Let’s look at the primary means of avoiding age-related functional decline – the stuff I advocate for keeping youthful capabilities intact as long as possible. By looking at our home page you can see that I consider 6 key elements to be integral parts of this effort, but some are more important when results are considered. Without question, the most important is a weight training program. Nothing else will maintain the visual body proportions of youth as well; nothing will maintain your strength, your metabolism, muscle-to-fat ratio, as you move into late life as proper strength training (it isn’t called Bodybuilding without reason).
It’s pretty hard to rank diet as second, but for the most part, the effects of a perfect diet make themselves known on a much slower basis, than what you can accomplish in the gym in a few weeks. But, if you don’t ingest the materials the body needs to grow muscle and strength, function well and avoid breakdown and disease, the work in the gym will be hampered or negated. There is so much to know about food and supplements to optimize health, that it is hard to even start on the topic. The term ‘eat right’ involves so much controversy that for most it is just an empty statement meaning whatever the reader believes it means. You can truly improve your odds of getting superior nutrition by adhering to the principles espoused in the topic essay of our Nutrition category. Even better results can be obtained if you add the right bodybuilding supplements and nutritional supplements promoted in our Supplements category.
That said, let me describe a simple weight training program that works wonders is just a few months. First, we break the body into three functions and work the functions on three different days separated by at least one day of rest/recovery. The three functions are Pushing, Pulling and Legs. You work the pushing muscles on, say, Monday, the pulling muscles on Wednesday and legs/lower back/glutes (buns) on Friday, and since the leg workout is the most draining, put the 2 day rest after that workout. Another way to look at this is you’re working the whole front of your upper body on one day, then the whole back of the upper body on another and your entire lower body on the third.
Each workout begins with 5 minutes of mild aerobics to heat up the body core (5 minutes on a stationary bike works fine), then a set of roughly 20 each crunches, side bends, and the Roman chair (or other apparatus for doing back extensions) to make sure the trunk is activated. For the specific function of the day, we start with the big, dominant muscles of the body and work outward to the extremities last.
Before we start with the three day routine, I want to give you the principle of Cycling or Periodization. This is a process of increasing the weight or loading each successive workout for a period of 8-10 weeks, perhaps toward an old record or a new personal best, then backing down drastically for several weeks to let everything heal fully. You change the exercises, increase the reps and drop the weight to where the muscles you have been pushing the last 8-10 weeks are not seriously taxed for several weeks. This approach will let your ligaments and tendons recover from the stress of heavier weights and prevent you from overtraining. Overtraining results in systemic fatigue and suppresses your immune system. Do it long enough and you will tear something, lose interest or get sick. I recommend that you go for a peak effort on only one of the functions at a time. In other words, if you are near the end of an 8 week run toward a new best in the squat, and lifting heavy loads, you should be near the start of a cycle on the other two days, lifting lighter weights. Check out Frank’s Column of 11/27/05 for more details on this.
So, Day one starts (after the warm-ups) with a specific warm-up set like 20 reps of overhead (military) barbell press to the front (elbows forward to put the stress on the front [anterior] deltoids – we’re working the front of the upper body). Follow that with an intermediate weight set that you can get about 12-15 reps without failure. After 60-90 seconds rest, a set of the working weight that you can get perhaps 7-8 reps, but can’t get 9 without breaking correct form, followed after 2-3 minutes rest with the last set, same weight to failure (can’t do one more without trashing proper form or maybe not at all). Use this same pattern for inclined dumbbell press, bench press and declined bench press.
When I start a client who has no experience in strength training, I start with the primary, multi-joint form that works the most muscles to accomplish the task for the first exercise – for day one, Pushing, that is the chest press or bench press. And I use the magic (to me) numbers of 20,15 & 10: first set of 20 reps with a load that is easy to get to 20 repetitions (reps), followed by a heavier (higher weight load) set of 15 reps that the last one should be fairly tough to complete, followed by a final set with a load such that failure (can’t finish the rep without breaking form) happens on or about rep 10. When we’ve been doing this for a few years, packing on muscle and strength, typically we move to lower reps per set and greater weights, but go slow on this because higher reps with lower weights are protective of cartilage and ligaments and tendons – your joints will thank you.
Note that we worked the pushing muscles from 4 descending angles. Next week reverse the order; start with declines and work upward to overhead moves. After the body muscle sets are complete, finish off with two different sets of tricep extensions – 10-12 reps to failure. There are dozens of specific exercises for each muscle set, and I don’t have room to describe each. Buy a book, or a video training course, or best yet, hire a trainer to learn the exercises and nail down the forms. It is paramount that proper form be learned and adhered to. I personally have a problem doing flat bench press – an old injury to my right shoulder starts to get sore when I get near 185# on the lift. I will put in 3 sets on the Pec-Deck on most weeks instead of the classic bench press between sets of inclined press and declined press. I got the injury by using stupid form on that lift way back in my thirties. Form counts! Learn the correct forms or suffer the consequences.
Day two starts likewise with a body core warm-up, particularly focusing on the muscle of the lower back.. We want to work the back and pulling muscles, so start with a 20 rep warm-up set of barbell shrugs (I like barbell shrugs because it is simpler than wrestling with dumbbells, and I can pull more weight). The arms are straight like ropes with hooks on the end, the move is done by lifting the shoulders toward your ears, straight up, no rolling the shoulders back or front. Again, the sequence is always a warm-up, then an intermediate weight, then two sets at the working weight with 2-3 minutes between the last two to recover so you can get 6-8 reps on the last set. You should really have to work to get the last rep.
Next, wide grip rowing, or wide grip cable rows; these are done with the elbows at shoulder height, so the upper arms are essentially parallel to the floor. The purpose is to work the back of the shoulders (posterior deltoid), the muscles across the middle back, and the muscles that pull the scapulae (shoulder blades) together. A squeeze and hold is called for at the end of each rep, even in the warm-up. Follow this with the same regime of close grip cable rows to work lower part of the middle back and start the latisimus work. Follow this with wide grip pull-downs to the upper chest. You are trying to pull the bar only to the top of the sternum; arch the back modestly so that you are pulling straight down to just below the collarbone. If you can’t touch the chest it’s ok; just squeeze the shoulder blades together for that brief hold and resist the weight on the way up. Last for the back, close grip pull downs – works the long, outside of the lats. Again, keep the back slightly arched, and avoid bending forward to get the bar lower – it’s a back exercise, don’t involve the pecs or the abs.
Finally, work the biceps. They have been involved in all the pulling movements as a stabilizer for maintaining arm position; now work them for real. Use two different exercises in the bicep curl category – there are dozens of forms to select from, but the basics are dumbbell curls, easy-bar curls, cable curls, straight-bar curls and several machines that target the front of the arm. If you have time, toss in a set or two of wrist curls. Note that we have worked from the core warm-up to the back of the upper body, the big muscles of the back, hit from four different angles, and then to the extremities. The following week, reverse the order of the angles – start with close grip lat pulls and work upward to the trapezius with shrugs.
Some words about the king of back exercises; the dead lift. At some point you need to incorporate the dead lift into your workout. Nothing pushes the body’s anabolic trigger like the two major compound moves; the dead lift and the squat. However, if you do dead lifts on Wednesday and squats on Friday’s leg day, you stand a good chance of straining your back Saturday mowing the lawn. I think it is just too taxing to do both in the same week for seniors. So, if you are making an 8-week run at advancing in the dead lift, your leg workout should stick to the inclined leg press machine so you are not hitting the lower back hard twice in the same week.
Day three – the dreaded ‘Leg Day’. Leg day is hard and taxing, but also the day that tunes your body to grow muscle and get stronger. My theory is that serious loading of the spinal column, leg muscles and glutes causes the body to respond by marshaling every resource it has to get stronger. A huge boost to metabolism occurs because these resources are called into action to repair the biggest muscles in the body, and the elevated metabolism lasts for 4-5 days, 24 hours a day. Talk about your fat burners – this is the king of fat burning.
Start with that 5 minute bike ride, the trunk warm-up, and then go right into the compound exercise for this cycle. Let’s start with the squat. Begin with a 15 rep warm-up set, slow and deliberate, practicing the perfect form to get the body in the groove. I cannot adequately describe the correct form; you have to be shown and coached to get it right. I never do squats without a squat rack with safety bars to catch the weight if I can’t get up. Next, after a 2 minute rest, use an intermediate weight that lets you get 8-10 reps. After a 3-4 minute rest (I want full strength back for the squat – you can’t afford to weaken half way through), use the working weight for 5-7 reps, followed after a similar rest by a second set to near failure, making sure you can get up on the last rep. This works every muscle of the lower body – nothing escapes the work. So the rest of the exercises are specific to the hamstrings (leg curls or stiff legged dead lifts done with a light weight), the quadriceps (thigh extensions), and calves (two forms of calf raises), each for 3 sets, two of which are at the working weight for the week. If you are ramping up toward a new personal best, you should barely be able to walk after the workout in the last few weeks. There are several forms of the squat, and several machines that that work the same muscles, so get some instruction and learn the various exercises and keep changing the workout so you don’t get bored. Never quit working out – do it to the limits of your capacity until you drop dead.