Glenn Pendlay: Programming for Older Lifters
I’ve coached a few older lifters in my career. Their experiences as athletes and my experiences as their coach shaped my thinking on lifting in middle age.
If you are in the 40-60 range, and still want to be strong at a certain activity like Olympic lifting—it could be anything, the discus or bench press or whatever—you need to perform that activity a couple of times a week at a fairly low volume but with as much intensity as you can safely manage. Find the balance between not too hard and just enough.
Then add to that two or three other workouts that are more traditional “fitness” workouts, even including the typical circuit of machines, some decent kettlebell work or some bodybuilding stuff.
Whatever it is, make it easy on the joints and not too stressful overall. It should add to your overall fitness and provide some strength work that doesn’t tear you down.
Sounds simple, right?
Let me give you a real-world example of an older lifter I worked with, Mary McGregor.
Mary started training at age 55, having never done anything athletic in her life. While she did general training for a few months, she intently watched the younger Olympic lifters I was working with. She thought it looked fun and asked if she could do it.
I thought she could, so she began to train for weightlifting.
It was a bit of a struggle and having never coached anyone as a beginner at that age, I had to fail as a coach a number of times before I learned what worked. I will spare you the details of all the things that didn’t work, and just go straight to what did.
Two times per week (sometimes three right before a meet,) Mary went up to about as much as she could comfortably do on both the snatch and the clean and jerk. This means what could be done with good, crisp form and very little chance of a miss. We tried to get four or five good snatches in the working range. Then we got two or three clean and jerks in the working range.
That was her total amount of work in the Olympic lifts. She also did two or three general fitness workouts per week, sometimes on her own with kettlebells, sometimes with a personal trainer or simply doing the machine circuit at her local YMCA.
She usually did no squatting—none at all.
Now, she had previously tried squatting and worked fairly hard at it. But I eventually learned that it took more out of her than it gave, and since her lifts weren’t held back by leg strength, it wasn’t helping anything to subject her 60+year-old body to squats.
We had also started with more volume on the Olympic lifts, but it just made her tired and created aches and pains. I could go on, but you get the picture (and I said that I was going to skip the mistakes.)
This brief training program focused first on general fitness and second on getting good, frequent practice on movements of OL produced her best results: A 43kg snatch and a 63kg clean and jerk . . . results that at 61 years old, not only won the World Masters championship in Greece, they also set new world records for her age group.
Mary has very, very good technique; she is a full-squat snatcher and a full-squat cleaner. Her form as good as the young Olympic hopefuls I also coach.
I firmly believe that this is largely true is because she doesn’t hurt from overworking.
The things I consider to be the most important to Mary improving her totals are:
1) Doing some aerobic type work for general health. My favorite things for her to do are walks and rowing on a C2 rower. At over 60, health maintenance is the base upon which any sports results are based. She won’t be lifting as well, or as much or for as long unless she maintains a high degree of overall health.
2) Keeping up with the general strength workouts including some kettlebell work, the machine circuits and the general bodybuilding stuff she does as part of her personal training. She isn’t straining overly hard at any of this, but it keeps her strong and healthy. Attention is focused on no joint stress and getting exercise without creating any injuries or sore spots.
3) Continuing to practice her form on the Olympic lifts frequently.
4) Maintain a healthy diet.
These things are all specific to Mary. Another 60-year-old might be different and might be able to stand more specific training, or perhaps less. I would, and do, train a 45-year-old differently. I would train a 45-year-old who is in great health with no injuries very differently than a 45-year-old who was out of shape and unprepared.
Hopefully this specific example, while probably not a blueprint of how you should do things, can serve as an example of how to approach a situation that is not exactly normal. Using this type of template can still produce good results even with the less-than-ideal situation of a 55-year-old who has never exercised in her life.
A Contrasting Example
Diran Lancaster played college football for Texas Tech. He clean and jerked 300lbs while doing so. Then he got married, became a chiropractor and got out of shape, not necessarily in that order.
When he was in his early 40s, he decided he wanted his son, around 11 at the time, to start Olympic lifting and he brought him to me. Within three or four workouts, Diran couldn’t stand just watching—he wanted to get back into it.
First, the result: Before the age of 45, Diran had clean and jerked more than he had done as a 21-year-old D1 football player and a competitive Olympic lifter. This was at roughly the same bodyweight, but more than 20 years later. And after almost 20 years of relative inactivity.
That’s fantastic, but here’s the thing: The program that worked the best for Diran took a couple of years to figure out.
We settled in on working on the Olympic lifts one or two times per week, then switching to three times per week for the weeks before a meet. During these workouts, he was going all the way to max—going till he missed—then stopping or sometimes ending with a couple of light, crisp lifts.
He did squats in two separate workouts per week, squatting pretty hard. Squats don’t hurt Diran. They don’t seem to create wear and tear on him, and if they don’t hurt you or take too much out of you, a stronger squat always helps.
We did nothing else besides this, other than his active lifestyle. Diran is a chiropractor and is on his feet all day. He leads an active lifestyle and coaches the various sports his two sons play. He takes multiple ski trips each year. He does lots of active activities. His wife is a nutritionist and a good one, so he has no choice but to eat very well. He is in good overall health and good condition, and we didn’t need to address that in our training.
Diran can maybe max more than many his age. He’s a good athlete, or he wouldn’t have been a D1 football player. Maybe he’s capable of things some guys his age aren’t able to do, but the idea is to do what you can. He can do this.
Let me qualify my cardio recommendations a little. I have nothing against cardio, but what I’m talking about is more activity than cardio. I mentioned in my description of Diran’s training that he coaches various sports his sons play, is on his feet all day as a chiropractor and takes active vacations.
Compare that to Mary, who sits on her behind all day behind a desk at work, and has no real activity in her regular life. We want her out walking or rowing, or simply being active. Because it’s not part of her regular life, it has to be part of her training.
Diran, on the other hand, is active, so I don’t worry about it as part of training.
Training over 40
Those were two specific, but different, examples. But my experience has directed me to the following general guidelines:
1) Fit your training around your life, not the other way around. If you don’t do this, you will have lots of frustration and might not continue to train your whole life. You probably have all or some combination of a spouse, kids, job and a mortgage. Honestly, is five pounds more on your bench press or snatch important enough to neglect any of these? Will you still be training 20 years from now if you act like it is?
One of the reasons that Mary was able to improve consistently in almost every competition for six years is that she was able to cut back her training when her life demanded it, and not let it get her mentally irregular. I made it clear to her from the start, if she could get only ONE Olympic session in a given week and only ONE general fitness session in, I was still happy. It’s not all or nothing, and never has been in her head.
I believe this lack of an “all or nothing” attitude is key for training longevity. I try to instill it in any person I coach who is at an age where they are now training for themselves, as a hobby and aid to good health . . . not trying to make an Olympic team.
2) Be honest about what you’re trying to do. Say you’re 55 years old and have never been a top-level athlete. But now you’re trying to follow the program the latest phenom at Westside is using or the program the Greek team used in preparation for the Olympic games. Who are you trying to kid and what are you trying to prove? This won’t end in success!
3) Make maintaining good health and staying injury free the top priority. This really is the only way for the older athlete to get the best performance. The older you are, the easier it is to get both overuse and traumatic injuries, and the harder it is to heal from either. You really have to look at things from a risk-to-reward standpoint. How important is this thing you want to do? How badly do you want to do it? Weigh this against how likely it is to injure you or even to just create aches and pains if you do it at the intensity you want to. Don’t look at these questions through rose-colored glasses. Be honest with yourself.
4) Finally—and of least importance—is the actual training program. For the older athlete (and also the very young, by the way), I favor the following:
- Practice the skills of your sport regularly but not too regularly. Hard but not too hard.
- Add to that a general fitness program to get or keep yourself in good overall condition.
Many of you might know I’m an advocate of the Bulgarian program and my better guys and gals train 9-15 times a week, maxing out almost every workout. They do little except to snatch, clean and jerk and squat, and I advise that outside of this grueling schedule, one should never stand when you can sit, or sit when you can lay down.
But this is when you are in the middle segment*—this is, for most, a successful strategy for maybe a 5-10-year period of a lifting career, usually in the late teenage years and the 20s. For those younger and not ready for it, this routine would lead to failure. For those who have passed this glorious time in an athletic career, it will also lead to failure.
Wrapping it up
Here are a couple of questions I have asked people who are 50 or 60 and have asked for my advice about training:
- Is your spouse, your kid or your grandkid happy you’re training? Or do you suppose they secretly wish you would quit so you could concentrate more on other parts of life?
- And second, do you wake up in the morning feeling better than you would if you did nothing? Or do you wake up feeling worse?
I think you know the answers I would consider best for those questions.
These are the things I think are most important for the older athlete. I’m not sure if these are the things you were looking for, but if I’m training a 50-year-old, this is how I would approach it. This is not just for lifestyle and health reasons, but also because having priorities in this order will get the give you a better performance at a set date 10 years down the road than a different set of priorities.
That may be the best advice ever for a 50-year-old athlete: Train for an imaginary meet to take place on your 65th birthday.
Make this imaginary competition of higher importance than any competition that takes place in the next year or two. Imagine yourself at 65, and plan the training in your middle years around that.
*Since I alluded to them earlier . . . and it’s useful information, here’s a quick overview of middle segment training:
In my middle segment age group, we usually work to max with singles only, except with the very light weights. My guys might take several reps with 50, 70 or 90kg just to warm up. Some require more warmups than others. But once we get weight on the bar, it’s normal to just do singles going up.
A good example of a snatch workout for Jon North, a 94kg lifter, might be a workout he did as follows, 50 for 2, 70 for 2, 90 for 1, 110 for 1, 130 for 1, 140 for 1, 142 miss, 142 for 1, 145 for 1, 147 miss, 147 miss, 120 for 2, 125 for 2, 130 for 2, 130 for 2. This was a workout he did six or seven times per week, and he also did another two workouts that are essentially the same, only substituting power snatch.
My younger lifters (and some older ones) do a series of lifts with the same weight, for example 10 singles with a set weight. My top guys don’t do this.
We don’t have any workouts where we don’t do the lifts, so squats are done on the same days and in the same workouts.
We train two times on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and once on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. In each of these workouts, we’re snatching to maximum, clean and jerking to maximum and including some form of squatting. For two of these nine workouts, the power snatch and power clean are substituted for the full lifts, but we still go to maximum. Sometimes on Saturdays, I let the guys substitute pulls for the lifts, but not all the time.
Interested in more from Glenn Pendlay—a top US Olympic weightlifting coach who has coached his lifters to over 100 national championships?
He shares this level of experience in this live workshop video,
Olympic Weightlifting Techniques.
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