This Is Heavy, Man!

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Ever since writing about hack squats, deadlifts, and how they leave me feeling exhausted and my subsequent investigation of alternate lifting methods including the 5×5 routine, I’ve been reading more about strength training vs. bodybuilding.

In order to lift for large, oxygen hungry muscle groups such as quads, hams, and glutes, I’m going to try something new and lift heavier for more sets but fewer reps. Five sets of five reps to be exact (hence 5×5). I’ve been told recently that this is for beginners, but in many ways, I am a beginner. I’m still trying to figure things out. I’m still experimenting and watching how my body handles each of the changes I make.

I guess I also get bored easily.

I was reading about the 5×5 workout plan at and it seems compelling.

For one thing, with few exceptions, all of the lifts are large, heavy compound moves such as squats, barbell bench presses, and barbell rows. I do most of that now, but I also incorporate a lot of isolation lifts, especially for the arms.

With this plan, I’d only lift three days a week instead of five, but I’d be doing similar or the same lifts multiple times a week.

The rationale behind relatively high training frequency has to do with optimizing protein synthesis. Simply put, your muscles are built from protein; your body maximizes the creation of new protein when trained at a higher frequency. Usually within ~ 36 hours after a workout muscle protein synthesis returns to baseline levels — in order to keep these levels elevated, frequency is absolutely key.

By performing a full-body workout several times per week you can produce sustained muscle protein synthesis and ultimately keep your body in a permanent state of growth.

I don’t think I’m going to make a sudden switch. I want to implement my current plan first and see what happens. But taking 8 or 10 weeks off from my usual routine and doing something completely different might be a good way to shake things up.

There will be consequences, however. According to Nick Tumminello in his article “Size Vs. Strength: Are You Lifting Too Heavy” at

I’ve already gone over some of the common errors I see bodybuilders making, but now I want to talk about something more specific: confusing training for size with and training for strength. Now, of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive. If you train for size, you will get stronger.

Lou Ferrigno performing dumbbell curls
Lou Ferrigno performing dumbbell curls

Said simply, lifting heavier weights for fewer reps results in an increase in strength but not the actual “pump” or size of the muscle. Lifting lighter for more reps results in hypertrophy, that is, larger muscles.

But what’s best for the senior weight trainer?

Most of us tend to train more like bodybuilders than powerlifters, even if we’re not particularly interested in having a bodybuilder-type body. Also, lifting heavy, really heavy, has obvious risks for the older athlete, namely getting hurt and putting ourselves out of the game for long periods of time.

Tumminello continues:

The general rule of thumb when training for strength is that the reps should be low and the resistance load should be high. Also, true low-rep strength work is primarily neuromuscular. If you think of your body as a computer, strength training is more about upgrading your software, which is your central nervous system (CNS), than it is about the hardware—your muscles. Strength training is about teaching your CNS how to bring more muscle into the game; or to increase motor unit recruitment.

Unlike strength training, the goal of training for size is more physiological than it is neurological. It’s about upgrading your body’s hardware, like bones, connective tissues, and muscles. You literally build your body, forcing the tissues to develop and grow stronger.

But isn’t the latter what we want? Isn’t our goal, as seniors, to rebuild our bones, connective tissue and muscles, to get back some of what age and a sedentary lifestyle has taken from us?

In an attempt to answer this question, I turned to the article “What is the Best Workout for Seniors?” at (again) In the age 60 to 69 category, I read this response:

At this age muscular and bone loss is happening at a greater pace and energy levels are dipping lower. People in their sixties definitely aren’t as capable to do what people in their fifties are in terms of intensity. Because of this I don’t believe people in their sixties should be weight training all out till their muscles feel like jello, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have some intensity in their programs.

I feel that they should do more exercises that involve their dead weight like push ups, sit-ups and weightless squats, but they can also do some weight training. I also feel that they should do more cardio based things because that will give them way better benefits than weight training at this point.

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Based on that, I’d have to conclude that what I’m doing now is too much, and what I’m contemplating is way over the top.

But that essay was written back in 2006. How about something more recent from the same source:

Weight training should be performed twice per week, in sessions lasting between 20 and 45 minutes. In addition, the same moderate level of intensity should be sought after.

Because hypertrophy and maximal force production are not likely to be goals for the 60 and up crowd, free weights and muscle specialization will not be necessary. Rather, one or two exercises should be performed for each of the following muscle groups: Legs, Back, Shoulders, Arms, Chest and Abdomen. For each exercise, two sets of 8-10 repetitions should be sufficient. In addition, the focus should be functional movements.

Well, that wasn’t encouraging, either. Of course, two of the recommended exercises are Dumbbell Squats and Good Mornings, so intensity isn’t completely out of the picture. Still, most of the recommended lifts are those I do now, only with 2 sets instead of 3 and only 8 to 10 reps per set.

The article goes on to say:

While teens may be able to handle three days of lifting per week with seven days of cardio, this is not realistic for older adults and would likely result in injury.

I’m certainly not a teen, but I seem to be able to handle lifting 5 days a week and doing 5 to 6 days of cardio weekly. I don’t consider myself unusually strong, so I wonder if the writer here is being just a wee bit cautious?

Oh, here we go. One contributor to this article created a list of exercises to avoid if you’re 60 and older:

  • Dips*
  • Bench Press*
  • Free-Weight Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Pulling or Pushing Movements Behind the Head*
  • High Impact Cardio or Plyometrics
female weight training
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Those items on the list with an asterisk (*) beside them are considered high risk for shoulder injuries.

I don’t do dips because I have a hard time balancing and I pulled back from high impact cardio, but I do everything else mentioned there.

Actually, since there are several contributors to this article, I can only imagine some of their opinions regarding what is and isn’t safe are going to vary.

Maybe I’m just crazy, but all of these recommendations seem just a little on the timid side. Granted, these are workouts that work for the people who wrote on them, but I also believe that the individual differences between people matter, too.

Of course, this could just be me needing to check my ego, but contrary to what this might sound like, I’m not anxious to hurt myself. I just think that there’s got to be a way to push a little bit harder and then push harder again.

Then there’s what Charles Poliquin wrote for way back in September 1998, an article called Training With Maximal Weights: The Science Behind a Very Heavy Subject:

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: a large percentage of professional bodybuilders are about as weak as a one-armed, octogenarian stamp collector with severe arthritis. If some of these pro bodybuilders had a bench-press contest with supermodel Kate Moss, Kate would win, emaciated chest and all. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to train arms with a whole slew of pros, and it never fails to chop their immense egos down a few notches. Why? Because simply, I can generally handle more weight than they can, using stricter form, even though they’re usually up to 70 or 80 pounds heavier than I am.

Of course, Poliquin isn’t writing respective to age, and like what’s been said elsewhere, being 60 isn’t the same as being 20 or 30. Also, he admits:

Keep in mind that, contrary to popular bodybuilding methodology, maximal weight training imposes lower energy requirements per time unit. To put it simply, you won’t burn as many calories and your caloric requirements will be less during this training period.

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But I’m trying to get rid of that last 15 pounds of ugly belly fat and if I can lift, get strong, and burn a boat load of calories at the same time, that’s a good thing. That’s one reason why I like leg day (I can’t believe I just said that) because the intensity and volume burns up a crap ton of calories.

So how about we (or rather I) split the difference for now. I’ll try 5x5s on things like hack squats, deadlifts, and maybe even barbell bench presses, and keep the rest of my routine the same. I can re-evaluate my decision as to moving temporarily over to a full 5×5 workout once I see how my body handles the modifications to my routine over the next several weeks.

Oh, one more thing. Almost by accident, I came across an article called Deadlifts for Older Guys which seemed right up my alley. Of course by “older,” the author ment 48 years old, which is 12 years my junior, but I’ll take what I can get.

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Albert Einstein


7 thoughts on “This Is Heavy, Man!

  1. I’ve gotten the best overall (meaning quality of life and comfort in the gym) benefits from training for strength. The carry overs are so vast it’s hard to ignore the need to squat double body weight!


      1. You can do it, it’s probably one of the most satisfying points of a lifting career, until you get to 3xbodyweight (still on that journey lol). But you got this!


  2. Well, I’ll be 61 years old this coming July so I have to take a little bit of extra care to avoid injuries. Still, it’s something to shoot for. Thanks for the encouragement.


  3. At 62 I no longer do weighted squats or weighted lunges (back pain too often) – instead 50 reps for those with body weight as part of a total body workout. Aside from those exercises I am able to maintain high intensity (6 seconds between sets) upper body weightlifting in the 8-12 rep range alternating TRX cable and free weights for the 3x/week workouts. This has given me the best strength gains with minimum injury since I restarted my fitness program at 58yr age.
    In addition I get lots of aerobics via steep hikes 2-3x/week.


  4. I also wanted to mention I agree with the asterisk’ed ‘avoid’ exercises that impact shoulders in us older athletes.
    WhenI completely ripped everything off my left shoulder at age 60 on Mount Rainier, my doctor says my ‘miraculous’ comeback was largely due to diligently doing Mens Health series of 5 incline bench cuff “Raises” with light dumbells, I have now doubled my strength even in my uninjured shoulder on those and believe those exercises are a MUST for over-60 fitness & cuff injury prevention
    Here they are:
    Incline Y Raise:
    Incline L raise:
    Incline T Raise:
    Incline W Raise:
    Incline I Raise: (can’t find the link – like Y Raise but arms straight ahead)


  5. Wow, Joe. Only 6 seconds between sets. You’re incredible. I don’t think I could keep up with you in the gym or on the trail. Also, thanks for the links. I’ll have a look.


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