At What Age Should We Stop Heavy Weightlifting? Plus, how to get strong without heavy lifting – Reader Q+A

heavy weightliftingQUESTION: Hi John, I’ve been weight training ever since I was 18. I’m 32 now. I had a hernia surgery about a year and a half ago. I am beginning to increase my weight in the gym again. But before it gets out of hand again I’d like to ask you what age should a person stop lifting heavy weights? Or should a person ever lift heavy weight to begin with? Although I love the pump and results, I would rather be healthy and not have to go through another surgery. But maybe the hernia wasn’t from working out at all, but rather an improper movement. Do you have any advice for me?

-Shane

ANSWER: Hi Shane, Thanks for your question. Any condition that increases the pressure of the abdominal cavity may contribute to the formation or worsening of a hernia. So, heavy lifting is a very common cause of hernias, among many other health problems. This isn’t because lifting heavy directly increases abdominal pressure, per se, but because heavy lifting is usually accompanied by power breathing, which is a dangerous practice that most trainees should avoid.

Traditional power breathing is usually performed by taking a deep breath through the nose until your lungs are mostly filled (about 75%). The inhale travels into the diaphragm, and the belly distends forward – it shouldn’t solely expand the chest and ribcage. Then, while performing the lift, you will exhale through the mouth while hissing through your teeth until the full repetition is completed.

With power breathing, you will get an immediate improvement in your power and strength. However, that power is translated through a false foundation of abdominal pressure, not structural tension. You wouldn’t use a balloon to support a heavy weight, would you?

Now, for some people, power breathing is an essential aspect of living. Military, firefighters, law enforcement personnel, and high level athletes may choose to put their duties and goals before their personal health. This is perfectly fine, it’s just not the healthiest option and eventually the body will break down with continued use.

For those pursuing health, fitness, and athletic goals with longevity in mind, power breathing should not be included in your regular training program. Instead, you need to condition yourself to maximize your structural tension through proper strength training and breathing methods, and you can do that by learning Performance Breathing. My coach, Scott Sonnon, has an excellent article about how to practice Performance Breathing: http://www.rmaxinternational.com/flowcoach/?p=428

So, the point I’m trying to make is that the METHOD that you use to lift weights is far more important for preventing injury and staying strong than your age is. Age is actually much less relevant, and proper lifting should fortify your body against injury, not increase the risk.

Now, you asked, “what age should a person stop lifting heavy weights? Or should a person ever lift heavy weights to begin with?”

You should stop lifting weights when you cannot lift without pain. That’s the general rule of thumb. But I’d like to focus on your second question about whether or not we should lift heavy or not.

Lifting heavy weights will definitely produce strength training adaptations – you WILL get stronger by going heavy. However, there is a risk:benefit ratio that should be considered. Heavy weightlifting, time and time again, has been associated with injuries. That’s the risk, or the cost. If you want to get super-strong like a powerlifter, then you’ll get injured along the way – it comes with the territory, and competitive weight lifters will be the first to admit it.

So, you need to decide what you want to do based on your priorities and goals. I have a lot of friends, who are fantastic strength and conditioning coaches who choose this route, and I completely respect their decisions. I just want to inform people about the risks, so they know the full story before committing. Here’s an article I wrote about injuries when weightlifting:

Lifting Heavy Weights Will Make You Injury-Bound

Now, what most strength coaches still don’t realize is that you can get similar strength adaptations with lighter weights or no weight at all, if you know how to do it. For example, weight swinging and bodyweight training both involve much lighter “weights” and can be used to increase strength and athleticism, build muscle, or shed bodyfat – all the same things that more traditional, and often heavier, dumbbells and barbells are used for. In fact, you can get comparable “real world” strength adaptations with significantly lighter weights than you may think.

No, bodyweight training or weight swinging will not necessarily help you to bench press 400+ pounds, or squat “6 wheels.” But it will build real world strength that can be applied to everyday living. You don’t need to be the strongest, only strong enough for your life.

And I hate to break it to you, but the skills you develop through heavy weightlifting do not transfer over to functional or athletic performance because of the law of Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. I wrote an article about Specificity in Training here:

Specificity In Training: How much carry-over does weight lifting have in real life? Will your time under the iron help you on the field, on the mat, or in the ring?

Also see Does General Conditioning Even Exist?

So, just because someone can deadlift a 400 lb barbell, doesn’t mean that they can deadlift a 400 lb stone, or pick up a 200 lb unconscious man. If you change the training tool, it’s a completely different skill and it won’t necessarily transfer over. That high bench press doesn’t have much real life practicality from a physiological standpoint. The good news is that most people can reach their strength goals through safer, health-first methods, without even touching a heavy barbell.

So, I have to ask myself – “why would I lift heavy weights that is known to cause injuries if the strength doesn’t even transfer to real life applications, especially when I know of different ways to build that strength with a much lower risk of injury?”

It sounds like a no-brainer to me.

john siffermanThis is one of the reasons why I love clubbell training so much. The nature of swinging weights means that you can use a much lighter load to accomplish a high strength adaptation. The faster a weight swings, the more momentum it creates, meaning the more force that is required to control it. So, you can use a relatively light clubbell to achieve the same amount of force as a much heavier dumbbell or kettlebell.

Both the displaced center of mass and the resulting leverage disadvantage create a lot of torque when swinging the Clubbell, which can be done without adding any weight at all. If you swing a clubbell faster, it will create more torque = more foot lbs for you to control.

I know what you’re thinking, “there’s no way a little clubbell can be used to build the strength that heavy barbells and dumbbells can. It’s just not possible to make a 15 lb clubbell feel like a 90 lb dumbbell!”

But that’s exactly what I’m saying. More torque requires more control, which requires more strength. It’s just simple math. And if you’re still skeptical, pick up a 35 or 45 lb clubbell (aka “the Bruiser”) and get back to me on how much strength you think you can develop with it. They don’t say “you can’t lie to the Bruiser” for no reason. It will reveal weaknesses you probably didn’t even know you had, especially if you’re only accustomed to training with 2-dimensional barbells and dumbbells.

Another reason I like clubbells is that weight swinging creates traction in the joints, instead of just compressing them under a heavy load. Traction helps make the joints stronger, since the weight is pulling away from the body, and thus, pulling on the joint capsules. This is what I mean when I say that strength training is meant to injury-proof your body – not increase the likelihood of injury. All proper training should be health-first.

I haven’t even touched on the fact that clubbells are swung in three dimensions, and through the six degrees of movement freedom – just the way we live and move in real life and sport. Clubbells can be used to STIMULATE real life movement patterns (to build strength through an entire range of motion) without SIMULATING the actual movement skill. So, it builds strength that will improve your actual performance in specific skills, unlike the simulated 2D nature of barbells and dumbbells.

So, if you combine a good clubbell training program with some health-first bodyweight exercise (like from the Bodyweight Exercise Revolution), you’ve got a solid plan for lifelong strength training that will help you stay injury-free. Two of the most important goals of a strength training program should be to build life-applicable strength and to fortify your body from injury. That is health-first fitness.

The Bottom Line

So, lifting heavy weights will make you stronger, yes, but at the expense of probable, ongoing injuries. You can lift heavy weights until your body breaks down, or you can adopt a health-first strength training method including weight swinging and bodyweight exercise as staples in your program. With a health-first approach to fitness, you’ll be building strength well into old-age instead of crapping out at 40 or 50.

*For injury prevention, I also recommend a prehabilitative joint mobility routine such as Intu-Flow and proper Compensatory Movement such as Prasara Yoga.

To your health and success,

Fitness Professional

P.S. I interviewed Coach Adam Steer, the Creator of the Bodyweight Exercise Revolution, all about bodyweight training on this page:

http://johnsifferman.com/blog/bodyweight-exercise-interview-adam-steer/

P.P.S. I also have a lot of information about bodyweight training, joint mobility, clubbell training, and prasara yoga here on my site if you poke around a bit.

5 comments to At What Age Should We Stop Heavy Weightlifting? Plus, how to get strong without heavy lifting – Reader Q+A

  • Hi John,

    I don’t have a lot of confidence in that article about Performance Breathing. I would favor the abdominal brace discussed by Stuart McGill. You can also learn to contract the abdominal brace independent of breathing:

    http://www.tmuscle.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance_interviews/mister_spine

  • John

    Hi Matt,

    McGills abdominal brace is similar (or identical) to Sonnon’s Discipline level performance breathing (level 3 as mentioned in the referenced article). Performed correctly, you can do it independent of breath, although it’s best performed with an exhale upon contraction.

    Cheers,

    John

  • dubbahdee

    John,

    Good answer. That is one of the best reasoned, step by step explanations of the risk and benefit analysis of different training doctrines. The first question is what do you want to achieve? The second question is what are you willing to pay — not so much in terms of time and effort — but in terms of injury? Your answer to the second question may well cause you to revise your answer to the first.
    The goals of a competitive athlete are often very different from the goals of someone who simply wants to live life at a higher healthier level. It’s not wrong to pursue athletic victory, but one should not kid oneself about the cost.
    For most of us, health and function are much more important, and we should choose our way of exercise accordingly.

  • john

    John,
    Your explanation is very interesting to me. I have been strength training, powerlifting, etc since 14. I am now 40. I am drug-free, 5’9″, 195 currently. Three weeks ago I benched 330×8, squated 415×8 and 550×8 (not personal bests), do interval training for cardio. I am familiar w/ VO2 testing, etc. Quit frankly, going through a bit of a mid-life is how I stumbled across your site. I found what you said to be somewhat true in that training needs to be sport specific, however, there is a carry over to sports depending on type of training/sport you do. Why do NFL players lift weights otherwise? It makes you bigger and LESS LIKELY, done properly, to have injuries while making you stronger for blocking/tackling and I believe running/jumping as long as running/jum[ping is part of your training. How does improving your 1rm in squat not improve your ability to block? It not only improves your strength but trains you to recruit fibers at once repeatedly for each play. I don’t know about you, but I am a better athlete because of time spent in the gym and can see the carry-over in many aspects of my life. I’ve been somewhat successful on the field and on the mat, I’d say. I certainly see no correlation to bench-pressing and rowing, as you said.
    There certainly is a connection between the gym and sports. It depends on how you define “heavy lifting.” There certainly aren’t going to be a whole lots of activities or sports that are going to improve from having a 600lb 1rm on the bench. And I have never been seriously injured, because I know how to train, but that’s another story…

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