But I couldn’t help but think he had lost his mind when he said this.
In his book, Never let Go, Dan John mentions many times that you should constantly look to expand yourself – learn a new skill, language, lift or sport. So I did. I had some experience with modified Olympic lifts courtesy of having worked as a strength and conditioning coach many years prior, but had never worked on the full lifts.
Given my injury history and build perhaps Olympic lifting was an arrogant choice to make. See, Pavel was spot on, at least in my case, when it came to learning the Olympic lifts. I’ve torn my right hamstring off the bone and had an AC joint repair on the opposite shoulder. I’m also over six feet tall and built more like a swimmer than a lifter. I can squat, but with long femurs and some hip mobility issues I can’t get that “ass in the hole” deep squat that really great lifters can where they seem to be able to put their butt right in the hole between their feet (exactly what Dan is referring to when he teaches the Goblet Squat by the way).
But it seemed fortune favoured me. As luck would have it there was a really good club only a five minute drive from my house, run by an Olympic silver medallist and legend in Australian weightlifting. With international medallists in both weightlifting and throwing training there it was defiantly the exact kind of place I needed!
The coach was really good with me and we worked to build up and refine my technique on the power versions of the lifts before we started adding difficulty by going to full squat versions. Unbeknowst to my coach I have hips that are not designed to squat deep and fast. If you look at my X ray what you will see is that my hip structure is quite short. What I mean is that the covering around the ball of the femur is about a centimetre shorter (half inch for those of you who haven’t yet discovered the metric system or fire).
So when I go deep and fast the spur on the top of the femur just slams into the joint and causes pain. So much pain that now it is a toss up between cortisone and surgery. Excellent. Just what I was looking to do in the lead up to my fortieth birthday.
And all this was what Pavel was talking about when he suggested to me that I am, essentially, too old and stiff and just a little too strong to learn these lifts. See, Olympic lifting requires a great balance of strength, speed and flexibility. Basically, despite not being really strong, I am just strong enough to lift a weight that when placed overhead at speed puts my body at risk. I am also strong enough to accomplish this with submaximal loads and “save” lifts that are not in the correct position. Not exactly a recipe for success.
And all this got me thinking about why we choose certain lifts or practices, especially for guys like me – over thirty-five and carrying previous war wounds.
For instance, why on earth do people hold the Olympic lifts up as being the be all and end all of power training? They may be for younger guys who are built for them and have no injuries, but for guys like me they equal a trip to the surgeon.
I might question as well how come in the US they are pushed so hard when you could argue that they obviously aren’t really that well understood even at elite level. (Want proof? Check out how many Olympic medals the US has won in weightlifting since the 70s. I’ll give you a clue – it rhymes with none. And anyone who says “women medalled” well…hand in your man card on your way out please).
The next train of thought would then lead you to the so called power lifts, the big three of Squat, Bench and Deadlift. Clearly there are many coaches in the US who really understand how to program these and success can be seen in many weight classes, in both genders, at up to international level. But, if you’re me, squatting is problematic due to the hamstring thing, plus I broke my neck in a motorbike race many years ago and heavy squats seem to irritate it. So Bench and Dead might be OK, but big Squats are out.
Oh, but wait, the shoulder surgery I have had means no Bench either. I can do Close Grip, but not Wide. So where does all this leave me?
I’ll tell where this leaves me – looking at my future quite clearly as either the guy who will keep stubbornly trying to fit his square peg body into a round shaped training hole or as the guy who would still like to be able to run around with his nieces in ten years time. If you’re like me and want the latter more than the former, keep reading.
I’ve taken a lot of clues from Dan John about how to work with older guys, cos you know, he’s old. Not only that but I’ve found within Pavel’s RKC system many ways to continue training hard while not breaking myself down.
My training revolves around five things – Joint mobility and flexibility work, strength, hypertrophy, nutrition and conditioning. No great surprises, right? Although there are some twists.
At my age, and with all the injuries I’ve accrued I need to be sure that everything works as well as it can. I’m lucky in that I always do all the joint work with my clients all day long so I usually feel pretty good. But when I notice that I am missing something – perhaps I can’t circle my left ankle one particular way very well, like currently, I will spend extra time doing mobility drills on it to try to improve it. I find a week or so will usually help me to regain this movement.
Taking the time to spend a few extra minutes daily really pays off big time for me.
I also try to find an hour most days to devote to just stretching. For anyone who says they get bored stretching I will ask this – can you ass to ground squat with no load with ease? If not, you probably need to spend some time on flexibility work. Not only that but it will fix your posture and work to loosen all the muscles that grow tight from sitting at your desk all day long. For me, with one leg far stiffer than the other courtesy of the hamstring reattachment I always need to stretch it to at least regain symmetry from left to right (a leading cause of injury is left/ right imbalances).
I tend to mix all of this up by doing a day of hard stretching followed by a day of easy joint mobility work interspersed with things like Indian Clubs, light Get Ups and Windmills. The combination works well and allows me to usually move better than all my clients despite being older and all beat up.
Ian King called flexibility the “last frontier of performance training” over a decade ago and I am just starting to realise why now when I look at all the advances in movement training over the last few years from guys like Gray Cook, Eric Cobb and even the flexibility work of guys like Pavel Tsatsouline and Thomas Kurz.
For some reason Ian King keeps popping in my head when I think about strength. He once said to me that “somewhere between one and ne hundred is the number of reps you need to do, and it’s probably a lot closer to one than you think”.
More recently Dan John has started looking at this in his Easy Strength program where he allows a maximum of ten reps per exercise per day. Pavel too advocates two sets of five in his book Power to the People.
So that’s my guideline. I do two sets of five in the Deadlift and two sets of five in the kettlebell Clean and Press. It may seem simple but it brings results. I leave the gym feeling fresh and invigorated and gain strength week to week.
Last year I heard Dan say that “every man over the age of thirty-five should be spending time on hypertrophy work to delay the loss of muscle”. So I do. That’s the glory of listening to smart people. I don’t need to explain the ins and outs, I can just say “Dan said so”.
I choose kettlebell complexes. Why kettlebells? Because they “fit” my body better. The bar seems to lock me into place a bit too much and makes my elbows and shoulders hurt sometimes but the freedom that two independent bells gives me allows me enough wiggle room to put my body into a position that is easy on me .
My usual complex goes like this:
Double Snatch x 5
Double Press x 5
Double Squat x 5
See Saw Press x 5
I rest two minutes between complexes and repeat this anywhere from two to five times depending on how I feel. My usual number is three to four.
Old guys just can’t get away with what we used to. I’ve never been much of a drinker but I know I can’t handle pizza like I used to be able to. Or chocolate. My main aim each day revolves around three things –
· Good breakfast. Three egg omelette, two cups of vegetables, protein shake and fish oil.
· Drink enough water. I don’t drink coffee but love energy drinks. So sue me. I only have a maximum of two per day, but I should still drink more water. I feel better, look better and my body performs better.
· Don’t eat dinner late. I find that because I start my day early – around 0430 – that I am ready for dinner around 1800. If I eat later it tends to mess with my sleep and I also seem to hold onto body fat more.
I‘m really going to cop some flack here. But unlike many in the lifting community I believe we should spend some time moving around. I’m not suggesting that you do an hour of “cardio” each day. In fact, I think that could be the biggest waste of time on the planet. But there are some activities that benefit us long term and I think we should do them.
The first of these is walking. Really. Chuck on some of those goofy Vibram Five Fingers or similar “barefoot” shoe such as the new ones from Merrell or New Balance and go for a trail walk. Walking on uneven terrain will help to fix a lot of lower leg mechanical issues provided you take the time to observe and work on them while walking. It’s also a neat way to catch up with friends.
This is a forgotten point about the fitness lifestyle. It should be fun and social. We are social animals after all and once you reach a certain age you’ll notice that you don’t often have many chances to catch up with your buds. Walking can do that for you.
The other one I think is really beneficial is swimming. Coming from Australia it is unusual to meet anyone who can’t swim. One of the benefits of swimming is it teaches good posture. You cannot swim well while being hunched up. Nor can you swim well if you don’t figure out how to breathe correctly. Finally, if you swim backstroke I think it’s about the only thing you can that puts you into extension and gives you enough reps that it can actively work to reverse the effects of sitting in flexion all day long. Backstroke could well be the fountain of youth.
Putting it together
I strength train five days per week. This is feasible because I am not going all out every time I train. I train at about 80-85% with low volume so I experience no muscle soreness. I do joint mobility as a warm up and a longer session every other day. I stretch hard two days per week. And finally I walk or swim three days per week.
Yes, it may seem like I do a lot of work, but my strength and hypertrophy training only takes around forty minutes and including my warm up I am done in under an hour. I then add in another hour later in the day of walking. Swimming, stretching or extra mobility work instead of spending time on facebook, watching TV or other time wasting activities.