Any kind of strength training is fantastic for overall health, but one of the great things about Olympic weightlifting is that it builds more than just strength and power. To successfully execute the lifts and many of their accessories like overhead squats, one needs to have excellent coordination, speed, balance, and mobility — all traits that are also important in middle age and beyond.
Many folks recommend strength training and powerlifting exercises all the way into old age, but weightlifting might be trickier. Is there ever a point where it’s too late for untrained individuals to make a snatch?
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems.
Why Start Weightlifting After 50?
“Middle age tends to be where our physiological systems start to decline, your testosterone starts to decrease, and muscle gains start to become slow,” says Stephen Chao, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist at Integrated Health Sciences in New York City.
Weightlifting in general has myriad benefits. Physiologically it’s good for building muscle and increasing the density of bone tissue. It can help to remedy years of poor posture and immobility. Incorporating both heavy and lighter sets stimulates the production of testosterone and growth hormone.
“Weightlifting can also have benefits over regular resistance training in that it’s incredibly anaerobic, requiring very short duration energy systems, and neuromuscular adaptations from Olympic lifting can translate to more muscle engagement and an ability to rapidly recruit muscle fibers to afford you stability,” Chao adds. “If you’re on a bus and it suddenly jerks or twists, that needs a quick leg and hip reaction. I call that reactive stability, and it’s something most people tend to lose as they get older.”
Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that in the United States, falls are the leading cause of injury and death in the elderly: every second of every day, an older American falls. Balance, speed, synergy across muscle groups, and thicker bone mass are critical, lifelong attributes that should be cultivated.
[Read our article on Janis McBee’s epic record above in the 75-79 age group here.]
What About Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers?
While strength is something we can always work on — not necessarily build indefinitely, but a quality we can train — speed may be another issue. We tend to lose muscle mass with age, and many studies suggest that Type 2, or “fast twitch” muscle fibers disappear more rapidly than Type 1, that it becomes increasingly more difficult to train reactive speed as we age.
Can it ever be too late to get into weightlifting, then?
“You’re not going to stop losing fast twitch muscle fibers,” says Karl Eichenfeldt, another physical therapist at Integrated Health Sciences. “I’d never say you can never do weightlifting, but you might not be able to do it right away.”
He recommends starting out by building your mobility and strength for the big three powerlifting movements: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Strength in these exercises is often considered a foundation on which to build more directed weightlifting expertise.
“Those can be the wedge you use to drive into a small crack and pry open into these bigger movements,” he notes. “But there will be a subset of people who will need to significantly modify the exercises they’re doing in order to be safe. There are some people whose spine will be grossly out of alignment and they’ll need to be honest with themselves, but that doesn’t always mean they can’t train fast-twitch muscle fibers. If they can’t do a barbell clean, they can do kettlebell cleans or swings, for example.”
Each person’s path will be determined by what they’ve gone through before.
“You can develop fast-twitch fibers at an older age, but you’ll want to start light and probably start training with partial movements,” agrees Mike Gattone, the Assistant Technical Director at USA Weightlifting. “For an older person, we might put the bar at the top of the thighs in the power position and maybe first start with some clean pulls from there as we progress toward the floor. And if they can’t catch a weight, there are options like a nice, explosive pull onto the balls of the feet with a good strong shrug. I think there’s a ton of efficacy for that in an older person.”
At any age, it’s challenging to get the proper mobility for Olympic weightlifting. But that doesn’t mean there’s no sense in working with accessory movements or finding other ways to train the fast-twitch fibers that remain.
Are You Ready?
As is the case before undertaking any new fitness regimen, it’s important to be screened first. Untrained individuals of any age should see a qualified physical therapist or orthopedic doctor before finding an USA Weightlifting-certified coach who has experience working with Master’s athletes. If someone can’t stand with a PVC pipe locked out over their head, they can’t be asked to do jerk progressions.
“The chances of those movement pattern dysfunctions at an older age are probably a little higher than they are at a younger age,” says Gattone. “People have injuries, people become dysfunctional by sitting at their office chair for 30 years, so a functional movement screening is definitely becomes a prerequisite.”
That said, if you go to the National Masters Weightlifting Championships, you’ll see people doing snatches and clean and jerks in their 70s and 80s. Once you’re cleared for barbell training by a physical therapist, visit the Master’s Weightlifting website and get in contact with them to find out if there’s a coach in their area.
Should You Lift Heavy?
In a weightlifter’s career, there’s often something of a bell curve: when you’re starting out, there are a good four months before you try to hit max effort sets. In the middle or peak of one’s career, heavy weights are attempted more often, and then toward the later part of one’s career you can get a lot of bang for your buck without exceeding 75 or 85 percent of your max.
Chao and Gattone both say that it’s not necessary to hit 1-rep maxes in your sixties — it’s better to stay submaximal most of the time and grease the groove.
“Give a set of three and choose a weight they could do six times with good, clean technique,” says Gattone. “Every twelve or sixteen weeks you can go to 90 percent of your 1RM, but spend the rest of the time in the middle training zones.”
“As I age, my plan is to lift heavy for my capability a couple of times a week, take nice walks every day, and do mobility work every day,” says Gattone.
He and Chao both suggest gentle, full body movement practices like yoga in addition to working relatively challenging lifts and fast lifts into weekly practice, along with regular massages to help with soft tissue work and mobility. Yoga isn’t necessary, but it’s important to work in some movements to help with mobility and stability and yoga can be a useful framework. Chao also notes that since many people don’t have the thoracic stability and scapular mobility to do weightlifting movements, particularly after years of sitting at a desk, exercises like the ones linked in this sentence could also be useful.
[These 3 tests can be a great way to tell if your body is ready for a conventional deadlift, an important prerequisite for weightlifting.]
It also appears to be true that most people consume fewer calories and protein as they age, although protein needs may increase due to various factors such as lower absorption of nutrients. Approximately one third of adults over 50 fail to reach the recommended daily intake of 60 grams. Especially if you’re engaging in strength training, it appears important to maintain a protein intake of at least 1 gram per kilogram of bodyweight.
“I would add that there does seem to be some good evidence out there that adding the fish oil is good for training as well,” says Gattone. “There is also some good science about vitamin C and collagen taken together helping the development of connective tissue. You can buy these at Walgreens, and they could be part of a good supplement routine.”
We all want to age gracefully and to maintain muscle and freedom of movement for as long as possible. Variations of Olympic lifts that are explosive, use multiple muscle groups, and challenge mobility can be fantastic movements to incorporate as we age, provided one is cleared by a medical practitioner. In short, we liked the words Mike Gattone left with us as he ended his interview.
“Go down fighting!”
Featured image via @everyday_lifters on Instagram.