On weight lifting when you are older

This article reflects an older version of my training program. For a version of my training program and philosophy that has worked much better for much longer, see this NEWER POST on weight training and fitness.

A friend of mine who recently lost a bunch of weight asked me about working out. He asked me because I used to give advice on how to work out when I was younger. You see, I used to be a college football player and power lifter. And like many who lifted heavy iron when younger, once "real life" set in (including marriage, kids, grad schools, jobs, and "adult" responsibilities), I have fallen out of shape, and fallen into being about 50-70 lbs over-weight.

This summer I made a pretty good start at loosing weight. I lost about 15 lbs and have kept it off for 6 months. But what I did that has helped even more is that I have kept working out on weights and cardio for the last 6 months consistently. It's a personal best since college. I have gained a bunch of strength and muscle tone back (although nowhere near as much as I once had).

But I also had to re-train on how to work out as a late-30-something with less testosterone, and far less free time, than the collegiate version of myself, along with several nagging injuries left over from high school and college sports. In particular, I have a rotator cup that is glitchy, a lower back that is much more prone to injury, and tennis elbow from typing too much (let me get this straight: Powercleans with 200-300 lbs when I was a teen didn't tear up my forearms, but grad school typing did???).

Anyway, my re-immersion into working out on a weekly basis has brought me a tiny bit of wisdom I shared with my friend. And now I guess I will share it with everyone else too…

Here are five principles I try and follow working out:

1. Try and work bigger muscle groups first, and move to smaller muscles (generally, this means starting with Leg/Groin area, then chest and back, then shoulders, then arms and calves, ending with abs).

2. Work harder in less time. I prefer to do 1-2 sets per exercise, but go to absolute failure on each set, rather than doing 3-5 sets and arbitrarily stopping at 10-12 reps. It is the last few reps that go to failure that cause the muscles to grow. I normally try to use a weight that will cause me to go to absolute failure in 12-18 reps, but I don't usually count reps. I just go until I can't push or pull it anymore.

Not counting reps (on most exercises) has been a big help to me. I find that I don't compete with myself at every workout, trying to get just one more rep on every set. Instead, not counting reps lets me focus more on the form of the exercise, rather than clawing to get some arbitrary number. Typically I will only count reps on one set of squats, chest, and back. Then I will base my workout weight for other exercises on what I can use for for 12-18 reps on that. Also, when I was younger the preferred rep range was 6-12 reps. That kind of weight injures me easily these days. Better to keep lighter, with better form.

3. A strong core (abs and lower back) will lead to a strong everything else. Thus, make sure you are doing your lower back and hamstring stretches, as well as crunches and superman exercises for basic core strength. My favorite core exercises are:
- Crunches [http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/RectusAbdominis/BWCrunch.html],
- Leg Lifts [http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/RectusAbdominis/BWLyingLegHipRaise.html],
- Superman [http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/ErectorSpinae/Superman.html],
- Side Bends [http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/Obliques/DBSideBend.html]

4. Make use of compound exercises as much as possible. Compound exercises are those that use multiple muscle groups [such as squats or bench press], as opposed to isolation exercises that target only one muscle group [such as leg extensions or dumbbell flyes].

5. Good form trumps high weight. If you are using high weight and doing it with bad form, you are asking for an injury. Drop the weight down to make sure you do the right form, and do it to failure.

And a bonus 6th principle: As long as your knees and lower back are healthy, the SQUAT is the best full body exercise God has given to humanity. Especially the wide-stance, feet-facing-outward, squat-to-90-degrees kind of squat. The distribution of weight down your entire body hits every muscle group, and will cause toning and strength for every muscle group.

I also try to only do exercises I can do at home, or in ANY gym, using bodyweight or dumbbells. For squats I will use barbells because of the sheer weight involved for me. There are several reasons for this. First, there is something psychologically gratifying about lifting one's own body, or a set of weights, and seeing it move from your own effort. I get a lot more psychologically from having free weights in my hands or on my back than seeing a machine move. Second, dumbbells do not really require spotters to be safe. Even with barbell squats, you can just let the weight slip off your back if you get into trouble. However, if you are doing barbell bench or incline press, you can do real damage to yourself if you do not have a spotter. Third, you can literally find free weights anywhere. You don't have to rely on any special equipment only found in a few places. Fourth, free weights allow for you to use the right form for your body. Many machines can be wrong for your body bio-mechanically (especially if you have odd proportions, like my squatty legs and long torso!).

As far as nutrition goes, if you are going to start working out regularly, you need to work on getting protein in. I would suggest finding a WHEY protein powder that mixes easily and that you like the taste of. Then get a shaker or Nalgene bottle, and mix it into 8 oz of cold water or milk. You should be able to get 30-40grams of protein per serving that way, with few calories. If you are working out on a regular basis, you should probably aim at 0.5-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight if possible (so, for a 250 lb person, it would be 125-250g protein per day). if you are not working out regularly with weights, you don't need this much protein.

As far as getting ideas for exercises, I will give you my favorite routine in a second. But if you want a great website that offers a directory of exercises, AND how to do them correctly, I recommend:

That site also has some really good ideas for exercise routines. I would suggest a one-day, full-body exercise routine. Here are some good suggestions:


Here are some other good suggestions from other sites:

And a bit more advanced:

And this guy is a little crazy (and a bit flamboyant), but he is an older bodybuilder who works mainly at home, and knows how to deal with lower back pain. He has some really good advice for the older weight lifter:

His page on lower back pain is darn-near gospel-truth. Great advice:

Finally, how would I put together a full body workout for a beginner? Something like this:

Full Body Workout using Bodyweight and Dumbbells (maybe Barbells too if you want):

A. Legs, Buttocks, Lower Back: Squats [Bodyweight, Dumbbell, or Barbell]: 2-3 sets x failure at 12-18 reps
B. Pecs, Frontal Deltoids: Incline Press or Bench Press [Dumbbell or Barbell]: 2-3 sets x failure at 12-18 reps

C. Upper Back, Lats: Pullups [Cheating or Assisted], or Bent Rows [Dumbbell or Barbell]: 2-3 sets x failure at 12-18 reps
D. Deltoids, Traps: Upright Rows or Deltoid Side Raises: 2-3 sets x failure at 12-18 reps

E. Hamstrings: Stiff-Leg Deadlifts focusing on Hamstring Stretch: 1-2 sets x failure at 12-18 reps
F. Calves: Calf Raises using Body Weight on Stair [Single leg or Double leg]: 1-2 sets x failure at 12-18 reps

G. Triceps: Reverse Dips or Narrow Grip Pushups: 1-2 sets x failure at 12-18 reps
H. Biceps: Dumbbell Curls: 1-2 sets x failure at 12-18 reps

I. Abdominals: Crunches and/or Leg Raises: 1-2 sets x failure at 12-18 reps
J. Lower Back: Superman: 1-2 sets x 3 reps x hold for 30-60 seconds per rep.

Notice the following:
- You can alternate or superset each of the paired exercises (A-B, C-D, etc.). They hit separate parts of the body, therefore you can do one set while the muscles of the other set recover. This will make your workout faster AND more aerobic.
- Exercises A-D require 2-3 sets because they are bigger muscles, while Exercises E-J require 1-2 sets because they deal with smaller muscles.
- If you don't have time for the full workout, you can split it into 2 days simply by doing A-D on Day 1 and E-J on Day 2.
- REST: I would rest or do cardio for at least 2 days after you get done with the routine. A teenager with tons of testosterone could probably do only 1 rest day in between workouts. But that ain't us anymore.

The workout I personally do is a variation of the above workout [and can be found at files.me.com/bostianbunch/5kfldq]. It includes a list of calories expended in working out and cardio, as well as a calorie list. I use it for diet as well. My diet was going great over the summer. Not so much during the school year. I also intentionally integrate spirituality and prayer into my workout routine, as is shown on the workout sheet. I often pray between sets (and sometimes during!) and use the workout as a time to meditate and intercede for others.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.