Video: How women over 60 can still get strong

This article represents a big milestone for me: the first time I’ve ever published video content outside of my paid courses. 

In this video, I consult with Dorothy, a long-time JohnFawkes.com reader.  Dorothy is a healthy 64 year old woman who has reached her goal weight, and now wants to see how strong she can get.  The topics we cover include how to safely train for maximal strength, how often and how intensely to train each body part, how to tell when you’re fully recovered, and how her age affects the training equation.   

The video quality on Dorothy’s end is terrible, so your best course of action is to just assume she’s smoking hot while focusing all of your attention on my glorious Iron Maiden t-shirt. 

Takeaways

Here are the main things to learn from this video.

Age per se doesn’t have much effect on growth potential.  The number of muscle cells in your body doesn’t change much, if at all.  Muscle growth comes from existing cells growing, not new cells being formed.  That means Dorothy has the same number of muscle cells now that she did in her 20’s. 

The main limiting factors on her muscle growth will be 1) her levels of anabolic hormones like testosterone, estrogen and growth hormone, 2) her ability to safely work out hard enough to stimulate muscle growth, and 3) her ability to recover from workouts, and particularly  to get enough sleep.

Get your hormones tested.  I suggest that Dorothy go to a lab and get a full sex hormone panel- to check her testosterone, estradiol, luteinizing hormone, and sex hormone binding globulin.  This is good advice for anyone, but particularly for someone her age, male or female. 

While this is most often talked about in the context of libido or mood enhancement, in Dorothy’s case I’m recommending it because her hormone levels will have a big impact on joint health.  Estrogen in particular strengthens the connective tissue in our joints, as well as causing water retention that lubricates the joints, so I want to make sure it’s not low. 

Safety first.  I tell Dorothy to stick with safer, low-speed exercises at first.  High-velocity movements, or anything where you lift a weight over your head, get more dangerous and should either be avoided or done with lighter weights for now.  She should also focus on learning good form first and foremost, and consider getting a trainer for that. 

Start out in the five rep range.  5×5 is an old standby for good reason- it gives you a good mix of gains, safety, and opportunity to improve your form.  As trainees get more advanced, they usually need to add in sets of two or three at higher intensities, but that can wait until she’s learned good form and maxed out her results at a slightly higher rep range. 

Balance frequency and intensity.  Each muscle group should be worked out at high intensity only once a week, but low intensity several times a week.  The simplest way to do that is to make your workouts full-body, but work only part of your body at high intensity with each workout.   

Correct left-right imbalances to prevent injuries. This part completely slipped my mind during the call, then I emailed Dorothy about it.  One major cause of injury is small imbalances between the left and right side of your body.  The way to even this out is to perform iso-lateral movements (exercises that work only one side of the body at a time) and do more sets on your weaker side until your body is evened out. 

The best method for systematically evening out those imbalances is called the Functional Movement Screen, which I first learned about in The Four-Hour Body.  Since Dorothy is a Tim Ferriss fan- she’s on his Slow-Carb Diet- I tell her to work this into her program too. 

Dorothy’s Workout Plan

Dorothy has been working out three days a week, and wants to increase that to five.  So far she’s mostly been using workout videos to do aerobics at home.  I don’t want her to give those up completely, because I know they work for her, she enjoys them, and she should still be doing some cardio.  I also want to start her off with a moderate volume of weightlifting to make sure she doesn’t get overtrained- more can be added later. 

For those reasons, I’m giving her three gym workouts to do.  She can continue doing her at-home workouts or whatever gym workout she’d previously been doing for the other two days a week.

Warm-up

Before each gym workout, perform half of the Functional Movement Screen workout from The Four-Hour Body.  The full workout takes over a half hour, so split it in half and alternate each half with every gym visit. 

Workout 1: Squat-focused

A1) Back squat, 5 sets of 6 reps- use a power rack and go deep enough that your thighs break parallel to the ground.  Use a light enough weight to avoid knee pain

A2) Pike push-ups, 5 sets of 8-12 reps

B1) Chin-ups, 3 sets of 5-6 reps- use an assist machine to begin with, and supinated grip (palms facing you)

B2) Jump squats- 3 sets of 6-8 reps.  Go deep, starting each rep with your thighs below parallel.  Add light dumbbells when possible.   

10 minutes of moderately fast cycling on an exercise bike to end the workout. 

With both circuits A and B, wait 30 seconds between the first and second exercise. Take 3-5 minutes between repetitions of circuit A, and 2 minutes between each repetition of circuit B. 

Workout 2: Deadlift-focused

A1) Deadlift, 5 sets of 6 reps

A2) Barbell bent over row, 5 sets of 6 reps

B1) Machine leg curl, 3 sets of 8 reps

B2) Front plank, 3 sets of 30-60 seconds (work your way up)

B3) Pushups, 3 sets to 1-2 reps short of failure

With both circuits, move quickly from one exercise to the next.  Wait 3-5 minutes between repetitions of circuit A, and 2 minutes between repetitions of circuit B. 

Workout 3: Bench press-focused

A1) Bench press, 5 sets of 5 reps- use a weight you can lift for 6-7 reps, unless you have a spotter or power rack

A2) Dumbbell shrugs, 5 sets of 6 reps, pausing for 2 seconds at the top of each rep

B1) Machine leg extension, 3 sets of 12 reps

B2) Standing dumbbell overhead press, 3 sets of 8 reps

Take 3-5 minutes between repetitions of circuit A, and 2 minutes between repetitions of circuit B.  For both, move quickly from the first to the second exercise. 

Note about the A circuits in all of these workouts: you’ll gain more maximal strength if you wait longer between sets, since that gives the muscles more time to recover.  Powerlifters typically wait 5 minutes or more between sets, and pros might even wait an hour.  Taking less rest time gives a great metabolic effect, and of course lets you finish faster.  If your focus is on strength, this is largely a question of how much time you want to put in, but I see no need to go over 5 minutes if you’re not training at a very high level.  You might want to bring a book to the gym if you’re training this way. 

While the information here is presented with Dorothy in mind, it’s all good advice for people who are just getting into strength training, regardless of age.  For more strength advice and cool shiz, join my private mailing list using the form below or the sidebar on the right side.