Your training will need to change as you age. It's a sobering reality. To keep making progress, you'll need to make subtle tweaks in terms of training frequency, intensity, volume, and exercise selection.
You'll need to listen to your body. And you'll need to "kill some of your darlings" even if they're the barbell bench press or conventional deadlift.
No, you don't need to resort to some bastardized form of "functional" training on a BOSU ball. The changes are much simpler, and you'll be rewarded with reduced pain, improved performance, and a better physique.
If you plan on spending the next few decades training and teaching the young guys a thing or two about building muscle, it's important to determine your goal. Why? Because simply walking into the gym five days a week without a plan will slow down your gains... and put you at risk of being the guy that's always at the gym but looks the same year after year.
Determining your goal is essentially redirecting your focus for long-lasting results – building more muscle, protecting/boosting your testosterone levels, and torching body fat for years to come. It's incredibly important to your training success.
One study revealed that untrained folks will start losing muscle at age 30 (1). So your body is already turning on you at a relatively young age. And if you want to successfully fight against atrophy, you need a game plan. And honestly, the game plan is the same as it always has been – progressive overload.
See, even if you're an experienced lifter, you can still make gains in the gym as you age. Now, your body probably won't respond kindly to chasing strength records like you could when you were younger, but that doesn't mean progressive overload isn't possible. You just need to approach it differently.
Your body doesn't know the number of reps you're doing or the weight on the bar. It only knows the tension it must create to overcome a load, and the time that tension takes. In other words, if your goal is to build muscle you should stop obsessing over the weight on the bar and instead focus on the contraction of each muscle.
Slowing down your tempo allows you to both improve your mind-muscle connection and increase your time under tension, a key component to increasing metabolic-stress driven hypertrophy.
Try a 3111 tempo. The first "3" is the eccentric or negative. The second number is the "bottom" of the rep; in this case take a one second pause. The third number is the concentric or the "up" phase, so you should lift "up" in one second. The final number is the end of the rep before beginning the next. In this case, a one second pause between each rep.
Example – The trap bar deadlift with RDL accentuated eccentric
If you've struggled through a bench press plateau, you've felt the moment you got out of the groove and lost elbow position, or you felt your cheeks hover off the bench. In the deadlift, you've probably felt your spine go from a stable, welded position to one that resembles a question mark.
In both cases, you're battling through sticking points. And because you lack the technique or strength needed to maintain optimal position, your chance of injury skyrockets. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you can get away with a lot more at age 20 than you can at 30, 40, or beyond.
Instead of living for the PR, begin adding pauses to your reps to build strength and stability through sticking points. Remember, joint position dictates muscle function, but it also determines joint stress. If you hold the right positions, you'll stay strong and healthy. If you ignore them for ego's sake, you'll pay the price, either today or down the road.
Instead of pounding through your sticking points with shoddy form, start adding mid-rep pauses and isometrics to build strength and stability without compromising your technique.
Though isometrics don't feel like they work the same way a dynamic exercise would, they're still a demanding stress on your central nervous system. Since your goal is to maximize muscle fiber recruitment and neural drive, you need to be fresh to maximize the productivity of your sets.
The following should be done as a replacement for 3-4 weeks or as a separate workout for 3-5 sets of 1-3 reps (3-8 second holds) with near maximum weights.
Example – The dead-pull, a deadlift to mid-shin followed by a pause
While I love chasing heavy weights as much as the next guy, I'd be lying if I didn't admit to occasionally chasing the weight while sacrificing range of motion. Sure, you'll lift heavier, but in many cases you're potentially limiting size gains.
Why? Though heavier lifting with partials may fire up your CNS, the direct stimulus on a tissue may be less. For a muscle to contract maximally it should begin in an extended position. The caveat? You need to be able to control the resistance through whatever range of motion you have. The greater the range of motion with control, the greater the potential training stimulus.
Heavy partials can be a great stimulus to fire up your nervous system, but they should be intentional, not a byproduct of going too heavy and ego-lifting. Ensure a full range of motion and more importantly, control through the range of motion to maximize growth while minimizing joint stress.
Example – The front foot elevated split squat
Confused yet? Hear me out. While increasing the range of motion pre-stretches a muscle and provides a greater contraction, it's important to work within a range of motion you can control.
As an example, we've all seen the guy who's trying to set a squat PR who bounces out of the hole, shoots his butt into the air like he's making a twerking video, and ends up getting hurt or doing a good morning. This is a classic case of chasing the weight rather than working through an acceptable range of motion.
On heavy compound lifts, work only through the range of motion you can control pain-free. You may need to stop your bench press above your chest or your squat above parallel. You may need to deadlift from blocks. Either way, as your battle scars build up, you'll need to adapt your range of motion to lift safely and effectively.
On lighter lifts and isolation work, limiting your range of motion, like staying shy of lockout on curls, can dramatically increase metabolic stress with much less weight for joint-friendly hypertrophy.
On heavy lifts, only work through a range of motion you can control. One simple example would be pulling from blocks on a deadlift or clean:
On lighter lifts, consider avoiding the lockout and working through partial ranges of motion to increase muscular stress with less resistance.
When training for strength, continue resting as needed to allow ample CNS recovery. But as your workouts move to higher-rep, hypertrophy based work, shorten your rest periods and increase the metabolic demand.
It's no secret that many lifters avoid cardio like an Ebola-laced napkin. Still, one of the biggest areas for improvement is improving your work capacity.
Shorten rest periods on non-heavy strength work to 60 seconds, maximum. Tie in supersets, like this pre-fatigue flye before a bench press:
More often than not, getting more quality work done in less time is a matter of focus and intent, not a better plan. In this case, you'll leave equipped with better work capacity, more metabolic stress, and better cardiovascular health.
If you're unfamiliar with the term axial loading, the concept is simple. Axial loading is top-down loading – meaning the weight during the lift is moving vertically instead of horizontally. Examples include back squat, cleans, deadlifts, and overhead presses. And as you get older, it'll be wise to reduce the amount of axial loading you perform in the gym.
Now, in small doses, axial loading exercise is excellent for men and women. They're big, compound movements that improve bone density, total body strength, muscle mass, and give you the most "bang for your buck" in the gym – which is exactly what you want if you're the aging meathead because the more time you spend in the gym, the greater risk you have of overtraining (2).
Plus, the older you get, the less tolerant your body becomes to explosive exercises such as squats, cleans, deadlifts, and overhead presses. If you perform these movements too intensely and too frequently, when other stressors in life are much higher, your CNS will get fried. When your CNS is constantly bombarded with more stressors, your hormonal systems are taxed as well.
Don't ditch axial loading, but reduce how often you go balls to the wall. Consider dialing back your training maxes 5-10%, similar to a 5-3-1 program, so you can still perform your favorite lifts without undue stress.
If you fail to plan and don't allow yourself enough recovery time in between axial training, you put yourself at risk irritating chronic injuries, burnout, and hard-to-conquer training plateaus.
Long-term training success comes back to owning your ego and making small tweaks to boost intensity without compromising longevity. With these simple changes, you'll be able to train pain-free for years to come.