How To Lift Forever
Let’s get right into it. The vast majority of people have goals that are the following:
- Increasing strength
- Gaining muscle
- Losing fat
That’s probably 80–90% of people. Very few people even think of longevity. Even elite athletes generally aren’t thinking of how they’ll be performing and feeling in a decade or two. Just the next competition.
Here are twenty tips to maximize your gym experience in the long term — something there is astonishingly little information about online.
Respect The Iron
If you see a jacked older guy in the gym, watch how he trains. I mean, don’t be creepy about it or anything, but take note of his process. Not in a notebook or anything.
That would be creepy.
Usually, the greater the training history an individual has, the more they’ve learned. While survivor bias is a thing, there’s a good chance that if someone is doing well when older, they are doing most things right. Just watch them when they lift — even if they are working hard, they are usually very in-tune with what their body is doing, and they are able to train quite instinctively in a way that the young guns might not be able to.
Not all movements are created equal. This goes for the benefit that you might get from them, but also goes for the recovery cost associated with them as well. Some movements just take a wrecking ball to the joints.
This is also quite individual and thus it’s difficult to make blanket statements about which particular movements will cause injury in the future, but you should be able to tell. If upright rows just feel like they are ripping your shoulders to shreds…they probably are.
You don’t need to fail a lift to get stronger, or to build muscle. The body is smart enough to adapt without having to have that happen.
Additionally, the recovery cost associated with failure training (and beyond) especially on heavy, free weight, compound movements can add up over time. Keeping a rep or three in the tank is something many long-lasting athletes do for the majority of their sets in the gym.
Mobility Work and Prehab
You might need a lot of this. You might need none. But either way, it needs to be on a case by case basis. If you are taking 20–30 minutes to do prehab before each workout, it’s almost certainly too much. Or, it’s masking something fundamentally wrong with your training that you should address instead of throwing more mobility work on top of it.
For anything you do in the gym, you should be able to answer why you are doing it within seconds. That goes for exercises, sets, reps, technique…anything. Many people blindly do prehab and mobility work with zero reason.
Longer Warm Up
That being said, warming up slightly too long is probably better than not long enough. The only real downsides to warming up too long are that it takes longer (duh) and that it might make you slightly weaker for your working sets due to the small amount of fatigue. Even so, being 2–3% weaker is worth staying healthy in the long run.
If you’re not sure if you should warm up more, you’re better off taking an extra set or two.
Goals Are Individual
Ego is the fastest way to get hurt in the gym, period. Curb your expectations, particularly if those expectations are fueled by social media. Not every person will be able to hit a 3 plate bench or a 5 plate deadlift, even if you see someone online your size make it look easy.
Their plates could be fake. They could have pristine genetics. They could be on steroids. Don’t believe anything you see on social media.
Low reps are the fastest way to peak your strength. But it’s called a “peak” for a reason — this isn’t something that you’ll want to do all of the time. Most of the time, more moderate reps are a better way to build your strength and are certainly more forgiving on the body as well.
And if you aren’t a powerlifter, there’s really minimal point to ever max out. It’s fun and you get a nice fat dopamine release from the new personal best, plus some adrenaline from the lift itself, but if passion trumps wisdom on a regular basis, you will eventually pay the price.
Time Off Is OK
It’s impossible to train with maximum focus and intensity 52 weeks a year. Most — if not all — of professional athletes periodize their training, taking time almost completely away from their training a few times per year. These lower lows allow the body to recover more fully, creating the potential for higher highs.
This is pretty good for long term motivation as well. Spending a little time away from something you love tends to make you appreciate it just that much more.
A young buck can get away with sloppy reps and momentum. But this adds up over time, and you’ll see most older lifters have a more controlled and deliberate style, lowering the weight fairly slowly, perhaps pausing slightly in the bottom position and then driving up and perhaps even focusing on the squeeze at the top, depending on the lift.
This style may limit the amount of weight used, but it’s much easier on the connective tissue than the “trampoline bench press”, “ splay and pray squat” or “dip, grip, rip and hope you don’t shit deadlift”
Supporting equipment might be the assistance you need to stay healthy. Wrist wraps, lifting straps, belts and knee sleeves or wraps can potentially reduce the stress on the joints, causing better recovery and performance in the long term. While you shouldn’t overly rely on any of these, they’re worth looking into.
Pain is…complicated. The idea that pain is equivalent to damage is not as correct as most people think it is. However, there’s always a reason for pain, and trying to train through pain is rarely if ever a good idea. Popping painkillers to get through your squat session?
You’re an idiot. At least in terms of longevity optimization. Pain is generally a signal that something is wrong. You shouldn’t shy away from discomfort or hard work, but sharp, shooting pains need to be heeded early, and every time.
Avoid Battle Damage
A lot of older lifters have movements that they simply *cannot* do anymore. I hear this all the time.
“Yea, I used to be able to barbell bench, but after six shoulder surgeries, I just can’t do it anymore, I usually use dumbbells now”
You’d think it would just take one surgery to stop slamming your head against that wall. Listen to your body. Odds are, it’s smarter than your brain.
Again, everyone is different. You’ll have to go by experience and instinct here.
Similarly to the above, you don’t have to do any movement. The powerlifts in particular are notorious for slammin’ the joints. This is partially due to their popularity meaning that more people do them, but the large range of motion, high loading potential and propensity for people to f*ck them up on a regular basis means that they often result in injury.
Instead of a one rep max barbell squat, do a five rep max on front squats or anderson squats or a ten rep max on leg press or Bulgarian split squats.
Instead of a one rep max barbell bench press, consider a five rep max on close grip bench press or incline press, or a ten rep max on dumbbell bench press or a cable variation.
Instead of a one rep max on a conventional deadlift, try a five rep max on rack pulls or sumo, or a ten rep max on Romanian deadlifts or back extensions.
Sleep, food, protein, destressing, hydration. Supplementation is fine, but if you don’t have those in order, you are stepping over dollar bills to pick up pennies. Yes, they are shinier, no, they aren’t worth as much.
It’s amazing how many people ask me about cryotherapy and massage guns when they are missing meals and hours of sleep.
Even with the above factors optimized along with supplementation, you’ll probably find recovery will degrade as you age. That’s normal and natural, but you’ll have to take it into account as you plan your training out. Instead of doing a lift every three days, you might need 4–5 days to recover, instead.
You can also switch to a “ten day week” instead of the normal seven most other humans live on. It can make every day of the week different over the course of a training cycle, but that’s not the worse thing in the world.
Be Wary of Explosive Movements
I’m looking at you, crossfit. Even when programmed well, many explosive movements tend to beat up the body. And when crossfitted, most people don’t last all that long. Be prepared to chip in for your chiropractor’s new Ferrari. Or Lamborghini. Or Mercedes.
I mean, I don’t know your chiropractor’s automobile tastes, could be an Aston Martin for all I know. It’s a metaphor don’t overthink it.
Be Wary of Impactful Cardio
Similarly, running in particular does also take a toll. I love running, but at a higher bodybuilding-training induced bodyweight, it really does give the ankles, achilles, knees, IT band and hips a good spanking. And not in a pleasurable, frisky, playful way.
Sort of in a “you wake up the next morning and cannot move” kind of way.
Range of Motion
Some lifters swear by partial range of motion, and I do think there’s something to be said for it. Usually as you go towards that stretched, end-range-of-motion part of the lift, that’s where things can snap. Of course, they usually don’t, but if a particular position always gives you problems, there’s no harm in avoiding it.
“Coach, preacher curls always give me elbow pain”
OK, no more preacher curls. How complicated was that?
On the other hand, the recent trend of “bulletproofing” by emphasizing loading in extreme ranges of motion and slowly building up certainly has value in reducing the risk of injury when applied well. So it sort of goes both ways here, and the devil is in those pesky details. Which transitions rather nicely to…
We’re all different. What is great for one person might be truly terrible for someone else. This is why you must think for yourself. Any and all of these twenty points may or may not apply to you, and it’s best to experiment with your training over time and take a very analytic and thoughtful approach to things.
Every body is different, and thus needs different training.
Finally, a big part of lifting longevity is the mental aspect of things. If you are always dreading your training, you won’t be lifting a year, let alone the next forty. On some level, it’s essential that you enjoy your training, and look forward to it.
Sure, you might curse yourself for programming sets of twenty in the squat, or wonder why you even do this as you lie on the floor breathing heavily after the set, but later the profound sense of pride that you are still at it keeps you going.
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So, don’t just think about optimizing your results this month or this year. Gaze a little further into the future, too.