Are you really too old to be training? Part Two
OK, all my readers who are ready to keep on trucking along in that training life: we're on to Part Two of understanding how training and age work with and against each other.
FOR MY ADHD FRIENDS WHO LOVE TO AGGRESSIVELY SCROLL, stop scrolling when you see "DON'T SKIP THIS PART!!!!!!," read it, and then you can keep scrolling to the end. Love you and your attention deficits <3
In Part One, I wrote that we are deeply indoctrinated into the idea that getting older = increasing helplessness. We are taught that we have no choice. We're going to get hurt more, we're gonna heal less, we're bound to slow down. But is this true?
Most of the advice out there says that the best way to stay healthy is to move increasingly conservatively: keep exercising, but with less intensity, less frequency, and less impact. So under these recommendations to gradually slow down then yes—we are bound to slow down.
They teach us this to avoid long-term injuries and future debilitating conditions. Less stress on the tissues means less potential damage over time, right? You have to protect your knees!!!!! they say. It seems to make sense: if you have a body that trains in a low stress way, then that's the perfect way to shuffle yourself into old age. Not too sedentary, yet not beating our bodies into submission either. Low stress exercise is perfect. After all, most of us live our lives in low physical stress situations (as compared to, say, sherpas in the Himalayas; women who retrieve water in Africa and Asia; farmers).
Under the recommendations to slow down then yes—we are bound to slow down.
Low stress exercise is perfect...until your body finds itself in a high stress situation. Then you're in deep shit. You're gonna be like The Dude: One day you're smoking a bunch of pot and bowling with your degenerate friends, the next day you've had your car set on fire and received a toe in the mail and are standing in the middle of a pee rug.
So yeah, your body is gonna be just fine so long as all you're doing is smoking pot and bowling with your degenerate friends. But the instant you:
* Help someone move a heavy table
* Have to push a car out of a ditch
* Trip on a dog's toy in the middle of the floor
* Join in your kid's father-son soccer match
* Haul a basket full of wet towels up onto the dryer
is the instant you're gonna receive a toe in the mail AKA spaghetti your meniscus/rotator cuff/achilles tendon/lower back.
Any injury happens because the force on the tissue was enough to damage it. Bones have a breaking point, tendons have a tearing point. When all you do is low-stress exercise, your tissues are only prepared for low-stress stimuli.
Let's look at the dads who get hurt in their father-son soccer game. Dad is in decent shape. He uses the elliptical three times a week at the gym. He does some bicep curls and shoulder presses. He'd do just fine jogging up and down the soccer pitch. Unfortunately, soccer is a game of sprinting and making quick lateral cuts to the side. Nothing about the elliptical has prepared his hamstrings for the sudden force of sprinting. Nothing about the elliptical has strengthened his ankles or his knees for a quick sideways cut.
Here's a visual representation of what it looks like when you put high speed into a system that isn't set up quite right:
Even when we feel like we live quiet lives, we regularly face situations which require a sudden higher capacity from our bodies. Think of how many people you know who have "thrown out" their back. It's probably a dozen or more, right? And they're fucked for months? Backs (and many body parts, but especially backs) cannot go from Elliptical to Swinging Around A Five Year Old very easily. Throwing Out Your Back is not a medical condition, it's just that you asked your back to do something it couldn't do. Train your back to move in any way, at any speed, and you'll be a LOT less likely to ever Throw It Out.
DON'T SKIP THIS PART!
People have told me in the past that my insistence on the need to do more in the gym makes them feel like doing nothing, because it suggests that the Three Elliptical Sessions A Week-ers are wasting their time and makes beginners feel like they could never possibly do enough. Neither is true! For most people, simple tweaks make all the difference. For example:
* Vary your speed on your favorite machine rather than going at one pace for thirty minutes.
* Add in some basic mobility work as your warm ups and cool downs. (Recommendations at the end of the blog.)
* Work with a trainer (online or in person) to learn what body parts need help, and what body parts need more of a challenge than they're getting. You don't need to pay for a million sessions. If I did two, one-hour sessions with a new person, I could definitely give them a good overview of both of these things. It's WELL worth the money if you have it.
* Add variability to your movements. We tend to do exercises that move in front of us: bicep curls, lunges, crunches. They all move on the same plane. Moving on the other two planes—side to side, like lateral lunges or lateral delt raises, and rotationally, like wood choppers or sideways medicine ball throws—can help better prepare you for couch moving without adding gym time.
When all you do is low-stress exercise, your tissues are only prepared for low-stress stimuli.
But to get back to the blog, I said in part one that a vital piece of the Training-While-Aging puzzle is to understand that joints lose range of motion over time. And that we need to counteract that on the way if we're going to stay injury-free while working out hard.
Why Joint Range of Motion Is Important
Joints are built to move through a range of motion (ROM). Some joints have a huge ROM, like your shoulder. Your shoulder can go anywhere except directly through your rib cage.
Some joints have a medium ROM, like your elbow. It bends well but it can't go past straight, and it has limited rotational ability.
And some joints have a tiny ROM, like the first knuckle of your pinky finger. No matter how much or little a joint is meant to move, it is essential to our health that every joint continue to move through its entire, natural range. And more than this, each joint is supposed to be strong at every point in its natural range.
When we are young, we have an abundance of soft, buttery joints until our bones finish growing (approximately age 18 in women, age 21 in men). Our joints haven't endured too much long-term abuse at that point. These young, flexible, strong joints move beautifully from end to end, smoothly, pain-free, able to withstand high speeds and forces. (Anyone who's reading this who is over age 30 is thinking, "OMG what would that be like?!")
Here's the thing! Joints, even when they change with age, are supposed to move from end to end, smoothly, pain-free, able to withstand high speeds and forces until we die. It will almost certainly be slower and with less power (although not always, this man is an absolute unit) but smooth and steady nonetheless.
In *theory*, a 90 year old shoulder and an 18 year old shoulder are supposed to have the same ranges of motion. Not as fast, not as smooth, not as strong, for sure. But barring progressive disease or catastrophe, an unafflicted shoulder should stay relatively unafflicted.
You're not too old to be throwing footballs to your kid.
Non-diseased joint changes start with stiffness. Your creakiest joints? They need love first. Start with those. You can add more later. Your lower back in the morning, your knees the first time you go up the stairs in a day, your painful toe bunion. Rather than try not to use them, think about attacking them with love and attention. (Get a doctor's or physical therapist's opinion on anything with sharp pain.)
How Joints Lose Range of Motion Over Time
Let's say you played basketball though college and then stopped. Basketball players use their shoulders through amazingly wide ranges of motion:
But maybe once you stop playing, you never add anything back in to make up for the movement loss. After a while, your shoulders won't be able to get into those outstretched, fast-moving positions as easily, because those positions have become unfamiliar territory. Your joints HATE unfamiliar territory. They AVOID unfamiliar territory. Unfamiliar territory is to joints what Pennywise the Clown is to eight year old kids. It scares the ever-loving shit out of them.
(I was gonna put a picture of Pennywise here but for everyone's pleasant sleep tonight I have decided to skip it.)
Your body is always defense-first. It does. not. want. to. get. hurt. The most common places that joints get hurt are at the end ranges of motion, when tendons and ligaments are stretched to their maximum. (Think of how a sprained ankle rolls over.) So unless you make effort to get into the far ranges of motion—and get strong there—your body is gonna stay the fuck away from them.
This is a progressively worsening problem. If your shoulder never goes to its end range of motion overhead (it is supposed to be able to hide your ear), it's going to lose the ability to get there at all. But this is
If your arm stops being able to get up to your ear—maybe it can only get as high as your temple—this makes your temple the new end range. Your body is scared of end range. So your arm will avoid going all the way up to your temple, and stop at your cheekbone. This makes your cheekbone the new end range. Your body hates end range. So it avoids going all the way up to your cheekbone and stops at your nose. This makes your nose the new end range of motion.
You see where we're going here? Our poor 45 year old with terrible shoulder flexion and part of his face missing gets hurt throwing a ball because... look how much farther his arm has to go behind him in order to throw:
There is no WAY his shoulder can get back as far as hers. And throwing is a powerful, fast movement. So not only does his shoulder have to get there, but it has to get there and leave there FAST. Asking joints to move a full 90 degrees past their comfort zone is a death sentence.
This loss of range will repeat itself slowly over time, until one day, ten years later, you're shocked to find out that you can't throw anymore, or that you have unremitting shoulder pain. This is the point when someone says, "Ugh, I guess I'm just too old to be throwing footballs to my kid."
NO YOU'RE FUCKING NOT. But maybe you just asked your rotator cuff, lower back, or knees to do something you haven't asked them to do in ten years.
Tom Brady and Drew Brees aren't freaks of nature, other than maybe because of their largely unparalleled drive to stay at the top of their game. They're a step slower, sure, but they're healthy, top-level athletes because they're putting in the work to stay fast and flexible. (Should we even TALK about how Drew Brees broke ELEVEN RIBS like four minutes ago and he's playing again like he doesn't even need the organ protection we developed four hundred million years ago for a very specific reason which is to prevent harm from impacts????)
I don't need to be a damn professional quarterback, Mia. I just want my shoulder to stop hurting. Help me out here. What's the solution? How do I stop hurting and then be able to keep up my high intensity training til I'm 100 and still running marathons?
The solution is:
1) Access the missing ranges of motion first. Find out where you can and can't get to and then start hammering away at the stuck places. Mobility work is slow and tedious and difficult. But you know how everyone hates their infants when they're in potato stage because it's so much work without any real personality coming out? But they're so cute you're like ok YOU'RE LUCKY YOU'RE CUTE, POTATO. You'll feel so good after each individual mobility session that even if you can't see progress for a while, you'll start realllllllllly looking forward to how good it feels anyway.
2) Strengthen the weak areas. If you want to stay away from the decline into fragility, then you need more than just accessing more movement. Once your body gives you access to a new range of motion, you're gonna be weak as fuck in that new range. If you don't strengthen those weak places, and just skip straight to step three (moving fast and aggressively), you're actually risking making shit a whole lot worse. Imagine that you're letting out the seams on a coat that's too tight to lift your arms up. Sure, if you rip most of the seams, you'll be able to lift your arms up. But how reliable is that coat gonna be? One good tug and the whole sleeve is done for. No tailor would do this. They rip out the seams, set up a new fabric alignment and then...STITCH IT BACK TOGETHER IN A NEW, STRONG ALIGNMENT.
Yes, you need access, and it's fantastic to get it. You'll already notice a huge difference in how you feel and move. But once your body grants you access, you MUST strengthen next. You have to earn the right to move faster.
3) Add speed. Hereeeeee we go. This is the good stuff! You've got joints that move in their entire range, and joints that are strong through their entire range. You know what that sounds like? Those 18 to 21 year olds. Boom. Go forth and ninja/marathon/break bricks with your elbows.
(I usually make my gifs small for easier reading but this one is so incredible I left it larger so that you can watch it ten thousand times in a row like I did.)
I'll elaborate on these three steps more in the next blog but if you're feeling inspired to try some online mobility programming, here are people whose work I trust:
Chad Raynor, whose Instagram is here (and also excellent) but who doesn't offer classes for sale. He does do one-on-one training if you're feeling like you're ready to CRUSH THINGS.
If you aren't sure you're ready to pay, hit up Google. Try searching "basic hip mobility," "basic ankle mobility," or similar. You can also look for things labeled "functional range conditioning" (YouTube is full of demos) or "kinstretch," coupled with whatever body part you're looking for. (e.g. "functional range conditioning spine," "kinstretch ankle")
Remember that these are DIFFICULT and CHALLENGING concepts and having a good teacher can make all the difference in the world. So if your googling is turning up appealing stuff, I strongly recommend making the move toward a good coach. I say this all the time, but no matter how good the internet is, it cannot replace a career's worth of experience and research and someone looking at YOU to help YOU.
Time to get out of pain, out of grunting when you stand up, out of saying you're too old to throw your kid a football.
See you in part three!