7 Weightlifting Secrets to Keep You Young

Man pulling up large barbell in fitness class

As someone who writes about strength training and nutrition for a living, I should've been prepared for middle age. But it wasn't until I suffered a dinged-up shoulder, an achy knee, a hernia, and a couple of torn muscles that I admitted five decades of life had finally caught up with me.

The same was true for thousands of my readers over the years. Middle age came early for my coauthor, Alwyn Cosgrove, a former international tae kwon do champion who's now a two-time survivor of Stage 4 lymphoma. (As Alwyn points out, there is no Stage 5.) All of us have bodies that could no longer do the things we once took for granted.

We needed a new way to approach our workouts. That's why Alwyn and I wrote The New Rules of Lifting for Life. The following are some of the lessons all of us who love to lift eventually learn.

1. The older you are, the more important it is to lift.

Research at McMaster University has shown that strength training can reverse the signs of aging at the cellular level by as much as 20 percent. But that knowledge doesn't do you any good unless you actually get into the weight room and improve the size and strength of your muscles.

2. No matter your age, the goal of strength training is to train something.

Middle-aged lifters have a tendency to go through the motions. If you want your body to look or perform better, you have to train it to do more than it can do now. You need to increase the weights you lift, and the number of times you lift them, in a steady, systematic way. If you want to be leaner, you have to train your body to use more calories during your workouts. That means working harder and getting more accomplished from one week to the next.

3. "Working harder" doesn't mean beating yourself up every time.

Training is a process of imposing stress on your body in calculated doses. Too little stress and you get disappointing results. Too much and you don't recover sufficiently from one workout to the next. It only works if you can train just as hard on Wednesday as you did on Monday, and at least as hard on Friday as you did on Wednesday. It's not like planting a garden, where it doesn't matter how sore you get after a day of digging because you have all summer to recuperate.

Squats with kettlebells

No matter your age, the goal of strength training is to train something.

4. Kids are stupid. Don't train like one.

The average young person has a profoundly unrealistic view of how the human body works. But so does the middle-aged guy with a 40-inch waist who sits on a bench working his biceps and triceps, when his arms would look 100 percent better if his belly were 20 percent smaller.

No matter your age, you get the most benefit from the exercises that work the most muscle in coordinated action, and do the most to improve total-body strength. Those exercises--squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, presses and rows--also burn the most calories, both during and after exercise, while you're recovering.

5. Heavy weights won't make you huge, but they can make you lean.

Males don't have the market cornered on unrealistic expectations. The woman doing presses and rows with dumbbells smaller than her forearms is trying to do the impossible: "tone" muscles she hasn't yet built. She's worried about getting "too big," which is equally absurd. Muscle is hard to build at any age, for either gender, and it never happens by accident.

The good news is that the muscle-building process creates a stronger, leaner, healthier, and better-conditioned body even when the actual increase in muscle tissue is minimal. But it only works if you try to build muscle by using weights that are pretty close to the heaviest you can lift.

If the workout tells you to do 10 repetitions, for example, you need to pick a weight that you could lift, at most, 11 or 12 times. Studies show that adults typically choose weights that are much lighter than the workout calls for.

6. Muscle needs to be fed.

The older you get, the more resistant your muscles are to protein. So you need a bit more to ensure you don't lose them before you're done using them. Government recommendations are useless. They call for 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories from protein. So on a 2,000-calorie diet, that's between 50 and 175 grams a day. Thanks Government!

A better standard for an adult lifter, courtesy of nutritionist Alan Aragon: Shoot for at least one gram of protein for every pound of your target body weight. If you weigh 140 pounds now and you hope to drop 20 pounds, you want at least 120 protein grams a day. Since a gram of protein is four calories, 120 grams would be a third of your nutrition on a 1,500-calorie-a-day diet, or a quarter of a 2,000-calorie diet.

7. A perfect workout should include five basic movement patterns.

The less you focus on exercises for specific muscles, and the more you focus on movement patterns that use lots of muscles, the better your body will look, feel, and perform.

On the following exercises, do two or three sets of 10 repetitions.

A. Squatting

In his book Athletic Body in Balance, physical therapist Gray Cook says that if you can't squat well, you can't really do anything well. It's the Alpha Move of strength training.

Best version for us: Goblet Squat

man doing a goblet squat

No matter your age, the goal of strength training is to train something.

Hold a dumbbell with both hands against your chest and under your chin. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes straight ahead or turned out slightly. Push your hips back and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Rise back to the starting position.

B. Pushing

Outside the gym, you use your entire body to push an object away, or push yourself away from an obstacle. But in the gym, we've invented pushing exercises to isolate chest and shoulder muscles, while disengaging the rest of your body. Alwyn and I want to return this movement pattern to full-body status.

Best version for us: Push-Up

man doing push-ups

No matter your age, the goal of strength training is to train something.

Get down on the floor with your weight resting on your hands and toes, your hands shoulder-width apart, your arms perpendicular to the floor, and your body in a straight line from neck to ankles. Bend at the elbows as you lower your entire body to within an inch or two of the floor. Push back to the starting position. If you can't do traditional push-ups, elevate your hands on a bench or step. If you need to make it harder, elevate your feet.

C. Hinging

The ability to bend forward at the hips and lift something heavy while keeping your back and pelvis in a safe, neutral position can be the difference between a healthy, active life and an endless cycle of ibuprofen and orthopedic care. Being able to do this on one leg improves your balance and coordination.

Best version for us: Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

man doing single-leg Romanian deadlift

No matter your age, the goal of strength training is to train something.

Stand with your feet together, holding a dumbbell in your right hand. Balance on your left foot as you bend forward at the hips, extending your right leg behind you. Your right arm should hang straight down, parallel to your left leg and perpendicular to your torso. Return to the starting position. Do all your repetitions while balancing on your left leg, then repeat with your right, with the dumbbell in your left hand.

D. Pulling

Your body is designed to use muscles from head to toe to generate force while pulling something toward you, as in a row, or pulling yourself toward something, as in climbing. But the gym goes against nature with machines that cut half your body out of the movement.

Best version for us: One-Arm Bent-Over Row

man doing one-arm bent-over row

No matter your age, the goal of strength training is to train something.

Grab a dumbbell in one hand. Set your feet shoulder-width apart, with your knees bent slightly and your shoulders square. Hinge forward at the waist at a 45-degree angle. Let the dumbbell hang straight down from your shoulder, then pull it up toward your chest without moving your hips or torso. Your elbow should be pulled in close to your body, not pointing out to the side. Return to the starting position. Do all your reps, and then repeat with your other arm.

E. Lunging

Most actions in sports and real life take place with one leg in front of each other. Balance and strength in this position improves mobility and develops the muscles that protect your knees.

Best version for us: Reverse Lunge

man doing reverse lunges

No matter your age, the goal of strength training is to train something.

Stand with your feet hip-width apart holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Take a long step back with your right leg and lower yourself until your left thigh is parallel to the floor and your right knee is near the ground. Step back to the starting position, keeping your torso upright, and repeat by stepping back with your left leg. That's one repetition.

  • Lou Schuler and Adam Bornstein