You might be big. You might be strong. You might not have any acute injuries. That's fantastic, but don't get cocky.
Ask any lifter why he's so focused on beating his 550-pound deadlift PR and he'll probably mention the benefits strength training delivers for health... as if his 550-pound deadlift really makes him any better off from a health and longevity perspective than when he was pulling 405.
It's time to acknowledge that, beyond a certain point, lifting heavy becomes a hobby, and our bodies won't be able to satisfy that hobby forever without some form of compromise. So if we really want to be doing this when we're 70, we've got to acknowledge some painful realities and make a few changes.
When you see impressive 800-pound pulls, herculean Olympic lifts, or acrobatic highlight reel-worthy plays on the football field or basketball court, it's time to acknowledge that 90 percent of these feats are being performed by athletes in their 20's.
In the case of strongmen, powerlifters and Olympic lifters, it's easy to forget their age because their physical size is often so imposing that we just assume they're older than they are. Think of Hossein Rezazadeh, who was winning gold in Athens, his second Olympics, at the tender age of 25.
We can play the denial card all we want and act like we're the stand-alone example of the 30-plus guy who's "different," but that's just stupid. A 35-year-old lifter may indeed have 10 more years of training experience than a 25-year-old lifter, but along with that experience comes 10 more years of joint stress, 10 more years of potential mental and nervous system stress, and 10 more years of connective tissue wear and tear.
We need to use being over 30 as a way to train smarter to set us up for good things over the long term.
1. Train for Reps
A lot of coaches say that lifting weights for higher reps makes you more prone to injury. In the case of training methodologies that have you racing the clock, it's true. But sets of 10-12 or even 15 reps of a compound movement shouldn't be outside the vocabulary of a recreational lifter who has his health and wellness first in mind, along with building plenty of muscle and strength.
The positive factor no one seems to bring up is the fact that the weight needs to be significantly lighter to make this happen. That in itself can spare joints and connective tissue of plenty of stress. And assuming adequate rest and good form, it's rare to see a lifter injure himself during a set of 10 reps at 75% of his max.
Using real life as our guide, the hard truth of the matter is this: We need strength a whole lot in our daily lives to make things easier, but most "life demands" that require strength also require muscular endurance. That's a truth that gets swept under the rug in favor of heavy triples.
We don't help someone move furniture or even carry all our groceries by picking them up for 3 seconds and putting them back down. In both cases, we're under tension for extended periods of time, and we'd be remiss to overlook that and avoid training for reps in the gym. Plus, it's good for our heart too. Get in shape.
2. Train Heavy, But Only 2-3 Months a Year
If you're training year round, you're not going to turn into a 98-pound weakling just because you're not "testing your maxes" every six weeks. That's ridiculous.
At some point you're going to have to decide what matters more, your PR's that only become more and more specific to the hobby-based task in question, or your health and overall good feeling on a day-to-day basis.
I don't see many retired powerlifters or pro football players who can move freely after years of pummeling their bodies with the heavy stuff. They had to do it for a reason, though. Most of us don't have that same reason. We should learn from them and maybe avoid getting a hip replacement before the age of 50.
3. Diversify Your Exercise Choices
You'll gain all kinds of extra time by not trying to build on your 475-pound squat as a 39 year old. Use that time to focus on movements outside of the big three.
Don't worry, you'll still be strong without them. There's nothing worse than having incredibly strong big lifts but toppling like a house of cards as soon as a lateral plane, callisthenic, or complex movement rears its head.
Remember, each fitness goal comes at the expense of other goals. With sustained health in mind, it's a fair trade to give up 5 or 10% of your precious lift numbers (that no one cares about) if it means you break into uncharted territory for your mobility, endurance, body composition, coordination, or flexibility.
4. Go Heavy Without Going Heavy
Being over 30 with a decade's lifting experience should make you more in tune with your body. It should also make you more aware of your rate of perceived exertion (RPE).
Just like salvaging your joints, the aim should be to have muscles work just as hard as they do with your max triple, without the same load. That comes from simply manipulating how you perform your reps.
Taking a page out of Charles Poliquin's book and applying tempos and pauses will make you forever change your perspective on what weight training should be. However, thanks to plenty of training propaganda, we have this mentality that we should be "winning the war" we wage against the weights; that our time in the gym should be a conquest where we "showed those weights who's boss."
I get it, but in truth, for a proper training effect – strength gains and body comp changes – the weights should "win," not you. Yep, I said it. The weights should safely and effectively break our muscles down. And as long as our egos are okay with that, it'll result in a feeling of true accomplishment and you'll have the physical results to show for it.
Here's what I'm talking about:
My true max triple at the time was around 440 pounds, but I made a lighter weight feel heavy. Doing this and "breaking the muscles down" is not only safer and smarter training, it's also a good way to keep your mind in it 100 percent for the duration of the workout.
This can be applied to virtually any exercise, but especially the big compound movements that you could potentially load to oblivion. It's going to be a huge vehicle for training as you age. Instead of looking at your true PR, re-imagine your PR's by seeing how much you can lift using a 4-second negative and full pause at the bottom.
No, you shouldn't ditch strength training, take up knitting, and check into a home the day after your 30th birthday.
You still need to do plenty of hard work, and you have decades left in your training journey. Sure, despite training like an animal, you could be lucky enough to escape injury. But whether you know it or not, your escape margin is much more narrow than it was ten years ago, good form aside.
We can't change the fact that at this point in life, we're reaching the apex of our physiology, and yet to come is a slow and steady decline in our metabolism, our testosterone levels, and our recovery capacity. It's just the way it is. Among all the steps we take to combat this, we have to recognize that training like a freak, month in and month out, isn't going to do us good.
We need to pick and choose the times when we go HAM (hard as a motherf***er) in the weight room and pummel our bodies – and those times should be much fewer and further between than they used to be.
But since no one intends to "retire" from lifting, it's time to apply some wits and train smart:
- Listen to your body.
- Train intuitively.
- Respect your body.
- Leave the highlight reels for the young cats.
- Focus on personal progress and your own gains instead.