Goals For The Older Strength Trainer in 2016

Photo credit: livehealthy.chron.com

I just read an article called “50 quick-fire steps to fitness in 2016” written by J.R. at Straight Talking Fitness. Yes, this is the time of year when lists invade the web like locusts in a wheat field. They’re everywhere.

That’s not to say lists are all bad. You just have to pick and choose which ones are relevant and make sense and which to pass up. I think J.R. had some good suggestions (such as #6: Don’t fear free weight movements. Make them staples of your routine), and some I didn’t think practical for everyone (such as #15 When buying coffee, try not to skimp out as cheap coffee is heavily laden with pesticides. Buy organic whenever possible…organic is generally better but also not in everyone’s price range).

The one overarching piece of advice I’d probably give to J.R. (he’ll see this sooner or later) is not to make the list so long. Most people can tolerate lists of 10 or so items. 50 is pushing it.

That said, I found #47 particularly relevant to me: Assess your strength in relative terms. DON’T be a slave to arbitrary numbers. A 100 kg bench press means nothing when you weigh 105 kgs and can’t do a pull up. I’m 61 years old, not 21, 31, or even 41. I can’t train like younger guys (or gals), and my (former) personal trainer Chase repeatedly encouraged me to avoid the “numbers game.” If I can get a good workout in with lighter weights, I’ll probably be less likely to get hurt again.

I’m writing this to prepare you for my list, but this is a list more for me than it is for you. If it applies to anyone, it applies to people more my age, people trying to do their best in the gym while at the same time, being aware that an older body works different than a younger one does.

A year ago, when I was considering strength training as opposed to a more bodybuilder-type weight regime, all I knew was what I could find on the web, and all I knew about how to do things like squat and deadlift, I learned from videos. Believe me, a video or even a detailed text description is no substitute for getting trained by someone who knows what they’re doing.

As I started out 2015, I had a few goals:

  • Wean myself off of weight machines and go total free weight.
  • Don’t fear the barbells.
  • Learn to deadlift.
  • Learn to squat.

I still had to figure out what sort of program to run all that through and then do it, do it, do it!

Along the way, I got a little stronger and made a few mistakes. Those mistakes cost me, but I learned from them.

55 yr old man deadlifts 315 lbs
Photo credit: Youtube.com

Now I’m sitting in the middle of the first day of 2016 and mulling over my plans for the coming year, or at least the coming month.

  1. Reboot the 5/3/1 Workout. That begins this coming Sunday. I’ll start out at day one of week one, lifting on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I’ll save Tuesday and Thursday (and maybe Saturday) for cardio, abs, and maybe some flexibility work.
  2. Practice Maintaining a Neutral Spine through all my lifts. It’s always on my mind when I’m doing squats and deadlifts, but even using the roman chair for back extensions requires good form. I’ll take what I learned in those five hours of training I did with Chase and incorporate it into every lift I do.
  3. Re-evaluate My Program After Each Cycle. The basic 5/3/1 program runs in three-week cycles if you don’t count deload. Week one is 5/5/5+, week two is heavier and 3/3/3+, and then week three is still heavier and 5/3/1+. What does that mean? 5/5/5+ represents (after warm up sets) three sets doing 5 reps per set, with the last set of 5 being open to more reps (that’s what the “+” sign means) if you’re able. You also don’t have to deload after the first cycle, which is part of what I’ll be evaluating.
  4. Keep Remembering that I’m Over 60. Sure, I know that, but more than a few times I “challenged” myself just a little too much and got a big “owie” as my reward. I’m rebooting the program just as light as my practice days, which means I’ll start off safer and still have plenty of room to grow (in theory). If I can train consistently without injury, then I won’t have to take breaks, slow progress, and lose gains.
  5. Return to Counting Calories and Eating Better. With the holidays gone, so too goes all of the extra, sugary food that people kept bringing into the break room at work. I’ve taken the last two weeks off and return to “the grind” on Monday. I’ll also return to paying more attention to what I eat, regularly weighing myself, and setting body weight goals. Speaking of which…
  6. Get Down to My Ideal Weight. I’m giving myself all of 2016 to do this. Hopefully, it won’t take that long, but I figure given the holidays and all, I need to lose about 10 or 15 pounds of body fat (I’ll take all the muscle weight I can get). This is actually more of how clothes fit and how much “pudge” there is around my middle rather than a number on a scale since, as I said, muscle has weight, too.
  7. Incorporate More Core and Flexibility Work into My Training. I know I said something about this above, but working my abs and especially stretching are areas I don’t do well in, mainly because of time. But since my son now works a different shift, we don’t commute into town anymore, so my schedule is a tad more plastic. That means I have more time to do a few more things at the gym, such as some sort of stretching after lifting. I just have to do the research to find out what looks like it’ll work for me.
  8. Keep an Open Mind About What to Use for Assistance Lifts. So far, I’ve been using a few familiar “boring but big” lifts like barbell bent over rows and seated dumbbell shoulder presses, but I may want to consider other options. I’ve done so in the past just to baby my injured back, but this time it will be more for the sake of variety than anything else.
one arm bent over row
Photo credit: musclemag.com

Eight is a nice, round number so I think I’ll stop here.

As far as J.R.’s list goes, I have a few comments.

#5: ALWAYS strive for progression; stronger, faster, longer, harder and better.

Adjusting for age and other factors, there’s always going to be an upper limit, both to strength and endurance. Sure, I believe in pushing yourself, but when your body pushes back, don’t be afraid to back off a little (or a lot, depending). Beats really tweaking something and taking yourself out of the game.

#9: Do both LISS (low intensity steady state cardio) and HIIT cardio (high intensity interval training) – both have their time and place.

During my annual physical last year, when I told my doctor that I was pushing my heart rate up to around 160 bpm, he told me that it’s OK to rev up an old engine every once in a while, but just remember, it’s an old engine. The amount of high intensity cardio you can tolerate at age 30 or 40 might actually be dangerous over 60, even if you don’t have any particular heart problems. I’ve read more than one study that says you can overdo even cardio exercise. In our case, moderate, even if it’s boring, is probably the safer bet.

#10 Walking on an empty stomach is one of the best kept secrets of the fitness industry. Try it. It melts fat without muscle and it gets you out in the fresh air first thing.

That’s good as far as it goes, and in the past, I’ve even done heavy cardio in a fasted state, but sometimes it came back to bite me in the butt when my blood sugar crashed. Especially as you get older, you might want to be mindful of just how you time exercise and eating.

#30: Pick the right training partner. If either of you miss a scheduled session, you owe the other cash. That’ll make you think twice before bailing on them.

I’m a great believer in workout partners. Once upon a time, my son was the best partner I ever had. But since our schedules are at odds with each other, I’m a lone wolf lifter these days. For the most part, I like it. Don’t get me wrong, it was great being trained by Chase not only for the experience, but also to be able to talk about what I was doing and how it was impacting me. If you can get a good partner to help motivate you, that’s terrific, but if not, don’t be afraid to workout alone.

#31: Build a ‘fad defence mechanism’; crossfit, veganism, the 30 day squat challenge, intermittent fasting, insanity and even paleo are all great but you don’t have to do them just because Anna at the office said they’re magic.

crossfit mistake

I couldn’t agree with this more. Everyone has their special “magic bullet” that they say will turn you into a weightlifting mass monster in permanent beast mode in no time. While some advice that floats your way may actually be good, a bunch of it isn’t or for the older lifter, it isn’t for you. I’ll avoid Crossfit or certain olympic-type lifts just because they would probably hurt me. Like Edna in The Incredibles (2004), I think I’ll “stick to the basics.”

Bottom line is that some advice is good and some isn’t. It’s up to you to do the research, consider your own goals and abilities as an older athlete, and decide what you want to do.

#44 Try cold showers or baths, I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t favour cold over hot. Note I’m referencing those who’ve done cold baths/showers long term, not for 2 days.

J.R. and I have had this conversation before. Yes, I’ve heard of the benefits of cold showers when I reviewed Bill Gifford’s book Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying), but just like what I said about accepting advice, just because someone says something is good, doesn’t mean you have to try it. I like my showers reasonably hot, thank you very much.

#49 Be generous with the compliments you give. If you’ve never complimented anyone before (many people haven’t!) then START NOW. Positive people are naturally more successful.

I want to add that as much as you can, be a good person and treat people around you kindly, whether in the gym our out of it. Re-rack your weight plates and dumbbells after you use them and if you pull out some other piece of equipment, put it back when you’re done. Always carry a rag with you at the gym and wipe up your sweat and blood (I’ve dinged my shins more than once and had to clean up my own blood). No one wants to lie down in your body fluids.

Open doors for people. You wouldn’t believe the number of men and women who really appreciate you treating them with a little courtesy. If you see a piece of litter on the ground, pick it up and put it in the trash. You don’t have to police the whole world for garbage, but you can clean up a little mess that you didn’t make.

heroYou may think your life has its problems and I’m sure you’re right. We’re all fighting a hard battle every day of our lives. Especially for older people, we have issues that most younger people can’t relate to. We worry about our adult kids and the decisions they make. We worry how that will affect our grandchildren. We watch family and friends decline with age. We attend more funerals every year and visit more sick people in the hospital. We look in the mirror and realize there are fewer days ahead than there are behind.

All of these are valid reasons why it’s good to have friends our own age, people who can relate to us the way younger folks never can. Our life experience means something, but it isn’t always appreciated in a youth-oriented culture that prizes the superficial over those things in life that truly have substance. But having said that, I also think we have a lot to offer others even across generations. While we can’t be the types of heroes people see on television and at the movies, maybe we can still do our bit to help out, even without a mask and costume.

And finally #50: Follow this blog. Consistent people need each other.

I thought this brash bit of self-promotion was pretty funny. Oh, maybe I should have put it on my list, too.

Looking forward to the road ahead.

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.

C.S. Lewis


8 thoughts on “Goals For The Older Strength Trainer in 2016

  1. Hi James,your goals seem similar to mine. I can stand to loose 10lbs and do some chin ups. I had bought a band to assist chins but didn’t try it until last week,I believe it will help get some unassisted chins better then pulldowns have. I may have sent you this link before by the late Bill Starr, it has some great info for lifting when older. Have a great New Year and I hope we all reach or goals this year.


      1. Hi James, I understand your being hesitant . Just do a search for Bill Starr Ageless Strength Training. It should get you to the articles, there are 3 in total.


      2. Thanks. The actual weebly site is flagged because it has a history of delivering drive-by virus downloads and other unpleasant things. There seem to be other sources on the web that provide the content more safely.


  2. OK Jerry, I read the three-part article (hosted on three different websites) and the upshot as far as I can tell, is to do lighter weights and more reps, which, in spite of the author’s insistence, seems more like a bodybuilding regime than strength training.

    I know that Arnold Schwarzenegger does more machine work now, probably with lighter weights, than when he was competing, and I’ve heard that Lou Ferrigno also works with someone lighter weights than in the past. Both men are in their 60s and they both have a ton of experience, so I’d tend to say the decisions they’re making for their own older bodies are valid.

    I read Brooks Kubik’s book “Gray Hair and Black Iron” over a year ago, and as I recall, his recommendation (in general) was to go heavy but for very few reps, sort of the opposite of what Starr is suggesting. Of course, “light” and “heavy” are relative terms. Right now, I’m going pretty light just to practice correct form and get used to lifting properly. I may never go as heavy as Kubik, but I may go heavy for me and still keep the number of reps down on my main lifts.

    One of my “resolutions” above is to check in with myself after each three-week cycle, so if I need to make adjustments based on my body’s limitations, it’s built into my plan.


    1. I believe Starr was writing for lifters that may have been competing and using some real heavy weights, and even if the muscles could still do the work the joints may suffer. As far as Kubicks book he does suggest heavy weights and lower reps, but if you remember he suggests much lower frequency of the workouts and some of the programs he wrote have only a few lifts each workout . I sure know I can’t sqt 3 times a week. Even though most of my working life I started work at 6 am and many times worked outside I give you credit for being able to wake up so early and get to the gym at that ungodly hour,especially when you mention the temperature. I am going to WO today in my garage it is about 35 here today,but at least the sun is out and it’s not damp as it had been the past two weeks here in NY. DL DB standing press and pulldowns are today’s items,a short warmup on the rower and some hanging ab leg raises at the end. Then Wed will be safety bar sqts,inc BB press and EZB curls.


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