Never too old: why masters should train with barbells

A weapon in the fight against aging

When we think of aging, we think of it as a terrible and irrevocable process: we associate it with brittle bones, painful, permanently bent backs and knees, the inability to reach for high places and the increasing dependency on others. The older we get, the faster the decline.

The physical difference between an average 20-year old and an average 30 year old is negligible compared to the difference between a 70 and a 80 year old. It sucks but that’s life. The good news is that we have a powerful tool at our disposal to offset some of the worst aspects of getting older.

For the purposes of this article we will define a “master” as someone for whom the negative effects of the aging process are becoming a noticeable hindrance in everyday life. Practically that means somewhere around 50 and up. You know, oldies.

Traditionally, the advice given to masters is to take it easy. Go for walks, ride a bike if you can, or do tai-chi: don’t stress yourself too much and try to preserve what little cartilage you have.

This is, objectively, terrible advice. Here’s a few reasons why masters should prioritize training for strength instead of, or at least in addition to other modes of exercise.

Life starts to suck real bad when you’re weak

Ask yourself this: What is the most common reason an elderly person can not stand up after they’ve fallen over?

Did they change anatomically in a way that makes it impossible for them?

Did they forget how to stand up?

Nope. It’s likely nothing more than physical weakness that loses them the fight against gravity. But the elderly are not weak just because they are old. There are people in their 80’s deadlifting 180kg after all.

Weakness in itself is not a consequence of aging, but rather the consequence of complacency. As you leave your physical prime - the time of your life in which your physical potential is at its highest- behind you, you are faced with a choice.

Are you going to give up and slide down the hill, or will you fight, claw and climb with all your might to stay as high on that slope as you can.

If I were you I know what I would do.

And the weapon I would bring to that fight would be barbell based strength training.

Strength training slows down, and sometimes even reverses the loss of strength we associate with aging. Luckily, the human body never (completely) loses its capacity to adapt to training stress and the ability to stand up from a seated or lying position can - and therefore should - be regained or preserved by increasing muscular strength.

Tai chi does not accomplish this, and neither do walks around the block, or riding a stationary bike for 10 minutes per day. This is not to say that masters should NOT do any of these things, quite the opposite. But these forms of exercise do not increase strength in a meaningful way. You get stronger from lifting progressively heavier weights as your body adapts to the loads it’s placed under.

The stronger you are, the easier it is to pick yourself up. It takes little imagination to think how that can save your life. But make no mistake: the utility of strength extends far beyond preventing a worse case scenario.

How important is it to be able to move a chair across the room? Or to take out the trash? What about lifting your groceries into the trunk of your car, or even getting in and out of your car?

What about getting up off the toilet?

What about being able to pick up your grandchild?

Barring sickness, reduced cognitive function or injury, the only thing preventing a master from living their life as a functional human is a lack of strength. Therefore staying strong should be high on your to-do list.

At least higher than bingo-night.

Speaking of injury:

Strength training makes your bones stronger

Let’s think back to that elderly person we imagined at the beginning of this article. It’s statistically likely this person fell over to get on the floor.

After all, one in three individuals aged 65 and over falls every year in the US alone, and 20 to 30% of those people break something when they do, most commonly the femur.

Broken bones have the potential to end your independence in one swift crack, possibly for the remainder of your life.

But hey, what can you do?

Old bones are brittle after all, right? It’s a fact of life and an immutable consequence of the aging process.

Except it’s not.

Osteopenia is a condition characterized by the decrease of bone mineral density and is a precursor to its more serious cousin, osteoporosis. In other words: it’s bones getting weaker until they become dangerously brittle and likely to break.

As you age, the chance of you developing osteopenia increases. The exact cause of osteopenia is not fully understood, but it basically boils down to the fact that you lose bone tissue faster than you make it.

Luckily we can stimulate your body to make bone tissue faster. By loading the axial skeleton with increasing weight (ie, putting a barbell on your back) we stimulate the body to increase the strength of the bones that support the weight. And that’s basically all of them.

Strength training has the capacity to prevent and even completely cure osteopenia and make your bones as strong as they were when you were younger.

This means that again, you have a choice in accepting your onsetting frailty or to fight it.

Now, strong bones are nice to have when you lose balance and fall over, but wouldn’t it be better if we can improve your sense of balance so you’re less likely to fall in the first place?

Good news:

Barbell training is balance training

When most people think of training for balance, they picture someone standing on one leg, maybe on an unstable surface while, if their personal trainer is really annoying, throwing a tennis ball at the wall and catching it as it bounces back.

If this is what you picture, you’re picturing the wrong thing. This is not training for balance, this is practicing a party trick.

The skills that are practiced in exercises like this have little to no carryover to any other situation, and mainly serve to make you feel like you’ve accomplished something so you’ll keep paying.

There’s a reason why I call myself a “Barbell coach” and not “kettlebell coach” or “Fitness machine coach” or “elastic band coach” . I like the barbell and barbell-like implements.

They are my preferred tool for helping my clients and there are many reasons that they are.

Barbells are ergonomic, incrementally loadable and allow us to load important human movement patterns like the squat and the deadlift. These are the primary attributes that make barbells a highly effective tool for developing musculoskeletal strength.

But wait, there’s more.

Because it’s a “free weight” the lifter is required to not fall over while they move the bar through space. What many people fail to appreciate is the fact that this requires a great deal of coordination and balance, more so as the weight increases.

And because balance is required, all the systems in you that maintain balance are trained as well. And as you age, you really want to be able to maintain your balance as you get in and out of your chair, or pick something off the floor for obvious reasons.

If any of this has you convinced that you, as a master, should start training with barbells you are probably wondering where to start.

Maybe you don’t know if you can even squat your body weight. Or maybe you don’t think you have the mobility to deadlift. Maybe you simply don’t see yourself getting under a bar because it’s not something a person your age does anymore. Good news!

Barbell training is highly accessible

I talked about why I like barbells and barbell-like devices. The one reason I did not mention is actually the most important one: barbells are extremely versatile, and barbell exercises are highly adaptable to the level of the lifter. Meaning there is a starting point for virtually ANYONE.

Can’t bench a standard 20kg bar? Don’t worry, there’s bars that weigh 10kg. Still too heavy? Broomstick got you covered.

Shoulders too stiff to get the bar on your back for squats? We’ll start you off with a safety squat bar while we work on those shoulders or we’ll put a bar in the crease of your elbows and have you do zercher squats instead.

Can’t bend over far enough to pick the bar up off the floor? No problem: that’s why we have block pulls.

Unable to squat deep? We can start from a high box and work from there.

Depending on your age or current level of strength, you may have trouble picturing yourself lifting weights.

But you should. You really, really should.

I assure you there is a point where you can start from, and I highly recommend you hire a competent coach to help you find that point.