Doing Squats Won’t Kill You, Even If You’re Old

Nothing mobilizes the IFE (Internet Fitness Experts) more than the posting of the recommendation for older populations to strength train using barbells. A photo or video of a 60+ year old lifter with a bar on their back or in their hands produces predictable outrage at the stupidity of such an endeavor, and a demonstration of a Starting Strength Coach expertly guiding a healthy 72-year-old guy through a modified squat teaching progression results in accusations of gross irresponsibility on the part of the coach.

Nick Delgadillo, SSC
“In Defense of The Squat For Old People”
StartingStrength.com

Jimmie Espinoza age 70
Photo credit: mysanantonio.com

That comment from the article was probably a reply to the doubtless many responses by “IFEs” to this video showing Starting Strength Coach Beau Bryant train 72-year-old Dan to properly perform a back squat for the first time in his life. I posted my own commentary on the event, along with the video, in my essay Old Strength Back Squats. Of course, I have a somewhat more generous opinion on the matter since I not only do back squats but will be turning 62-years-old this summer.

In his brief write-up, Delgadillo goes on to describe four areas relevant to squats and the older person:

  • Mobility
  • Excessive Strain on the Back
  • Safety
  • Off the Comments Section and Into the Gym

Mobility

The takeaway for mobility is that unless there is some physical difficulty preventing it, having someone squat to parallel (at the bottom of the squat, the person’s thighs are parallel to the floor) or below is a matter of proper training and increasing their strength rather than a focus on “mobility training”.

This is also a matter of adjusting the weights. You don’t start anyone out squatting particularly heavy, and after jillions of injuries and deciding to hire a personal trainer, I spent a lot of time squatting with just the bar (45 pounds or about 20 kilos) down onto a box only 12 inches from the floor. That was about three months ago, and today, I squat down onto a bench (slightly higher than 12 inches) and my current max 1 rep for the back squat is 190 pounds (a little over 86 kilos). Not impressive for a real “strongman,” especially someone much younger than I am, but it’s measurable progress and I don’t get hurt.

Excessive Strain on the Back

arnold
Photo credit: forum.bodybuilding.com

Contrary to popular belief, being 61-years-old doesn’t mean I’m falling apart. I am managing several age-related issues, and while they are currently inconvenient, none of them are a disaster and certainly none of them keep me from lifting.

If you do a squat wrong, that is, not maintaining proper spinal mechanics, yes, you’re going to get hurt. My lower lumbar area suffered a great deal when I was doing back squats and deadlifts incorrectly. Interestingly enough, recovery wasn’t just so much a matter of rest, although that plays a part, but using my gym workouts, with a trainer who knew what he was doing, to strengthen that really weak area of my body, so it could build up and be able to tolerate the load I was putting on it.

Delgadillo summed it up this way:

Compressive force on the bones is exactly what we’re looking for, especially in an older trainee. Even though the rate of adaptation is significantly blunted in advanced age, adaptation still occurs and the benefits that come from loading the entire skeleton with the most weight possible, over the longest effective range of motion, and using the most muscle mass possible are critical to those who are fighting to maintain not only muscle mass, but also independence in their late years.

Safety

Again, the assumption is that some 75-year-old is going to load a massive amount of weight onto a barbell and snap his or her spine. Actually, we older people tend to be a bit cautious (although I’ve been known to make some stupid mistakes) and not lift too heavy, at least as we start things out.

I mentioned above that up to last Thursday, I was able to do a single joker set, squatting down to a bench with a 190 pound barbell on my back. I still don’t squat raw because I might cheat and not sit down into the hole deep enough. The bench gives me a target and a standard to squat by. When I feel I’m proficient enough, I’ll squat raw. I just need to know when the time comes, I’m going to be doing it right and out of habit.

And as Delgadillo says, a younger person, as they grow stronger, will probably add hundreds of pounds to the bar over the course of his or her lifting career, while a person 70 or 80 years old, may always squat relatively light weights, maybe less than 200, sometimes significantly less.

I know a guy at the gym who I call “tall, strong, formerly broken foot guy”. He is one of the few people at the gym who does a strength training routine rather than the more popular bodybuilding-like exercises. He squats raw and his form is perfect. But he always maxes out with 135 pounds on the barbell.

He’s not old but he’s not young either. I still think he’s having a problem with one of his feet. It’s none of my business, so I don’t ask him about it. Being safe lifting is not about babying yourself, but it is about knowing your limits. If you must test those limits, as I test mine, then you do it very gradually.

barbell back squat
Credit: physicalliving.com

Next Thursday, I’ll probably try a 195 pound squat for 1 rep to attempt a new PR. I’ll also have a bench behind me and the safety bars set on either side of the rack. I’ve been trapped under the barbell before at the bottom of the squat, and all I had to do was rest the barbell on the safety bars and lean out from under the weight. It’s embarrassing, but I’m not the only one who’s had to do that, and it beats taking unnecessary chances and risking injury.

It’s about not being stupid. Just because I’m older, I’m not (always) dumb.

Off the Comments Section and Into the Gym

In this wrap-up portion of his article, Delgadillo basically says that Starting Strength coaches know what they’re doing and have a lot of experience collectively, training people 50 years of age and older. That part I have to take on trust, because I have no experience with SSCs. I’ve looked, and as far as I can tell, there are none in my little corner of the west.

Conclusion

It was just luck that I found Chase to work with for those 5 one-hour sessions back last December. Since then, I’ve built on what he taught me and have made a number of gains, particularly by using proper form and a stable spine.

There are plenty of young guys, and some not-so-young guys, who are way stronger than I am. It’s pretty embarrassing sometimes when I’m struggling to bench press 1, 2, or 3 reps with a 155 pound barbell, and the guy on the bench next to me is popping off 10 reps a set at 185 pounds or better.

But I do what I can, and if God and my body be willing, I’ll keep getting stronger up to some functional limit. Then maybe like tall, strong, formerly broken foot guy, I’ll settle on a “maintenance” weight in squats and the rest of my main lifts, and let that be good enough.

Like any other gym addict, I think everyone should be lifting and lifting as heavy as they can safely and competently. If arguments like age, mobility, and safety (or gender, or lack of an athletic background, or anything else) are keeping you away from the gym and away from lifting free weights, those aren’t your limiting factors. Your limiting factors are attitude, confidence, and needing to be coached. If you want something, you have to develop a plan, one that’s sane and based in reality, find a good coach who knows what he or she is doing, and then start lifting and start learning. If you’re older or you otherwise suspect you have some medical problem (or even if you don’t), it couldn’t hurt to get a doctor’s blessing first.

Then get your buns into a gym and get to work.

Oh, and here’s a very brief video of a 61-year-old man doing a single front squat with a 170 kilo barbell. That’s about 374 pounds, folks. Enjoy.

It’s a rare individual who lets themselves be steered by what they feel is their own passion.

Dave Tate

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5 thoughts on “Doing Squats Won’t Kill You, Even If You’re Old

  1. From my experience most doctors know nothing of very little about weight training. Usually the advice given is “take it easy” and “don’t lift anything heavy”. We are living in a society that is set up to encourage and facilitate detraining and weakness. I am a middle aged woman and the norm for someone my age and gender is to struggle with a bag of groceries NOT to hit the gym regularly and train for powerlifting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My understanding of Smith Machine squats is that the path of the bar moves the body in an “unnatural” way. Dumbbell squats limit the amount of weight you can use, but then again, back squats put a lot of weight and thus compression on the spine. Probably front squats would be a good option, though when I see anyone front squat, the hand position looks pretty awkward to me.

      Like

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