As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become known by some people as “that skinny old guy who can do 10 reps with your deadlift max.” But while I chuckle at that characterization, what I’m most proud of (and grateful for) is what it means in action: I’m able to continue lifting pretty heavy weights as a soon-to-be 60-year-old lifter, without most of the aches and pains you might expect from that.
Sure, every so often my shoulders get cranky, and I’ve got a bit of calcium in my left elbow. But that’s pretty much it. My hips, knees, and back continue to play along. And part of that is what you may call “luck,” but a major part of it is making conscious choices to keep me out of pain.
These seven rules are how I got here—and how I plan to stay here as long as possible. No matter if you’re 40, 50, 60 or just a younger person who wants to keep lifting at those ages, pay attention.
1. Never Lift Through Pain. Ever.
This is rule number one for all older lifters dealing with chronic injury issues. Pain is your body telling you how to resolve whatever injuries you have.
Acclaimed strength coach Mike Boyle advises: “Pain that dissipates during or after your warm-up is still pain.” Now, I’m sure that on an intellectual level you already understand it, but perhaps you have a difficult time squelching your more primitive instincts to keep pushing despite the pain. Maybe you reason that you’re just being “weak minded” and can pop an Ibuprofen to help you sleep that night.
If so, let me introduce you to a revolutionary technique devised by lower back pain expert Dr. Stuart McGill, who has resolved many cases of severe back pain with it. It’s known as “virtual surgery”, and here’s how McGill performs it:
When a new patient comes in with lower back pain, McGill places his palm on top of the patient’s head for a moment and declares “OK you’ve just had virtual back surgery. So what are you going to do for the next 6-8 weeks?” Puzzled, the patient guesses hesitantly, “Rest?” “Exactly!” McGill replies. And sure enough, many lower back pain sufferers (not all, mind you) experience complete relief from their pain.
If something hurts regularly, rest it! If over a period of a week or so, you don’t see at least a gradual reduction of symptoms, get yourself checked out. But no, this doesn’t mean you need to simply hang out on the couch.
2. Train What’s Not Injured
Every injury is both a warning and a veiled opportunity. Here’s what I mean: Recently, I was experiencing some elbow pain that meant I wasn’t able to do any type of loaded elbow flexion without pain, including chin-ups or curls of any kind, for approximately 10 weeks. So, I rested my elbow.
However, I could work triceps with no issues at all. So that’s what I did. Sure, I temporarily lost some strength in my pulls, but it came back soon enough after my layoff. And meanwhile, my pressing exercises got stronger. Adding a little size to my triceps even meant that my arms appeared bigger.
This is the definition of a silver lining. Shed your ego, do what you can, and embrace the long road.
3. Train Your Most Problematic Exercises Last, Not First
This is a “hack” that has worked for countless lifters, but if you want to be one of them, your ego will have to take another temporary hit (sense a theme here?).
Here’s why: Most lifting-related orthopedic issues are related to the exercises you do first in your workout. The bench press is a common example of this. Guys will start their upper-body session with the bench, with the rationale that they “have the most energy” early in the workout. Then, after multiple sets of intense benching, they move on to lats, shoulders, arms, etc.
The predictable result is that they end up with a strong bench and chest, as well as cranky shoulders and elbows. Here’s what happens if you turn that workout around:
- By doing back, shoulder, and/or arm work first, your shoulders and elbows will be more thoroughly warmed up from less-irritating exercises before you start benching.
- At the end of your workout, you’ll be less likely to fall victim to “ego lifting” since your energy levels are lower at that point and your muscles are fatigue.
Will your bench press suffer when you do it last? Maybe for a while. But your newly strengthened delts and triceps will probably catch up and maintain (and sometimes improve) your bench, despite de-emphasizing it in your training. And benching is a lot more fun when it doesn’t hurt, even if your numbers take a temporary dip.