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Fundamentals Of Fitness Training For Middle Age Adults

Several years ago I made the commitment to becoming a specialist in fitness and nutrition strategies for middle age adults. After spending over a decade providing fitness coaching to all age groups, it became painstakingly obvious to me that the needs of middle age adults were inherently different.

The techniques and strategies that worked for clients in their twenties and early thirties, didn’t always work so hot for those forty and beyond. I set out to learn as much as I could on the reasons why and uncover the less than obvious differences. By doing so I figured I’d carve out my niche and expertise in the industry and in the process hopefully help some people along the way.

Why focus on middle age and older adults?

Well for starters, now that I’m over 40 that puts me in the group. In a lot of ways I can relate far better than I would have in my twenties and early thirties as a fitness coach. More importantly this was the area I was most passionate about as the physiological changes that occur at this time tend to leave people confused and frustrated.

More after the jump…

Issues unique to middle age and older adults

It’s the 42 year old woman who doesn’t get why the low calorie diet and long duration cardio sessions won’t help her shed weight like she could in her twenties and early thirties.

It’s the 50 year old man who wants to get in shape, but isn’t quite sure what to do in the gym now that his college days have long since past.

It’s the menopausal woman suffering from weight gain and a slowed metabolism whose doctor declares that her thyroid tests came back fine…”don’t worry you’re in the normal range and should just try to learn to deal with it as a part of aging.” Either that or something along the lines of do better with your exercise and diet.

But deep down in her gut she feels something just isn’t right as her diet is super clean and she’s doing plenty of exercise.

The examples are numerous but the common denominator is confusion, uncertainty, and often frustration. They really want help but it can be hard to find information that’s truly targeted to their unique needs.

The fitness industry has always focused primarily on individuals in their twenties and thirties. Modern day health clubs are designed with everything from the layout to amenities geared for the younger population. Same thing for most popular home workout DVD’s, books, magazines, etc.

Even most personal trainers tend to be more knowledgeable and proficient at program design for the younger population. The reality is it’s much easier and requires far less thought to set up workouts for someone who doesn’t have contraindications or much in the line of risk factors.

That’s why a lot of trainers like boot camps so much. Pick a bunch of challenging exercises and just beat people down. The harder the workout the better, with the measuring stick of a “good workout” often being how many clients are left standing at the end.

It’s all about the “EXTREME,” heck just look at some of the names of the more popular programs with things like “Insanity” and others.

Look I’m not trying to bash these programs or personal trainers who think every workout should be like a Crossfit competition. I just think there’s a disservice to scores of middle age adults who are being led down the wrong road, or if nothing else pushed down that road too quickly.

This just leads to increased risk of unnecessary injury, burnout, and greater likelihood of dropping out of exercise altogether.

When you’re around 40 and above it’s pretty much common sense your body won’t be the same as it was when you were younger. There’s the obvious with things like longer recovery times, decreased flexibility, more time needed for warming up, etc. But then there’s also the not so obvious changes with things like decreased protein synthesis, insulin sensitivity, and a host of other hormonal shifts.

Bottom line is the body has undergone physiological changes so targeted fitness and nutrition strategies for middle age and older adults (which will be safe and effective) should naturally be somewhat different to accommodate the changes.

Each individual will be different in regards to unique needs for their specific situation, but I’ve found there are some common factors that tend to show up during screenings.

Depending on the prior level of activity, lifestyle factors, etc, you’ll find varying degrees of inhibited mobility. For example, the more an individual has sat hunched over at their desk behind a computer, the more their body will reflect that position. The body adjusts and conforms to whatever position your in most of the time.

Certain muscles get weak, some get tight, others simply shrink in atrophy due to their lack of function. The old adage “use it or lose it” is certainly true. Here are a few examples I see frequently with middle age adults.

Muscles that tend to become Phasic (get weaker)

- Glutes
- Rhomboids
- Deltoids
- Triceps
- Abdominal and pelvic floor muscles

Muscles that tend to become Tonic (to shrink)

- Chest muscles (pectorals)
- Biceps
- Upper traps
- Hamstrings
- Hip Flexor

Now some individuals, including many fitness trainers, will look at this list and come to the conclusion that all these muscles should simply be trained with resistance to become stronger.

Early on in my career I would have mistakenly came to the same conclusion. The truth of the matter is the more I’ve worked with middle age and older clients over the years, the more I’ve realized things just aren’t that simple. In fact, trying to strengthen muscles with a “paint by number” approach can actually be counterproductive.

I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that the secret is placing MOBILITY before strengthening. After all you want to have a good foundation before you start building on top of it.

For decades many fitness professionals have followed a far less than optimal model of attempting to strengthen and stretch various muscles as a means for correcting imbalances, limitations in movement, or to facilitate pre-hab and re-hab.

It’s only when you humbly come to grips that the techniques you’re using are failing to produce the results that you (and your client) are looking for, that one can be open to exploring new ideas. But as we know often times egos get in the way and old ways of thinking and doing die hard.

I for one have put far more emphasis on movement and mobility with all my clients as of late, but most importantly with my middle age and older clients. The reason…they need it the most! You can often get away with just beating someone down under the iron or with body weight plyometrics when they’re younger and see great results.

Try this with a middle age or older client right out of the gate and you’re asking for trouble. If you’re lucky enough not to injure them or have them quit due to lack of enjoyment, there’s still going to be unforeseen consequences later.

Trying to strengthen a muscle or group of muscles when there’s a mobility issue there is always going to be a problem. That is of course unless the goal is bodybuilding and the individual is willing to sacrifice mobility and movement.

Most clients I work with however would still like to be able to put their socks on without sitting down, play with their kids, or perform their preferred recreational activity without being all stiff and stoved up.

This will require movement and mobility to take precedence. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means saying weight training and good old fashioned lifting is out. In areas where mobility is not and issue, you can begin strengthening the body with weighted resistance fairly quick.

However, in areas where mobility and movement is compromised you want to PROGRESS to weighted resistance by first using body weight exercises and dynamic movements.

At my Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studio I take my clients through a five minute warm-up and prep consisting of hip mobility exercises, dynamic stretches, and basic patterns before each workout. Here are some of my most frequently used movements for this prep work with middle age and older adults.

Dynamic Warm-Up / Prep Work for Middle Age and Older Adults

- body weight squats
- reaching patterns
- hurdle hip rotation openers
- hurdle under’s
- rolling patterns
- crawling patterns
- level changes (box step-up / down)
- hip mobility drills
- scorpions / reverse scorpions
- bird-dog (quadraped)
- windmill (with pvc pipe or broom stick)

For the most part these are basic primal movement patterns. Think about it as going back to the simplest movements we’d do even as a baby with crawling, rolling, squatting down, etc. This is how you learned to move, if you lost some of your function or movement regress back to the basics and let your body figure it out.

Your body knows the way…movement has already been learned once. We don’t need fancy corrective exercises, 3 sets of 10, or anything like that. This isn’t to say that you’ll be able to do everything you could when you were in grade school running around on the playground, it’s just the idea that you can regress back to the basics and regain a lot of function.

I want you to see the differences here. Let’s say for example you’ve got some shoulder issues that impede mobility and some ranges of motion. The standard protocol might be something along the lines of a bunch of rotator cuff exercises with a band, etc. In other words, trying to strengthen an already compromised joint. Fundamentally you’re likely going about this “bass-akwards.”

Instead you could be doing a bunch of crawling patterns and letting stabilization, neural recruitment, etc, happen naturally with movement. Let’s just say I’ve helped more middle age clients with shoulder problems with bear crawls by far then any amount of rotator cuff exercises.

There again, I’m not saying there’s no place for physical therapy and targeted corrective exercise. If you’re in a good deal of pain by all means, get it checked out by a professional. This is more about what we do as fundamentals of fitness training for the over 40 crowd.

I’m over forty and want to lose weight, tone up, get in shape, move, look, and feel better…what do I do?

Going to the typical health club and sitting down on a bunch of machines…the ineffectiveness of this should be self-explanatory. Your body has succumb to tight fascia over the years from sitting too much and now we’re going to somehow improve this by sitting down to exercise.


You could join the local “Gene’s Extreme Boot Camp” or roll right into a Crossfit class and get your hard core fitness on. We’ll talk after you get burned out or worse yet injured. Let’s hope there’s a knowledgeable coach running the show who understands safe progression, but the limitations with a group setting may not have them applying it.


You could get a copy of P-90X, Insanity, or some other home workout DVD and get busy whipping yourself into shape. Once again, where’s the progression? Not to say these are bad programs, you’re just better served not jumping into them as a beginner without preparation.

So what do you do?

MOVE first and then look to incorporate the weighted resistance and higher intensity exercises later. There’s nothing wrong by good old fashioned jumping jacks, body weight squats, push-up’s, bear crawls, and the like for starting out. Stick with the basic primal patterns and progress at your own pace.

I’m not bashful about making a shameless plug, so consider some personal fitness training from a trained professional who can identify your unique needs. If you’re in the Charleston, SC area I’d be happy to help.

Certainly there’s value in getting some instruction and accountability in the beginning, but really it just comes down to progressing slowly at your own pace, whether you’re with a coach or not.

Think “movements” instead of “exercises.” You want to reach, squat, hinge from the hip, change levels (step up/ step down), crawl, roll, rotate…in essence just move your body.

From a basic training standpoint here are my preferred dominant strength and stability foundations for middle age and older adults. Again this goes back to what they’ll likely benefit most from.

Basic training strength and stability movements for middle age and older adults

- Goblet Squat
- Farmer Walks (loaded carries)
- Hip hinge (deadlifts, kb swings, etc)
- Push up variations
- Inverted rows (or pull-up’s)
- Plank variations
- Chop variations (cable, band, medicine ball, etc)
- Combinations (squat to overhead press, lunge to row, etc)
- Unilateral work (1 leg RDL, bulgarian squat, etc)

Obviously there are numerous variations and exercises depending on progression/regression, but this is my basic foundation. One thing for sure, it beats the heck out of that circuit of seated fixed axis machines in the health club.

I need to wrap this up so that’ll have to be it for now. There’s a lot that we could cover and I’ll look to expand on this subject in future posts. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or if I could be of assistance in any way.

And as always feel free to leave any comments. Take care- Shane

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts, a Charleston personal fitness training studio that specializes in weight loss and body transformation for middle age adults. See our success stories from numerous Lowcountry residents then sign up for a no-obligations consultation today.

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