The closer a car gets to having six-figure mileage, the more important basic care and maintenance becomes. Our bodies are, unfortunately, pretty much the same — even more so for those of us who lift weights regularly.
Most of us understand that it’s a bad idea to roll back the car’s odometer and pretend everything’s still in perfect working order. What we sometimes have trouble admitting is that being “middle-aged” means it’s time to take inventory of which of our own parts are no longer in factory-fresh condition.
Nobody’s saying you need to give up the gym. The opposite, really. You need to keep training, but you also need to support that training with some tips, tricks, and hacks that will boost a recovery ability that just isn’t as quick as it used to be. Here’s where to start.
Recovery Tips for Over-40 Lifters
You shouldn’t necessarily revamp your entire training program, but adjusting a few variables can definitely crank up your recovery. Better recovery means better performance when you train, since you’re going into each workout feeling fresher.
Improved recovery also means better results, since your body is better able to respond to the training stimulus and adapt by adding strength and muscle.
Rethink the “Need” for Muscular Failure
Grinding out a set until the bar doesn’t move an inch can be an intense highlight of any workout. However, hitting muscular failure comes with a physical price.
Reaching muscular failure also prolongs post-workout muscular fatigue, as well as neuromuscular fatigue. (1) When you dial up the intensity to that level, your body will demand a similar level of recovery.
Research has repeatedly shown that stopping sets before reaching failure can trigger the same degree of strength gains and muscle growth with a lower degree of cortisol (an inflammatory stress hormone), compared to taking sets to failure. (2)(3)(4)
Leaving a rep or two “in the tank” on each set might feel counterintuitive, especially if you’ve been training to failure ever since Frank the Tank tried to go streaking through the quad. If you can get over the mental hurdle, put yourself through a not-to-failure experiment for a few weeks and see if you notice the same results with less joint stress.
Volume vs. Intensity vs. Frequency
Every training plan has three fundamental components. The first is training volume — the sets and reps or how much you do in a workout. The second is training intensity — how close to muscular failure each set is performed or how hard you’re training. And the third is training frequency — how many times per week you train a given exercise or body part, or how often you train.
Manipulating those three factors will influence your training program and they will also determine how much general recovery you need. You can’t go full throttle on all three — doing a ton of very high intensity sets every day of the week — or you’ll burnout.
You can, at best, put the pedal down on just one at a time. It’s sometimes possible to increase two of those factors at the same time, but it needs to be used as a short-term approach to avoid overtraining.
For example, grease the groove training is highly effective because it relies on high frequency, low intensity, and low volume. Trying to train with high frequency and high intensity, such as heavy squatting every day, would require low volume (using 1-3 sets of 1-3 reps). And even then, it’s best-suited for a four to six week specialization phase rather than a prolonged, multi-month routine.
Take a look at your current training plan. Make sure you’re not pulling yourself in three directions at once. You can either train a lot or you can train super-hard or you can train very often. You can’t, sustainably, do all three at once.
Soreness Doesn’t Mean a Workout Worked
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is that all-too-familiar muscular twinge that can rear its head a day or two after a hard training session. You often notice DOMS while doing something innocuous like lifting a leg into your pants or brushing your teeth.
That’s when those formerly targeted muscles enthusiastically speak up like the lost kids from “Beyond Thunderdome.” “‘Member this? Triceps from pushdowns. ‘Member this? Quads from leg press. ‘Member this? Abs!”
Some hardcore lifters actually take a sigh of relief when DOMS kicks in because they’ve accepted the old ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra as gospel. These gluttons for punishment almost demand to feel sore after a workout. Unfortunately for them, DOMS is not a necessary evil.
Research has shown no reliable connection between feeling post-workout muscle soreness and the productivity of a workout. (5) Not only can productive workouts sometimes deliver no muscle soreness but, more importantly, non-productive workouts can often lead to soreness.
Certain types of training and certain exercises — particularly using slow eccentric (stretching) phases and exercises with a deep stretch component — are shown to trigger more soreness than other training methods. Some people may actually be genetically predisposed to feel more soreness, regardless of their training. (6)
So if you’re regularly performing movements like incline curls, dumbbell flyes, or deep squats, you can expect to be sore whether or not your workout was productive overall. While muscle tissue damage — the kind of damage which causes DOMS — can be one component of the growth stimulus, it’s not the only way to trigger muscle growth. (7)
Track your results objectively, whether it’s with a logbook or tape measure. More importantly, treat DOMS with less regard than more reliable, definable progress markers.
Most lifters in the gym like to do just that — lift weights. Hopping on a treadmill is often a low priority, while stretching or mobility drills are usually an even lower priority. But that type of narrow focus leaves gaps in your physical development by neglecting flexibility and joint mobility. It also misses an opportunity for restorative exercise, using the mobility session as a way to reduce any lingering aches and pains. (8)
Just like you change your car tires every 60,000 miles, or sooner depending on how much you use them, consider putting yourself through a mobility session every 48 hours… or sooner depending on how much you do.
You don’t need to feel overwhelmed when finding a mobility routine. You can see and feel benefits by emphasizing bang-for-the-buck movements that focus on your upper back (thoracic spine) and hips. Those are two zones that are notorious for causing issues — shoulder twinges, pinched traps, lower back pain, tight hips, etc.
“The world’s greatest stretch” is a good place to start. Because, really, if most personal trainers on the planet agree to label something “the world’s greatest,” it’s at least worth trying. You’d probably want to try the world’s greatest burger and you’ll likely enjoy a movie starring the world’s greatest actor. This is the same idea, only with a full-body mobility drill.
Perform two to five repetitions per side, after a general warm-up but before any weight training. This is a great way to target nearly every joint in your body, along with the majority of muscle groups. The cat/camel (sometimes called the cat/cow) is another relatively simple and very effective way to target your upper back and hips in just a few repetitions.
If you truly can’t bring yourself to do these yoga-looking movements, grab a very light dumbbell and do the Turkish get-up for two sets of two reps per side before each workout. That should appease any desire to “just lift weights” while still working on mobility from head to toe.
Just like an army marches on its stomach, a lifter gains with their stomach. Hopefully that’s with their stomach, and not on their stomach. Underestimating the importance of nutrition is probably the most common and most easily fixable mistake many people make.
A workout in the gym takes an hour or so, but nutrition is something that requires 12 to 16 hours of your attention every day — whether it’s knowing what to eat, what not to eat, or when to eat. With a few simple adjustments to your current diet plan, you can make sure you’re recovering from whatever you put yourself through in the gym.
Focus on Daily Protein Intake
Muscle protein synthesis — the rate at which your muscles repair and rebuild — is arguably the most important physiological factor when it comes to actually building muscle. (9) While hard training increases your body’s demand for muscle protein synthesis, you can support the process by, you guessed it, ample protein intake.
Protein-rich foods including meat, poultry, and dairy contain the amino acids your body “puts to work” building new muscle tissue. Without enough of this literal building block, you’ll be left spinning your wheels.
Aiming for roughly .75 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight has been shown to be an effective guideline. (10) For the sake of simpler mathematics, there’s no harm in rounding up. The time-tested call for “one gram per pound of bodyweight” has been a reliable, if sometimes hard to hit, target.
To reach this daily goal, plan on a generally equal split throughout the course of the day. While not necessarily inefficient or ineffective, overloading your protein into a single meal and filling in with additional protein-sparse meals can be impractical, and likely indigestible.
Every time you eat, be sure to have a serving of high-quality protein. Ideal sources are animal-based products including meat, eggs, poultry, fish, or dairy. Protein shakes can also be a convenient way to get a significant serving of protein quickly and relatively easily, especially for those with busy schedules who can’t necessarily cook, prepare, or pack three or more meals every day.
Have Your Workout Shake
Protein shakes aren’t necessary to see results, they can be incredibly useful under the right conditions. Just like barbells aren’t necessary to see results, but they, too, are incredibly useful under the right conditions.
When you train hard, you deplete your body’s glycogen stores and begin muscle breakdown. A workout shake containing protein and carbohydrates is an easy step toward kickstarting recovery as soon as possible.
Whether you grab a whey protein smoothie from your gym, mix up a shake in your own “blender bottle” on the way to the car, or walk from your garage gym into the kitchen for a legit high-protein blender bomb, it’s critical that you get quality nutrition into your body ASAP.
Research has repeatedly shown recovery benefits of a carb-protein mix shortly after, or sometimes before, training. (11)(12) Even something as simple as a large glass of chocolate milk, which is loaded with high-quality protein, has been shown to be beneficial. (13)
In terms of practicality and efficiency, workout shakes have a leg up on solid foods, both in terms of easier digestion and simplicity. Not too many people want to go to town on a Tupperware full of chicken breast and rice in the locker room or in their car, but a protein and carb shake couldn’t be much easier.
It’s the 21st century. Sport supplements have come a long way from desiccated liver tablets and overhyped, underdosed nonsense (even though, unfortunately, you can still find both of those being sold today).
To maximize recovery between training sessions, consider strategic supplementation with science-backed ingredients. As a gray-haired lifter, that means nutrients like collagen for the joints (plus some nice skin and hair benefits) and creatine which has been shown to benefit everything from strength and recovery to brain health. (14)(15)
Staples like vitamin D and fish oil should also be on your radar for consideration, as both have been shown to have myriad benefits for overall health.(16)(17) Improving your recovery from weight training is one thing; improving your overall health is another, arguably more foundational, priority.
Some lifters become begrudgingly set in their ways, seeming to flaunt a sense of misguided superiority over not taking any supplements. “Those helpers? Oh, I don’t use those.” Ultimately, that approach only shoots yourself in the foot by deliberately overlooking a verifiably beneficial addition to your nutrition plan.
In the training world, you don’t win bonus points for making things unnecessarily difficult for yourself. Electricity has been around for more than 150 years and, odds are, you turn the lights on in your gym. It’s okay to rely on modern sports science for research-based supplements that can improve your health, recovery, and results.
The things you lift and the things you eat are still only part of the recovery picture. There are a few additional steps you can implement into your regular routine that can boost overall progress.
Sleep: Quality Over Quantity
It’s easy for researchers to recommend “sleeping at least eight hours per day.” What’s not easy is to actually follow-through on that advice when you’ve got overtime at work, kids to put to bed (or kids to expect home by curfew), late-night arguments with your partner about paying the bills, and a dozen other factors weighing on your mind.
The data is fairly conclusive. Getting seven or more hours of mostly uninterrupted sleep each night can help with strength, muscle mass, recovery, overall health, hormone production, and a number of other health markers. (18)(19)
Unfortunately, that data only goes so far when it’s 1:26 a.m. and you’re staring at the ceiling because your brain wants to remember the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse. (It was Victor).
Rather than overfocusing on how many hours you sleep each night, even though it’s irrefutably important, you can focus on steps to improve your sleep quality, sometimes called “sleep hygiene.” This includes things like creating a dark room by covering any windows with blackout curtains, considering effective non-prescription sleep aids like ZMA (zinc-magnesium) or melatonin, cutting off caffeine by mid-afternoon, using white noise like a fan, and making your bedroom relatively cool.
One final sleep hygiene tip, and likely the most challenging for some, is avoiding electronics for at least one hour before bed. (20) No scrolling on the phone, no reading on the tablet, nothing that creates “blue light” — a particular wavelength of light that essentially tells your brain, “It’s daytime, so don’t go to sleep yet.”
While you may not have total control over your sleeping hours, you can set yourself up for sleeping success by practicing good hygiene.
Learn to Love Contrast Showers
Speaking of hygiene, you (hopefully) shower off after a hard workout. If so, you’re perfectly set up for a relatively low effort technique that can reduce muscle soreness, improve overall recovery, and maybe even boost your immune system. (21)(22)(23)
Alternating hot water with cold water during a standard shower has been shown to provide all of those benefits — reduced muscle soreness, improved post-workout recovery, decreased perception of fatigue, and more.
You don’t need to alternate between Johnny Storm and Jack Torrance, but switch between a noticeably hotter than normal temperature (within a safe and tolerable range) and a distinctly colder than normal temperature. Do your best to maintain a normal, or deeper than normal, breathing pattern.
Hold each temperature for at least 30 seconds, or 15 to 20 slow, deep breaths. Ideally aim for approximately 90 seconds, or roughly 50 slow, deep breaths and eventually work up to three or four “rounds” at each temperature. It can definitely take some getting used to, but you’re likely to notice the fatigue-reducing benefits almost immediately.
Active Recovery Sessions
This potential solution might technically be better suited for this article’s “Training” section, except for the fact that, if it’s done right, it’s not actually training. Active recovery is a general term for sub-maximal exercise performed on “rest days” that can stimulate overall recovery rather than tapping into the body’s already taxed energy supply. (24)
Active recovery could be taking a 30-minute walk, playing nine holes of golf, doing an online yoga class, or performing a light weight, low volume, low intensity workout. Just be careful with that last one.
Any type of weight training must be low intensity and relatively low volume in order to stimulate recovery. If you think you’ll have trouble reeling it in, either don’t tempt yourself or stick with only bodyweight exercises. For the majority of experienced lifters, basic bodyweight training will be relatively low intensity as long as you avoid reaching failure. So go ahead and knock out some push-ups and lunges.
Active recovery is different from passive recovery because you’ve reframed a “rest day” as a “recovery day.” If you can boost your overall recovery, increase blood flow, and improve mobility by doing something, instead of doing nothing, seize the opportunity.
Get to the Doctor
This is likely the least popular piece of advice in the list. You’re probably overdue for a doctor’s checkup. If you’re not, excellent. Stay on schedule. But the reality is, when you’re over 40, the yearly check-in with your primary is a bare minimum.
Find a reputable cardiologist to keep tabs on your ticker. Possibly look into a qualified endocrinologist, since men’s and women’s hormones are naturally decreasing by this age, whether it’s the start of andropause or menopause.
Monitoring basic bloodwork and cardiovascular health will help you set up an appropriate training and nutrition plan. More relevant to lifters, it’s time to finally diagnose any problematic joint pain that you’ve been “tolerating” for far too long.
Whether it’s a chronic shoulder issue, cranky knee, or troublesome ankle, it’s time to have it looked at by an expert and treated properly — even if it means a few weeks of physical therapy and a temporarily altered gym routine.
Putting out these smoldering fires before they become raging infernos is just good long-term planning, and you do want to keep lifting for the long-term, right?
“Act Your Age” Isn’t an Insult
You can dye the hair, Botox away the wrinkles, and take any other cosmetic steps to try not looking over-40. Your body still knows how long it’s been around and it’ll remind you when you train, and after you train. The sooner you start treating your body with the respect it deserves (or maybe even a little more than you think it deserves), the sooner you can align all your systems toward getting serious results while avoiding unnecessary, self-inflicted obstacles.
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