Vince McConnell: Training at 50 (or 20) and Beyond
by Vince McConnell
Training at 50 and Beyond
Success in training at 50 and beyond is about understanding basic, foundational principles and learning the best ways to implement them on a consistent basis. I’m writing this with the perspective of one who just had his 50th birthday and has been training for nearly 38 years, but these principles are just as relevant to a 20-year-old.
What’s the difference? The younger you are, the more you can violate these principles and possibly survive with little more than a few aches and pains to go along with the frustration of wasted time and effort. As your years progress, the less you can breach these values and persist in the iron game.
This content is applicable at any age, and mandatory as your training age accumulates.
Note to the young and bold: Know NOW what you’ll know then.
Before delving into more detail, here are 12 “truths” you need to know. The content that follows will build on them to reinforce the truth that training is really about understanding some ordinary principles and applying them with extraordinary precision and regularity.
- There’s a difference in training age . . . and the number of candles on your upcoming birthday cake.
- Training is a microcosm of life . . . there are greater consequences to doing stupid, ego-driven things at 50 than there are at 20.
- Each training session has its own thumbprint . . . and is impacted by your past, and will influence your projected future.
- You need to understand what’s in “the box” . . . before going outside of it.
- Training principles are essential . . . and your straightest line of progress is to apply them.
- Biofeedback and Kinesthetic Efficiency . . . are your greatest assets
- Success in training is much like winning tennis . . . holding serve, you can win the match with a single break.
- Intensity is critical . . . and workload is just as relevant.
- Numbers are great servants . . . but horrible masters.
- Preserving muscle tissue is the key to getting lean . . . not burning calories.
- It’s about the process . . . rather than any single workout.
- Mental clarity . . . is more important than just doing work.
No, Not Another “System”
If I have a major pet peeve in the fitness industry, it’s marketing-based fitness. I’m certainly not going to tout my system, nor am I going to pitch nonsense about being anti-system.
Truth is, while I earn my living designing training programs, I realize that the program is only as good as its application. What you see on a spreadsheet is simply where you start.
In spite of there being some really good programs available, there is a yearning for real answers regarding how to implement a program and deal with the day-to-day challenges that arise.
There are plenty of deterrents to regular training: time, family, work, travel, injury, and getting older, just to name a few. But nothing destroys motivation more than confusion. When you are frozen in a mental cyclone, your physiology follows and energy is sapped not only for that particular workout but also in the way it extends into the future. The solution is always to bring yourself back to the basic foundation; this is where clarity resides. No matter how good a training system or program is, you are to use it without allowing it to use you.
[bctt tweet=”Nothing destroys motivation more than confusion. ~ Vince McConnell” via=”no”]
Every valid training program, whether geared towards athletic preparation or physique development, is wise to include an exercise that fits into the following categories:
- Upper Body Push
- Upper Body Pull
- Lower Body Hip Dominant
- Lower Body Knee Dominant
- Core Stability
From there, it’s about having a program designed to hit a personal balance for your specific needs and objectives. Anything more or less is purely for entertainment purposes, so enter at your own risk.
“But I get bored easy. I need to change things up or I’ll lose motivation. What do I do then?”
I’ll answer that with a question: “What are your training objectives or goals?”
If your answer is “I just want to get a good workout, feel better about myself and burn some calories,” there may be other articles more suited to you. This article is geared towards those who have at least a “specific general” objective (i.e. build muscle) and know training as a necessary part of life—rather than purely as recreation.
Regardless of the program you choose, the purpose of this information is to provide guidance on where to start and how to sustain progress on that path. There is no “the way,” but there is a constructive direction in which to head. It’s similar to knowing you want to head west because your desired destination is in that direction. You look at a map, plot a course of travel, and embark on the journey. Along the way you will come to certain challenges that may cause you to have to alter your preferred path. However, just because you adjust the route does not mean you are changing the destination. Detours are nothing more than opportunities to see what you may have missed while on your journey to your destination.
All that said, let’s dive in and focus. This article could easily be re-titled, Knowing Now What You Wish You’d Known Then. Or, for younger readers, Knowing Now What You’ll Know Then.
In other words, the principles addressed here also apply to those early enough in their training to afford the consequences of ignoring them.
And, being that I’m into my 32nd year as a strength coach with clients ranging from 8 to 88, and admittedly serious about my own training, there’s no better time to address this and hopefully provide some clarity from a grassroots perspective. Consider this honest “street talk” of training to feel, perform, and look your best at whatever stage in life you are.
Life of Training
Though I want this article to be centered on the message and not the messenger, there’s no practical way to accurately convey this particular message without some personal perspective on past experiences as well as current insight relative to my own training.
The majority of my background is in sports that require power and speed, so in regards to fitness, strength training is my specialty. Along with those roots is the love of developing the best physique that my genetics allow. As for many of you, training is lifeblood for me. It’s beyond a hobby or just an activity that I do purely to live better or longer (although those are certainly worthy benefits.) To those who just don’t get that, there’s really no way to explain it in a way that seems rational. Rest assured, to those who do understand, there’s no need to convince you that training can be a microcosm of life: an essential component that helps give stability and confidence to other, more important aspects of our lives.
There’s a defining point in time (sooner or later for each of you,) when you make the realization that getting older can add some irritating inconveniences to your training goals and objectives. But, this does not need to compromise the end result to any significant degree. It’s just that the primary challenge goes from finding more severe ways to place more stress on the body to discovering smarter, subtler means of accomplishing our objectives that sustain our joint and connective tissue integrity while leaving our “maturing ego” intact.
The new challenge is realizing that you are truly only as good as your next workout. In your younger days, you may have prided yourself on yesterday’s workout, but don’t be one of those guys who can only amuse others with stories of legendary lifts and ripped physiques . . . back when they used to train. To repeat, whereas you used to pride yourself on the amount of weight hoisted, you now define your training by the precision that you are able to exhibit. Precision is the new intensity for the mature athlete.
[bctt tweet=”Precision is the new intensity for the mature athlete. ~ Vince McConnell” via=”no”]
Defining What Works
I’m like a lot of you, in that terms like wellness and fitness bore the crap out of me.
That is, until you don’t have either of those in enough supply to just function on a daily basis. You now realize the way you trained “back then” only actually works as long as you can tolerate it enough to train with some sort of regularity.
What “worked” for you 15 years or six months ago may in fact have led to some current physical impairments and be quite contrary to what you’d be wise to be doing at this stage in your training life. No, I’m not implying that you succumb to a geriatric mindset but to a matured and battle-tested, principle-based perspective that will have you training with consistency and success.
Here are the eight core principles that are paramount to maximizing your potential in training as well as enjoying longevity in that process:
- Objective/ Goals
Before you can make quality decisions that support your training, you must define your primary objective(s) as well as set some form of short-term and long-term goals.
Your mind is the deciding vote in regards to the degree of return on your training efforts. Though there are always important issues to deal with outside your workouts, your ability to set those aside for the period of time you’ve dedicated to train will have as much to do with your success as the exercises you choose. Clarity breeds not only confidence but optimal muscle activation and strength.
- Program Efficiency
Having a program designed specifically for your objectives and goals is no less important than a map is to traveling. This program must not just look good—it must be applicable according to your individual conditions and logistics.
- Technical Proficiency
Though there are general biomechanics that will apply universally to the human body, there are also biomechanical nuances that will apply specific to you, your body type, and any existing impairments. There will be certain exercises that should work great yet will be unwise selections for your objectives. The integrity of your mechanics on a given exercise determines the quality of return you will experience as well as the health of your joints and soft tissues.
The amount of tension muscles experience during a particular set of any exercise can be classified as intensity. Adding external loading typically heightens intensity. This is a vital factor in producing the needed demand on muscles to respond with hypertrophy and strength. In explosive lifts (i.e. Olympic lift variations) the intensity is the amount of resistance to overcome through a mechanically-sound repetition. Never allow the amount of intensity to compromise the quality of technical proficiency.
Sets and reps are all relative to the elements of intensity, quality, and time. A muscle responds as much to the “work with the load” as the “load of the work.” Again, think quality FIRST even when increasing volume. Then, understand that volume is a valuable “tool” along with the amount of resistance employed.
- Kinesthetic Sense
This is the training game’s 6th sense: the sharpened ability to discern the amount of external resistance needed to optimize intra-muscular tension, the optimal position to put your body in for biomechanical integrity, how to adjust rep speed to elevate intensity, how far to take a set, when to increase or decrease planned reps and sets and other quantifiable factors.
Your progress is certainly effected by the work you are to do in the future, but it’s only as good as your recovery from the previous. Sleep and nutrition are key factors in your recovery and you are in total command of the attention you choose to give them.
We need to place demands on our physiology in a way that we get the training effect we seek, both physically and psychologically, and do it in a manner where the benefits outweigh the risks. It would have been best to follow these guidelines in our younger years. Now, the reality is that we cannot afford the consequences of mistakes made in years past.
Relative to training, I admittedly call myself a recovering legalist. I’ve been that guy who identified himself with the quantifiable factors of training, who was near obsessed with making certain predetermined numbers were hit every time I trained. Every workout included a responsibility to save face and make certain my comparisons to others allowed for at least some level of satisfaction. In my mind, heavier was better, as was the belief muscles just have to grow with what we’d consider impressive lifts.
If you are, or have been, one of those who believes any given workout is a waste of time if it doesn’t include more weight, more exercises, more sets, more reps, more . . . something, or at least the feeling you’ve survived a near-death experience—you have a pretty good idea the lure of training legalism. Training legalism is when you are identified with each and every workout purely based on quantifiable numbers. Anything less than surpassing, or at least equaling, those prerequisites was a pitiful experience of inferiority and cause for a psychological ass-whipping.
So, to clarify, I’m not one of those fitness guys who believes using good form is a moral issue or that replacing actual workload with physical therapy modalities is functional fitness. I remain very competitive and have enough heavy lifting and other high-stress demands in my history to know that world very well. And with that, I’ve accrued some hind-sighted, and sometimes painful, wisdom: I may have been better off doing a few things differently.
Different Kind of Aging
For someone who is approaching 40, 50, 60 or 70 . . . and is actually just a few years into training, they are still in their training infancy, regardless of the candles on their most recent birthday cake. Your training age is relative to how many years you have trained with consistency and progression.
A 45 year-old who’s in generally good health but has not subjected his body to intense training will be in a different age group than a 40 year-old who has been training for 20 years. The good news for the 45 year-old is that there are no training biases, bad technical habits, or overuse injuries to manage. The good news for the 40 year-old lifter is the muscle maturity that has been built, the muscle memory developed and the discipline accrued. The overriding key for each of these incidences is to use this information to their advantage by addressing the existing disadvantages. The 45 year-old novice must prioritize lifting technique, foundational strength, and the mental discipline to sustain a training program. Whereas the 40 year-old veteran must confront the ego, reassess lifting technique, and honestly address training biases to choose which need to be purged.
In spite of its obvious liabilities, the ego can actually be a beneficial attribute as we progress in years. How we utilize the ego will determine our relationship with it. Instead of the ego driving us to do things that run us into trouble, we are best to exploit it in a way that compels us to be consistent and precise with our training. Developing a lean athletic physique is more challenging as years accumulate for a number of reasons, but the ego can be used in a constructive way to bolster your commitment, especially in the auxiliary details like mobility drills, meal planning and rest.
We need to mature in such a way that we pride ourselves on being able to train in a manner that sustains lean muscle tissue and joint mobility that will far surpass chasing numbers or doing another killer workout. We need a new kind of intensity that has matured beyond crushing our connective tissues, joints and central nervous system.
As you progress in your training age, you need to be secure in certain principles that supersede traditional training rules of years past. Understanding and applying these values will give your training both immediate and long-term focus, purpose and direction.
New principles and parameters to get familiar with include exercise selection, workout frequency, time efficiency, metabolic efficiency, CNS efficiency and the mother principle that’s key to success in Training to 50 and Beyond . . . Kinesthetic Efficiency.
Your Sixth Sense
Training intensity and workload are relative to many different factors that are specific to each individual. What is heavy to one person may not be to another, what may not look like much on a whiteboard can be quite enough in real life and what may look like a lot of work on paper may be quite different in its application.
Kinesthetic Efficiency (KE) is that 6th sense in regards to training. For simplicity, my definition of KE is: the sharpened ability to create and access intra-muscular tension in a targeted area; discern when a general movement or specific exercise is being “felt” where it should be; and how far to take a particular set before ending it.
Yes, I’m implying that you end the set rather than it dictating your destiny.
The precise ability to load an exercise that sustains mechanical integrity throughout the set of high-tension repetitions is the hallmark of training mastery; the use of perpetual biofeedback to know when to end a set, extend a set, add another set, subtract a set, increase/decrease load, extend rest period and adjust rep speed, just to name a few.
This is far beyond the rhetorical “use good form” and “don’t go to failure.” In my observation, like other arts, it can really only be developed by someone with close to a decade or more of consistent training under their belt. No worries though, as this skill can be experienced the first time you choose to let it lead the way. The key to progress is consistently practicing it.
But, what about periodization and specific training cycles?
The various forms of formal periodization (i.e. linear, undulating, conjugate) certainly can have their place at some stages in a successful training program and KE can work very effectively with any system of periodization. The scope of this article does not include covering each aspect of the pros and cons of periodization but for now think of adhering to a formal periodization program as getting an education on how to eventually channel your inner periodization. I will address this in more detail in future articles. I will say that, in my experience as a strength coach, I find prescribed systems of periodization to be best suited in program designs for competitive lifters and teams of athletes with common goals.
A successful training program need not be “color by numbers” but it shouldn’t resemble graffiti either.
Over the last 15-20 years, my training has steadily matured. It is governed by the principle of biofeedback to the degree that every quantifiable aspect (sets, reps, load) can be adjusted—as needed—to make each session as close to optimal as possible. My sets are taken not to old-style failure, but to my kinesthetic limit for that point of that session. This allows every set to build on the previous and every workout to build on the preceding as well as set the stage for the next. This is what progress is all about.
I want to be moving forward in the big picture, even if that means slightly pulling the reins back at the present.
For instance, choosing a lighter weight today can lead to a better result tomorrow and stopping a set short of what I could’ve done can lead to greater progress than if I’d plowed through that set. Only when I’ve allowed external promptings to influence my training, and I’ve gotten off this path, have I experienced joint and soft tissue impairments and/or mental burnout. Admittedly, I’ve allowed this more times than I’d like to confess. Is this part of the process? I guess. But by adhering to the principles of biofeedback and KE, I could certainly have remained free of most of it.
For the individual who is not peaking for a competition, I stand on the belief that the best path is one that starts with a foundation of formal program design that may include some variation of periodization. It then matures beyond that system’s boundaries while retaining all of its innate principles. The primary beneficial difference is that the variation is not limited to “the plan” but applied through honest biofeedback and KE.
Training maturity keeps something in the tank for training longevity while also providing the invaluable benefit of being in very good condition year-round as opposed to the path that is always one bad rep away from a forced hiatus from training. Like most of you, I have a list of issues stemming from previous injuries that can rear their ugly heads on any given day. Honing in on KE and biofeedback gives you the wisdom to adjust and make on-the-spot adjustments.
As you’ll see in the program I share below, there are a few things not in my current program that I do perform at certain stages in my training. For example, I’ve had a medial elbow that been screaming at me, so most of my upper body pulling is done with a neutral or pronated grip. A cranky shoulder has me giving KB Snatches, overhead presses, and handstand pushups a rest.
One courageous rep won’t make you . . . but one can certainly break you. As well, you’ll find it’s easier to remain in the kind of condition where you’re a few weeks from peaking than it is to get in that condition in the first place. This is great news for those who are questioning the return-on-investment of diligence required to follow these seemingly conservative principles.
Things get more efficient in every way the more you’re on this path as opposed to the uncertainty that accompanies just putting your head down and going through the proverbial wall. There were times in my not so distant past that pre-training was filled with the anxiety of ‘I’m going to see what exercises my body will tolerate today.’
A level of anxiety can be very important to your success in training but it needs to be the type of stress that leads to confidence and confronting the demands of the work rather than the timidity of hoping you don’t get injured.
As well, over the years I’ve been at my most muscular, and carried the highest degree of muscle when not chasing numbers in regards to the amount of weight I use or determining a successful workout by hitting muscular failure. It’s not about focusing on heavy or light, but the external load needed to generate the type of muscle activation, contraction, and workload for the objective. Also, it is not mandatory to do the infamous “Big Lifts” (i.e. squat, deadlift, barbell bench press) in order to build a very impressive physique. Some heavier work is definitely beneficial but the tools chosen are less relevant than the quality. Quality trumps quantity when quantity is not founded in quality.
Keeping check on numbers of reps, sets, poundage, rest periods, rep tempo, etc. are all useful components to gauge progress and to bring some needed order to your workouts. But these digits must not be allowed to become THE workout. Numbers are great servants but horrible masters in a training program.
In real-life application, for the first several years of training, there’s a benefit in following a plan to the exact letter as this provides the necessary understanding and stability to then explore beyond the map. Eventually, you will use these figures to lay the groundwork for the workout while also allowing for the benefit in going under, over or around them to optimize a particular workout.
“Understanding and applying sound principles makes rules obsolete . . . however, arriving at this level requires a definite period of rule following”
Mind Games or Mental Muscle?
In my experience, most people workout and just hope something good comes out of it. Even when someone is following a designed program, there’s a dominant mindset of “just work hard, and something magical can happen.”
“There’s a difference in lifting heavy and training heavy.”
When someone who’s trained for a significant period of time, asks me what is the most important thing they can work on to enhance their training result, they expect my answer to present a new mobility drill or training split.
My actual answer has nothing directly to do with the physical aspect. The most underrated quality you can possess to enhance your training and the product of it is the ability to fully absorb yourself into every exercise, every set, every repetition and every workout.
This is a much more challenging skill (yes, skill) than most assume. It’s far beyond the typical ability to focus or concentrate. When you’re engaged in this zone you’re not trying to do anything—it’s a full submersion into the present moment, free of outside distraction or inner clutter. This topic is an article in itself and will be more fully addressed in future writings.
It’s common assumption that motivation is always a positive thing. On the surface, I’d agree. However, any stimulus from the outside is unreliable even at its best. Yes, you can catch lightning in a bottle every now and then and have a super workout. However, these mountain-top experiences also insure some nasty trips to the gutter in regards to incentive to train in a productive manner. You know this innately, thus the tendency to have your mindset flutter between extremes.
The reality is that the overriding majority of your training sessions will simply be bridges between those that you’re thrilled to record in your training journal. This is not bad news, just the way the body progresses. Coaxing progress is superior to forcing it—you own your progress rather than it being something that happens to you.
Think of training progress like tennis match. The winner of the match succeeds, first by holding serve and then working to get a single break of his opponent’s serve. To try too hard to make something happen will only lead to you losing your serve and having to manufacture greater will and energy for several breaks that would otherwise be unnecessary.
When you understand this concept, you’re able to choose a productive mindset to help insure you get the most out of every workout by consistently being in the zone, as described above.
The precursor to this mindset is commitment. Commitment is a decision, not something that just happens through hard work. Commitment entails a lifestyle that extends beyond the actual workouts, and brings clarity of purpose, which in-turn breeds confidence. The time away from the gym will determine the results you witness in the mirror.
Your thought process about your primary objective in training is paramount. Your muscles do not care about the particulars that you use to stimulate them. In other words, your legs are not thinking, ‘hey, that’s not a gut-busting barbell squat . . . I’m not about to grow.’
End of the Have-Tos
You run into trouble when ignorance or insecurity leads you to buy into the hardcore creed that certain exercises are mandatory for right of passage to build muscle. I mention insecurity as that’s the prime reason the ego is given governorship over the decisions made in your training. Know this: There are no must-do exercises, routines, rep standards, or any other applications. The only thing that matters is that the targeted muscle is stimulated with sufficient stress that it responds through growth to compensate for the demand.
This issue is not just about the exercises you choose but also how they are implemented. For instance, some exercises are more conducive to higher reps and faster tempo while others are most beneficial with heavier loads, slower tempos and lower reps. Again, it is all relative. Keep this vital truth in mind when you start any training program.
One of the signs of a training maturity is keeping the objective . . . the objective. The particular exercises, resistance, reps, sets and any other variable are just means to the projected end, not the end itself. The sooner you fully realize and engage this truth, the more likely you will have the mental clarity to make the best use of every rep of every training session to your advantage.
Refuse to be limited by traditional dogma and understand that muscle growth is about creating intra-muscular tension through a biomechanically sound movement pattern; performing just enough work to inspire a targeted muscle to respond. It’s all about workload rather than which exercises are performed.
Regarding the amount of work performed: training must be viewed beyond any single workout. Instead of thinking how many sets you do in one workout, think in terms of spreading a week’s worth of workload over the course of the week. In a future article, I’ll explore how to take advantage of the principle of training frequency and enhance the quality of every set and rep by spreading the workload over more than a single workout.
I’ve included a week’s worth of my personal training program to better illustrate how I implement the new kind of intensity I spoke of previously. You’ll notice that I’ve implemented several key principles in regards to exercise selection. I perform some variation of an upper body push, upper body pull, lower body hip hinge, and lower body squat/lunge in each of my four primary training days. I’ve found that higher frequency is more beneficial as we age while the specific variations of basic exercises is best modified in order to allow for this higher frequency and workload.
Though it may look like my exercise selection is somewhat random, it’s actually very structured and based on each of the principles addressed earlier. It’s all founded on getting the optimal degree of intra-muscular tension for that point in time to create the demand needed to keep the process of progress inching forward. The workload is created via specific combinations of exercises in addition to single specific exercises. No one workout is going to get the job done. It’s all about what you do over an extended period of time that will bring the desired results in your body, physique wise as well as functionally.
Even the manner in which I implement what would be considered rather conventional cardio work is done deliberately and with biofeedback-driven precision. Nothing is wasted as I’m always thinking how THIS workout will effect what’s ahead. The majority of our training sessions need to be bridges between those days when everything clicks and PR’s are reached and new ones set.
Truly, we are only as good as our next workout.
Now that you have a better idea where I’m going with this, here’s a recent week of my training (A Week in the Life Of, if you will) in order to give you a sense of how to implement the aforementioned principles over the course of seven days. Think of it as a sample program, or a foundation to build on. There are nearly countless ways to tweak this template to best suit your needs so don’t get fixated on the specific exercises, sets or reps . . . just the principles.
To repeat, I do have a predetermined objective programmed each week, each day, and I best fulfill that by being willing to make on-the-spot “audibles” and adjustments with a grander view of weeks and months ahead. I regularly substitute other variations of these exercises over a 6-8 week period. I’ll set aside a certain variation for a phase then come back to it and find my body responds better to it each time as I better develop kinesthetic sense.
In future articles, I’ll go deeper into developing your kinesthetic sense, and get into different variations for these exercises, as well as a travel version for those on the road on a frequent basis. Again, we can modify the rules while sticking to the principles. For example, I use dumbbells or kettlebells for nearly all of my upper body pressing movements, but if you (and your joints) prefer the barbell, by all means go with it.
I hope you enjoy looking this over and take away an idea or two to apply in your own program.
Watch for more programming articles from Vince McConnell and check out these talks, videos and books from OTP:
Still want more? Here’s a great programming article from Dan John.
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