Time to call it a day?

Not the blog; at least, not yet. I’m talking about lifting heavy. Those big presses and pulls that draw blood and sweat from every pore. Isolation work that burns with infernal intensity. And even if you don’t train that hard, there is still a point in life when you just have to accept the harsh reality—one day you have to go light.

Now, to be clear, growing old does not mean giving up. It doesn’t mean you can’t be strong. But there are changes in our body as we age that require some reflection. As I approach my fifties, to me, that change is how long it takes to recover from injury. Not serious damage but those little niggles that prey on your tendons and joints. That insignificant twang when you were eighteen years old becomes a cacophony of pulled tendons, a resounding chorus repeating for months on end. It’s as though every injury from the past thirty years developed a photographic memory; each bundle of abused fibres suddenly recalling what it was you did wrong with a bicep curl in 1995. Oh, the folly of youth to think we were indestructible. We might forget that we never warmed up properly, or that we trained too frequently, but one day your accumulated exercise foibles will come back to haunt you. And once Scrooge, the ghost of exercise past, drags his chains around your creaking joints, there can be no happy ending to your tale of glory.

Damn, is it really that grim? No, of course it isn’t but this is my blog and I like drama. Though, it is still a pertinent point that as we age, we need to consider the structural integrity of our bodies. No matter how careful we are with our physical endeavours, there are consequences to every lift, pull, skip and jump we do. Our articulated joints have a covering of cartilage which reacts well to moderate exercise. This self-healing surface can absorb and protect us from physical stresses. Consider when we jump from a height to the ground, such as when we were children and those things were just plain fun. Or, as adults, when we drink a little too much and think we’re kids again. Jumping from shed roofs while being filmed by a giggling accomplice, the result being a hit on social media as you writhe in pain afterwards. You get the point. Heavy, infrequent impacts are diminished by our cartilage. But what about heavy, frequent impacts?

We are not jackhammers. I’d say ‘pneumatic drill’ but jackhammer is a far cooler word to use. Say it; jackhammer. Ooh! I’m pretty sure there’s a crappy pulp-fiction detective with that name out there. But anyway, we’re not one of those. Machines are designed and purposed for repetitive action and even then, those machines will also wear out. Unlike machines, our parts are not so easily replaced, and when they are, they’re never as good as the real thing. The cyberpunk future is not yet here—the metal joints they drill into your bones in surgery are not cool. You are not Johnny Silverhand. Or Cable. And if you don’t know who they are, go and Google. Yeah, you’ll never be as awesome as them.

All those repetitive impacts, delivered without proper attention to technique or recovery, pile up a multitude of problems for later life. Ageing itself begins to break down those protective articular surfaces, and what we do in youth, is compounded on top. To sum it up: the harder you train, the greater your pensioner pain.

So, you’re approaching fifty and want to know how to stop the damage. Not just to cartilage but also your tendons and muscle. Can you turn back the clock? No. Go back and read the last paragraph, it should make it clear. If you’re like me, it’s too late. That’s exactly why at a point in time you have to reconsider how you train. You’ve put in all those hours; you made the grade and lifted the weight of a small brown bear. But now the bear’s nibbling your shoulder joints. It’s clawing at your tendons. It’s time to put the bear down. Besides, who the hell lifts bears? Actually, isn’t there a religious cult that does that? I think they’re Scottish – the Press-bear-tarians. I may have lost you on that one. I apologise.

Dropping the weight and lifting something lighter is, for many men and women, the equivalent of that moment in a Hollywood starlet’s life when the phone stops ringing. One wrinkle too many and the jobs dry up, just like your skin. Relegated to playing support roles or alcoholic mothers-in-law—be in no doubt—the glamour days are over. It’s hard to take. Most gym nuts will refuse to accept the truth and keep going heavy. I’ve seen the damage that does. A woman who trained far too hard in her forties, who one day ripped a tendon trying to pick up an ankle strap that had ‘Velcroed’ itself to the gym carpet. All because time had caught up with her arduous days of lifting super-heavy weights. It’s a terrible dawning of realisation: when Velcro is stronger than your connective tissue.  

So, if I lift lighter will I shrink? Yes. To an extent you will. But you’ll not look feeble. I think that’s a fear all lifters have. You have to rationalise what it is you’re trying to achieve, namely, longevity. Sure, you looked beefy as hell in your twenties, all rippling like a skin-coloured tide. Your thirties were spent being well-above average, lording it over your age-peers even as your hair was thinning. Up and into your forties you were still something special. But what do you want to be in your fifties or sixties? How about on crutches, or in a wheelchair? You only have one body with a sub-standard selection of replacement parts. If you want to enjoy the next thirty years, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with your ego. And to be utterly blunt; steroid abusing pensioners look ridiculous.

You don’t have to give up too much size. Or strength, for that matter. You can lift lighter weights with a slower cadence. Instead of grunting a 1:1 up/down ratio, you can try the oppressively difficult 2:1:4. Pioneered by the guys that brought you Nautilus in the eighties, training that accentuates the eccentric phase of a lift is beneficial to strength but restricts the load you can move. And for those that don’t know about resistance training, basically, it means go slow on each lift. What was once a 100Kg bench press will become a 60Kg load. And it’ll feel harder to boot.

You could also diversify your exercise portfolio. Go mad and try Yoga. By all accounts it’s an excellent system. In truth, I know it to be true but it’s not for me. And I know, if you’re used to lifting anything remotely heavy, something as ‘airy’ as Yoga might be a stretch too far, no pun intended. So just lift light and slow, okay? You can try Yoga in your next reincarnation.

And if you’re young and haven’t yet reached the decrepitude of a 47-year-old former exercise enthusiast, what should you do? Ignore me, of course. You’re young, you’re indestructible—you don’t even make a noise when you bend over to tie your shoe-laces. Just make sure you come back here in twenty-five years so I can say, ‘I told you so.’ Because I will—it’s one of the pleasures of growing old; chastising others for repeating the same mistakes we made. By then perhaps I can be Johnny Silverhand. Who? What do you mean, who? Good grief, I give up.

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