In a certain context, anyway: I have never trained someone who was too old to be able to improve their condition. Never.
I had an 84 year old client a while ago now, who played lawn bowls. He could play quite comfortably, but the green is sunken – there’s a fair step that borders it, and stepping on and off the edge was challenging for him. So we started practicing step-ups, to a variety of different heights, with extra support where needed – we started focusing on gluteal and hamstring activation, increasing stable range of motion, etc. and within a couple of months, the step was no longer a problem.
An 84 year old man successfully increased strength and range of motion in a couple of months.
When we don’t consciously work or train with a variety of people, we have a way of thinking that what works for us, now, is what will work for everyone else, whether this is training or diet, irrespective of goals or stages of development. Even the term ‘stages of development’ implies that people will progress through the same steps in the same way. We seem to lack the capacity to understand other people’s work capacity – all the time you hear the judgments: he should be lifting heavier, or she should not be training so hard – but really? Why? Because it would be too much or too little for us, ourselves.
I know a few people my age (32 or thereabouts) who are worried about ageing. Some of them don’t spend much time with people who are a: older than they are, and who b: exercise.
I’m constantly amazed by the body’s ability to recover and develop. At any age.
But what’s appropriate for your progression is almost never going to be the same as what’s appropriate for someone else. Sometimes the differences will be subtle: many people would benefit from strengthening the buttocks and upper back, and opening up the front of the hips and chest.
And maybe training the bench press for sets of eight reps is good for you, but sets of five reps works better for someone else. And then there are many people for whom the bench press is not an appropriate exercise.
All this is fine, and sometimes it’s difficult to muddle your way through. If you need anything from your training, it’s simply to pay attention to your body – lift, jog, or swim in a way that feels efficient and comfortable for your joints, that seems a natural movement for you – and push your boundaries and capacity in ways that you choose, that interest you.
Often, we attempt training methods that are too advanced, we believe the magazine or infomercial that tells us we need to be doing this like that, and really – how would they know? If you’ve got a joint issue, and you go to two different rehabilitation specialists, they’ll tell you to do different things – so how is an infomercial going to know what’s good for your spine? Even if you’re completely uninjured and your mobility is good – that’ll give you more options, but you’re still going to work in a way that’s appropriate for you.
I like the phrase: train like an athlete.
But what does it mean? Pick two random athletes – they’re going to have pretty different training programs. A sprinter doesn’t train in the same way as a tennis player, but what they have in common is that they train specific to their goals, their sport, their own development. They don’t follow someone else’s program, they don’t do some generic or randomly attributed series of exercises – they do only what serves them, for their progression, they don’t add in extra fluff for padding – and they use methods that are either advanced or not, depending on their individual progress towards excellence in that sport that they like to play.
The purpose of exercise is not to change the shape of our bodies – it’s to make us more fit, more strong, more mobile. It’s to give us a genuine experience of movement, it’s to increase our capacity and reconnect ourselves with our bodies.
It’s to experience joy and physical development. What does that actually have to do with your shape? What is ‘training for fat loss’? It’s an idea, but it has no firm basis in science or – to my mind – reality. It’s the very least predictable physiological response to training – so of course it’s what we value – because it’s rare. Elusive.
If something’s rare and elusive, what’s with the idea that if everyone trains the same way, we’ll all have the same results? What’s with the idea that we should pursue something that’s elusive - is vibrant health only for an elite few? I don’t buy it. The fact that there are so many different, advanced and specialised programs out there reveals the lie: exercise does not make you thin. If it did, one program would be enough. But if you exercise in the right way, for you, that actually does improve your health. Even if you don’t lose a pound.
So why are you training what you’re training? Are you spending your time on a program you don’t enjoy, for results you were promised, but aren’t getting?
Or is it fine? Do you like where you’re at and where you’re headed?
I like to focus on fitness and progression, not weight, for many reasons. Here’s what I notice happens when your goal is based around your weight: people start to feel guilty about eating, so they skip meals, or they try to restrict – they see their own fat, and believe it’s abnormal, that it shouldn’t be there, so they slowly, or sometimes dramatically, start to eat less. Then the cravings come, and soft drinks, chocolate, cookies, chips – these things start to creep in to the diet. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t care what you eat – but what I observe is that people who are ‘trying to be good’ start to deceive themselves, and they don’t notice they’re doing themselves harm by not eating enough. They get hard on themselves, try to restrict harder, and complain that they’re unable to give up their ‘bad foods’, that they deserve their ‘indulgences’ (and they’re right, because everyone deserves to eat) and when you suggest that they probably aren’t eating enough – that’s why the cravings come – they think you must be crazy. They think they just need to be harder. They start to reward and punish themselves more. They train harder. They deplete themselves further – and for what? Health? The obsession with thinness hurts all of us. I see it every single day.
And what they don’t tell you - when you’re training for weight, when you’re being good and doing what you’re told - success wears you down just as much as failure. Looking thin and elite and so on doesn’t make you confident - it makes you insecure. Oh no! I can’t eat that chip! What will happen? Everything becomes precarious. When you pander to other people’s demands - your confidence does not increase, it reduces. Because you sacrifice yourself, your needs, for the sake of fitting in.
But if your goal is enjoyment – you’re free. You can do whatever the hell you want, free with the knowledge that it’s all good for you, even if your body isn’t changing shape. If you’re eating enough, that’s the single best ‘defence’ against crazy-ass cravings.
If your goal is athletic progression, you know you need to be eating plentifully – it’s not just protein, it’s everything – you need to be supporting your body, your physical development, and your confidence increases, because it’s about ability, not looks - and although an obsession can grow (I could talk more about that, and probably will), at least you don’t fall into the trap of starving yourself for your own good. It’s the worst of traps. You can be in it for years without even knowing (like I was). Even a little depletion can wear you down, tire you out, and jam the subtle brakes on your development.
And so, if in doubt – eat more. I seriously don’t care what size you are. What I notice again and again is fat people not eating enough. What’s with that?
Or perhaps more to the point – what’s with our assumptions?
And how did we all come to understand physiology so poorly?