As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize some cold hard truths. It doesn’t matter how much I argue with myself or try and talk myself into thinking I’m 20 years old again. Father Time has a way of telling you otherwise. I can’t do the things I once was able to do with relative ease. I can’t load up the weight on the shoulder press and do countless sets and reps.
The squat leaves my knees and hip aching for days. Heavy incline presses kill my rotator cuffs and sidelines me for weeks, even months if I’m not careful. Forget about the bench press, I can’t even say the name of the exercise without aggravating my biceps tendonitis. Muscle spasms prevent me from doing heavy rows. I know, it sucks but I’ve come to the realization that I can’t do the things that I was once proud of. This is a hard pill to swallow but after suffering all types of injuries, I’ve accepted this fact.
If I could go back in time I would tell my younger self to dial back the intensity a little and not go 150% every workout using super heavy weights. I’d tell my younger self to alter my intensity techniques and try using methods that were more tendon and ligament friendly. I’d tell my younger self to take it easy on the weekends but I know my younger self wouldn’t listen to a word…
I remember sitting with an older lifter one time in my old gym. This guy was a legend in my home town, known for his strength and big arms. I must have been 18 or 19 years old and I asked him why he never bench presses anymore. He told me that he simply can’t do the movement anymore or any other type of overhead pressing. His body simply didn’t agree with the motion anymore.
I found this strange because this guy was once able to press small trucks over his head. I remember thinking how awful it must be for this guy to not be able to bench press anymore. It’s strange because I never thought for a moment that there’d ever be a day when I wouldn’t be able to bench press anymore. Well, here I am 26 years later and not being able to bench press anymore or able to squat or do barbell shoulder presses.
However, you want to know something? Even though I can’t go heavy anymore or do those big compound movements I’m still one of the bigger and more muscular guys in the gym. Although I can’t compete in the strength department with the younger guys,
I still have my shape and muscularity. Here’s the thing that I’ve noticed about how training heavy and light affects the appearance of my body. When I was training heavy, I had a very dense and heavy look. Now that I’m training light and doing a lot more cardio, my muscles are more defined and refined although not as dense,
I still look muscular (I’m cutting weight at the moment). Even though my body aches more than it used to, I prefer the way my body is shaping up today rather than the big, dense and heavy look I had in my youth. What once was a “big at all costs” mentality when I was younger is now all about quality rather than quantity.
At 45 years of age, I know that I’ve far from over the hill but I’ve also come to realize that I can’t go back to the heavy training days of my youth. Over the past 7 years, I’ve had to swallow my pride in order to keep fit and healthy but at the same time retain a certain degree of muscle mass. When I see the younger guys in my gym squatting 400 or 500 pounds, I now know that I don’t have anything else to prove because I was once one of those guys.
However, I ask myself this question, will these same guys still be in the gym when they’re 40, 50, 60, or 70 years of age? That is the real test. I’m still here and I’m still going strong and I’m proud of that fact. I’m one of the only ones left from my old crew that still trains and has retained a certain degree of muscle mass (I still look like I train). I went back to my home town for a weekend festival over the past summer and saw a lot of the people I grew up with.
They couldn’t believe that I still had the same type of muscle mass as I did when I was growing up. Most of the people I grew up with (who were once in great shape) all have big beer bellies and have grown vastly out of shape. I remember one girl saying to me “Blake, wow! You still doing all that weight training stuff because you still have big muscles…”
Weight training and keeping fit is what defines me. It’s a huge part of my life and will most likely be a big part of my life until the day I pass on. I will keep on training but like all things in life, I will have to adapt my training by the way my body changes.
I know things aren’t going to get any easier and I’m sure most of you older trainers are thinking the same thing but I now know that it’s all about adapting. If I don’t adapt, I fall by the wayside – Simple as that.
Adapting is the key here. This goes for training, nutrition and lifestyle. I know that things change in life and most times we don’t have any say in what direction our lives take us. That’s life. However, we do have control over how we adapt to these changes in our life.
For some, we get old and although we still have the strong mentality and fortitude to be fit and healthy, our bodies doesn’t have the same constitution it once did. I understand that you want to look younger, even retain the body you once had but as I mentioned above, you can’t train like a 20 year old anymore.
A lot of the programs around the internet are made for younger trainers and don’t take into account that a lot of older individuals can’t perform compound movements any more. Although low rep, heavy weight 5 x 5 programs might work great for younger individuals this type of program might put an older individual’s body at risk for injury. I know from experience that I don’t bounce back like I once did from injuries. So, what does one do if you can’t use heavy weight and compound movements anymore?
I’ve developed a system of training and nutrition that is custom built for my age and body type. I don’t do the big compound movements anymore however; I’ve modified the movements and included some additional techniques that boost work levels without adding heavier workloads. There is a world of difference between boosting work levels (intensity) and boosting workloads. Some experts will say you can’t separate the two but I say you can and I’m proof of that.
Here’s how I modified my training:
1) I’ve added high rep training. I’ve developed a technique called 20 by 20 training that really makes me work hard without the risk of injury that comes with using heavier weights. It’s a rather simple technique that uses high rep training with minimal rest times. Let’s take the pec deck for example. I’ll do 20 reps, count to 20 and do another 20 reps, count to 20 and do another 20 reps, count to 20 and do another 20 reps until I finish the set.
I use moderate weight and really force myself to concentrate on the movement, especially the concentric part (negative portion) of the exercise. This exercise alone is comparable to the results I used to get from heavy training. It saves my ligaments, joints and allows me to train around minor injuries.
There’s this body builder at our gym with these huge shoulders and arms. He regularly squats 315 pounds for reps and is built like a bodybuilder. We started talking one day and I challenged him to do 5 sets of 20 using this technique with 185 pounds. He agreed. He almost died under that squat rack. By the 5 th set he had to use 135 pounds and crumpled to the ground in a heap afterwards. Trust me, this technique works.
Here’s a sample 20 by 20 routine.
2) I also use a technique called arm to arm combat. I used this technique with an old training buddy back in my late teens. I’d do set of barbell curls and pass the barbell to him to do his set. Once he finished his set he’d pass it back to me and once I finished my set, I’d pass it back to him. This would go on until one of use stopped because we couldn’t do one more rep. I’ve modified this technique because I don’t train with partners anymore. I use this technique for one arm and leg movements.
For example, let’s say I’ve doing one arm rows. I’d pick a moderate weight and do 12 repetitions with my left arm. I’d do another 12 for my right arm and without any rest do another 12 reps with my left arm. Without any rest, I’d do another 12 reps for my right arm and then back to my left arm for another 12 reps. I’d follow this type of progression until my exercise is finished.
This works great for one legged presses! I’ll tell you right now, this is a super tough technique but it gets results…FAST! The great thing about this technique is that it takes all the stress from my connective tissues.
3) I’m a big believer in pre exhaust supersets. For example, I’ll do a set of 20 for clapping pec decks (clap my hands at the top portion of the movement) and immediately do a set of 20 for incline dumbbell presses. Doing so stresses the chest muscles more so if I performed incline dumbbell presses alone.
Plus, it forces me to use lighter dumbbells which take a lot of stress off of my connective tissues. There are some weeks where I just do pre exhaust only sessions. This technique works like magic. You can read about this technique here.
4) I love supersets. I’ve come to rely on supersets for my arms, hamstrings and shoulder movements. I don’t use anything else for my arms. I do 3 supersets for my arms and bam, they grow like weeds. I’m very proud of my arm development (considering I naturally have small bone structure) which measure about 18 and a half inches cold. I superset bent over rows with seated dumbbell press, shrugs with front plate raises and seated leg curl with stiff leg dead lifts. Here’s a sample routine using this technique.
5) I make down the racks my buddy. Often called “drop sets” down the racks are exactly what the name implies, going down the rack in a descending manner (heavier to lighter dumbbells). These work great for dumbbell shrugs, dumbbell curls, dumbbell extensions, side laterals or anything else using dumbbells.
Start by picking a weight that you can comfortably perform 15 repetitions. Without any rest, pick a lighter weight and do another 15. Put the weight down and immediately use a lighter dumbbell and perform another 15. Do this until you’ve performed 4 sets of “down the racks”. Here’s a sample workout for the dumbbell press using this technique.
6) I’ve modified certain compound movements that take the stress off of my connective tissues. Here’s an example. I can’t squat anymore so I use two exercises that are just as effective. First I perform a set of 20 reps for the stair step ups (using a low step) for each leg. Once the exercise is done I lean against the wall and perform a squat hold for 20 seconds (just above parallel). Believe me, your legs will start to quiver and shake when you’re performing the wall squat hold! However, this movement doesn’t leave my knees or hips aching afterwards. Click here to see how to perform stair step ups.
7) I’ve modified my grips. All my dumbbell movements are now performed with my palms facing each other. I used to perform all my dumbbell movements with my palms facing forward but I found out that it puts undue pressure on your rotator cuffs.
Try this little experiment. Raise your arms like you’re going to do a dumbbell press. In the raised position, let your hands totally relax and see what position they’re in. I’m guessing your palms are facing each other or pretty close to it. This is they’re natural position. Now twist your palms forward like your holding a barbell and pay close attention to your shoulders.
Do you feel your shoulder tightening and twisting in order grasp the barbell? This is an unnatural position for your hands and shoulders. This is why I rarely use a barbell anymore. I always use a machine with inward facing grips or perform my dumbbell movements with my palms facing each other. Doing so takes the stress off of my already injured rotator cuffs and biceps tendon.
8) I make sure to keep my elbows in on all pressing movements. I never flare my elbows out and keep them tucked into my sides when doing pressing movements. For example, when I perform a set of decline dumbbell presses, my elbows are kept tucked into the sides of my abdomen and I never, ever allow my elbows to flare (high risk of re-injuring my rotator cuffs).
I also keep my elbows to the front of my body instead of the sides when performing dumbbell presses. It just feels more natural and takes all the pressure off my upper biceps tendon and sensitive rotator cuffs. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides when doing lying or incline dumbbell presses and keep your elbows in front of you (instead of your sides) when performing seated or standing dumbbell presses.
9) I perform all my movements inside my imaginary box. For example, let’s say I’m performing seated dumbbell shoulder presses. I never let my elbows come down to the point where it is below the bottom of the box and I never let my arms extend at the top part of the movement where it goes past the top of the box. Let’s do an experiment to clarify my point. Raise your arms like you’re going to do a seated dumbbell shoulder press.
At the start of the movement, chances are your hands are close to your shoulders. Raise your hands to the point where your elbows are perpendicular to your shoulders. It should form a “line” staring with your left elbow and extends across your shoulders to your right elbow. That is the bottom portion of the box. Raise your arms to the point where it is about 2 to 3 inches away from full extension. This is the top part of the box. I never let my elbows come down past the bottom part of the box and I never break the top part of the box.
By doing my movements in this fashion, it takes a lot of the pressure off of my sensitive biceps tendon and rotator cuffs.
10) I’ve stopped squatting and hack squats (too much pressure on my knees and hips). I now use a machine leg press and keep my knees close together (instead of facing outward to take pressure off my hips). I never use the low position setting. I try and use a high position setting so that I don’t over extend my hip joints.
11) I love doing 21’s. This method works great for preacher curls, dumbbell curls, barbell curls, pec deck, and triceps extensions. It’s a simple technique but it is magical. To perform a 21 set, simply start the movement like you normally would but here’s what you do:
– Perform 7 half repetitions using the top part of the movement. Next, do 7 more repetitions using the bottom half portion of the movement. Next perform 7 regular repetitions for the entire movement. That’s it. Use a weight that you would normally get 12 comfortable repetitions with. Here’s a sample routine using 21’s for the pec deck.
12) I do much more cardio these days. Back in my early days, I never did cardio because I wanted to be huge at all costs. That was a mistake. I should have been performing my cardio just as hard as I was lifting weights. In fact, I now know that I perform 50% better in the weight room if I’m in better cardiovascular condition. I do 30 to 45 minutes of moderate cardio after my workouts and on my days off I do some high intense cardio with abs. I take on day off from cardio. I used to hate cardio with a passion but now I’ve come to love it. When I see someone giving it their all on the cardio machines, I give them props and respect because I know how hard it is. Also, I’m getting older and I need to take care of my heart!
13) I don’t go the big compound movements anymore. Here’s how I substituted these movements:
Bench press: I now pre exhaust using the pec deck and either do decline dumbbell presses or seated machine presses. Sometimes I’ll use the 20 by 20 technique using incline dumbbell press.
Seated barbell press: I now superset bent over laterals with modified grip seated shoulder presses.
Barbell squats: I now superset stair step ups with wall squat holds or modified leg presses.
Barbell bent rows: I get muscle spasms from bent over rowing so I now perform seated one arm rows using the row machine. I use the 20 by 20 technique and it works like magic. I can’t believe how my back has developed using this technique.
Dead lifts: I now use modified stiff leg dead lifts. I can’t use heavy weight so I concentrate totally on squeezing my legs and buttocks at the top part of the movements. I keep my knees slightly bent.
I can’t eat like I used to. There was a time when I could eat a bicycle and after digesting it, it would all go to solid muscle mass (ok, not a bicycle but some very heavy food). Those days are gone. These days, depending on what I eat, it all goes to my waist. I’ve had to modify my diet to cut back on the starchy carbohydrates and heavy protein sources. I use more fibrous carbohydrates with limited starchy carbohydrates and lighter protein sources. I really have to watch my fat intake. I keep my fat intake to 15 grams and under for each meal.
I use to be a real stickler for making sure I ate at least 1 to 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. These days I go by feel. I know my diet is on when I feel tight, light and energized. This can mean my protein intake is .5 grams per pound of body weight or sometimes even lower.
It depends on how I feel. If I start to feel flat, I increase my protein intake until my muscles start to feel “fuller”. If I feel low on energy I’ll increase my intake of fibrous carbohydrates. If I feel bloaty I’ll cut back on my fat intake. I’ve noticed that the more fibrous carbohydrates I eat, the better I feel.
These days, I eat 1 to 2 cups of fresh or frozen fibrous carbohydrates with each meal. I’ve eliminated all white (potatoes) and processed starches from my diet. However, I do love sweet potatoes because they taste great plain and have a much lower glycemic index than white potatoes. I’ve cut back on my intake of red meat and increased my intake of fresh fish and turkey breasts.
I couldn’t be happier with the change because I’ve lost close to 20 pounds of fat in just under a month and a half and feel tight, muscular and I can see my toes again! Just kidding, I would never let myself go out of shape that bad…
I always make sure my diet is consistent and steady. My body doesn’t like surprises and as soon as I have a cheat meal or something bad, it goes right to my stomach. Every now and then I’ll have a little chunk of dark chocolate or some popcorn.
I try and drink at least 12 to 16 ounces of water after every meal and I’ve cut back on my intake of supplements. I don’t use protein powders or pre workout drinks anymore. I just feel like I’m making great progress without them. Also, pre workout drinks put me into an overly excited state which, If I get to much into myself, I’ll do something stupid in the gym and reinjure myself. The supplements I do use are:
I’ve stopped taking post workout drinks. The reason is that it’s gotten way too expensive and most of the drinks are too hard on my stomach. These days, I use something that will shock you!! Seriously, it’s something most people would never think of using. However, it makes me feel great! Check it out here.
Do you want to know what kills your diet? It’s the little things. The double creams and double sugars in your coffee, the added sodium in just about everything packaged, the added sugar in drinks, food and dairy. Here’s a little tip, if you’ve stopped losing weight and don’t know why take a hard look at those supplemental foods that you take in (coffee and stuff like that) and check the sodium on your food labels.
Sodium has a way of keeping your water weight high so cut back on that stuff. The same goes for sugar; it throws your internal balance off. Learn to drink your coffee and tea black. Throw your salt shaker out and start using salt substitutes (Herbamare by Vogel is great). Cut back on your diary and only use skim milk. Also, cut back on your intake of red meat and start consuming more fish or lean white protein sources such as turkey breasts. Try and have fish at least twice a week for dinner with a spinach salad and small portion of starchy carbohydrates such as brown, long grain rice (make sure it’s no bigger than the size of your fist).
I know myself well enough to know that if it’s in my house it’s going to get eaten. It doesn’t matter if its moose meat or a bag of chips, it’s all going down. When I want to cut weight and get into my best shape the first thing I do is purge my cup boards. All junk food is given to my next door neighbor or thrown out. Chips, pop, chocolate, sweets, candy, and fatty processed foods all go. The next thing I do is get my menu plan organized according to my goals. These days I want to stay lean so my diet is geared to my training and goals.
After that, I go to the grocery store and do my shopping (usually on a Sunday). I’ll cook up all the foods that can be stored such as brown rice, brown pasta, vegetables, salads, chicken breasts and chop up all my vegetables such as onions, broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, and other vegetables and store in Tupperware to keep in my fridge. I’ll stick my menu on my fridge so I know which foods need to come out.
I’m pretty busy so most of my meals are quick and easy which is why I cook most of my food ahead of time. I simply take my Tupperware out and re heat, easy peasy.
If you’re looking for sample menu plans aimed at fat loss, try this page here.
I know that I can’t train like I did when I was a young man. In fact, I can’t do most of that stuff anymore. However, I’ve learned how to adapt to my bodies changes and have learn to train around my injuries. No, I don’t look like I did 20 years ago but I’m still big, muscular and in much better cardiovascular condition. I’m down to about 230 pounds (from 250) in just under two months and plan on getting down to 220 in the next month. I haven’t been 220 pounds since my first year of university! Who knows, maybe I’ll cut down to 210 pounds just to see what I look like…
If you’re 40, 50, 60 or even 70 years of age, I can reassure you that you can build muscle and get nice and lean. It doesn’t matter who you are because the real trick is adaptation. Once you figure this out, you’re going to find out all kinds of cool things about your body. You’re going to find muscles where you never knew you had muscles! You just need to find the right diet and exercise combination that matches your lifestyle, current condition, gender, age and metabolism.
Here’s a short success story of how this 51 year old went from the worst shape of his life to his best.
I’m going to put this out there. If you’re older and want to get into shape, build muscle and get lean contact me and I’ll help you find your footing. In fact, if you’re interested in a custom diet and training program, I’ll work with you to put something together.
Just go to this page here to contact me. I want to help so don’t be afraid to ask me a question. I’ll get back to you in a few hours.
Do me a favour and share this with someone who you know can use this important information.
Good luck and all the best,
Building Muscle 101
Blake has been weight lifting for about 28 years now. He's 45 years of age and started seriously training when he was 18 years old.
Blake is the founder of Building-Muscle101.com, a successful fitness website that has been around for more than 15 years.