Strong(er) 5 Pounds at a Time: Strength Training an 83 year old

About two months ago, right about the time I was upgrading my basement gym with a facebook found squat rack, I was talking to my grandfather about my strength training, and all of the benefits it was imparting to me. I mentioned that this method works with literally everyone who tries it, and he said, “Not if you’re in your 80’s”. I told him that if he gave me 6 weeks, I’d change his life. He was hesitant, but because he trusts me (and was probably bored), he let me move my old squat rack and a hodge-podge of spare weights and equipment into his basement. The work began.

Now, as I mentioned in Part One of this series, I was consuming tens of hours of podcasts and videos on strength training, and a huge portion of it was dedicated to training aging populations. This topic was of interest because I wanted to see how I could safely get my mom and dad under a bar. During these binge sessions, I discovered the work of Dr. Sullivan of Greysteel. He is a doctor that specializes in barbell training people over 40. In fact, he wrote a book about it. The Barbell Prescription.

In it he details (with a lot of good technique and physiology) programming and special considerations to make for people in the decades past 40. He even has one on athletes in their 70’s. I found this very beneficial in giving me ideas on how to get him started. I’ll post some helpful videos at the end of this post if you or someone you know needs this info.

The Considerations of Older Athletes

  • Their bodies can’t move in the same ranges of motion as yours. So you have to make accommodations to the exercises and strive to stick to the main theme of choosing lifts that work Most Muscle Max/Longest Effective Range of Motion/Most Weight Possible. This might mean doing rack pulls from above the knee, starting with a broom handle, and the goal of each session will be lowering the pins each workout until they regain the ability to pick a broom handle from 8″, and THEN start adding weight.
  • If it hurts to go through a specific range of motion, reduce the range of motion and strengthen the functional range of motion.
  • The progress will be tedious, and won’t always be measured in pounds on the bar. This might mean starting with Sit-to-Stands from a chair with phone books stacked on it. Then the next session remove a book, then another, until they can get up from a chair without using their hands. Eventually you will be able to add some load, but work the movement patterns first. Progress is progress no matter how small it seems.
  • Their Ability to recover is vastly limited. Two session a week is about all a 70 or 80 year old can handle. And they can make good progress with this. Encourage them to make sure to get extra protein. Their protein synthesis is much worse than it was when they were younger and they need MORE than a 25 year old athlete would.
  • You will need to start very light, and have the ability to titrate weight in small increments. We make 2.5 pound jumps per session, so we needed micro-plates.
  • You may need special bars and gear. My grandfather has significant kyphosis (rounded back) and so we invested in a Titan Fitness Safety Squat Bar. We also started with a broom handle on the other movements, and made collars out of duct tape to keep the weights from sliding. Use your imagination.

The Program

The programs are well outlined in the Barbell Prescription, but we are doing a two day split (an A and B workout). There are 4-5 warm-up sets preceding the working sets.

A: Squat for 3 sets of 5, Overhead Press 3 sets of 5, Deadlift 1 set of 5.

B: Squat (+ 2.5-5lbs of last session) 3×5, Bench Press 3×5, Deadlift (+5 lbs) 1x5s

Eventually we will be doing 5 sets of 3 on pressing, and 2 sets of 3 on deadlifting, or even a top set with a backoff set. but for now, we’re doing good on this.

The Exercises and Progressions

The Squat

This is probably the most important one to have them do. People end up in nursing homes from not being able to get off the toilet. We need to keep this pattern strong.

It is very possible that your person won’t be able to stand up from a chair without the use of their hands. So start with a chair, have them sit, have them set their stance in accordance with the starting strength model (shoulder width, toes at 30-40 degrees out), have them lean forward until they feel they are balanced, and let them hold your hands as you encourage them to stand.

If they are too weak to do this, stack some books in their chair, and repeat. The goal will be to first get them to do this unassisted for 3 sets of 5 at whatever height, and then each session will get deeper as you remove a book. This progresses until the get to a parallel squat depth onto a box (or chair). Then you will have them start from standing, go down to touch the box, and immediately stand back up. Now they’re squatting. Because my grandfather has some balance issues, we will be doing all our squatting onto the box so he feels safe from falling over backwards. We then loaded 5lbs at a time on a dumb bell until I decided we should switch to the safety squat bar.

Then came the safety squat bar, and some reverse bands. The bands deload the bottom of the movement so he doesn’t feel stapled to the box. But over time, my intention is to remove the bands and let him squat with the full bar onto the box.

Winning the fight against muscular atrophy.

The Pressing Movements

The Standing Overhead Press is the most important of the pressing. My grandfather started with a wooden dowel and felt like he was going to fall over backwards due to the de-training of his balance over the last few decades. So I started him leaning in a doorway and sliding the wooden dowel up the doorway to regain shoulder mobility and enforce the movement pattern. We added weight to this until I felt we could safely do it with no support in the open back to an empty wooden dowel. He is currently doing about 27.5 pounds for three sets of 5 overhead.

If your person doesn’t have the overhead range of motion due to age or injury, a standing barbell curl checks most of the boxes. Sub that in.

The bench is his favorite because he gets to lay down between sets. The progress is the same and the biggest hurdle has been finding a groove as he learns a new movement pattern.

Deadlift

This is the second must-do. Picking things off the ground is one of the most functional things a person can do. We have to keep it strong. If bending over causes pain, or if they can’t get into proper deadlift position, just start them lifting from a higher height off the pins of your deadlift rack or some makeshift risers. Strengthen the range of motion that doesn’t cause pain, and strive to gain range of motion as sessions go on. We started with an empty wooden dowel, and how he’s using a barbell and bumper plates.

The Benefits So Far

Here’s the things so far that he has mentioned to me after 6 weeks:

  • Improvement in balance
  • Improvement in ability to use stairs
  • Ability to get off of the floor
  • Easier to feed cat
  • Caught himself slipping on leaves in the yard.
  • Getting from chair/toilet is easier

This is why it was worth the trouble. This is why you should do this too. I’m so proud of him. I can’t wait to see what other benefits he realizes.

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