Fitness Over Forty: How Should You Train?

Scenario 1: I’m Broken and It’s Been a While…

You’ve got an unrepaired, torn meniscus from high school, some shoulder impingement, and sometimes your thumb clicks when you’re texting too fast.  Not to mention the extra calories over the years has caught up like the compounding interest on a student loan and your 7-year old wasn’t even a thought the last time you hit up Planet Fitness for abs, cardio, and a pizza reward.  Yeah, you should train like an athlete.

Scenario 2: I’m Getting Older, I Better Stick to Walking and Water Aerobics

With the day job finally in the rearview mirror, you get the live the life YOU want to live. However, there’s a reason they say the youth is wasted on the young.  You’ve got arthritis in more joints than not, a good night’s sleep is only waking up three times to pee, and you’re just thankful you’re not on half the prescription meds your friends are.  And, of course, sitting at a desk for 30 years has you feeling more like Quasimodo than an athlete.  It doesn’t matter.  You should be training like an athlete too.

See where this is going?

The truth is, everyone…EVERYONE…should be training like an athlete. 

Now you’re thinking: “ of course the ‘younger’ crowd is training like athletes – they haven’t lived long enough to earn the clicking thumb and arthritis riddled joints!  There’s no way I can train like those 20-year olds!”

I’m not suggesting that nursing homes start designing state-of-the-art athletic facilities or that people hoping to lose 10 pounds should download a 21-day “Couch-to-Olympic-Hopeful” in the App Store. 

However, I am suggesting that we begin to examine the “why” behind what we are doing in our workouts.  Are we just throwing together a whole bunch of random exercises that we like hoping it’s the perfect combination of things to achieve the body and clinical numbers we want, symmetry, and prepares me for the demands of daily life?

Yeah, that would be a pretty phenomenal guess if you found that combination!  When we look at what athletes train for it’s increases in stability, mobility (controlled flexibility), strength, cardiovascular efficiency, and movement quality (form).  Are these not the same things that we are all striving towards?

Right.  So how do we train like athletes?  Let’s start with a review of the 6 fundamental movement patterns.

The 6 Fundamental Movement Patterns:

Squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, resisting rotation, and carrying are movements we perform every single day. Think about the different tasks you complete throughout a normal day and the movements they require. You squat or hinge to pick up a package the UPS driver left on your front step. You pull or push your door open, resisting rotation while holding the box, and carry it inside. While the forces in this example may be generally small, this is only one 60-second ordeal in which you’ve used virtually all 6 of the fundamental movement patterns. Building strength and competency in these movements, and their subsets, will help you move and feel better, maximizing performance and enhancing your quality of life.

Whether you are training 5 days per week or 2 days per week, any program you follow should include some variation of a squat, hinge, push, pull, carry, and rotational resistance. Each of these movements, with the exception of rotational resistance, can be broken down into the following subsets:

1. Squat – Almost as soon as we are able to balance on our own two feet as children, we are able to perform a squat. As we grow older, our lives become more sedentary, we often lose the requisite mobility and/or strength to perform the squat correctly. However, our bodies are smart and will find ways to compensate for our losses. Through these compensations we begin to develop and, over time, exacerbate imbalances and asymmetries between our left and right legs. How can we combat some of these discrepancies? By training the squat pattern unilaterally as well as bilaterally.

a) Bilateral – When you think of a squat, you are most likely thinking of a bilateral squat, where both legs are working in conjunction with each other. Some examples include: goblet squat, front rack kettlebell squat, front squat, and back squat.

b) Unilateral – Unilateral squat pattern exercises prioritize one working leg at a time. Not only do these exercises help to minimize imbalances and asymmetries but they often have more carryover to sport and daily activities as all forms of ambulation (walking, running, sprinting, etc) are unilateral.   Some examples include: split squats, lunges, step ups, and single leg squats.

2. Hinge – Becoming proficient in the hinge pattern is vital to back health. All too often people shy away from deadlifts citing that they have prohibiting back pain/issues. Although I personally disagree with scrapping deadlifts altogether, as there are many safe variations, the hinge should still be trained to relieve the lumbar spine (lower back) of undue stress and strain through the nature of the pattern itself as well as the strengthening of the glutes, erectors, and anterior core. As with the squat, the hinge exercises can be categorized as bilateral and unilateral.

a) Bilateral – Examples include: all variations of deadlifts (i.e., RDL, Kettlebell, Hex/Trap Bar, Sumo, and Conventional), glute bridges, hip thrusts, and cable pull-throughs 

b) Unilateral – Examples include: single leg deadlift variations and single leg bridge variations.

3. Pull – The number of muscles we have in our back would lead many to hypothesize that humans were designed to pull. Exercises in this category often challenge core and grip strength more than any other (deadlift counts as a lower body pull). “Pull” exercises also assist us in correcting our horrendous 21st century posture. The muscles of the back are often lax as a result of the way we sit with rounded shoulders and forward head posture while scrolling through Instagram and Facebook. Pulling exercises tighten those lax muscles and the tension helps pull the neck and shoulders posteriorly into a normal, neutral position. If you want to feel taller and appear to have more confidence – start pulling. Pulls can be categorized into horizontal and vertical movements.

a) Horizontal – Examples include: all rowing variations (dumbbell, barbell, landmine) 

b) Vertical – Examples include: chin ups, pull-ups, pull-downs, and pullovers.

4. Push – “Push” exercises can also be categorized as horizontal or vertical. Too much pushing can exacerbate our postural problems if we are not doing enough pulls. We have all seen the guys in the gym who only bench press and, while their numbers may be impressive, they’re what you imagined a younger, fitter Quasimodo would look like. Nevertheless, the push is a fundamental movement pattern that, contrary to popular belief, can maintain or improve shoulder health if trained properly.

a) Horizontal – Examples include: push-up variations, chest press, and bench press.

b) Vertical – Examples include: incline chest press, overhead press, and landmine press.

5. Carry – When I mention a “carry” as a fundamental movement I often get strange looks. However, throughout our day we are constantly carrying things – a package, groceries, briefcase or suitcase, and maybe even a child or two. All of these things are loaded differently and thus place different demands on the body.

Forces from the objects you are carrying may be pulling you into flexion, lateral flexion, rotation, etc and your core’s responsibility is to resist those forces and remain stable. On top of that, it’s required to maintain that stability while you transport the object from point A to point B. Furthermore, depending on how you’re holding the object, grip strength is going to be required to some capacity. On a side note, grip strength has become an indicator of overall health and mortality (this is just one of several articles published on the subject). Moral of the story: walk with weights for a stronger core, a stronger grip, and a longer life.

a) Bilateral – the weight is distributed equally on both sides of the body. Some examples include: dumbbell/kettlebell farmer carries, trap bar carries, overhead carries, and zercher carries.

b) Offset – the weight is distributed unequally. Some examples include: offset dumbbell/kettlebell farmer carries, waiter carries, and crossover carries.

6.  Anti-Rotation – Sit-ups, crunches, side bends, and planks are the most common “core exercises” I see being performed. While I do not believe these exercises to be inherently bad, I do believe them to be largely inferior to other core exercises that better support the lumbar spine and have more carryover to sport and daily life. The role of the core is to stabilize the spine while generating and transferring forces to the extremities involved in the desired movement. Therefore, core training should revolve primarily around stabilization. Sit-ups, crunches, and side bends are all actively moving the spine – sometimes with external load. Not only do these exercises have very, very little carryover to everyday life, they may actually cause or aggravate back pain if core stability is insufficient.

Instead, try paloff presses, anti-rotational holds, opposite shoulder touch planks, kettlebell drag through planks, and cable push-pulls.

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