In this post, we present our top 10 tips for mature lifters. Who or what are mature lifters? If you decided to take a closer look at this post, then you probably classify yourself as one.
You like lifting weights, being fit and looking fit. You’re well past 40, but you don’t feel you need to or want to give up lifting, despite the increasing challenge. If you have it your way, you’re going to keep lifting for the rest of your life! And so you should. I definitely applaud that.
Let’s face it; lifting isn’t what it used to be 20 or 30 years ago. If you’re mature, and still lifting, then either you’ve done a good job of overcoming the challenges, or you’ve been lucky. If you stopped lifting because one of the challenges got the better of you, then read on. The advice here may enable you to return to lifting and help you find your mojo again.
So, what challenges?
The challenges of maturity
That’s a kind word, ‘mature’. It sounds like a compliment. What it really means is you’re getting old, and your body is in decline. But you can choose how well you age and how capable you remain. You just have to do the right things and avoid the wrong things.
But before we look at what those things are, here’s a recap on the challenges and consequences of getting older.
Your physiology changes
When it comes to vitality and muscle building, testosterone is supreme. As an older lifter, your testosterone is well past its peak. That’s going to affect your ability to build or retain muscle.
Other physiological changes take place. Insulin sensitivity and general blood sugar control declines. This can affect your energy levels, ability to exercise, and ability to recover. Your responsiveness to adrenaline declines and this affects, among other things, your ability to mobilise fat stores or to raise your heart rate to maximum levels. All these changes mean your ability to work hard, to burn calories, to stay lean and look great is compromised.
Your posture deteriorates
If you were to mimic an older person, what would you do? Stoop over, round your upper back? Most people end up in that posture. Their transition to that shape takes place gradually. Most people, by their 50s, are well on the way.
Posture affects the way you move your joints. Bad posture may prevent certain movements. If you hunch, your breathing may be affected. You may get pains.
Poor posture will affect your ability to lift properly. It will impact the smoothness of the movements, the amount of weight you can lift and your susceptibility to injury. It may accelerate the degeneration of your joints.
You didn’t used to hurt, did you? Twenty or thirty years ago you could charge about and do all sorts of rufty-tufty activities without so much as a twinge. Not any more. You wake up with stiffness. Your back aches. And why are your knees tender? You get little niggles all the way through your workout. Your shoulders feel tight.
All these little pains and niggles tend to make you lift with caution and remind you that you could get an injury if you’re not careful.
You break more easily
Your muscles aren’t as pliable as they used to be. Your joints may be a little worn, and their tracking may be a little off. You might have a build-up of trigger points and gnarly inelastic connective tissue.
Things like this make you more susceptible to injury. Injury takes longer to heal when you’re older, and it could put you out of action for quite a while. As an older adult, you’re going to find it harder to keep your shape and fitness while you’re out of action.
The top 10 tips for mature lifters
First of all, let me reassure you: you’re never too old to build muscle. In that article, you’ll find some more information on building muscle as you get older.
But here we’ve distilled down the advice into bite-sized nuggets of know-how. You can stay fit, strong, lean and (relatively) youthful by following these top 10 tips for mature lifters.
1. Be very posture aware
For a start, poor posture will affect the way you look. It’ll make you look older. But in terms of lifting, poor posture can be disastrous. When your posture is poor, your joints are out of position. That means some muscles are chronically elongated and some are shortened. If you then put a lot of force through those joints and muscles, you can do a lot of damage.
Your body may find ways around the problem, but that might be just as bad. For example, if your upper back is stiff, your lower back may tend to mobilise to compensate. You may then inappropriately use the lower back more than normal. If you’re lucky, you’ll just get backache. But you could pop a disc if you’re using your lower back too much in, say, deadlifts.
Start by understanding what constitutes good posture. Your pelvis should be level, your spine long with its natural curves and your shoulder blades tight to your ribcage and not rolled forwards. Your hips, shoulders, thoracic spine and ankles should be mobile, while your lower back, knees and shoulder blades should provide stability.
Include in your routine exercises that will strengthen your postural muscles. Often this will mean working on your core, glutes, rotator cuff and upper back muscles.
We’ve written a lot about posture in the past. For example, read about the top 5 exercises for improving posture.
We’ve also got several posture workouts for £1 each in the shop.
2. Do your foam rolling and stretching
The quality of your muscles declines over time. For example, you might get knots and trigger points. These will affect your muscles’ ability to contract and to elongate to their full length. And your connective tissue, such as fascia, can get a little ‘sticky’.
If you do it regularly, then foam rolling can help to keep these things at bay. A daily foam roll can be almost as good as a regular sports massage for keeping your muscles and connective tissues in good condition. Some muscles are impossible to get with a roller and require more precision. So, I’d advise getting the full paraphernalia for rolling. Soft roller, hard roller, lumpy roller, small ball, large ball, peanut roller, hand-held knobbler and so on. Oh, and your own thumbs. The more tools you have, the more effectively you can keep on top of lumps and bumps.
Not only do your muscles get lumpy, they tend to become chronically shortened. That’s either because they are posturally challenged or not elongated after being worked. Muscles adapt to their time-averaged range of motion. Keep moving them through their full range and keep stretching them.
You should stretch whenever you have worked out while you are still warm and pliable. First of all, always stretch the muscles that are chronically tight due to posture challenges. Second, stretch any muscle you have just worked, or that is still sore from a previous workout. Stretching will help you recover more effectively after your workout. You’ll find a lot more details in our article about cooling down after exercise.
When you’re young, you can get away with not doing your rolling and stretching. When you’re a mature athlete, it’s critical. If you want longevity, don’t neglect it. Build it into your lifestyle.
3. Work around niggles
If you have a niggle somewhere, something that hurts a bit when you’re training, then change your training to eliminate the pain. Whatever you do, don’t ‘train through it’. Because you’re a more mature adult, the chances are it’ll just get worse.
A typical example is forearms; a little niggle in the forearm when doing pull-ups. Or a bit of pain at the elbow. Don’t keep doing pull-ups. You won’t shrink just because you swapped them out for a few weeks. Change your grip and do chin-ups. Often, you can eliminate a pain that is present when the wrist is pronated simply by supinating instead. Or if all vertical pulls hurt, then try rows. If they hurt, then go for straight-arm pull-downs and cobras.
There are almost always viable options for working the target body part. Rather than rest completely, or worsening the niggle, train around it by using alternatives.
4. Don’t persist with troublesome exercises
Some exercises have a reputation for being must-haves. Back squats and bench press are examples. They’re great exercises, and you should do them if they don’t cause any issues and you get great results from them.
But if they make you sore – in a bad way – then don’t persist with them. The soreness is a clue! They’re doing you more harm than good, wearing away your joints and causing inflammation. Ditch them and find alternatives before you prematurely end your lifting career!
I used to do back squats because I felt they were a must-have. But they never felt right, and I struggled to get to poundages that I felt should be achievable. I ditched them long before I found out I had arthritis in my right hip caused by a femur shape irregularity. I swapped to front squats with a narrower stance. By doing so, I prevented that bump on my femur from entering the hip socket and causing discomfort.
A lot of clients have problems with back squats. You need full mobility in the ankles, hips and spine to get them right. Often we’ll use a safety bar and raise the client’s heels to enable them to squat to a reasonable depth. If they can’t squat at all, then we’ll use lunges or other single-leg exercises.
The bench press is another troublesome exercise. For a lot of people, it hurts their shoulders. A lot of the time, this is caused by a lack of mobility in the shoulder complex and spine. If bench press hurts you, then take a break from it, use an alternative exercise. In the meantime, get rid of the lumps and bumps, work on your posture and mobility, then return to it. If it still hurts then just ditch it and find something else. It won’t ruin your life if you don’t bench.
Upright rows with a bar are another notorious exercise for causing problems. Just don’t do them. You can build impressive shoulders with lots of other great options.
5. Use good form
It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many people use bad form, mostly because they are unaware of what constitutes good form.
Common examples of poor form would be
- Squats: chest collapsing, lower back rounding or ‘stripper squats’, where your bum comes up quicker than your torso.
- Deadlifts: rounded back or ‘stripper’ style movement.
- Bench press: bouncing the bar off your chest or protracting the shoulder blades.
- Pull-ups: hunching your upper back and bringing your knees up to your chest
- Seated shoulder press: arching your lower back.
- Standing curl: arching your lower back
The list could go on. There are very few exercises that are impossible to do with poor form.
There’s a high probability that poor form will, at some point, lead to injury. At the very least it will accelerate wear and tear.
6. Use the right weight
You used to lift a tonne of weight when you were younger. If you still can, and you experience no pain, then hats off to you! But in general, you shouldn’t try to match your former self. And in many ways, it’s not necessarily a wise idea to try and lift heavy. When you lift, some of the strain is taken up by the connective tissues such as tendons and cartilage. The more weight you use, the more stress you’re putting on those tissues and the more likely they are to get damaged. This is especially true as you get older.
If your aim isn’t strength per se, but you just want to build muscle and look good, then you don’t need to go super heavy. Providing you take your sets to the max, you can still stimulate the fast-twitch fibres by doing sets in the 8-15 rep range. Unless you are a powerlifter or Olympic lifter, you might be better off lightening a little as you get older.
Now that’s not to say you should go light. Too low a weight and too many reps will be ineffective for building strength or muscle. Your load should feel heavy from the first rep, and getting to 12 should require all your effort. If you’re failing at more than 15 reps, take the weight up. If you’re failing at seven or less on the first set, take the weight down.
7. Train smart
What does that mean? It just means finding ways to achieve your goals without putting yourself at risk.
For example, let’s say you’re strong enough to squat a heavy load, but you’re worried about putting too much stress on your joints. You don’t want to ditch the squat because you know how effective it is. The solution might be to pre-fatigue your quads before you squat. Knacker out your quads, then squat. You’ll be able to handle a lot less weight, sparing your joints, but your thighs will still get taken to their limit.
Or maybe you can press good weight overhead, but you have an ‘awareness’ of the pressure through your shoulder joints. Do a superset. Do a set of lateral raises and follow them immediately with the presses. You’ll feel your muscles a lot more and your joints a lot less.
Earlier today, I trained my legs. But I needed to give my dodgy hip a break. I know from experience that full-range movements of the hip joint are more likely to cause issues than shallower movements. Squats, lunges and leg presses are out. But I can do sled pushes ‘til the cows come home without any problem. The problem with sled pushes, even heavy, is that they do not elicit the kind of stimulation that I was seeking. There is no negative on a sled push, so they do not produce the same amount of (good) ‘damage’. The solution: leg curls, leg extensions and sissy squats supersetted with heavy sled pushes. Sometimes I’ll do this kind of thing with a tri-set or even a giant set. It’s knackering, but kind of fun!
So, training smart just means finding ways to stimulate your muscles fully, while protecting yourself from pain, damage or injury. You need to have a few tricks in your repertoire to give yourself lots of options.
8. Do compound movements
One of the fundamental properties of compound movements is that they stimulate more of your muscles and fatigue the nervous system really well. That’s great for boosting testosterone and growth hormone. When you’re a mature lifter, that’s an important outcome.
If you can do squats and deadlifts without issue, then do them and keep the weight challenging. If, like me, you can’t do those exercises, find other compound movements. For example, I can still do power cleans. They work your body in a similar way to deadlifts but, as the weight is a lot lighter, they do not aggravate my hip. I’ll also do heavy sled pulls, landmine push presses, heavy sled pushes, military presses and kettlebell cleans. They’re all knackering and will all stimulate your nervous system massively. Most of them don’t have a negative portion of the rep, but they will still boost your power and strength and, importantly, your hormone response.
For a more in-depth discussion, have a look at our previous blog on the topic of full-body exercises.
9. Focus on nutrition
As you get older, your ability to hang on to your hard-earned muscle deteriorates. For a start, your testosterone declines. But you also gradually find you can lift less, and the frequency of little setbacks increases.
In terms of physiology, you gradually develop anabolic resistance. That means you develop a diminished response to the anabolic signals of resistance training and protein intake. It’s one of the reasons why sarcopenia takes hold as you reach your later years.
But, you can do a lot to negate the physiological changes associated with ageing if you get your nutrition on point. Here’s a brief rundown
- Get enough protein: at least 20g per meal, several times per day.
- Get good quality protein: an effective amino acid profile with plenty of leucine. Leucine has been shown to improve muscle retention in older adults. In general, animal protein has a better profile than vegetable protein. Consider supplementing with Branched Chain Amino Acids or leucine if you’re vegetarian or vegan.
- Keep your carbs up: at least 50% of calories. As long as you remain active, your blood sugar control should be healthy. Keep to low GI carbs. Carbs will feed your brain, elevate your mood, give you energy and, importantly, help you retain muscle.
- Get plenty of fruit and veg: Ten portions a day of varied fruit and vegetables. The more goodness you can get, the better you will feel, the more energy you will have, the better your body will function.
- Get anti-inflammatory foods regularly: fish oils and turmeric are examples. You want to make sure your joints stay healthy and well oiled and that any soreness or inflammation from your lifting endeavours are kept at bay by the positive influences of anti-inflammatory foods.
10. Do your cardio
You love lifting. I know how it is; I love lifting. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that lifting is the only exercise you need to keep you healthy. For lots of reasons, it’s beneficial to do both cardiovascular exercise and resistance training.
From the perspective of a seasoned lifter, endurance exercise has some benefits. For a start, it will strengthen your heart and improve the blood supply to your muscles. But it will also help you develop metabolic flexibility – the ability to utilise fat or carbohydrate to fuel your activities. By improving your ability to oxidise fat, cardio will help spare muscle glycogen and muscle protein from being used for energy. This will help you hang on to your precious muscle.
And as if that wasn’t enough, cardio will also help you age well and go on for longer. Anything you can do to keep The Grim Reaper at bay has to be a good thing!
So there you have it: our top 10 tips for mature lifters. If you enjoy pushing yourself by lifting weights and you want to keep doing it for as long as you can, take good care of yourself. Dedicate enough time to keeping your body in good working order; put a lot of thought into injury prevention; make smart decisions in your selection of weights and exercises and get regimented with your nutrition and lifestyle. Eat well, lift well, lift forever.