Training for life

10 minute read

Are you training for longevity in the gym? Or are you just crashing through your workouts chasing progress at all costs? I know I’ve certainly taken a short-term perspective in my training at times, pushing through pain and making poor exercise choices – all in the name of progress. But those decisions have taken their toll on my body and if you want to be lifting well into later life you need to play the long game.

Whether it’s chasing gains or looking to get peeled, we’re all in a rush for progress. Every workout is approached as an all or nothing endeavor; total success or abject failure. And yet, the reality is that little could be further from the truth.

Certainly, this is not a mindset we tend to carry over to any other aspect of our life.

  • It’s understood that it takes years to master the piano
  • We know that relationships need time to grow and flourish
  • It can take years to save any appreciable sum of money

And whether we like this reality or not, we can certainly accept and respect it.

But in the gym?

Hell no.

So there you are, picking the sixties off rack when your shoulder is already twinging and you barely made your prescribed reps with the fifty pounders. But more is better, right? Something about muscle damage being one of those important hypertrophy mechanisms. You manage to grind out another seven reps with the sixties, and although the shoulder did hurt, it really wasn’t that much, and maybe even less than the last set. And on the strength of that resoundingly poor judgement, you opt to go for one more round. Hold on tight, we’re departing direct for Gainsville! Absolute fucking beast!

Later that evening, your shoulder is complaining pretty hard.

You write it off as a “solid workout”, and that it’s just your body “adapting to the stress of training”. You are literally growing, and wonder if you should set-up a time-lapse to capture the event. A few arm circles to “loosen things up” and you’re getting a pretty nasty pinch in the front of the shoulder. But nothing that digging your fingers in and rooting-around under your front delt can’t solve, right?

By bedtime, it’s just a dull ache. A slug of protein and a good night’s sleep will accelerate your recovery, and your partner won’t even need the time-lapse this time – they can literally watch you grow overnight in real time!

But you’re not sleeping.

Laying on that left side is kinda painful, so you roll around trying to get comfortable. Sleeping on the right side leaves your left arm flapping about, and that’s pretty uncomfortable on the shoulder too. So there you are, spooning the spare pillow, desperately holding that one angle that doesn’t make your shoulder grumble. You finally fall into a restless sleep and dream of the tee-splitting pumps you’ll be delivering at work tomorrow.

On waking, things feel pretty good! The pain is all but gone and that half-natty lighting spilling from behind the curtains is casting some deep venous shadows this morning. You fuckin’ knew it! You are the master of your ship. You point the way and your body has to follow. IG has no fuckin’ idea what’s coming!

You hop in the shower and reach for the tap. Ouch! Da fuq! That’s kinda odd, you muse to yourself. I must have ended-up sleeping on that left arm after all.

You reach-up to wash your hair and a jolt of pain shoots down your arm. Holy fuck! You quickly lower your arm and roll that shoulder around some more. You try to raise your arm again – same result. Shit! You continue gingerly “testing” your range of motion, but it’s not looking good. Lateral abduction causes intense pain in the front of your shoulder, and the higher you go, the more full your shoulder feels. In fact, the only two positions your shoulder does not hurt is with your arm flopped uselessly at your side, and a thumbs-up frontal raise to about 160º.

Bollocks.

This pattern continues throughout the day and on into the week. Everything aggravates the shoulder. Putting on your deodorant, brushing your teeth, driving … and of course, almost every one of your workouts.

So what’s the moral of this story?

Can you spot the lesson here? Just in case, let me spell it out for you:

IF IT FUCKING HURTS DON’T DO IT!

I know, I know – it sounds SO bloody obvious. Who on earth would knowingly push their body through acute pain and discomfort in order to chase progress?

I would. You would. He would and she would.

And even if you’re smarter now, I know you’ve been suckered like this before. You’ve thought it would be okay, that the pain is just your body resisting your will. Change being forced. Gains being made.

But it’s not, my friend. That pain is injury, and usually a chronic injury that you may never be able to get rid of. Pain that will haunt you for many years to come. A devil on your shoulder grinning smugly as you wince and whine through your [now modified] workouts trying to find a vein of form that doesn’t irritate your shoulder.

You can’t train if your injured

Look. The bottom line here is that you can’t train if you’re injured. And even if you can still train with minimal discomfort, you are going to be underperforming, and you’ll also likely be further aggravating your injuries.

This effect is amplified significantly for the older trainee as our bodies have generally take more abuse over the years, and our ability to recover is also decreasing over time. But rest assured, just because your twenty-year-old body is raging with testosterone and you can eat a mectric-fuckton of food without breaking a sweat, it does not mean your body is immune to the chronic abuse of impatience and overreaching.

I was that twenty-year-old once, and I too thought I was immune. And yet, here I am now plagued with multiple chronic long-standing injuries that make my workouts something akin to navigating a minefield.

Take a long term view

Largely inspired by bodybuilding masters like Tom Venuto and Jeff Alberts, I’ve gotten much smarter with my training in recent years. Tom is still training hard in his fifties and has a body that most thirty-year olds would be proud of, and at nearly forty eight, Jeff continues to compete at the highest level as a natural pro bodybuilder.

Both of these guys take a long-term view with their training, forever learning and continuously adapting their workouts, nutrition and recovery to support their lifetime training goal.

Here’s an excerpt from one of Jeff’s recent IG posts:

…It’s fairly easy and common as bbers to push the envelope a little too far…the desire for progress and the fear of regression can sometimes blindly steer us in the wrong direction…especially in this day and age where volume is preached from the roof tops. It’s not always about pushing more and more…it’s about pushing more when the environment is conducive to do so. You have to pay attention to outside influencers…food intake, sleep quality, overall stress, overall health (injury/aches) are just a few off the top of my head that need to be in order to create that optimal environment for overreaching. If you follow my stories than you’ve seen me make in the moment decisions that have either pushed me to make those prs in the moment or that have had me take a step back in order to take two steps forward. Having the game plan ahead of time is important (structure and a pretty spreadsheet), but the ability to make in the moment decisions are just as, if not, more important for sustained progress…

Likewise, from one of Tom’s most popular articles on training for muscle after fifty:

On training through injury or bad pain:

If I ever feel a twinge or anything feels the slightest bit off during an exercise, I stop immediately. If I feel previous chronic pain returning during an exercise, I stop and do one of two things: If I can, I continue with the exercise using light weights and high reps. If I can’t, I simply switch to another exercise.

On exercises that hurt:

I started getting pain in both elbows about ten years ago. Calcific tendonitis, I’m guessing, because I have pointier elbows too. It was low-grade pain at first, so I made the mistake of ignoring it. I kept doing skull crushers and heavy (100+ pound dumbbell) extensions behind my head. Until the day finally came when I could no longer do them at all anymore because the pain was excruciating. It took months to subside. When I noticed the pain was gone, what did I do? I went back to skull crushers and extensions again, thinking I was smart because I started light. But as the weights built back up, so did the pain. After repeating the experience and realizing the pain was chronic and set off by certain movements, I learned my lesson. While I can usually do any exercise if the weight is light enough, I’ve learned which exercises trigger pain and I’ve mostly just stopped doing them.

Closing tips for lifelong training

Despite the somber nature of this post, I hope that on some level this story resonates with you. But it’s not all doom and gloom. On the plus-side, you can change your mindset and approach right now – shifting your perspective to the long-term and resolving to train smarter moving forward.

Here’s my top ten tips to get you heading in the right direction.

  1. Never train through pain; ever. If it hurts, stop.
  2. There are no magic exercises. If a movement bothers you, tweak it or drop it.
  3. Listen to your body, and act on what you hear.
  4. Most people think that training is the highest priority, it’s not. Prioritize recovery, over nutrition over training.
  5. Training “smarts” should increase with training age. The older you are, the smarter you should be training.
  6. A few missed workouts cost you close to nothing in terms of progress. As little as one forced rep can cost you weeks or even months of progress.
  7. Your ego needs to shrink with age. The older the trainee, the less we should care about the numbers. Instead, focus on striving for quality in your work, getting more from less, and making light weights look heavy.
  8. Don’t box yourself in unnecessarily with artificial constraints such as training phases and target dates. Unless there’s a competition you’re training for, expect to have to be more fluid with your training, eating and recovery to accommodate the ebb and flow of life.
  9. Generally speaking, there’s no such thing as the optimal workout. Progress comes from doing the basics well over a long period of time (think years). So the best and most effective workout is the one you enjoy and can complete pain free.
  10. Never compare yourself to others, especially in terms of performance numbers. You’re going to find it challenging enough competing with (and sometimes losing to) yourself. No need to make that any harder by comparing yourself to a complete stranger.

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