Written by Alex Allan, B.Kin
The workout wisdom that comes with age will be as useful as a full tank of gas in a car with a flat tire if we lack the physical ability to benefit from its application. According to a study from the American Journal of Sports Medicine, the largest increase in the incidence of gym related injuries occurred among those aged 45 years and older, with the 55 plus crowd being more likely than their younger counterparts to sustain injuries from overexertion and lifting or pulling.
This increased risk of injury is combined with gradual decreases in muscle strength from age 30 to 50; leading to an additional drop of 15% after the 50-year mark. Muscle mass also decreases concurrently with strength, at a rate of 3-8% per year, through a natural process called sarcopenia. In other words, as we get weaker and lose muscle mass, we are getting hurt more when we try to do something about it.
Before we submit to father time and embrace our atrophic fate, there is some really good news to consider. Higher load and volume strength training can help counteract these affects at any age, if done safely. The key word being “safely”.
Here are 6 evidence-based tips to help navigate safely and effectively through strength training as we age.
1: Apply the Magic of the 60 % Deadlift
Multiple studies have identified a correlation between muscular asymmetries and injury risk. To minimize gym related injuries as we age, it is a good idea to find unique strategies that address imbalances; while still offering a muscle building benefit. The 60% deadlift could help.
According to a 2020 study from Wilfred Laurier University, 60% of maximum load could be the sweet spot where force is best distributed between left and right sides of the body. In the study, when the load was increased over 60% of 1RM, the lifters pushed more on one side, relative to the other. Is important to note, that just thinking of pushing evenly through both feet on heavier loads may not be enough to avoid injury when imbalances exist. This is supported by another study that found compensation can occur at the pelvis and spine under heavier weight, independent of foot pressure.
The 60% deadlift can be used as a 2-3 set warm up before heavier lifting in healthy populations, as a multiple set to failure hypertrophy strategy for 3-4 weeks to correct asymmetries, or as a lumbo-pelvic strengthening exercise for those with a history of chronic lower back pain, who have been cleared to do so by a health professional.
3: Give Single Leg Exercises A Starring Role
Single leg exercises like lunges, rear foot elevated split squats, step ups and single leg squats have long been used to add a few extra “support” sets to a workout, after the heavy bilateral lifts are over. As we age, it might be wise to prioritize single leg exercises to safely build strength and power as well. In fact, a 2018 study from the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy compared bilateral squats to single leg squats and found that “unilateral squats with the same external load per leg produced greater peak vertical ground reaction forces than bilateral squats, as well as higher velocity”. These findings are associated with both strength development and rate of force development; two important qualities that decrease dramatically as we age.
The authors also suggested that unilateral rather than bilateral squats could be safer for people with a history of low back pain and past ACL knee issues, due to the smaller loads, similar degree of muscle activity, and decreased loading of the spine. This is not to say that bilateral squats are not beneficial. They are a great functional movement to keep in the rotation, but they need to share the spotlight with their single leg counterparts as we age.
3: Bench Press Less Often–But Keep Pushing
For many seasoned lifters, the bench press has been a strength training staple since the first day they set foot in a gym. Unfortunately, it has also been cited by several studies, as a primary contributor to numerous shoulder and upper extremity pathologies. The reason is partly due to the fact that the bench acts as a barrier to natural shoulder blade movement during lowering.
This offers the lifter two main choices. Either keep the shoulder blades pinned back at the start of the set, or, in some cases, the scapula will actually move away from the bench on the lowering phase of the lift, instead of its natural path inward. Not only does this reinforce improper scapular mechanics, but it also can lead to more end range stress to the shoulder capsule and rotator cuff.
A safer, two-fold solution, is to substitute loaded push ups into the program once per week; while modifying range of motion and hand width when you do decide to bench.
Bench Fix: According to research, individuals performing the flat bench press can minimize stress through the use of a 3-inch towel roll on their chest and a grip that is no wider than 1.5 times shoulder width apart. Both measures reduce the chance of injury and mitigate stress to the shoulder, while not significantly affecting muscle recruitment patterns or max strength.
Band Push Up Substitute: A 2015 study from The Journal of Strength And Conditioning Research found that wrapping a band around the rib cage and pinning it to the floor with your hands during push ups, can elicit similar strength gains to that of benching. This, combined with much more core activation and a healthier overall movement at the shoulder, makes the banded push up an appealing substitute for aging shoulders.
4: Add Front Squats for Joint Health
Most recreational lifters who use squatting exercises for strength and muscular development, choose back squats more frequently than front squats because of the secure bar position, and the ability to go heavier. A study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared front squats to back squats, and found less compressive force on the knee during the front squat variation, yet similar overall muscle activation using less bar weight. This reduction in compressive force can have implications for the aging knee, as it reduces aggravation to meniscus and to arthritic joints. Front squats also may be a better choice when the goal is to spare the lower back. Multiple studies have found less shear force on the spine during front squats vs back squats, with comparatively more muscular activation of the spinal muscles. Back squats are a great exercise for strength gains, but as the body is subjected to increased wear and tear with age, reducing the frequency of excessive joint forces is also something to consider.
5: Mobilize Your “Gateway Joints”
After age thirty, mobility in the wrists and ankles decreases. Adequate range of motion at these smaller joints is the most important quality necessary for avoiding injury, perfecting form, and improving strength during many of the larger, multi-joint exercises. In other words, wrist and ankle mobility is the key that can open the door to strength on squats, jumps, push-ups, pull-ups, and everything in between.
According to research, restricted dorsiflexion (foot up) range of motion (ROM) is associated with greater inward knee movement during landing and squatting tasks. This can lead to problems, especially with age. Normal ankle dorsiflexion ranges from 7.1 degrees to 34.7 degrees when weight bearing, but the ideal amount needed during the squat just below parallel is 35 degrees. This can help to avoid poor mechanics; including forward lean and inward knee motion.
When it comes to wrist mobility, limited extension and rotation can make push ups unbearable, effect grip strength on pull ups, and lead to injury and pain with daily activities.
Adding a daily stretching protocol that focuses on specific mobilizations for the wrists and calves with longer, 60 second holds, and contract/relax mobilizations, can help to counteract age related stiffness in these areas.
6: Change the Mentality
When it comes to fitness, science is showing us that age no longer has to be a limitation, just a consideration. It’s time to fix that tire and re-start the engine. There’s a long drive ahead.