Why Strength Training Should Be At The Heart Of Your Fitness Regime—Whatever Your Age
Strength training is important, period. I often describe it as the cup that every other aspect of physical fitness sits within.
Speed is determined by strength—it's simply an expression of force, but applied quickly. Flexibility and mobility are directly determined by stability, which is also about strength. The expression 'you can't shoot a cannon from a canoe' is true when it comes to human movement. Proximal stability builds distal mobility: in other words, the ability of the limbs to move in relation to the torso is determined by the stability and strength of the torso.
Endurance training also requires strength. A 10k run is essentially 1000s of repetitions of hopping from one foot to the other. This requires an absorption of force (strength) and a propulsion through the air (strength again). And of course, being strong requires strength training!
Strength training in your 30s, 40s and 50s is essentially the same—in that it should always consist as much as possible of multi joint, closed chain exercises. That means those that have two feet on the ground, and use multiple muscle groups to perform large movements. These are your best ‘bang for your buck’ strength exercises for muscle growth, fat loss, maintaining healthy joints, as well as strength.
The major difference between strength training in your 20s and 30s and in your 40s and 50s is that as we get older, we have to pay more attention to recovery. So that means a 5 day a week training program may start to become a 3 or even a 2 day a week program.
A simple, four move workout is: squat, hinge, push and pull. They're fundamental movements of the human body, and quite rightly the staples of every strength training program (well, every sensible one that works!). Here's a proper breakdown.
I tell clients to squat ‘down’ and ‘between their knees’ which ensures they differentiate between a squat and a hinge pattern.
Entry level: the goblet squat. Grab a dumbbell or a kettlebell in two hands and hold it in front of you (but not resting on your chest). Tuck the pelvis underneath you by engaging the glutei (your bum), and bring the ribcage down by engaging your core. Aim for 12-15 reps.
Intermediate: the front squat. Similar to goblet squat, but this time using a barbell. The bar rests on the front of the shoulders and is stabilised with the hands either side in a clean grip. Heavier loads can be managed in this variation so rep rage can be more in the 6-8 range.
Advanced: the back squat. The most risky of the three variations, but also the version that will allow for the heaviest load to be used. In this version the bar is positioned across the back, resting in the natural groove between the upper traps and the shoulders.
The back squat position causes more of a forward lean with the torso, and therefore more shear force on the spine. This requires high levels of core strength. Rep range: 4-6.
The king of exercises! Picking a heavy object up off the floor has been a challenge for people since the beginning of time.
Doing it correctly and safely requires something known as a posterior weight shift—so shifting your centre of mass (hips) behind your base of support (feet) to offset the load being carried in front of you.
Basic: the trap bar deadlift. The trap bar, or hex bar, is the slightly more forgiving variation. The shape of the bar allows the client to pull the weight ‘through’ their centre of mass as opposed to around it, this makes it a great variation whilst learning the posterior weight shift. My technique tip is to be sure to put the brakes on—in other words, do not lean back.
Intermediate: the sumo stance deadlift. The wide stance position allows you to keep your hips closer to the bar as it is lifted. The key is to choose a foot stance width that allows you to keep your knees snug to the outside of your elbows in the set position. If they're too wide is can place unwanted stress on your knees.
Advanced: the conventional deadlift. This is the most complex variation I put to client. The idea is to drive your hips towards the bar as you lift, and attempt to touch the crown of their head to the ceiling. This ensures a correct finish position and reduces tendency to over extend backwards.
Another strongman classic. But pressing a weight overhead comes along with inherent risks and requires being able to stabilise the hips and lower back as the arms go overhead. We learn this by starting in movements that keep the athlete closer to the floor.
Basic: the half kneel landmine press. This movement gives you plenty of feedback as to where the hips and lower back should be positioned as you press overhead. It's an ideal introduction to a vertical push.
The trick is to engage the glutes hard while kneeling, and to pull the ribcage down by bracing the core. Elbows should remain positioned directly below the wrist, and the bar is driven forwards and up.
Intermediate: the split stance landmine press. As above, but slightly less stable positioning by moving further away from the floor. Stand with one hip extended (stepping back) and one flexed (stepping forwards). Initiate a slight lean forwards as you press to ensure that you finish the movement in 180 degrees of shoulder flexion (fully overhead)
Advanced: the military press. This engages the most muscle mass, therefore has the biggest benefit. Ironically it is also often the exercise people attempt first when entering a gym! Line up in front of a racked bar, take a hand position with your thumbs in line with your joints. Drive the bar straight up (watch out for your nose) and stabilise overhead, bracing your abs and the glutes hard as you go.
Probably the least glamorous of the four fundamental patterns—not many gym bro conversations start with ‘how much can you row’—but if filling out a T shirt is the goal, then building a powerful back will do that far more quickly than any chest workout, not to mention the improvements to shoulder health and posture.
Basic: the chest supported row. Simple: lie prone (face down) on a bench and pull a barbell towards the bottom of the bench, keeping your whole body in contact with the surface so your spine is completely safe.
Intermediate: the 1 arm dumbbell row. Place one hand and one knee on a bench for support. Position your other foot far out to the side of the bench, creating a broad based triangle between that, the hand and your knee. Pull the weight towards the waist (not the shoulder). This engages the lats along their entire length and prevents ‘over pulling'.
Advanced: the bent over row. This requires a posterior weight shift, as well as adequate strength in the hamstrings, glutei and core to support the torso. Use a supinated (palms up) grip, and pull both up and back on the barbell so that it finishes right in the hip crease.
The trick to a strength training workout that you can complete at any age is to identify which technical level you are at for each of the fundamental movements. Your program should set you up for success, but also challenge you. Good luck.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.