by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
Get strong. Then USE your strength.
You’ll often hear it said that the athlete should simply “lift weights and play your sport.” There’s a lot to this concept, but the devil, as always, lurks in the details. On this view, if you do proper resistance training, you’ll improve your ability to produce force and power in a general sense, and if you practice and play your sport, you’ll improve your conditioning for that sport and your ability to produce force and power in the particular way your sport demands. We’ve addressed all this in detail in the conditioning chapter in The Barbell Prescription, but there’s no harm in going over it again.
Let’s say you’re a fencer. Like all athletes, you need to be strong, because strength is the basis of physical performance and resilience. You need power, because power means explosion, and all athletes, with the exception of the most-cardio-of-cardio-bunnies, need to be explosive to some extent. Fencers definitely need to be explosive. You need endurance, not because fencing is itself “so cardio” or because it demands a very high VO2max (it does not), but because you’re an athlete, and athletes have to practice and train, and they have to be in shape to practice and train. A two-hour fencing session requires stamina. And you need balance and mobility, because duh. Of course you do. Strength training in the weight room with squats, presses, deads, benches, and yes, power cleans would be my general training prescription for such an athlete. These exercises will confer total body strength and make bones and tendons and muscles stronger and thicker and more resilient. They’ll train a broad range of motion, and because they make the athlete stronger and (via power cleans) train neuromuscular commitment, they’ll train power as well. My practice and conditioning prescription for the fencing athlete would be…fencing. Fencing practice—drills, sparring, technique work—will produce an appropriate level of skill, specific power development, movement, and so on for fencing. Moreover, fencing will condition the fencer for fencing because…it’s fencing. Fencers don’t have to condition like cross-country skiers or, say, chess players. The best way to practice fencing is to fence. The best way to condition for fencing is to fence. And the best way to train general physical preparation for fencing is to just do the Big Five. No, we are not going to start you out with a 10 lb foil and work our way up to a 100 lb foil to get you “strong for fencing.” Because that would be stupid. In The Barbell Prescription, we argue that this philosophy applies to the Athlete who plays the brutal game of aging well. Like any other athlete—fencer, golfer, ballerina, gymnast, fighter--the Athlete of Aging should train with the basic barbell movements, because strength is not a specific adaptation. But unlike a fencer or a golfer, the conditioning demands for the athlete of aging encompass the entire spectrum of power outputs and energy systems. Because the Athlete of Aging has to be ready for anything—running after a wayward grandchild, bolting out of the path of texting driver, a long afternoon of cleaning the garage, a brisk walk with friends, a training session under the bar. This is a broad range of power outputs. But the entire spectrum of conditioning and energy systems can be captured by the proper use of High Intensity Interval Training with the prowler, rower, sprints, bikes, or other implements. Thus, the Barbell Prescription for the Aging Athlete:
Strength training with the Big Lifts + HIIT.
Now, there are other ways to accomplish a level of conditioning suitable for the Extreme Sport of Aging. Not all sports are created equal. If you are a golfer, you are not as conditioned as you could be. Period. Same goes for other sports that do not capture the high end of the bioenergetic spectrum, like HIIT does. Other sports are very high power output, looking very much like HIIT. These include certain track and field events, swimming, combat sports and martial arts, gymnastic, soccer, and similar sports. The problem for the athlete of aging is that these activities can be a bit rough and involve unpredictable forces and moments, and can have a much higher rate of injury than the stripped-down Barbell Prescription. But there’s a lot to be said for having a sport, or what me might call a physical practice. In other words, there’s a lot to be said for the athlete of aging doing Yoga, T’ai Chi, tennis, Pilates, rock climbing, skiing, or Karate. Provided you’re willing to accept the risks, you may choose to bring the strength, power, mobility, and stamina you have trained into these activities, and make them part of your practice of the extreme sport of aging. Some of them are vigorous enough to obviate the need for conditioning with HIIT. Many are not, but still rewarding and beneficial in other ways, including and especially the intangible benefits of meaning and joy they can bring to our existence. In future articles, we’ll discuss how some of these activities can fit with the Barbell Prescription and the advice to “Lift Weights and Play Your Sport,” remembering always that our sport—the extreme sport of aging well—is unlike any other.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.