“When is it really downhill?” Iron Culture Podcast Ep. 141- Peak Performance (When & How Long Will You Be At Your Strongest?)

I’ll be 44 in a month. I’ve been lifting about 8 years now, and even though I’ve been pretty devoted for that length of time, I consider myself an “intermediate” lifter. Lifting, for me, comes alongside the chronic necessity to balance my training with managing a wide assortment of health challenges. I want to think I have lots of progress left in me, that I can continue to both get stronger and build more muscle for many years to come. And I don’t really buy the usual notion of lifting age anyway; I don’t like how people tend to use those stories to box themselves in. Well, this week in Iron Culture, Eric and Omar explore the limits, real and perceived of being an older lifter, wondering if we still have more progress yet to achieve.

The gents start with noting a pendulum swing of opinions and anecdotes that we might see on social media–with woe is me, the good times are behind me on one side and age is just a number look at my PR, bro! on the other. But like with so many extreme feelings, reality and authentic experience usually lands somewhere in the middle–maybe there are new limits to what we can do, but we can also continue to grow and develop longer than we might believe.

The research Eric cites include that despite how it feels, older folks seem to continue to build muscle size and strength at comparable levels as younger lifters. More surprising to me, he mentions research that suggests that recovery is not physiologically more necessary nor does it take longer on average in older athletes. I feel like I require more recovery management than other lifters I know, and I have always figured that my increasing age was at least somewhat playing a role in that. But what if age isn’t really a factor?

Some explanation may be found in our personal narratives–how we interpret our experiences and setbacks and in what ways we adjust, or fail to adjust, to those challenges. Omar compares it to the bio-psycho-social model of pain, and if you haven’t dug into that rich area of research, I strongly recommend it. The more I’ve learned about it, the more powerfully it impacts my thinking. In short, our understanding of pain, how we interpret it and what assumptions we make about it, influences how much pain we experience (both intensity and duration) and how we heal. The analogy with being an older lifter is pretty straightforward, then. If we experience a setback at the gym, how we interpret that setback and respond to it is likely to influence to what degree it holds us back and for how long. Of course, this doesn’t mean every setback (or all pain) is in our heads. But, our responses to these situations do change the outcomes–if I catastrophize back pain and assume it means I can never squat again, then I never squat again. That has downstream consequences for my training going forward.

What advice do the boys offer for an aging athlete? They suggest we pay attention to how we’re framing challenging experiences, to avoid catastrophizing and to develop flexible strategies to expand the kind of work we’re doing in the gym. I’m not ready to learn a whole different kind of training just yet; I still feel like lifting in an 80% bro kind of fashion has a lot to teach me. I’m also completely happy to run experiments when it seems like too much, when things aren’t feeling right, or when my body is telling me something needs to change. Hopefully, those skills will continue to serve me well and allow me to continue to progress and to do the damn thing, as Omar would say, long into my fifties and beyond.

Does being older impact how you view your lifting and ability to progress? What are your thoughts about training past middle age? I’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below, or find and follow Progressive Strength under the watchful eye of our evil overlords at Facebook!

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