Think you’re too old to get strong? Think again, buddy.
“Youth is wasted on the young.”
George Bernard Shaw
Ain’t that the truth. A lot of things are wasted on us young folks – naïve idealism, an inordinate amount of unearned confidence in our opinions, and, of course, the ability to rock and roll all night and party every day.
But one thing that’s
wasted only on us: the ability to get strong.
To me, it seems almost trite to even have to mention this. Heck, it’s your birthright to get strong! And the only expiration date on your ability to get stronger day in and day out is your own expiration date. So even if that fateful day were coming up tomorrow, you’ve still got the rest of today to build up enough strength to kick your way through the pearly gates (or at least up a good fight before you get dragged through the gates somewhere south of Heaven).
The next woefully trite thing I feel the need to mention is that not only does your age not stop you from getting strong, neither does your gender. I know, I know, countless women’s magazines and legions of weak, fearful men have long told you that strength training will make you bulky, overly muscular, and thus unattractive. Neither is qualified to tell you how to live your life. Ignore them both.
Master SFG and Chief SFB Karen Smith knocking out a pullup with an extra 53 lbs. While not a senior, she’s still twice as strong as most men of any age.
So here’s the good news: if you’re an older woman, you can still get strong. Very strong. And in my humble opinion, one of the best ways to both demonstrate and build your strength is by learning to do a pullup – even if you’ve never tried to before.
Why pullups? Well, if you’ll forgive my appeal to a common format found in the very same women’s mags I just railed against (hey, they’ve captured your attention up ‘til this point at least), here are…
The Top 5 Reasons Why Pullups Should Be Your Top Strength Goal.
1) Shoulder health. Your shoulders are made to help you brachiate (hang from stuff). The ability even simply to hang from objects overhead is, in many cases, enough for many people to start to alleviate aches, stiffness, and discomfort in shoulders that haven’t been used the way they were made in quite some time. Don’t just jump into hanging if you’re de-conditioned at the moment, but know that that’s one benefit waiting for you during your journey.
2) Improved grip. Grip strength is a common indicator of overall longevity (even better than your blood pressure, according to a study of over 140,000 people published out of McMaster University in Ontario) , and is remarkably easy to train, particularly if you’ve got someplace safe to hang and do pullups from.
3) Strong back and better posture. As we age certain muscle groups tend to shorten and tighten and others tend to weaken and lengthen. Among the groups that weaken and lengthen are the rhomboids in between your shoulder blades. Weak rhomboids give you a slouched over, hunchback look. Pullups will go a long way in helping to strengthen many of the muscles of the back and straighten the posture. Swings will take you even further yet, but that’s another article for another day.
4) Strong midsection. Going right along with the myriad of back problems that Westerners are heir to, a stronger midsection (or “core”, if you really must use that word) can work wonders when it comes to taking the load off your poor, overworked lower back. If the statistics are any indicator, nearly 1 in 10 people worldwide suffer from this on a regular basis, and it is the cause of more disability than any other malady. Compound this with the ineffective (and often insulting) exercise advice that people age 50+ often receive by well-meaning (but ignorant) health and fitness professionals and you can find yourself on a downward spiral toward greater and greater dysfunction.
Moreover, everyone who can bang out strict, dead-hang pullups with confidence and control also sports a strong, crafted-from-granite stomach that 10,000 crunches and side planks couldn’t even begin to hope to sculpt. A lofty promise, but one that I have yet to see proven wrong.
5) Strong arms. If you say you don’t want stronger, more muscular arms, you’re lying – plain and simple.
BONUS: Pullups add shape in all the right places. Let’s see here: strong, shapely upper back; rock-hard abs; firm, confident grip; toned, muscular arms – all by learning to perform one of the most useful, basic, and functional movements the human body is not only capable of, but literally made to do. The fact that you don’t need any special rubber-and-plastic equipment from an infomercial for six easy payments of $99.95 is yet another added bonus.
I could go on and on about this, but it would be better to hand it over to briefly to someone who has lived it. Enter my colleague, Sensei Sara-Rivka Yekutiel, a woman whom I helped to properly develop the correct technique and set her on the path to performing her first honest-to-goodness pullup at the age of 56 with less than a month’s worth of practice.
“In 1993, at age 36, I tore a tendon in my right shoulder. Had I listened to my body and rested it perhaps things would have been different. But no. I kept going.
An MRI revealed a congenital defect in my right shoulder. A combination of bad medical advice and my own stupidity led to a frozen shoulder. I lost nearly all the muscle in my right arm and for almost a year couldn’t lift my arm more than a few inches from my side. Physical therapy, shiatsu, and extremely painful deep tissue massage helped somewhat, but for nearly a decade I was unable to put pressure on my arm; I couldn’t fight, hit a heavy bag or carry groceries.
In 2003 I began training with Sensei Yehuda Pantanoviz and started doing pushing hands and lifting light weights (one Kilo, 100 punches).
I pushed through the pain because I was excited about the training. Within three years my right arm was strong and the tendon no longer hurt. I could fight again.
I returned to push-ups, working up to six sets of 25. But I really wanted to do a pull-up. Like the Marines! Like when I was a little kid and swung from the monkey bars. My strong desire to do a real pull-up began in 2006.
I started going to a gym and working on the lat pull-down. I did a lot of reps (up to 20) and worked up to lifting 45 pounds and then 55 pounds. The coach told me that I was working on muscle endurance; that I should move up to 65 lbs but do fewer reps. I tried, but I could barely move the bar. Did I mention that I’m 4’11” and weigh 99 pounds? I did this for years and got no closer to my goal.
In 2011 someone suggested reverse pull-ups so I did them once or twice a week. (Stop laughing!)
In March of 2012 I met StrongFirst Kettlebell instructor Ronen Katz (now SFG Team Leader). After the first class I fell in love with kettlebells and I fell hard. In November 2012, after months of preparation classes with Ronen Katz I participated in the first StrongFirst teacher’s certification program here in Israel. Because of my advanced age (I was 54 at the time) and my shrimpy stature I was allowed to do the snatch test with a 10K bell, and I passed easily. The 15 seconds on the pull-up bar was easy but I felt like a sissy. Because I really wanted to do a real pull-up!
I was now training with kettlebells 2-3 times a week and doing 2-3 reverse pull-ups only on the days that I did grinds. An average of four to six reverse pull-ups per week. This was fun, and it fit well with my karate schedule, but it wasn’t enough volume.
In July of 2014 I had a private lesson with StrongFirst instructor Aleks Salkin. I told him about my pull-up goal and he gave me a series of tips (which will appear later in the article)
I was so inspired by my private lesson I began training four days a week, no exceptions. On my “off” days I did reverse pull-ups 3-5 times a day. On my training days I did it 3-4 times each session regardless of whether I was doing grinds or explosive power drills. We’re talking about 16-30 times a week, which is 4-5 times the number I had been doing.
I discovered: Volume counts. If I want to improve a kata I have to do it many times. If I want to be stronger I need to lift more frequently with higher weights. And it worked! I began to feel stronger and stopped using the 8K and 10K for Turkish Get-Ups. (The lighter bells make good bookends.) The 12K became to feel normal. I started to snatch with it. I began doing more swings with the 16K, more suitcase-carrying drills and did rows – although not as religiously as the pull-ups. I had been pushing off with both feet on a ladder rung. Now, I rested one foot on the ladder but left the other off, and tried not to push off with my leg.
In August I woke up one morning (a month after I started this program) and went to the bar with a positive attitude. I gripped it hard, feet not touching, tensed my entire body, and then said to the bar, “It’s either me or you, mother****er!” I crushed that bar into my chest and like a bubble in a soda can I rose to the top. (Okay, I was breathing kind of hard.)
Now I have a new goal: Two in a row!”
Convinced yet? Great! So where do you start?
First and foremost, hire a quality SFB (StrongFirst Bodyweight) instructor. Contrary to popular belief, reading one article will not prepare you for the depth and attention-to-detail in your training necessary to take you from point A to point B. I’m a pretty good teacher, but not so good that I can make you a pullup expert just from reading one of my articles. Investing your money in a good instructor will pay out dividends in your strength, health, and all-around awesomeness.
Second, realize that consistency over time (no matter how much time) will take you the distance, not an unbridled iron will for physical punishment in the name of gains. Take your time, do things right, and listen to your teacher.
Finally, follow this set of progressions. Accompanying them are a series of benchmarks that would be helpful to achieve before charging forward full bore into the next progression.
Step 1: the hollow position. This posture is key for a strong pullup as it teaches you how to turn it into a full-body movement, connecting your glutes, legs, abs, back, and arms to the effort so you can attack it with everything you’ve got.
Step 2: Pattern the movement. This can be done with a simple broom stick.
Step 3: Bodyweight rows. These will help you build up some basic beginning pulling strength as well as prepare your hands to grip your full bodyweight as you hang from an overhead bar and condition your shoulders to support you as you hang.
Step 4: Active hang. Active hangs will not only build up your grip strength, but will go a long way in making you more familiar with the bottom of the movement, where the pull up starts.
Step 5: Flexed arm hang. This will build strength in the back, grip, arms, midsection, and some true grit to back it all up. You’re now at the cusp of something great and there’s no turning back.
Step 6: Active negative. Done right, these will do wonders for your strength. Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates is fond of pointing out that skipping the negative portion of an exercise is the same as skipping half the rep. Do not overlook these. They will build up an incredible amount of strength. If you can’t do a good negative, you will not be able to do a pullup either.
Step 7: Assisted reps. Your teacher will give you some light assistance (just enough to allow you to work hard and complete the rep) by pushing into your low back to reduce some of the weight you have to pull and allow you to build some familiarity and confidence with the act of pulling yourself back up.
Step 8: Full pullups. From the active hang, pull the bar to your chest and enjoy the view from up there!
Below are the basic benchmarks to aim for before working on your pullup training from the bar. Don’t try to skip ahead – you can’t out perform a lack of preparation.
- 5 sets of 30 seconds hollow position holds (If you think this is a lot, gymnastics coach Christopher Sommer makes his athletes work up to 5 sets of 1-minute holds while rocking back and forth and maintaining the hollow position, with just enough rest in between sets to do some mobility work. You’ll live.)
- 5×5 bodyweight row at a moderately steep (for you) elevation.
- 1 minute active hang from a bar. This means keeping your shoulders pulled into their sockets.
- 20 second flexed-arm hang.
Once you have met these standards, it’s time to set your eyes on the home stretch. Below is a sample program of how I would recommend building up to your first pullup. Keep in mind that your current ability level will determine how quickly you will proceed, so the below should not be taken as a set-in-stone guide, but a template.
All the reps are to be performed as follows: brief dead hang -> partner assisted rep -> brief flexed arm hang -> negative. Rest plenty between sets.
Day 1 – 7 sets of one rep
Day 2- 5 sets of one rep
Day 3 – 10 sets of one rep
Day 1 – 1, 2, 1, 2, 1
Day 2 – 1, 2, 1, 1
Day 3 – 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1
Day 1 – 2, 2, 2, 1
Day 2 – 2, 2, 1
Day 3 – 2, 2, 2, 2, 2
Week 4: back off week. Repeat week 2
Day 1 – 2, 3, 2
Day 2 – 2, 3
Day 3 – 2, 3, 2, 3
Day 1 – 3, 3, 3
Day 2 – 3, 3
Day 3 – 3, 3, 3, 3
Day 1 – 3, 3, 3, 3
Day 2 – 3, 3, 3
Day 3 – 3, 3, 3, 3, 3
Week 8: back off week Repeat week 5.
Warm up and test pullup
As mentioned previously, this is only a sample program. The above set and rep schemes can be seen as benchmarks within themselves, and you may need to work at a slower pace to work up to achieving them. It may take you a month or less like it did Sara-Rivka, or it might take you 3, 6, 9 months, maybe longer, depending on where you are in your physical journey. But you’re planning on getting a few months older anyway, right? So what’s the rush? The lessons to take from this are to gradually increase the volume over time (and according to your ability to recover), to take a few steps forward and one step back, and to be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor will your strength be. But your patience and diligence will be rewarded with more than just a chiseled, resilient back, rock-hard abs, and a grip that never quits. You will also be rewarded with greater confidence, day-to-day usable strength to keep up with your kids and grandkids, and bragging rights amongst your friends still spinning their wheels with “7 New Ways To Tighten Your Tummy” (not to mention all of their unbridled jealousy).
Leave the youthful shenanigans for the kids. Train like an adult. And give those young, opinionated whippersnappers a thing or two to think about if they cross the line and talk back to their elders.