by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
Most of the reasons you have for not training are actually your best reasons to START training.
Part of my job is to produce helpful content for Athletes of Aging. That’s an imposing term, but it’s really very simple: Athletes of Aging are people who have chosen to approach the second half of life as an extreme sport, as a contest against time and entropy. Athletes of Aging train for the Arena of Life, and for reasons elaborated at length in the book The Barbell Prescription, that training is focused on strength. With barbells.
This training is simple in principle, difficult in execution by its very nature, and astonishingly effective. In fact, it is life-changing. It requires dedication, which can only come from the athlete. That's on you.
But it also requires technical proficiency; a basic understanding of the underlying physiological, medical, and mechanical issues; monitoring and troubleshooting progress; keeping up to date on emerging trends, fads, and scams; and occasional doses of castigation, remonstration, and encouragement, in more-or-less equal measure.
That’s where I come in. I’m a coach.
But today’s essay is a bit different. Unlike most of our material, today’s essay is directed at those on the outside looking in, those who are asking themselves: Can I do that?
To you I say: Almost certainly yes.
And I’m also reaching out to those who are telling themselves: I could never do that.
To you I retort: You are almost certainly wrong.
I’m 61 years old, and I have been coaching older athletes under the bar for a quarter of my adult life. For much longer than that, I practiced adult emergency medicine in a Level 1 trauma center, and I am deeply familiar with both the causes and consequences of limitations in human movement. That is, I daresay, a great deal of experience, and I have no shortage of grey hairs to show for it all. All of those years, all of that experience, and all of those pallid hairs have brought me to a point where I can say to a near certainty that you can get stronger.
Yes, you can.
There are exceptions, of course, but if you are reading this, your chances of not being able to train are of the same order of magnitude of winning the Lotto today.
Let’s do a quick test.
You’ve already passed the first requirement. You’re reading this. You’re literate. This is not a theoretical necessity, but we’ve found that it’s a practical one.
You’ve either sought out this information on your own, in which case you know you need to do something to turn things around, or you’ve been sent to this material by somebody who cares about you. Either way, there’s a recognition of necessity. A moment of clarity, as it were. So we’ve already checked a couple of important boxes.
Can you walk? I’m not asking if you can walk very fast, or if you can walk without pain, or even if there’s a spring in your step. I’m just asking: can you walk from, say, your living room to the bathroom or to the refrigerator? Yes? That’s another box checked.
If, while walking to the refrigerator, you drop the remote control or the popcorn bowl, are you capable of bending over and picking it up? I’m not asking if it’s easy. Just yes or no. Yes? Check.
Can you stand up out of a chair or off the toilet, with or without using your arms? Yes? Check.
Can you raise your hands up to the level of your face? Because if you can’t, just feeding yourself would have to be a major undertaking. You can? Great. Take another bite, and check the box.
Can you lift your arms up over your head, with your hands pointing to a spot on the ceiling directly over your shoulders, straighten your elbows, and shrug? Outstanding. That’s not just a check, that’s extra credit. Not absolutely necessary, but a great sign.
Can you walk around the block at least once without collapsing? More extra credit.
It begins to appear as if you are a candidate for strength training. Let’s run another checklist.
Do you have diabetes?
Do you have high blood pressure?
Do you have coronary artery disease?
Do you have asthma or COPD?
Are you a cancer survivor?
Do you have osteoporosis, kyphosis (a hump), or vertebral compression fractures?
Do you have arthritis?
Do you have an artificial joint?
Have you had back surgery for pain?
Are you obese?
Do you have chronic low back pain, neck pain, fibromyalgia, neuropathy, or residual weakness from trauma, surgery, or stroke?
Do you have Parkinson disease, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, anxiety, or depression?
If your answer to any of the above questions is yes, I’m truly sorry...because you’re out of excuses. These conditions don’t prohibit training. They mandate training, so that you can become stronger. All of these conditions suck, but they all suck about a million times harder when you’re weak than they suck when you’re strong.
“But wait,” you say. “I can walk, but not very far, and I can stand up, but only by using my arms, and I can rescue a Snickers bar from the floor, but it’s really, really hard and I almost fall down.”
I believe you. Again, these are reasons to train, not reasons to avoid training. Yes, your movements are weak, perhaps even catastrophically weak. Your movements are difficult, and even scary. And they hurt.
But they are movements. You can move, and that’s all we need to turn things around. The Barbell Prescription doesn’t necessarily start with barbells, but it always starts with movement. More precisely, it starts with loaded movement. We start with you, and load the movements you have.
Let’s say you’re a hard case. Let’s say you have fibromyalgia, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, osteoarthritis, very stiff shoulders, and a rather despairing outlook on the future. You come to see me, or one of my many colleagues who do what I do every day. That took courage. I congratulate you. Let’s get started.
Here’s a bench, about as high as a chair. Sit down. Take my hands to steady and assist you. Now stand up. Sit down. Stand up. Sit down. Yes, this is hard work. That’s what we do here. Let’s do a set of five. Rest four minutes. Now let’s do another set of five. Rest again. Now take my hands and let’s do another set of five.
Congratulations. You just did your first squats. Catch your breath for a minute.
Now, here’s a very light five-pound aluminum barbell. Stand on this platform. Do a very simple barbell curl five times. Rest. Do five again. Repeat the five reps, three time. Curls are complete.
Here’s a five pound kettlebell, raised up on a stack of mats so you can bend over, grab it, and stand up with it. Let’s do a set of five, and repeat that 2 more times. Felicitations: your first deadlift workout is complete.
Let’s log all that work in this little composition book. You’ve completed your first workout! Now, you will go home and eat something—lean and rich in protein, fiber, and complex carbs. A roast beef sandwich on whole wheat sounds nice. Scrambled eggs, ham, and an apple? Perfect. Yogurt and granola? Sure. Tonight, you will go to bed a little early. Give me a full eight hours, please. Tomorrow and the day after you will be sore, but that's normal, and that’s why they make Tylenol. On both days you will go for a walk, sore or not. Perhaps around the block, perhaps around the yard, perhaps even just around the couch, but you will walk.
And in a few days you will come back to the gym, and I will take you through more-or-less the exact same workout, only just a little bit harder, with just a little bit more weight. Do it. Log it. Go home. Eat something. Sleep. Come back.
Hey, did you feel that? Something happened. Something changed. Because you’re doing something very special. You're working with training variables-- movement patterns, repetitions, rest times, sleep, nutrition, and active rest. You are manipulating these training variables as part of a long term program aimed at the progressive improvement in performance and health. It's changing you. You're getting stronger. Rapidly.
That’s called training. Training is something athletes do.
You started training, and it changed you. That’s what happened. That's what you felt.
You just became an athlete. Your entire life just changed.
Yes. Yes, you can.
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.