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3 Tips for Training After 40

I haven’t quite reached the hill myself yet, however hitting 30 somewhat recently has shifted my perspective on my training from “how hard can we go today” to “I wonder how long I can do this shit for.” A few years back, I witnessed one of the most impressive physical feats I’ve ever seen in person, and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. One of Tim’s (senior) athletes came to him one day with a short-term goal in mind, saying he wanted to bench 315 and do 10 pull-ups for his 70th (yes, 70th!) birthday. I watched closely across the months leading up to his day, and honest to god, I watched a 70-year-old man do exactly what he said he wanted to do: bench 315 lbs. and perform 10 strict, military standard pull-ups. I’ve never been so amazed on a training floor, and I’ve put my fair share of hours in by this point.

Given the constructs of VHP, my work has primarily revolved around 30–45-year-old men over the last several years, so I can confidently say I’ve developed a solid understanding of working with this demographic. And despite my work consisting of, literally, a 98% male population, the contents in this article can just as equally be applied for females. In this, I’d like to cover a few of the top priorities that should be considered with training after 40.

There are some key things to be mindful of once 40 has come to pass. The first of which, is the general decline of several key hormones. Chief among them, is the initial decrements in free testosterone (in conjunction with a rise in estrogen), vitamin D reduction, decreases in natural growth hormone (GH), luteinizing hormone (LH), and DHEA. The accelerated changes in hormone profiles can be wide reaching and erratic. In addition to the hormone profiles, as we continue to age, the body transitions into becoming more aerobically dominant and slow twitch (Type 1) functioning. This is biology’s primary way of preparing for longevity and sustainability, but the consequence being we don’t have as much capacity for things like speed and power.

We also produce less collagen (elastin), meaning tissues become more fibrotic, and fluids become more viscous, meaning reduced flow. A reduction in collogen production compromises the ability to recovery from injury and tolerate physical stress, while the decreased viscosity likely increases the potential for injury or damage to occur because fascia tissues don’t glide or extend as well. In conjunction with the declines in testosterone and GH, muscular damage is a little more pronounced and therefore making it a little more difficult to recover.

And finally adding to the mix, the general shifts in collective life stress that tend to occur in our 40’s, indirectly become training factors. Broadly speaking, people in their 40’s are raising young kids, have higher level jobs that come with increased pressure/stress, and they also tend to be spread very thin across multiple endeavors/commitments. Acknowledging the importance of sleep, hydration/nutrition, stress and emotional management, and consistent recovery/therapeutic modalities become much more significant once athletes/individuals are over the hill. Of course these items are important for any athlete at any age, however, as we get older this essential list becomes increasingly important to manage.

Quite frankly, everyone is different, and responds differently to similar things. And while there is a component that eventually becomes out of anyone’s control, it should be recognized that you are not completely at the mercy of aging and that there are several things that can be done to perturb the onset of physiological declines.

1.) 10% more for 2% less

The overarching point I address with my athletes over 40 is that they are going to have to work somewhat harder for somewhat less return. What this means more literally is that they are not going to be as sensitive to training adaptations (they will need longer training periods to achieve similar progress/gains), and they will need to do more recovery work in order to minimize delays on return. Now this is purely anecdotal, but I believe this 10% more for 2% less concept applies essentially for each decade of aging. But again, generally for individuals in their 40’s this is the first decade they’ll truly experience this.

While 10% more may infer “10% more volume, intensity, or training frequency” that’s not exactly the case. By 10% more, I am speaking mostly to the time, intent, and variation that is required to maintain progress. This can simply be “10% more” time spent on warm-up movement prep, 10% more time dedicated to accessory work, and as we’ve covered 10% more on recovery/therapeutic maintenance. By moderately increasing the attention to detail in these three areas, collectively we have a significant overall increase in training- “Rising tides raise all ships.”

As for the 2% less piece, this is a little bit more self-explanatory, but it’s an important discussion to have with individuals you are working with. The perception of their ability can be skewed, as they will continue to reference “what they’ve done in the past”. With this, it’s your responsibility to help navigate them towards more actionable and sustainable training goals. Moreover, we want to continue to help them understand that sustainability and longevity are the unequivocal priorities, we want to think about how long we can continue to train at a high level, not necessarily how much can be done in single bout efforts.

All things considered this becomes a game of efficiency. How efficient can you be with your training, how efficient can you be with your recovery, how efficient can you be with your work and personal life so that your training time doesn’t get compromised by life’s chaos. Make sure they understand the importance of committing 1-2 hours/day to personal time. The common thought for this population is that they are the centerpiece of safety, security, and support for their family (and often their work). And while this is admirable, if they don’t prioritize their own health and wellness, they will only end up being the one who needs to be taken care of down the road. It’s not selfish to take the time needed to maintain health and wellness.

2.) Do NOT shy away from strength work

One of the most common misconceptions with training as we age is that weights should be less frequent and replaced with items that are more calisthenic or aerobic in nature. And while this is a logical thing to assume, it is patently untrue and should not be the case. I mentioned in the opening of this that our bodies start to naturally shift fast twitch (type II) muscle fibers to slow twitch (type I), predisposing us to being more aerobically dominant. Well, although this may be true, by avoiding the strength (and speed/power) work, we are effectively assisting this process and taking us further away from strength and power capabilities.

We want to go against the grain with training and do what we can to deter the fiber transitions for as long as we can. Another consideration here, is that an absence of strength and power work will exacerbate diminishing nerve myelination. Meaning our nerve fibers will become more fibrotic and less conductive, making messages/signals slower and less potent. Continue your strength training, and I would encourage you to continue training strength, speed, and power as much as reasonably possible for as long as you can. When this is the case, the body slows the shift in fiber type dramatically, and you will effectively be more equipped to tolerate and produce forces with proficiency. Another consideration with strength work is specifically the benefits from hypertrophy (increasing muscle mass). There are two benefits from hypertrophy training that benefit the 40 & up crowd- one is the hormone response we receive from hypertrophy work (increasing serum testosterone), and the other is the benefits it provides for the joints. With things like tendonitis, fasciitis, and arthritis becoming more prevalent in these years, simple hypertrophy work can be a pragmatic way to offset these ailments and help build more robust joints.

3.) My two cents on stretching…

Similar to the misconceptions of avoiding strength work, another common belief is that the older we get, the more we need to stretch. This one is certainly more up for debate, but generally speaking this is something I would disagree with in most cases. The first thing to consider here is if you do something religiously for an extended period of time but aren’t seeing improvement or results, you’re either doing something wrong or doing the wrong thing altogether. And what population does that apply to more than any other…? Yep, you guessed it, the “I don’t know why I’m so tight I stretch every day!” crowd.

While the full breadth of what’s actually occurring during stretching is beyond the scope of this article, we need to recognize that there is an empirical balance with muscular and soft tissue relationships. So largely in part, if we put an excessive amount of time/effort into lengthening tissues without complimenting it with strength applications we are effectively destabilizing the system by taking it further and further out of balance. Stretching is great and when applied correctly in isolated amounts may help and certainly will not do any harm. It should be a part of almost everyone’s program but should only be the priority for few.

I’ve tried to replace the word “stretching” entirely with “movement”, in part because I think stretching has a poor connotation, but also because I don’t think we need nearly as much localized static stretching as we do movement exploration and variable movement. Call it semantics, but this has created a noticeable change for a lot of my athletes. “Stretching” always feels and sounds like chore work, but when we think to simply add 15-30 minutes/day of unplanned, often organic movement it can be received better and ultimately go a long way. I think the primary benefits here include improved proprioception, improved kinesthesia (the body’s ability to detect itself in space), and much of the tissue lengthening and joint mobilization benefits we receive from conventional stretching. A few examples of what I mean by “movement” here: Restorative Series.

Bringing it all together…

Listen, I can’t leave you without mentioning the more difficult conversation to be had, and that is the priority that needs to be placed on general health and routine medical screenings. An annual routine of mine is getting a physical, a dentist appointment, and taking an IQ test on my birthday; I started this when I turned 24 and I can’t tell you how much this helps with that ominous “what if it’s me” feeling. I believe this is something especially pragmatic for individuals over 40, it’s just too simple and too logical to argue. While I get that some people (more common among men) struggle with white coat syndrome, I urge to you appreciate that with almost any major disease or illness the primary variable is time. The earlier something is identified, the more time you have to make decisions and they have to provide what’s needed.

So, I encourage my athletes to tie this right into their standard personal health, wellness, and training portfolio making it a simple way to hold yourself accountable to it. You’re not doing anything extra, it’s just a part of your process. I’ve unfortunately worked with several individuals with serious medical conditions (cancers, stroke, MS), and I cannot express to you how precious good health is. In addition to making the right decisions, do not neglect the medical oversight piece, annual checks can not only be lifesaving, but an enormous subconscious stress relief as well. Nobody is immune.

Final points:

-Recognize the additional time, effort, and likely different modalities that are required past 40; 10% more for 2% less.

-You want to concentrate on efficiency, not intensity or magnitude. Think longevity and sustainability.

-Appreciate the extraneous life/social/work demands and how they influence your training. You must be comfortable committing at least 1 hour/day to yourself, managing the life variables is a priority of training. (1 hour = 4% of your day)

-Don’t shy away from strength work, preserve your strength/speed capabilities.

-Stretching is perfectly fine, but don’t use it as a cure all and don’t go crazy without complimentary strength work.

-If you only ever take a single piece of advice or insight I ever provide, please let it be this- Schedule an annual medical check, dental appointment, and dermatologist appointment. You aren’t invincible, and the rate of external/environmental factors is dramatically rising.

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