One thing my experience in the weight room—and classroom—never prepared me for was turning 59. Or 49. Or 39. You get the point.

Still, if it's true that hindsight is 20/20, my vision of coaching for age is far better now than it was when I was mere youth at, say, 55 years of age.

So how should we train as we age? We need to train "age appropriately," and that is the most obvious thing I have ever said in my life. We need to train to build the qualities we need to ensure quality of life, and quantity of life. Both are important.

Also, don't work out so hard that you kill yourself! As always, the devil is in the details. Let's talk about the specifics of training as we age.

The Right Way To Lift For Your Age, At Any Age


The Training Everyone Needs

A tip of the hat to Nick Rians from FitRanX for the age breakdowns I use. His company understands the need we have to compete and succeed in reasonable, logical steps based on age, size, and gender. I follow his brilliant lead here.

  • Age group one: 16-35
  • Age group two: 36-55
  • Age group three: 56+

I base training on this principle: The fundamental human movements done with appropriate reps, appropriate sets, and appropriate load are the foundation of maintaining and improving human performance in all areas.

The list I use for the fundamental human movements is simple and to the point:

  • Push
  • Pull
  • Hinge
  • Squat
  • Loaded carries

Then there's the "sixth movement." That's everything else, but generally includes crawling, tumbling, climbing, and anything that demands integrity with the environment.

When I talk with adults, I break the movements into three categories: Sex drive, survive, and thrive.

Sex Drive: Lift and Look Good Doing It

Sex drive means looking better, feeling better, and…you can guess where else this leads. In the weight room, it's the hypertrophy moves: the push, the pull, and the squat. They make you look better and drive that wonderful hormonal cascade that fills you with the fountain of youth.

This is an important focus for turning back the clock in the aging process. These bodybuilding moves change lives for the elderly. But, and this is important, before you start worrying about looking great, feeling great and, um, improving your romantic life, you have to make it there!

Sex drive movements are the push, pull, and squat. But, you have to survive to use those lovely muscles.

Survive: Don't Let the Bad Stuff Win

"Survive" comes in two parts. First, it's all the stuff that gets grouped under "the sixth movement." This includes rolling, tumbling, and breaking a fall. If you slip, you will be happy that you know how to fall. If something really bad happens, the ability to climb a rope, or just hang on for a while, could be the difference between life and death.

I expect you to be able to do these for as many years into the future as you can:

  • Stand on one foot for 10 seconds.
  • Hang from a bar for 30 seconds.
  • Complete a standing long jump equivalent to the distance of your height.
  • Squat down, hold it for 30 seconds, and stand up again.
  • Complete a farmer's walk carrying your body weight for "some" distance (a few feet is nice, 100 yards is better).
  • Get your butt to the ground and get it off again by just putting one hand to the ground to assist—or even better, no hands.

Each of these will keep you out of the old folks' home for as long as possible, and give you a few extra seconds if there is a flood, gas leak, or rattlesnake issue.

The Right Way To Lift For Your Age, At Any Age


Thrive: Hinge and Carry

Once you have "survive" and "sex drive" addressed, let's focus on thriving. "Thrive" movements are the hinge and loaded carries. Adding lots of swings and farmer's walks will do wonders for your overall explosion and work-capacity needs. Performance athletes need the thrive movements. Everybody else could use them, too.

Here's how I recommend rationing these out across your life.

Age Group One: 16-35

The focus of this group should be the "thrive" movements. Anything that can make your bow and arrow shoot farther, your hammer pound more, and your stone be stonier is what training is all about in this age group. If I had to give you just two athletic ways to express this, they would be: Do the Olympic lifts an do loaded carries.

After that, you probably still need some "sex drive" work. One stupid thing to do is focus mainly on the sex-drive movements, as many young athletes seem to do. Just do a bit for the basic hypertrophy and mobility it provides.

The Right Way To Lift For Your Age, At Any Age


After that, well, just survive. That means:

  • Don't smoke.
  • Wear your seatbelt.
  • Learn to take a fall.
  • Try not to be stupid!

Remember: If you keep your weight under 300 pounds, wear a seatbelt, and don't smoke, you can do a lot of dumb stuff and still make it to 55.

Age Group Two: 36-55

Age bracket two, those young devils, are the ones who find themselves asking questions like, "why do I walk past an ice-cream store and get fatter," "does belt leather really shrink over time," and "who is that old person in the mirror?"

Lean body mass is dripping off at this age, so whether you're an athlete or a regular joe, you need to train the sex-drive moves. It's finally time to chase bodybuilding!

If you are competing, continue doing those kettlebell swings, snatches, and Olympic lifts. One simple way to manage training is to group workouts into "sex drive" days and "thrive" days.

Michael Warren Brown and I came up with a simple idea for age bracket two:

  • Three days a week of hypertrophy/bodybuilding (mixed with mobility and flexibility)
  • Two days a week of hinges and loaded carries

Here's our simple circuit for three training sessions a week in the weight room.

Circuit: 3-5 rounds
Two-Arm Kettlebell Military Press
15 reps
TRX Pendulum
8-12 reps
Suspended Curl
15 reps
Hip Circle
8-12 reps
5 reps
Suspended Row
15 reps
Alternating Kettlebell Press
5-8 reps
TRX Pendulum
30 secs. (each side)
Ab Roller
10-15 reps

We rotate through this 3-5 times. The idea is to finish feeling better than when we arrived, get a little pump, and take care of global issues.

Then there's the two days a week of hinges and loaded carries. This can be as simple as carrying various sandbags, slosh pipes, and farmer bars up and down the block, separating each carry with 10 heavy kettlebell swings.

Circuit 2: 2-3 Rounds
Farmer's Walk
1 set, 10 meters
One-Arm Kettlebell Swings
Perform with two-arm
15 reps
Goblet Squat
5 reps
5 reps
One-Arm Kettlebell Swings
15 reps
Goblet Squat
1 rep
1 rep

To summarize age bracket two, focus on training the sex-drive movements, but don't be afraid to continue thriving. Then, as always, keep an eye on survival!

Age Group Three: 56+

First: Survive! That means making sure you can meet all of those survival standards I mentioned earlier. If you can't meet any of those standards, then you need to ask yourself why not.

The Right Way To Lift For Your Age, At Any Age


That aside, I would suggest exercise programs that get you down to and up off the ground (that sixth movement), as well as quality movement of any kind. Seek out opportunities to laugh, think, and enjoy friendship.

As important as lean body mass was in age bracket two, this time it becomes an issue of life and death. Remember: Muscle is the fountain of youth!

About the Author

Dan John

Dan John

An All-American discus thrower, Dan has competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting, Highland Games, and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record.

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