Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Jan vs. a Car

by Emily Socolinsky, SSC | April 06, 2017

jan presses

Four years ago, in June of 2013, I received this email:

“I am 68 years old. I have been athletic most of my life, rollerblading, biking, running, some rowing. I have worked hard in the last year and a half to begin moving, juicing and improving my nutrition and all around health. I am very interested in working on strength. I don't have a lot right now, but I am fit and ready to see what can be achieved. Am I a candidate to build strength and health through your program? Very interested. Thanks.”

Four years later, Jan is still training with us, stronger than ever. She is not your typical 71-year-old. Hell, she wasn't your typical 68-year-old when she started with us. After meeting with me and discussing her goals – get stronger, improve her bone density (Jan had been diagnosed with osteopenia in the Spring of 2013) – Jan joined our Basic Training program (bootcamp/general fitness). She was consistent with her routine, attending two nights a week, rarely missing a class.

Six months later, on January 9, 2014, Jan was hit by a car one morning as she was walking across a parking lot on her way to work. The driver said he didn't see her until it was too late. (Subsequently, Jan learned she was the second woman pedestrian he had hit!) After being struck, Jan went over the hood of his car, into the windshield then rolled off the hood and hit the ground where she laid unconscious. She was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and monitored for two days before being released.

Amazingly, she walked away with no broken bones. However, she did incur a concussion, damage to the left shoulder bursa and deep tissue damage to the lower left back. Doctors attributed this minimal, though painful damage, to the healthy weight and condition of her body. “Other people your age would have been badly broken and seriously injured,” her doctors told her. When Jan told me this, I proposed a new slogan, "Strength train just in case you get hit by a car! You'll bounce right back! Jan did!”

After she was discharged, Jan took a month off to recover and began a physical therapy regimen before returning to the gym. In mid-February, 2014, Jan picked up right where she left off with her Basic Training class. What emerged after the accident and during her training was the persistence of pain in her shoulder, back and hips that grew more aggravating over the next few months after the accident. Jan returned to physical therapy for relief for several sessions.

In May of 2014, Jan decided to attend our strength workshop on barbell training for women. I had started these workshops in the spring of 2013 to encourage more women to train using the Starting Strength program. After the workshop, Jan, though still in pain, was curious, albeit a little skeptical, and agreed to begin barbell training once a week in addition to the Basic Training classes. This was my subtle way of beginning to transition Jan from the boot camp classes to our strength training program. I “allowed” her to continue with the boot camp classes, feeling confident that one day, she would drop those classes and focus just on the barbell work.

We tried to start in the summer of 2014, but pain, vacations and Jan's desire to throw medicine balls around instead of picking up a barbell kept her from really beginning her training in the fall of 2014. She eventually began her novice progression, lifting primarily twice a week on Mondays and Saturdays. In the beginning, her program included all four basic lifts: Squat, Press, Bench and Deadlift, alternating the press and bench each time. However, Jan's training was very inconsistent due to the fact that she had not really bought into the strength training regimen and was refusing to give up her bootcamp class during the week.

By 2015, she moved her training to just Saturdays, continuing with her bootcamp classes during the week. To Jan, more meant better. However, due to all the more, Jan was coming to the gym in constant pain. I tried to monitor her closely on the days she trained, adjusting her weight, adjusting her sets and reps, talking to her about recovery over and over again. Her progress was slow, simply due to the fact that she was still trying to do too much ie. over exercising and basically just not listening to her coach when she (me) told her to stop slamming balls. Training older lifters, while extremely gratifying in so many ways, can also be extremely aggravating because older people are sometimes just too damn stubborn for their own good.  

I began to worry. I did not want to lose her as a client but I had to somehow convince her that all that ball slamming was not helping her. Jan is a client who appreciates the value of a tough workout, and while I didn’t want to discourage her, I had to find a way to rein her in from all of her other workouts that were causing her pain. I had to find a way to convince her that less was actually more. I began gently. I casually suggested that she take a break from the Basic Training class and do only the barbell work, just to see if that would make a difference in how she felt. I explained to her that I felt confident that lifting over time was going to specifically build the muscle she needed to help the pain she was experiencing.  Being on the verge of retirement in April of 2015, Jan agreed and began to reschedule her life to accommodate her new programming. In May, at the age of 70, she began strength training – again – and this time, with just the barbell.

After a year of many ups and downs and physical therapy and most importantly, finally stopping the Basic Training classes, Jan was now training. We spent May through December 2015 working with a 1-2 day per week program, incorporating three lifts, alternating the bench and press, your typical linear progression. Recovery was definitely an issue. Jan needed at least three days in between to recover from her sessions. By November 2015, we switched to just two lifts each session, squat and bench, deadlift and press. Her training was still a little spotty due to her many other activities outside the gym and the fact that she was still experiencing issues with her back and hip.

However, 2016 would be a real turning point for Jan and her training. After a few more adjustments to her schedule, we eventually settled on a Tuesday/Thursday/Friday program for her. We continued to focus on just two big lifts each session. Between January and June, Jan worked with the following schedule:

Program: January – May 2016


Occasionally, she would add in a few DB rows or band work. But she listened to me and stuck with the barbell work primarily. Things were moving along well until about June when she told me that she was still having issues with her hip. I suggested she see an ART (Active Release Therapy) practitioner. She did and attended a few sessions with him over a number of weeks while continuing her training. We got rid of the barbell squat and moved her to a high box squat with the safety-bar. This helped her with her back considerably. By July, we decided to remove the Press as well. Although her shoulders were strong, the back was not willing. We dropped it and added DB floor presses and/or landmine presses instead.  The bench was going well, until it wasn’t, primarily again, due to her back and hip. By August, we added blocks under her feet to reduce the stress-pain on her back which allowed her to continue to bench pain free. 

Program: June - September 2016

High Box Squat w/Safety BarBenchDeadlift
Landmine Press/Floor Press

In October, Jan was experiencing less and less pain so we once again made adjustments to her program. We continued with the safety bar box squats but also added a light deadlift on this day. Her deadlift has always been the best lift for her and one she has always been able to do, regardless of how her back felt. In fact, it is the ONLY lift that she truly feels has made her back and hip stronger. To help move her deadlift along, we added a lighter day earlier in the week to give her a little more volume.  She recently pulled 180lbs for a triple.

By January 2017, Jan was feeling the best she had felt in a long, long, long time. We first replaced the multiple blocks under her feet for her bench with just one pair of weight plates which are lower than the blocks. We have also transitioned slowly back to the barbell back squat, starting with a light bar, working on depth and form. We have also added the press back into her program. For the past two months, Jan has been lifting pain free after almost three years of off-again/on-again pain in her hip and back due to the car accident. 

Program: January 2017 - Present

SquatHeavy Bench/Volume Press or Press/Volume BenchDeadlift
Bench/Press HeavyLight Squat
Light Deadlift

After nearly three years of work, adjustments, set backs but most of all, persistence, Jan rarely walks into a session or departs a session with any hip or back pain. There is the occasional discomfort, but she no longer plagued by constant pain as she was three years ago.

Jan continues to program in some accessory work and conditioning alternating between dumbbell rows, kettlebell swings, or prowler or sled for 10-20 minutes. She is much better about keeping this work to a minimum, and I make sure to still monitor her carefully. On the weekends, she volunteers with the local park landscaping group that prunes badly cared-for trees.

And significantly, whether they are related or not (and Jan has no scientific proof), she has not been sick since she began strength training. Most importantly, in 2015, Jan went to a follow-up DEXA scan in conjunction with a routine preventive care exam and was told that the osteopenia that she had been diagnosed with in 2013, prior to coming to us, was now gone.

In April, Jan will turn 72. A big juicer, Jan has slowly incorporated more protein into her diet over the few years she has been with us and understands the importance of eating for performance and muscle growth. As a result of her nutrition and strength training regimen, she has gained roughly 20 pounds over the past four years, from 115lbs on her 5'6” frame to around 135lbs. Jan is stronger, healthier and most importantly, finally out of acute pain.  We are very lucky to have her as a client.

“Because of strength training, I am increasingly convinced that ‘aging’ is a result of reduced movement which results in the loss of strength and, ultimately, health. I think the decrease in physical activity sends a message to the body to begin its decline into a sedentary, less healthy, and physically engaged life. I also understand that continuing to be active, especially to choose to strength train, is a rather radical notion, especially for women over 50. But riding a bike and playing tennis or soccer, were also once considered activities for women that were ‘out of bounds.’ Strength training is just a new boundary to cross that has surprisingly pleasant life, health and longevity-enhancing results. Be strong!”   –Jan                     

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