4 Reality Checks
In your 30s? You’re still young. But if you want to be a healthy lifter in your 40s and beyond, it’s time to change a few things.
Let’s cut the bologna. The fitness world promotes too many polarizing opinions. It’s easy to get caught up in the mania, trying to find the “perfect rep” or the “best method.” Here’s the reality:
- When you’re a skinny, weak 20-year-old, the basics are the real difference-maker in your strength and physique.
- When you’re a well-developed, well-trained 28-year-old, a few advanced lifting methods take your gains to the next level.
- When you’re an experienced 37-year-old with a short list of injuries, beat-up body parts, and better training intuition, you’re being foolish chasing more size, more strength, and more advanced techniques year-round.
It’s time to take a few bites of humble pie and realize a few truths.
If you fixate on lifting the heaviest weight you can, year after year, you’ll disappoint yourself unless you’re a genetic freak. And before you say you are a genetic freak, you probably aren’t. Assuming you don’t compete in lifting competitions (and, in some cases, even if you do), what matters most is the time you put in.
We all want a linear response, whether it’s weight training for stronger numbers or dropping a few pounds. Plateaus are mentally tough. But what is a plateau? A plateau is the product of looking at things through a narrow lens, unable to see alternative frames of reference.
For example, if I look at my strength progress at age 28, I see that my overhead press went from 200 to 215, and my deadlift went from 535 to 550. That progress seemed to take forever. But if I zoom out to a four-year span, from age 25 to 28, I see that my lifting numbers were always trending in a positive direction, even though there were ups and downs.
The one thing that remained stable the whole way through? I was training regularly, focusing on working hard and lifting heavy often. If you’re in a place where your numbers are down and stagnant, don’t get discouraged and say, “the program isn’t working.” There are many other factors to consider.
The name of the game is consistency, especially if you’re 30-plus. And literally, nothing is depending on your deadlift or squat reaching half a metric ton. Training to be that strong is a hobby, not a necessity. It takes a different perspective if you’re doing this for health, athleticism, and a good long life.
And truthfully, you should pivot. With every training goal comes a tradeoff:
- If you want to get stronger by the numbers, count on your conditioning taking the backseat.
- If the goal is to get more muscular and add size, your mobility and flexibility will likely suffer.
- Want to be a better endurance runner? It may mean shedding a few pounds or even dropping some muscle mass.
Treat each goal equally. Strength and size are two of many goals that contribute to a healthy body. If you’re a mature lifter, think about it from a mature standpoint. It’s the difference between living in a world of chronic pain and feeling healthy, energized, and able on a daily basis.
Speaking of energized, you may have pulled off a rigorous strength or hypertrophy program when you were 23 and nothing else mattered. Then, inside the next 15-year span, you got a mortgage. Got married and had kids. Got busier with work to pay for said mortgage and kids. Then got a bum knee. Then had surgery for said bum knee. In other words, life came at you.
You can train through all that, but you can’t expect your energy levels to be the same as when you had fewer responsibilities. Stress determines how your training is going to “land.” I know very few 40-year-olds who consistently sleep more every night than when they were 20.
Training intuitively counts for a lot. If you don’t have the mojo on a given day, you don’t have to throw in the towel on the workout. It means you need to have a couple of other training fallbacks in your pocket.
Maybe you don’t have what it takes for the heavy back squats or deadlifts in your program. So lower the load and volume, or maybe switch to something less neurally demanding like leg presses or hip thrusts. If your bench press or strict presses just aren’t agreeing with your joints today, do dips, plate-loaded presses, or this banded variation:
The world won’t end if you don’t hit your numbers. There will be more workouts to get back on track. Don’t panic. Your body will thank you.
Talk to anyone who’s been lifting heavy for long enough and they’ll have injuries. It’s just the way it goes.
Before anyone interjects with “smart training should never get you injured,” it’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t translate in practice. Everyone’s morphology and durability are different. There are sliding scales existing within sliding scales on a huge matrix of grey area that defines the unpredictability of the human body. An experienced lifter focused on moving heavy things has probably, at the very least, tweaked something.
Spending time sidelined is part of the game. And a few weeks in rehab mode is still a better tradeoff than a lifetime of weakness outside the gym.
But smart lifters stay on top of impending problems – and even ahead of them – by investing some money into regular tune-ups. My favorites are chiropractic and massage therapy.
Chiro takes a holistic look at the body to find skeletal imbalances or note underactive muscles. Massage sessions not only bring the CNS down in the name of relaxation but also work on wound-up tissue that needs better circulation to bring things back to balance. Sometimes, you need a pair of hands to just get in there!
Shortly after my 36th birthday, my left arm decided to basically stop working when it came to pressing. There was no pain, just zero strength. I literally couldn’t produce appreciable force. This came fresh off pressing 100s on the incline for comfortable sets and hitting 8 reps at 275 on the bench. The video on the left shows me at the worst of it. I took that video to show my practitioners what I was dealing with. I was trying as hard as I could!
The issue was nerve-related, not joint or muscle-related. My chiro fixed some things, and then I simply waited patiently to heal while training smartly. Sometimes, very little things can be responsible for BIG strength.
4. You’ll Have to Choose Different Exercises
This isn’t the same as making smart pivots. This is about making the preemptive choice to diversify your exercise portfolio. In the big picture, your 30s are young,
but you’re also no spring chicken. Barbell back squatting, deadlifting, and pressing aren’t going to cut it anymore, and there’s a 90% chance your body will revolt with that one-track-mind approach.
Remember, if you’re not a college athlete or spry young gunner, you’re probably moving way less on a daily basis than you used to. You didn’t have a desk job. You didn’t have a car. You didn’t spend three hours a day at practice. Even five days per week of commendable training today doesn’t negate that reality. Some elements of your health and skill-related fitness aren’t getting touched. It’s time to touch them.
Your agility, balance, coordination, power, and flexibility aren’t truly challenged by hitting the barbell big lifts. Get into mobility work. Hit up unilateral movements. Use different implements as load. Change the resistance profile. Master bodyweight stuff. Get into locomotive training for conditioning. Challenge your muscular endurance. Help your heart and lungs with some long-duration cardio work. And yes, strength train.
Get yourself out of the box and good things will happen as you get older.