“I used to play football, then life happened and I gained a bunch of weight. I just want to look and feel like I did then.”
“I ran track in high school and my legs were so lean and muscular! I want to look like that again.”
“I played hockey until I was 17 and then I broke my ankle. I just haven’t been able to get back in shape since.”
I don’t care if you’re 22 or 52, the transition from being an athlete to a regular old human being trying to look and feel great while balancing a career, family, and responsibility is a rough one on a lot of levels.
When we decide to take the initiative to start training again, we often go back to what we were taught when we were younger, for better or worse. We do too much, too soon, with a serious amount of rust on us, and we end up sore, injured, and unmotivated to continue.
Or we grab the latest magazine and do the program that the jacked guy on the glossy page tells us: chest on Monday, back on Tuesday, hamstrings and biceps on Wednesday, etc., etc.
Well, luckily for you, I’ve dealt with this situation firsthand, and I deal with it everyday with my clients.
The truth is, you are still an athlete. You’re a human that still possesses a ton of ability to move and be strong and conditioned, you just have to have a smart plan and stop shooting from the hip to reach that potential.
The same things that are important to being a great high school and college athlete are still just as important to you now. Being mobile, strong, powerful, and having a deep gas tank is important no matter your age or athletic ability.
How we develop these qualities changes a bit as we move away from being the competitive teenager and twenty something though, because, quite frankly, we don’t recover as easily and we have more on the line if we get hurt. Calling out of work because you tweaked your back being a dumbass in the gym isn’t an option at this stage of the game.
Here are the qualities you need, and how you’re going to implement them into a program to be the adult athlete you need to be for yourself, your kids, and to make your significant other want to get naked with you more often.
Train movements not muscles.
At the end of the day, getting stronger is what yields the biggest rewards in terms of physique change. Doing 3 sets of 6 on heavy incline presses will get you a lot further than 3 sets of 15 cable flyes. The press is going to tax not only your chest, but your shoulders, triceps, upper back, and if you do them right, even your legs, while the flyes are going to move through just one joint and try to isolate your pecs with a minimal load.
It’s common sense: in order to get your body to adapt, you need to stress it. Which do you think is more stressful?
These are the main movements to train, with some of my favorite options for all of them:
Pick a few options from each category and you’ll be well on your way to being balanced and strong.
Mobility needs to be a priority.
You’ve got this body for the long haul and anything that you don’t take care of now will be an even bigger pain in the ass later. Got shitty hip mobility? Address it now. Have an old shoulder injury? See the right people and figure out the best plan to get it fixed. I can’t stress this enough-being a 45 year old who talks about an old football injury holding them back from getting in shape and healthy isn’t a badge of honor, it’s irresponsible.
Spend the first 10 minutes of your session with a foam roller, stretching, and moving your joints in a number of different ways. Focus in on your ankles, hips, thoracic spine, and shoulders. I’ve talked about this some here, but there are a lot of great resources on improving your mobility from Kelly Starrett to Max Shank to Andreo Spina. Search around a bit, find someone who resonates with you, and follow what they have to say.
Jump, sprint, and throw stuff.
When we stop playing sports, we tend to stop moving fast. We might jog occasionally, but rarely do we really sprint, and the only time we throw stuff is at a tailgate party, and then we have a sore elbow that we’re icing down for a week afterwards.
Throwing medicine balls give us a ton of options to remedy this. Whether we do overhead soccer throws, slams, chest passes, side tosses, shot putts, or some other variation, they allow us to really work on those fast twitch muscle fibers, which are the ones that have more of an ability to grow. They’re also great at training the rotator cuff, which is what almost everyone who’s been on the planet for any length of time has issues with of some kind.
Jumps are as much for landing properly as they are for power production. Always jump high and land soft. Sprint on hills to limit the pounding, use proper progressions on your jumps to build up your ability and resiliency, and use leave the obnoxiously heavy medicine balls for other people-stick to 4-10 pounds on these so they are really flying when you throw them.
Keep training to get strong.
I’m not talking about 1 rep maxes or blowing your eyeballs out of your skull from effort. I’m talking building up to a heavy set of 3-8 on a big, compound exercise like a bench press, squat, or deadlift variation. Then lower the weight 10-15%, and get the same amount of reps, even if you could do more. Again, lower the weight 10-15%, and do a set to get the same amount of reps in again. Then move on. Save something in the tank for the other parts of your training. Next week, try to improve on the top end set or go for a different rep max. Every 4-6 weeks, rotate in a new main lift and repeat.
Make single leg training a priority.
I’m not talking about walking lunges with pink dumbbells, I’m talking about single leg squats, single leg straight leg deadlifts, skater squats, slideboard lunges, and things like that. When you go from 2 legs to 1, all of your muscles have different jobs to do. Make sure that you cover your bases with single leg stuff so that you don’t become the guy who can deadlift 500 but blows out a hammy chasing your kids around the yard. As a bonus, this will help the mobility that you’re working hard on, too.
Get a sick f’in pump.
Figure out a handful of dumbbell, bodyweight, and kettlebell exercises to round out your programming. This is the time where you can tap into your traditional bodybuilding routine and find a few lifts to chase a pump. Stick in the 8-12 rep range, for 2-4 sets, and keep the rest time down to about a minute or a 90 seconds. Don’t be afraid to throw in some high rep sets, either. Try to get swelled up and juicy like a tick.
#EmbraceTheGrind. #TeamNoSleep. #SleepWhenI’mDead. Live by that moniker and you’re going to struggle to feel well no matter what you do. Lack of sleep is going to drop your testosterone, leave your brain fuzzy, make you more apt to eat garbage, and make it hard to train with any sense of purpose. Figure out how to get off Facebook and Netflix earlier and under the sheets faster.
Don’t plan to train 8 days a week either. Get activity in each day, cover your 10,000 steps, but limit your training time to 3-4 days a week. Too much hard work is going to keep you broken down, limiting how well you bounce back better than you were the previous session.
Be realistic. If you’re not training at all, make your training program based off of 3 days. If you have been training 5-6 days with bodypart splits, tone it back to 4 and base it around movements and progressively getting stronger.
Your program is only as good as how you recover from it, so plan accordingly. Don’t be afraid to get outside and spend some time doing other stuff that you enjoy. You only get one shot at living, so train to make the most of it, rather than living to train.
Get out of your comfort zone.
Stop doing what you’ve always done only because you’re afraid that if you change it, you’ll regress. Mix in a yoga class. They’re actually not just a bunch of pot smoking hippies in there. Ditch the smith machine and squat freely. Don’t be afraid of eating shit if you jump on a box-just pick a low box to start. You’re not there for Instagram likes anyway, you’re there to get better.
Try cooking some foods that you don’t like a different way. I hate brussel sprouts but they’re great when they’re cooked with bacon. I didn’t know that until I was 32. Find an event you want to compete in or a sport you want to play. Do something to change the stagnant training environment that we create for ourselves so that training becomes less about punching the clock and more about getting better in a particular series of measurable ways.
We’re wired to work towards goals, so set them, but be realistic. If you’re 45 years old, no matter what you do, you’re probably not going to have the same body you did when you were 25. That’s fine, just get better and don’t accept the dad bod to be the new normal.
Just have a plan. A comprehensive, well thought out, strategic plan, and then do it. If you started a year ago, think about where you’d be now. In a year, you can look back and answer that objectively.
It pains me to see people with the best of intentions fall short because they don’t know which way to go. It’s rarely a lack of effort, it’s a lack of direction, which then eats away at the effort. I do what I do because I love seeing people use training as a vehicle to kick ass in all of the other aspects of their lives, so I set out to build a roadmap with this post. I hope it helps.
In my next newsletter I’m going to include my favorite strength training template for the adult athlete, so you’ll have a a plug and play model to put all of this stuff into action for the coming week. If you haven’t subscribed yet, click here and it’ll be delivered to your inbox on Sunday.