You too will one day die. Before that, however, I hope you remain spry as fuck.
This article and/or memento mori covers two things: exercising over 40 and—for you young keeners out there—how to arrive at 40 in style.
You are missing out on tremendous cognitive benefit by doing the same, old thing (or nothing at all) We pretty much all accept that good physical health supports good cognitive and mental health. Why, though? Maybe it’s less about alchemy and more about specificity. In other words, learning new things is good for your brain. Good physical work isn’t devoid of cognitive work—it’s just highly integrated with movement.
Your sweet spot is when tasks are novel, challenging and require tremendous physical AND cognitive firepower.
This isn’t about chasing novelty; it’s about chasing nuance. You know that Bruce Lee line about fearing the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times? For a true expert, that same kick will feel different each time. It’s not boring to them because they see the little differences—but are finding new things to explore and focus on every time.
You are missing out on tremendous physical benefits by doing the same, old thing (or nothing at all) It might have been an incredible routine 20 years ago. It probably doesn’t work like it used to.
Think about your daily movement in the form of a heatmap. What parts of your body get regular movement? What parts get robust movement? What does all of that look like in the context of strength demands? Mobility demands? Aerobic demands? Novel sensory experiences? Deeper sensory experiences? Is that heatmap even? Or does it look like the average shower/soaping experience?
Like this. Only not.
We’re snobby about about body awareness In a culture that values being smart, we attribute more value to learned technique than we do to body awareness—which is often thought of as innate. However, technique must be learned and integrated subcortically (unconsciously) before you can begin to approach mastery. This is the difference between being an armchair quarterback and a clutch player.
Perhaps we should use the term physical intelligence instead of body awareness.
You need to be Goldilocks when it comes to work Your recovery is limited by stress, sleep, or aging. So, the the question isn’t how much you can do; it’s how much you can recover from. We call this your adaptive reserve—and it changes with age. You can pretend otherwise at your own risk.
If you have been out of the training loop, a handful of exercises for one set each may be all you need. It may be all your body can adapt favourably to. Any extra work will extend your recovery time without offering any real benefit.
Too little will slow your progress. But so will too much. Exceeding your adaptive reserve means waiting longer before you’re ready for another quality workout. So, focus on frequency over intensity—certainly as you get back into things.
You need responsive workouts Since energy levels vary—along with recovery—responsive workouts are essential to work toward. Responsive workouts are ones that ask for most—but not all—of your adaptive reserve. They recognize that this reserve will vary from day to day. Done properly, you leave the gym feeling energized—not smashed.
One of the best strategies for adaptive workouts is to keep effort (not output) consistent. The concept of RPE (rate of perceived exertion) can be applied well here. For our 40+ clients, I like to keep things at about a 7.5 out of 10 on most full-body exercises. Rep range can vary substantially but there’s no reason that you can’t keep technique sharp with this kind of buffer.
What is RPE? Originally coming from endurance training, the concept of RPE asks the question of how close to your true capacity are you actually coming? In other words, if something fantastically motivating—like a reward of $100,000 per rep were being paid out, you’d push until there was nothing left to give. That’s a 10/10. Anything less is...Less.
Here’s a scale from Mike Tuscherer—a superb powerlifting coach and one of my favourite guys in the field:
I asked Tuscherer for his take on this for 40+ exercisers and he pointed out something hugely important: “Don’t assume recovery is automatically a problem because you’re X years old now.”
Everyone has different (and fluctuating) recovery abilities. Tune your workouts accordingly.
To use RPE in your workouts, select your target reps (let’s say 8) and choose a weight that you can only perform 10-11 reps with. 2-3 reps in the tank = an RPE of 7-8. On a day that you’re feeling great, you might perform 8 reps or even surprise yourself with more—still without ever truly maxing out. On a day that you feel like garbage, you might only get 4-5 reps done (again, with 2-3 left in the tank). When you do this, you’re still maintaining strength and challenging yourself—but you’re also maximizing the likelihood of walking out feeling better than when you walked in.
Most days, the work will take care of itself. However, you should also test yourself periodically (perhaps once every 3-8 weeks—when the moment is right) to make sure that your estimates match reality. If your predicted max is 10 reps but you manage to crank out 15, then you know that you’ll need to adjust your math.
One does not simply do responsive workouts The ability to perform responsive workouts requires a great deal of b̶o̶d̶y̶ ̶a̶w̶a̶r̶e̶n̶e̶s̶s̶ physical intelligence. You need to be able to accurately assess your limits in each exercise and to respond adaptively. RPE is a prime example but it’s not the only one.
Other approaches include adjusting load, technique, or even completely changing the exercises. This isn’t about novelty for novelty’s sake. It’s about real-time changes that improve outcomes and have you feeling great. Perfected, this skill creates intuitive, engaging, energizing workouts. This can take years of dedicated practice to develop but everyone is capable of getting there.
A base level of strength is highly recommended Strength isn’t the holy grail for feeling good but it shares the same road for a good portion of the journey. Adequate strength removes limitations in performance in everything from endurance to mobility.
Not being in pain is more important than your numbers You might love certain performance metrics. If you love them more than not being in pain during your day-to-day life, that’s cool. If you do not, prioritize accordingly.
Squat mobility and squat strength are not the same thing Everybody should work to maximize their squat mobility. The day you can’t get back off the toilet is the day that they put you in a senior’s home.
Everybody should work to have a reasonably strong squat. Not at the expense of your hip or knee health (see above) but because it will magically enhance all kinds of seemingly unrelated physical performance.
Sometimes, you won’t be able to squat Deadlifts are more similar to squats than people tend to think. Both involve driving force vertically into the ground. The positions vary a bit—as do the ways to mess things up. However, deadlifts are an incredibly knee-friendly movement. As are their dynamic cousin, the kettlebell swing.
Sometimes, you need a Plan C I spent some time today with an awesome guy who will probably need to get his knee cartilage cleaned up. So, we got his leg into a happy, pain-free position and challenged it to stay there while he moved some other things around. Quasi-isometrics can challenge you without exceeding your adaptive reserve.
Your core does not exist in isolation Exercises like planks are cool ways to establish base function in your core. The real value, however, is then taking that improved strength back into more complex and demanding exercises. Can you resist moving your spine when you’re fresh and only have one position to worry about? Cool. Can you do the same while you’re moving through multi-joint movements (like a squat or a deadlift or a under fatigue? That’s where the real value is.
Your next workout is more important than your current workout You’re not Rocky and this isn’t a training montage. Set yourself up for success and consistency.
Movement is meditation We should probably all work on the skills of focus and presence. This is often done through meditation. However, I wonder if you need to spend any more time sitting, though. Being fully present in your own body can be tremendously beneficial. Not because of magic. Instead, because action is the antidote to anxiety and movement can be meditation.
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