Observations on Training by an Old Guy

by Phil Ringman | July 28, 2020

phil ringman locking out a deadlift

On Being an Old Guy at the Gym 

I am 66. I don’t think of myself as an old guy, but apparently I am. 

When I was in my 30s, yes, I thought  people in their 60s were really old. Now that I am there, not so much. But when I look around Wichita Falls Athletic Club, where I train, on any given day I am usually the oldest person in the gym, sometimes by 20+ years. (I am not the oldest member who trains there regularly, and there are a bunch of guys in their 50s and 60s, but I am among the oldest.) 

Maybe I look like an old guy because I have white hair, but a few years ago, a 30-something at WFAC asked me if I minded telling him how old I was. I said I didn’t mind and told him – I was 59 at the time. He said he was “impressed,” apparently by the fact that I was at the gym at all at my advanced age, and he said he wished he could get his dad to train. 

On another occasion, a different guy told me that he hoped he is still lifting when he is my age. And he didn’t even know for sure how old I was. 

I took both as compliments. I still haven't seen the first guy’s dad at the gym.    

On the Deadlift 

I thought I was king of the world the first time I pulled 225. 

I told the friend who was my unofficial lifting coach that I was happy with that, I was way stronger than I had ever been before, and at my age of 58, and what was even the point of getting any stronger? I was a runner, and now, after just a few months, I could lift 225 pounds off the floor. Five times. What more could I possibly achieve?  

My friend, a long-time lifter, who knows that I am fairly competitive, just laughed, the kind of laugh that said, “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Just wait.” 

My friend was right. Seven years or so later, by continuing to add a little bit of weight at a time (now five pounds a month instead of five per week), I recently pulled a triple from the floor at 330, two singles from the floor at 345 as a test, and a set of five rack pulls at 355. All without devoting an excessive amount of time to training.   

I had been running, and running only, for 46 years, but realized I was not very strong. So with guidance from my friend I started lifting one day a week, and continued running three days a week. I was basically a runner who also lifted. 

However, I retired my running shoes 2 ½ years ago due to bone spurs in my big toe. When I stopped running, I started lifting two days a week, which evolved into my current program of lifting two days a week but only doing each of the big four lifts once a week – press and deadlift on Monday and squat and bench press on Thursday. Now, I am now a lifter, period. 

On the Squat

I was doing squats one day when I heard a voice from the corner of the gym shouting “No, no, NO.” Instinctively I knew, without even looking, that it was Rip, that it was directed at me, and the reason was my squats were too high. 

Lesson learned about depth. Another lesson learned: try to find a rack that is not in direct view of Rip’s office. 

The squat has been my most difficult lift in terms of technique. Today, many form checks later, many cell phone videos later, and after resets to work on form and depth, my squats are better. Not perfect, but more consistently to depth with decent form.  I recently did a 3x3 PR.  

On Being a Model for “The Barbell Prescription”

One day at the gym there was a sign-up sheet for anyone interested in being photographed demonstrating the lifts for a new book coming out, written by Dr. Jonathon Sullivan and Andy Baker and published by Rip’s company, The Aasgaard Co., about strength training for people over 40. There were only two or three names on the list, so I thought, “Why not?” and signed up. 

I figured that if I ended up in the book at all, I would be the “before” or the “how not to do it” example. I actually ended up in three photographs demonstrating two lifts and an assistance exercise, although you wouldn’t recognize me unless you already knew me and looked really hard. 

But from now on I can tell people that I was a model in one of the best-selling strength training books for masters lifters of all time. The pay was a free book. 

On the Prowler 

A friend at the gym recently asked if I missed running. I thought a moment, and then realized that I don’t miss it. The reason I don’t is because I realized that I am doing more effective conditioning now with the Prowler than when I was running. 

My primary Prowler workout is one down-and-back warm up lap of about 30 yards (each way) with no weight on the sled. And then four down-and-back laps with 65 kilograms  and four minutes rest in-between. 

If the “maximum heart rate” formula has any validity, (220 – my age of 66) my maximum is 154 bpm. The Mayo Clinic says getting your heart to 70 to 85 percent of your maximum (for me 108 to 131 bpm)  is “vigorous exercise.”  That point might be arguable, but on a recent workout my heart rate after each lap was 130 bpm, 140 bpm, 142 bpm and 141 bpm, respectively. When running, I rarely got my heart rate that high. 

So…it appears I am getting a better cardio workout with the Prowler, in a whole lot less time and with a whole lot less wear and tear on my 66-year-old body.  

On Encouragement

I was not yet very familiar with gym protocol when one day near the end of a difficult deadlift set, I heard someone I thought was yelling. I couldn’t understand what he was saying or to whom it was directed. I was focused on trying to complete my set so I just blocked it out.

When I finished I realized he was encouraging me – in a voice that had to be loud so I could hear in the not-so-great acoustics of the gym. I thought, “That’s kind of cool, people who essentially know me only from the gym, without being asked, trying to help me complete a difficult set.” 

A little “yelling” can sometimes make the difference between a completed or missed set. 

On Less is More 

This falls into the category of “things you kind of know, but don’t fully believe until you try them.” 

For a long time I had a mental block that I had to do sets of five all the time, and if I wasn’t, I was somehow failing. I discovered that is not the case, particularly for old guys.  

When I ran, I made a concession to middle age in my 40s by cutting back to running three days a week from four to sometimes six days a week, in order to allow more recovery time. I did essentially the same thing in lifting, 1) acknowledging the end of the easy gains from the novice linear progression, and 2) recognizing that old guys take longer to recover. I know there are a hundred different programs for training after the novice linear progression. The one that seems to work for me, at least for now, is alternating volume and intensity days. I borrowed the program, and slightly modified it for my two-day-a-week schedule, from another 50+ year old lifter at the gym. 

For the press, bench press and squat, on the volume day I do three sets of five at a weight that is about 90 percent of my intensity day. On the intensity day, I do three sets of three. 

On the deadlift I follow a four week cycle:

  • Week 1 – light day of one work set of five at about 15 percent off my intensity day
  • Week 2 – a set of five rack pulls
  • Week 3 – another light day for a single set of five
  • Week 4 – intensity day, a heavy set of three from the floor 

It seems to work. I’m not as gassed out the couple of days after training, and I am hitting PRs on intensity day sets of three.

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