Giving a person something that they desperately lack can make a huge difference to that person’s life. A thousand dollars can be life-changing for someone living on the poverty line while a billionaire would likely not bat an eyelid over it. It’s the same for strength – one does not appreciate the role that strength plays in their life until they find themselves in a situation whereby they lack the strength to perform simple activities of daily living. Things that we take for granted when we’re young becomes a huge task as we get older and lose muscle mass. Simple everyday activities of living – getting up off the floor, walking up a flight of stairs or playing with our grandkids become really tough when we’re not strong enough to do so.
Strength is something that everyone loses as they age – this is an irrefutable fact and occurs whether you like it or not. This process creeps up on you – after age 30, you lose about 3-5% of muscle mass per decade. The general population’s reaction to seeing a loved one getting weaker is to help them avoid doing physical activities. Grandma finding that walking is getting her exhausted? Let’s get her a wheelchair or mobility scooter. Grandpa can’t quite load the groceries into his car? Let’s just get the groceries delivered to his home. Granted, these actions come from a good place and we’re trying to make life easier for our loved ones. Unfortunately, this is doing them a massive disservice. Lowering the activity level of someone in an already weakened state is a surefire way to accelerate their muscle atrophy. If one does not consistently utilise their muscles to produce sufficient force to ensure that they maintain their ability to do so, the inactivity exacerbates the natural ageing process of muscle atrophy – a double whammy.
Getting a weak older adult stronger is like handing the keys to their independence back to them. That’s why I love working with older adults. Sure, it’s pretty cool to work with young guys and get them big and strong. However, nothing beats the satisfaction of making a difference in an older adult’s quality of life. When my 64 year old client tells me that she’s no longer osteoporotic or when my 70 year old client who had a stroke in the past is now capable of standing up from the floor on his own as a result of getting stronger through barbell training – that brings warm feelings to my heart.
What would you do when you’ve found something that gave you your physical independence and quality of life back? Well, you’ll most likely share it with your family and friends so that they can also experience it themselves. Almost all of our older clients, pleased with the difference that their newfound strength has made in their lives, are very keen to share their experience and encourage anyone who is willing (or sometimes unwilling) to listen that they too can and should get stronger. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm is usually met with loads of pushback when they share that they’re doing barbell strength training. Common comments they’ll get are “That looks so dangerous!” “Should you be lifting that much weight?” “Do be careful or you’ll hurt your knees/back” or “Oh, I can’t do that because I have (insert injury here)”. These comments usually stem from misinformation, a lack of understanding and/or bad experiences with barbell training.
There are many modalities that one can utilise to get stronger but barbell training is by far the best tool to get strong, bar none (a little pun intended). The case for barbells being the best tool for getting strong has been written about extensively and is outside the scope of this article.
The common perception about “barbell strength training” is that it’s about strong young males lifting heavy weights and not something that older adults should engage in. If you are an older adult and if you didn’t spend your whole life sitting in a chair and being overly cautious, you’ll probably have collected some “life experience” along the way – aches, pains and probably some injuries. If you somehow managed to get through without any injuries, you’ll still have to deal with this little thing called degeneration – another unavoidable process. Can older adults with “life experience” train safely with barbells and realise the benefits that barbell training provides? Most definitely so – we see it all the time here at the gym.
When older clients first come in to train, we always start off with a chat and get them to fill out a questionnaire so that we’re up to speed on their physical condition. Once we have a better understanding of our client, we will be cognisant of their limitations and/or any injuries. We know that the barbell lifts that gives our clients most bang for their buck would be the four main lifts – squat, press, deadlift and bench press. However, we also understand that our clients may not initially be able to perform these lifts as prescribed either due an injury and/or lack of strength. The end goal is to get our clients strong performing these lifts as prescribed or as close to it as possible within their capabilities.
The first lift that we always start off with is the squat. What our new client doesn’t realise (now they will after they read this) is that we’re observing them from the moment they’ve stepped into the gym. We’re observing them how they walk, sit and stand. Using these observations, we can get a rough sense of where they are physically and can gauge if they possess the strength to squat down to proper depth (hip crease below the top of the patella) and stand back up. If we suspect that they might not be able to stand back up, we’ll start off with box squats. While we might be wrong and the client is indeed able to stand up back up, it’s better to have the box and not need it than to need the box and not have it. Just imagine that your client squats down and can’t get back up. Either they falls to the ground or you’ll have to help them up. Both ain’t good and may result in the client being embarrassed, disheartened and not wanting to carry on training, which is a real bummer because they’ll miss out on what being stronger can do for them (ask me how I know). Once again, let me emphasise that it’s always good to err on the side of caution.
After talking to the new client about the squat, we’ll start practising the lift by first stacking a bunch of plates for their first box squat. We’ll instruct them to squat down till their butt contacts the plates and then to immediately stand back up, while taking care that they don’t fully rest at the bottom. This is to ensure that they learn that one does not relax at the bottom of the squat so that it’s one less thing to worry about when the client transitions to a “normal” squat. Starting with a high stack of plates, we’ll slowly lower the height every set till we reach an appropriate height – challenging for the client but with the client still being able to maintain good technique (Fig. 1). The end goal of box squats is to slowly lower the height of the box over time so that the client is eventually able to squat to the proper depth and stand back up without the box. Once they are is strong enough to do that, we’ll gradually start to add load. When we say add load, we don’t mean immediately placing a 20kg barbell on their back and telling them to squat it. We have speciality bars weighing as little as 5kgs that can be used to start with. What if 5kg is still too heavy to start with? In this case, the client can hold a 1.25kg weight plate in their hands and squat and slowly increase the weight over time until they are able to squat 5kg.
Now, what if a new client is able to squat to proper depth on Day 1 but lacks the shoulder flexibility to perform the squat that we prefer, the low bar back squat? The preference for the low bar back squat has also been written about extensively and is outside the scope of this article. Older adults, especially older men, have a higher incidence of shoulder flexibility issues and tend to struggle getting the barbell in the low bar position. When we encounter this, we first need to establish what’s causing the inflexibility – is it a structural issue or a strength issue? If it’s a structural issue, nothing non-invasive can help so we need to work around the issue. The first alternative that we use is a high bar back squat, whereby the bar sits up on the upper trapezius. Most people can get into this position relatively easily, although it may be slightly uncomfortable at the start for some. For others, even a high bar position challenges their shoulder flexibility. In this case, a safety squat bar may be used so that their shoulders are flexed – instead of being abducted and medially rotated – a much easier position to assume. One problem, however, is that safety squat bars are usually way too heavy to start with. This issue can be overcome with a simple solution – the 5kg bar can be made to mimic a safety squat bar by using wrist straps (Fig. 2). For individuals who do not have structural issues with their shoulders, this modified safety squat bar is a step towards a high bar back squat and eventually (if possible) a low bar back squat.
‘This is but a brief outline of how an older adult with aches/pains/injuries and no training experience can get stronger safely using barbell training. If you’re looking to get stronger to improve your health and quality of life, I implore you to give barbell training a go. Rest assured that it doesn’t matter how much weight you lift or what range of motion you’re able to perform on Day 1. We’ll find an appropriate and safe starting point for you and gradually increase the weights over time. Slowly, but surely, you’ll get stronger and enjoy the benefits that strength brings. One day, as you’re retrieving your luggage from the carousel, it’ll suddenly dawn on you that it’s much easier to do so than it has been in years and you’ll wonder why you didn’t start strength training earlier in your life.
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. It’s never too late to start training for strength. Make a decision to improve your quality of life and commit to getting stronger today.