Next steps in weightlifting for a forty (one) year old
February 19, 2019 11:58 AM   Subscribe

I feel like I’m approaching an impasse with my current weightlifting routine, and have some concerns about its sustainability in the long run. I've had a hard time finding advice online on potential next steps. Details and caveats below.

I'm a 41 year old male who currently lift weights three times a week, basically a Greyskull workout, i.e., rotation between three sets of five of: squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and bench presses, with a couple optional lifts and pull/chin-ups thrown in. I started this with the goal of “increasing strength” and it’s definitely done that. But I’m not sure it’s sustainable in the long run.

As I understand it, all of these types of programs are more or less based on the principle that you add a little more weight every week and eat your body weight in protein and 500+ calories and you just keep getting tougher until it’s time to level up, big boy, and promote to some intermediate beefcake program that’s five days a week and…that was never really my goal?

I’m frankly sort of fine with where I am, or at least I suspect I will be in the next couple of months. I bench above my body weight, I’m deadlifting and squatting about 1.5 times my body weight. I don’t really want much more than that.
And if that was my goal, I’m not sure it’s really possible with my lifestyle anyway. I’m starting to feel myself reach some plateaus that may not be surpassed unless I really dig in. But my diet doesn’t lend itself to 220 grams of protein and 2800 calories a day. And I can’t commit to 8 hours a week at the gym.

Additionally, as mentioned, I’m 41, plus I have 2 small children at home and hate pain and I really can’t get hurt. I know plenty of people keep lifting large amounts of weight well into their twilight, but I just want to age in a healthy way and not be too flabby and full of hernias.

So I need a new plan. But I don’t want to just quit working out. It took a lot of work to get here, and my fear is if I quit what I’m doing and don’t transition to something sensible I’ll start regressing, or even be back where I started in six months. I just don’t know what that sensible thing is.

A few things:

1) I have access to pretty standard gym. Free weights, racks, cable machines, etc.
2) As alluded to above, I don’t have a ton of time. I try to get out at lunch 3 times a week for 30-45 minutes. The compound lifts worked out well for this, efficiency-wise. Though as the weights go up I’m having to rest more between sets so it’s probably a bit of a wash. Still, 30-45 minutes 3 times a week is the best I can do.
3) It's too hot here to run.
4) If the advice is along the lines of what I've seen elsewhere: keep doing what you’re doing, this is how it works…that’s maybe fine for a bit longer, but then what?
5) If the advice is: do something with kettlebells or cables or whatever, if possible maybe elaborate a little? Point to a specific workout? I’m not very good at winging it, I’d like to have a specific routine I stick with.
6) This is all very specific and I’m probably beyond the “get a trainer, old man” mark. I will accept that advice, but if you have anything else to add on to that, thanks.
posted by gordie to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I found rotating workout groups seemed to keep things fresh while basically continuing to lift weight. Right now I'm on a push-pull-legs workout. That routine fits in your schedule, plus its really easy to change out the actual workouts done so you're getting a lot of variety in what's working your muscles. Cables, machines, freeweights, all mix together. I try to do one type of each per muscle group during my workout (one cable, one freeweight, one machine).

Push day is muscles that push weight away from you. Chest, Triceps, Shoulders, 3 exercises of each muscle group. 3 sets of 8-10 reps (or to exhaustion). So chest could be benches, machines, cable crossovers, flys, etc. Triceps we usually do cable rope, kickbacks, machine. Shoulders are rough but side cable raises, military presses, and some other thing.
Pull day is muscles that pull towards you. Biceps and back muscles (lats and middle back). Usually do 4x exercises, again 3 sets of 10 reps for back stuff and 3x for biceps since the back has more area to cover.
Leg day is the usual leg stuff. Leg press, squats, extensions/curls, calves. I usually stack on some core abs stuff on the end of leg day since it goes fast and fits nicely there.
Cardio after each if I'm trying to cut.

We sometimes switch from PPL to a 'body part' routine. Chest day, leg day, arms day, back day, core day. I like PPL because it increases the intensity of which I'm exercising things, but I have to be conscious to lift things to exhaustion on it because it's easy to knock out 3 exercises and be done.

I try to track all my stuff in the Bodyspace app, but there are a billion app choices out there. I like ones that I can put in 'shoulders' and it'll show me a bunch of options. That way, I'm not doing the same thing day after day and it keeps my body guessing. If you google PPL workouts, there are plenty to pick from. I'm happy to elaborate more so feel free to message if you want.
posted by msbutah at 12:12 PM on February 19, 2019

I'm 46, and I think the best advice I have for what you're doing is reading Starting Strength and Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe
posted by patrickje at 12:46 PM on February 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

But I’m not sure it’s sustainable in the long run.

Why? That's a great plateau to be at. If you're happy with the time and effort level, and not bored, why wouldn't you keep doing what has worked so well for you? Yes, you probably won't be able to maintain it until 60, but you should have a decade or so before aging becomes an issue.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:47 PM on February 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

It seems to me like you might as well stick with what you're doing, if you're happy with it! If you want to get past plateaus, it's sometimes helpful to spend a while doing more reps of a lighter weight. (Or fewer of a heavier weight, but I wouldn't do that given the importance of not hurting yourself.) Adding in work on smaller muscle groups, emphasizing going very slowly on the "easier" part of a movement (the one that works with gravity), and doing different exercises that work slightly different muscle groups can also help.
posted by metasarah at 12:54 PM on February 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

I started this with the goal of “increasing strength” and it’s definitely done that.

Sounds like you met your goal. So what's the new goal?
Figure out the new goal, and you can figure out how to get there.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:08 PM on February 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm in a similar position -- 47-year old woman, I've been doing one of the programs from Tactical Barbell (look, the book was recommended by a friend. The title and tone are ridiculous, but the actual lifting advice seems pretty solid) for about a year and a half now, and I've been plateaued for a while. And... I'd sort of like to keep getting stronger, but I have made it to "Really quite strong for a 47-year-old woman", I look okay, my back feels great (compared to how it did before I started doing deadlifts, it feels fantastic), my posture is good, and so if I plateau here forever doing about three hours in the gym a week, that's not a bad deal. Is it possible that you're in a good spot to just maintain?

But I do keep idly thinking I should eat more protein or get a trainer or something.
posted by LizardBreath at 1:19 PM on February 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think your next few years, if you are happy with how strong you are (and don't want to risk injury), could be to just lift at the same weight each week to maintain your current strength. So you don't have to eat tons of protein and try to build huge muscles - just lift the exact same weights you're lifting now over and over, every week. It would maintain your strength but not likely to risk injury or change your body shape much. But that's pretty boring.

If you think you have the drive/interest, you could spend some time every 6 months or so researching and choosing a new program - there are tons of them out there, many of which don't mandate tons of hours in the gym. Many of them are written by random people online and aren't necessarily the "most optimal", but since you aren't concerned with getting super jacked, who cares? This would allow you to still do something in the same vein as you're doing now, but the pattern of sets/reps/weights would vary with each program, giving you some more interest and not being quite so boring. If you go that route, I would set your "starting" weights for each program to lower than your current actual weights, so that it doesn't push you to hit higher weight goals than you've already reached(on purpose, since you have a focus on limiting injury). However, again, this could get boring if part of your interest is in how it forces you to push yourself - if your workouts get easier and easier and you'd find that boring, you might need to explore other options.

If that's the case, I second the idea for looking into classes - there are weightlifting classes at most gyms these days that will give you some variety each week, but generally aren't going to cause injury/can be easily adapted up or down depending on your strength & comfort level.
posted by jouir at 1:38 PM on February 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

What are you doing for cardio and flexibility? Do you stretch after you lift?

I lifted pretty seriously for a couple years in my early 30s, decided I was strong enough (I now have the baseline fitness to do a lot of sports I really couldn't before, including the muscles I need to stabilize my joints and avoid problems there), and now in my late 30s mostly run/cycle with a couple lifting exercises per workout. I like not being sore all the time! Adding cardio made sense for me from a functional fitness perspective, but it's good for you from a lifelong health perspective, too. I also looked at getting into Olympic lifts but that's specialized enough that the right gym would be inconvenient and $$$. There's a crossfit box opening very near me - I might start doing that as I'm prepared to resist the competitive, injury-causing culture that sometimes (but not always) comes with crossfit.

Whatever you do is going to be way better than doing nothing. If you pay attention to form and don't try to progress too fast, you're protecting yourself from injury whatever the sport. Follow your bliss.
posted by momus_window at 2:41 PM on February 19, 2019

Firstly, as you know, call what you're doing powerlifting (weightlifting in the gym community usually refers to Olympic Weightlifting)

As TMOTAT says, what are your goals?. You can maintain just doing what you're doing - probably a lower frequency than 3 x week!, but it's not very efficient, and you'll bore of the compound lifts eventually if you're not training for something.

If you want to get stronger, you may be past the point of novice gains, or if you're not willing to eat more, then you may effectively be past them.....
Read about periodization in Practical Programming for Strength Training

Perhaps there are conditioning goals you want to aim for? "too hot to run" but your gym is air conditioned, yes?
Can you put in sprints on a rower or prowler, and aim to get your splits/times down? (Perhaps do something like a modified pete plan?) for a few months, with 1/day week lifts, then return to lifting?

Is there an ability you'd like to have - like X pushups or pullups? Train those....

If there a sport you want to get better at? etc.
posted by lalochezia at 2:57 PM on February 19, 2019

The reestablishing of a goal makes sense, I need to give it thought. Right now it's just "maintain strength and don't be bored." I don't think I'd be satisfied doing what I'm doing right now indefinitely.

Mixing up the program makes sense as well, just need to figure out what that would look like. I hate going and there and just messing around.
posted by gordie at 4:30 PM on February 19, 2019

It sounds like the boredom is kind of the problem?

Trying something new, or adding one day a week of something that compliments powerlifting, might...idk recontextualize it for you?

When I lifted, it got a lot more interesting when I was able to apply it to something. Yoga and Pilates also both seriously increased my body awareness in a way that really opened lifting up.

But just kinda adding a random sport or game can help. Boxing is also fun? Climbing. Whatever you have access to, would be my suggestion.
posted by schadenfrau at 6:04 PM on February 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

As a fellow old, the only additional thing I would suggest is that your goals include not getting injured. This is going to be more and more important as you age, and will also let you go to the gym more if you avoid doing so. Well, I guess I'd personally add cardio, since my baseline cardio is terrible.
posted by Phredward at 6:39 PM on February 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also try changing them up a little. Do sets of eight instead of five. Do sets of three. Do sumo deadlift and front squats. Do split squats. Farmer's walks,

And make sure you are doing enough stretching and accessory work, that is what is going to save you from injury.
posted by jeather at 6:49 PM on February 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'd probably rotate between your current Greyskull (3x5), and a lower-weight higher-rep routine (say 5x10 @ 50-60% 1RM), and maybe even heavy singles (5x1 @ 90% 1RM). Or simply look at a different routine like 5/3/1. It's basically all the same stuff, just done differently.

I've fallen out of barbell training in the past few years because I kept injuring myself (I am around your age) and no longer have room for a home set-up and don't want to go to the gym. So I've been playing around with kettlebells a bit lately (and will be getting back into it once it isn't so dastardly hot around here). Just simple stuff like 100 swings, 50 presses, maybe some farmer's walks. Have a Google at some Pavel Tsatsouline routines like "Simple and Sinister" or "Enter the Kettlebell".
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:04 PM on February 19, 2019

If you wanted a drastic change you could switch to bodyweight workouts for a while (or permanently). You'd need to set a goal, like x number of one handed pull ups, y number of one handed pushups, z number of weighted pistol squats within six months). Or even something further afield, like do a planche/hold crane pose for 30 seconds/work up to doing a back bend. You could spend half your workout time working on one of those goals and the other half squatting or deadlifting if you wanted to.

You could also try some variations of the lifts you're already doing and see if that makes it less boring. You'd have to use less weight for most/all of them, and you could try some different rep ranges too. Examples:
squat: front squat; pistol squat; split squat; Bulgarian split squat
deadlift: sumo deadlift; deficit deadlift; farmer's walk; glute ham raise; good morning; stiff leg deadlift; single leg deadlift
bench: tricep dip; chest fly; dumbbell bench; incline bench; push up variations

Also, if you get bored you're not going to lose all your gains if you take a couple of weeks off to rest and consider what your next goal will be.
posted by aussie_powerlifter at 3:59 AM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

all I would say is..... with people recommending "mixing it up" and "not injuring" is that the former is deleterious to the latter if you are moving any kind of heavy weight and not having your form checked (see: crossfit with older/untrained populations!).

take it slow with new exercises, get the form right - ideally with a coach , and try not to go hard on them.
posted by lalochezia at 5:12 AM on February 20, 2019

Not sure if this is helpful, but get a trainer. I have a great one and I'm a 40-year old female who put 100+ pounds on my back squat and deadlift in four years (post partum, too). Now I have someone who does the intellectual work for me, pays attention to my form and keeps me healthy, and gets me in and out of the gym in an hour/3x week. Highly recommend if that's an option money-wise.
posted by mrfuga0 at 7:43 AM on February 20, 2019

I'm 47 and am enjoying New Rules of Lifting for Life. I'm not sure that it'd be perfect on its own for you, given you're already lifting a lot, but you might find its exercises and routines an interesting alternative To what you're doing now. It's aimed at the middle-aged, and keeping strong, flexible and fit as we get older.
posted by fabius at 1:31 PM on February 20, 2019

I was very into barbell work and powerlifting from 2009 to 2015. I eventually stopped making the barbell my focus due to a combination of accrued injuries, reaching my own limitations, boredom/depression, and a return to school.

Since giving up the barbell I came to the realization that strictly-only barbell and strength training does not make one healthy or even 'fit'. Many today eschew any form of cardio, proclaiming that diet alone is sufficient for fat-loss. These people, and I include former self in this group, don't realize that cardio is important for maintaining a healthy heart. It wasn't until I did a practicum in a heart ward during nursing school that I realized that the heart is the most important muscle in the body.

My cardio is still not up to the level of recreational runners or cyclists, but in the last two years I have dabbled in judo, jiu-jitsu, and boxing. For the especially hectic times that I could not make a class, I pull up a Youtube cardio workout video as 'better than nothing'. I also have a cheap punching bag that I purchased used.

Simultaneously, participating in martial arts classes have also highlighted how uncoordinated and inflexible I have become in my 30s.

Basically, I am trying to highlight that physical fitness must include more than just strength-training.

My suggestion is to incorporate periodization into your year -- for example, barbell work in the Winter, with a shift in focus to another quality in the Spring, such as hiking and flexibilty/coordination. This will also give your joints a break from heavy lifting. In addition, some boredom will be alleviated.

By doing so you will regress in strength levels. However, your strength numbers are not so high such that a subsequent return could see you readily achieve previous strength levels.
posted by heliosanthus at 7:40 PM on February 20, 2019

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