Strength Training with Barbells for Anyone Over 40
By Ron Mitchell, Coach at The Strength Co.
“You don’t stop lifting when you get old. You get old when you stop lifting.” Anonymous
I celebrate my sixtieth birthday this year.
And I’m a strength coach. I teach others what I’ve learned about strength training: you don’t have to be frail; anyone at any age can get stronger by training with barbells.
Before strength coaching, I was an executive in the software industry, chained to a desk and computer screen. After retirement, I sought more adventure and fulfillment in the outdoors (but something held me back).
Me in 1997 at age 37. Overweight and on blood pressure medication etc…
Strength training became the new foundation of my physical fitness. It has helped me optimize my physical and mental health, enabling me to continue the many physical activities that I love—hiking, biking, paddleboarding, snowboarding, and others. I feel I have more control over my life. I’m more capable, independent, confident, and happy — able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, able to help whomever I want.
Trying to Stay Young
I began weightlifting in the Arnold Schwarzenegger era, an era of weight training that judged everything by how you looked in the mirror. But the vague goals of looking fit and strong, or building muscle mass by any means available, seemed to me to be vain and likely unhealthy. But I continued the workouts because that’s what everyone else did.
About ten years ago, I began spending significant chunks of time involved in CrossFit, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and yoga. I felt that these functional activities with measurable results were better at improving my overall fitness.
But to be honest, while CrossFit, BJJ and yoga, helped me stay trim as I got older, I was often feeling a bit beat up from these activities. I had to get a couple of shoulder and knee surgeries and some close friends were telling me that maybe I needed to accept that I was getting too old for some of this stuff.
Me on Half Dome, 2020
Those kinds of words bring out the warrior in me. Now It’s a challenge.
Those words remind me of the sad final decades that both my mother and father had experienced. I told myself “I’m not going out like that”.
I was going to stay healthy and keep doing the activities that I loved and made me feel alive.
But I also had to admit that buried in the advice of loved ones and friends was a bit of wisdom that shouldn’t be ignored: A lot of mainstream fitness advice is terrible for older adults. Crossfit and other workouts like it also seemed to have higher rates of injuries that I could no longer ignore.
So while I was trying, I was not actually improving my strength and longevity. I was running in circles (sometimes literally). I was at a crossroads and I knew I needed to do something to actually make my body more durable, not just beat it down.
Why I Decided To Start Lifting
Then I listened to a podcast with a physical therapist and strength coach talk about how strength training with barbells leverages the body’s natural ability to adapt to stress – and make you stronger, even as you age. He explained that as strength accumulates, all the other fitness factors such as speed, endurance, balance, and power improve. This caught my attention.
So I decided to find a coach. February 7, 2018, was the Sunday that I met Grant Broggi at his gym, The Strength Co., in Costa Mesa, for my Introduction to Barbell Training. He walked me through the teaching progressions for the squat, deadlift, and press in about an hour and a half.
He explained to me the stress-recovery-adaptation cycle and why training with barbells is the most effective way to get stronger as you age. I had not wanted to admit that I was worried about aging, or that I felt that I was getting weaker, and that I was nervous about getting started with a new style of training.
I never had to. He was critical enough to challenge me but complimentary enough to convince me that I could do this; I could get strong. And I liked Grant’s military-honed, no-nonsense approach to coaching and I felt could get strong safely with his guidance.
He was putting the power into my hands – he told me that I was about to be stronger than I’d ever been. I was hooked.
How Strength Training Has Improved my Life
Coach Grant made good on his promise. After a few months of training at The Strength Co., I was stronger than I had ever been. The amount of weight I saw on the barbell was proof.
Once I finished my first few months, I found that the strength I’d gained made me feel more capable—from climbing mountains to bicycle riding along the beach, from boogie-boarding in the waves at the beach to snowboarding. I even found that strength training increased my endurance for sports and activities that demanded that type of sustained exertion.
I also felt stronger and younger than I had when I was constantly beating my body down. It changed my life so much I became a barbell coach. We all know that in the end, the aging process wins. But at age 60, I am winning, and helping others to do the same.
Is It For You?
I am not unique. Comments along the lines of “why is that old guy trying to do things that only someone half his age should be doing?” do not have our best interests in mind. Those thoughts simply reflect negative attitudes that folks have about older adults. So, I listen politely and then I go back to doing my squats, deadlifts, bike rides and mountain climbs.
I’m 60. What is your excuse?
As a barbell coach I have helped people get started who are well into their 80s. Do not let the process of aging rob you of your valuable time. The alternative is filled with doctors’ appointments for various ailments resulting from decades of being sedentary. It is laziness and complacency that keep us on that couch, that sap us of our health and self-sufficiency.
In addition to age-prejudice, some may think that weightlifting is only for men. In my experience as a coach, I’ve worked with as many older women as older men. It would be a shame to believe that hard, physical exercise is not meant for the fairer sex.
Performing weight-bearing exercise is critical for women to increase lean muscle and keep bones strong and durable. Muscle loss (sarcopenia) and bone weakening through osteoporosis are two of the significant effects of the aging process that contribute to frailty. Strength training directly combats both of these.
How To Get Started
Your best investment in your health would be to find yourself a strength coach who is knowledgeable and experienced in training older adults. A coach will teach and monitor your form and provide the programs that will increase your strength, no matter your age or ability level. An experienced coach will also help you avoid the situations that lead to injury.
Getting started is a very easy process. If you are feeling out of shape, old, weak or just nervous that you will not be able to do your first session, don’t be. Strength training is scalable to any ability level. An experienced coach can help you work around past injuries, will know exactly how much weight to start you with, or may even start you with no weight at all.
Strength training uses very efficient movements that can be adjusted to all relative strengths and ranges of motion.
I know that all of my fellow coaches at The Strength Co. feel a deep calling to train folks to be stronger and improve their lives. Find a coach that has that kind of passion. That passion will motivate you far beyond a doctor’s list of health do’s and dont’s.
Strength training is for anyone at any age, you just have to make the choice.