Plenty of people think the squat, bench, and deadlift are timeless movements, eternal truths that will forever be fundamental to the strength and wellbeing of the human body. Powerlifting exercises are unbelievably effective, they work just about every muscle in the body, and done properly they’ll reduce your risk of injury and improve your bone strength and functionality for everyday life. So it makes sense that everyone should do powerlifting after 40, and 50, and, well, until forever, right?
It can be a tricky question to answer because like it or not, sometimes it’s too late to take up a sport. Take American football, for example: given the speed, reflexes, and head smashing involved, it’s probably not a good idea for an untrained individual to start competing in their 60s.
But powerlifting is different. Like eating your broccoli or walking regularly, it’s a habit that contributes to wellness and can lower your risk of illness and injury. It can be a restorative, rejuvenating, healthful activity, and many doctors are starting to recommend the movements as a means of warding off the effects of aging. But is it ever too late to get started?
Can I Start Powerlifting After 40?
“When you’re 20, you heal a lot faster and you can beat up your body a lot more,” says Karl Eichenfeldt, DPT, a New York City-based physical therapist. “When you’re older, it takes a little longer.”
The issue with starting to lift at a later age tends to be mobility: stiffened by decades of desks and inactivity, it can be hard to reach the prerequisites that physical therapists like to recommend.
“You don’t need a lot of ankle mobility or thoracic extension, but you do need some decently mobile hamstrings,” says Eichenfeldt. “I think about range of motion first, and above all you need posterior chain mobility and flexibility to get through deadlifts and squats.”
What does that look like? We’ve actually put together this awesome article on how to tell if you’re sufficiently mobile for deadlifting. It’s definitely worth checking out, but here are the main points:
Eichenfeldt notes that when he’s working with athletes over 40, he makes sure that plenty of time is spent stretching the calves (to help ankle mobility), the inner thigh (often with butterfly stretches), the glutes (with a pigeon pose or figure 4), the pec major (discussed in our article on scap health), and the hips (try working on a few of these exercises).
“Another nice way to do mobility is get on the ground crawling, get your abs fired up,” he adds. “A lot of people have poor core stability and crawling around and getting in and out of a squat position, can be really helpful.”
If you feel really far behind, it’s a great idea to spend a few months doing yoga and core training several times a week, subject to the approval of your medical practitioner.
Be patient, don’t load the bar until your form is perfect, and seriously, build your core strength — no matter your age, it’s often the weak link that prevents people from hitting a good squat or deadlift.
How to Reduce Injury Risk
The best way to lower your risk of hurting yourself is to engage in a wide variety of exercises — not just squat, bench, and deadlift. So while powerlifting is an awesome hobby with a ton of benefits, try to engage in exercises that will move you through a lot of planes of motion.
Powerlifting exercises work in the sagittal plane, meaning you’re going up and down or back and forward. Finding ways to move side to side and around and around will help to work small but important stabilizing muscles and develop coordination and body awareness that can be important for preventing injuries. Eichenfeldt considers avoiding this “multiplanar” work to be one of the biggest risks for injury, particularly among people who haven’t lifted much in the past.
[Few people know that battle ropes can be a great way to strengthen multiple planes of motion. Here’s what you don’t know about battle ropes.]
“That’s why I love jiu jitsu and kickboxing and other movements where you’re rolling around and moving in all directions,” he says. “But if you’re not interested in martial arts, at least try and go in as many different directions as possible, maybe experiment with clubs and kettlebells, and do unilateral exercises. So don’t just squat, do lunges and side lunges.”
Particularly as you get older, exercises that get you down on the ground and back up again are also important for injury prevention and function — Brazilian researchers have even found that your ability to do so has a strong correlation with longevity. Bonus points if you can get off the floor without using your hands.
[The Turkish get-up is the ultimate exercise for this purpose. Check out our quick guide.]
How Often Should I Train?
Programming wise, a lot of lifters over 40 like the old fashioned three-day split: squat-focused leg day, bench-focused chest day, and deadlift-focused back day. Particularly since recovery comes a little more slowly as you age, hitting a body part hard once a week can be a good place to start, then you can gauge your recovery and see if it’s smart to increase training frequency.
Just don’t be too eager to add weight to the bar every week, since strength gains may come a little more slowly and it’s absolutely paramount that you maintain good form.
“I think a three-day split is OK, as long as you go slowly and don’t overload your joints and ligaments and tendons,” says Eichenfeldt. “But also add in at least two days of multiplanar work.”
Perhaps the biggest issue with starting a strength sport after 40 (or 50 or 60) is that by that time in your life, you’ve had a wide variety of experience. That means that if you take twenty untrained 50-somethings, they’ll most likely all have different histories of activity and injuries and they’re more likely to need individualized training programs than a group of 20-somethings.
So talk with your doctor and get an assessment from a physical therapist before launching into a powerlifting program. Done right, it’s one of the best ways to improve your bone strength, function, appearance, and risk of injury and illness well into old age.
Featured image via @lvdfitness on Instagram.
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.