbell Press. Instead, try adding a quarter rep to the bottom portion of the range for 3×10 with 30 kg dumbbells.
You just increased time under tension and the amount of work done in the stretched position and were able to reduce the resistance significantly.
10. Make inertia work to your advantage
Many lifters will make use of elastic energy in the transition from the eccentric portion of a rep to the concentric portion. In other words, they’ll bounce the weight in order to lift more weight.
This technique can be useful given the right context, but should generally be avoided by older lifters.
A more effective and safer technique for them is one that does the exact opposite, which leads us to dead-start squats and presses.
Perform these exercises in a power rack by setting the pins at the bottom of your range of motion. A few inches above rock bottom for squatting, 1-2 inches above the chest for bench press variations, and about chin height for shoulder pressing.
Start each rep from a dead stop on the pins. Pausing for five seconds on each rep will all but eliminate the use of elastic energy, placing a greater demand on the muscles, and less stress on connective tissue.
11. Follow your hardest training cycles with a transition phase
It can take several months of relentless effort to chase down a fat loss, hypertrophy, or strength goal. Getting there is mentally and physically taxing.
At the conclusion of these cycles, take three to four weeks to recuperate and focus on muscular balance before your next cycle.
Some guidelines for a transition phase:
- Keep workouts brief
- Use low to moderate volume
- Use a rep range of 8-15
- Utilise primarily dumbbells and pulleys
- Emphasise neglected muscles and exercises
Which muscles and exercises to prioritise in a phase like this is a matter of individuality.
But, some commonly neglected areas include external rotators, mid- and upper back, and unilateral leg exercises such as step-ups and split squats. If there is an exercise you hate or aren’t good at relative to others, this is the time to do it.
12. Be prudent when implementing intensity techniques
Drop sets, rest-pause, clusters, and other intensity techniques can be powerful tools for maximising strength and hypertrophy. But it’s important to recognise that they can take a toll on the body, especially for the ageing lifter.
If you choose to use these techniques, be sensible with the frequency and volume.
Consider alternating workouts with and without intensity techniques to allow for adequate recovery. And for workouts where you do implement intensity techniques, reduce the total number of work sets.
Getting older is inevitable – there’s nothing we can do about that. But how we age is firmly in our hands. Building a lean, muscular, and strong body is still eminently achievable for anyone as long as you work hard and smart – looking through some of our transformations at Ultimate Performance with clients in their 40s, 50s and 60s will show you that.
Ultimate Performance’s four-part series on ageing explains in greater depth about resistance training for anyone over 40.