Keeping A Resilient Back as We Age

Meeting Pavel for the first time about twenty years ago changed my life. It is a story that has been told in these pages before. I was impressed with this quiet gentleman who knew so much about training systems far from the American tradition. We discussed the eloquence of Russian sport science that produced performance and resilience. Its investigations of fundamental mechanisms, together with measurement of the effect, proved that enhanced resilience comes from the balance of strength, explosive power, mobility, stability, and movement quality as they sum together to enhance work capacity. These concepts haven’t changed over the past twenty years, but our perspective on discussing aging has.

As a younger man, I was interested in strength techniques that eliminated sticking points in various lifts with pulsing power. Now, I am interested in maintaining sufficient power and athleticism to ensure that I can recover from a stumble and catch a fall. The real risk from a fall now outweighs the real risk of musculoskeletal strain from a challenging lift. Last week, I was thankful to generate enough hip flexion power to set my foot in front of my center of mass to prevent a fall. Strength and power are still important to me, but at this stage of life it is for different reasons. As Pavel reminds me, it is my duty to remain difficult to kill.

What is the best training program for me now? The context has changed with the transformation to my white hair color. The goal is, and always has been, to train and stimulate adaptation without accumulating micro-trauma. But the sad reality is that the process of adaptation isn’t what it used to be. Life has added to my injury history and nature has reigned in some tissue elasticity and extensibility reducing my range of motion. Recovery and adaptation now take longer. The path to maintaining strength and power has changed. The balancing act needs to be adjusted.

Training Tolerance and Capacity

I have a fond memory of working with Pavel and his father, Vladimir, about ten years ago in Venice Beach. Vladimir was training to challenge the American deadlift record for men over 75-year-old. Despite Vladimir having a back that looked like a strong 40-year-old, training like a 40-year-old would not have had a good outcome. Training tolerance and capacity are lower at a certain age but Pavel, being Pavel, had a few tricks up his sleeve. He had Vladimir make use of the time-tested Russian technique of hanging from a chin-up bar following each heavy deadlift to extend training tolerance and capacity.

Vladimir Tsatsouline hanging from a bar. It built his strong back
Pavel coached Vladimir to hang following each heavy deadlift rep. Vladimir Tsatsouline developed a back comparable to a beefy, well-trained 40-year-old. He was 75.

We also experimented with assisted spine traction and extension to add some tolerable training volume. Shown in the image below, this technique involves decompressing the lifter’s spine using a form of assisted thoracic extension. The lifter interlaces the fingers and places the hands behind the skull. The elbows are cradled on the coach’s forearm which is supported on their thigh. The lifter exerts about 1kg of extra force down on each elbow for 10 seconds. Then, upon releasing the 1kg force, the elbows are assisted forward extending the thoracic spine in a relaxed manner. The renewed resilience is experienced immediately upon standing.

Thoracic spine decompression and extension

Did it work? Older people like Vladimir are inspirations to us all.

Vladimir winning the US deadlift for his age group.
Proof of principle.

Aging with Resilience

I believe in the discipline of daily training. This is founded upon my training for over fifty years, our investment in scientific investigations at the university labs and experimental clinic, and by contrasting those who age successfully with those who do not. The successful ones usually share a common character—a character that I have tried to adopt myself. Routinely rise early each day and get your chores done. Train strength and power, mobility, and cardiovascular health with some gusto. Avoid damage by not doing any one of these two days in a row. The week has seven days. Two of the days are dedicated to strength and power, two days looking after the things that are getting a bit stuck (strategic mobility), and two days to challenge the old ticker (cardiovascular challenge). But the seventh day is for rest. The rest day allows the adaptations that were stimulated on the other six days to occur. Occasionally some nagging issues need longer rest and I continually gain wisdom to recognize this. But frankly, I feel wonderful.

A wonderful day in Venice Beach with Vladimir Tsatsouline, American deadlift champ, and another fellow…Pavel was his name.

Resilience to keep the back pain bogeyman at bay is an art and a science that I have tried to synthesize in my book, Back Mechanic. The reader is guided through a self-assessment of their pain triggers which informs them of what to do and not do. Generically, everyone will benefit from short intervals of walking throughout the day. Training core stability is non-negotiable, starting with performing the “big three” (bird dog, side plank, and modified curl-up). Shoulders, knees, and hips become more challenging with the decades which can make these movements challenging. There are hacks for the “big three” that spare the shoulders, and kettlebell swings, helping retain some power, may be hiked off blocks rather than the floor. Roman chair hip flexion pulses maintain hip flexion power to propel the swing leg forward with sufficient speed to prevent a fall. While squats can be modified, other techniques may be more appropriate. For example, walking backwards uphill focusing on knee extension is an old Russian technique for leg endurance power. Getting older brings perspective and wisdom that is earned. Training programs should evolve with a focus on resilience, following the changes brought on by mother nature. Our job is to make the best of the journey for ourselves and hone tools that will benefit those who seek guidance from us.

Vladimir Tsatsouline deadlifting at 85-year-old
A recent photo of 85-year-old Vladimir pulling

You can find many other info on back mechanics here.

Dr. Stuart McGill
Dr. Stuart M. McGill is a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada). His advice is often sought by governments, corporations, legal experts, and elite athletes and teams from around the world. Difficult back cases are regularly referred to him for consultation.

You can learn more about Dr. mcGill’s work in his book “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance” available on his site, BackFitPro.

8 thoughts on “Keeping A Resilient Back as We Age

  • Stuart McGill and Pavel Tsatsouline have been very influential and helpful – for back care and strength training.

    Truly practical and helpful advisors that have made a very positive difference in my life. Since thanks.

  • I love this article, but I have a question. I discovered your work serendipitously, because I had a brief episode of lumbar pain from doing forward bends. When I read about gluteal amnesia, I immediately wondered if it could apply to pain from a hypertonic pelvic floor. And it does.
    But I am 73 and i also have moderate prolapses. When I tried, last year, to train the kettlebell swing, I had the worst and longest pain flare l have had in years. And the Strong First trainer I saw had never heard of a hypertonic pelvic floor.
    My body isn’t remotely like yours or Vladimir’s. Do you have any specific advice for women like me?

  • Stuart McGill is also a humanitarian. At the worst time in my life, he answered my email to him and sent me “The Back Mechanic” for free. I did those exercises every 24 hours for a year – in my kitchen while making dinner. I was looking after a dying husband and a disabled, elderly mother and I had been injured. I still do them with a more enhanced program. I try to get “The Back Mechanic” into the hands of my friends and family. My son, a dancer, turned me on to Pavel years and I never looked back. Buy their books!

  • As an older athlete (64 y/o), I had a love/hate relationship with this article. It was all good information but there were spots that a little too close to home.

    12 years ago, I was definitely in a crash dive headed straight for the dirt. My health metrics were terrible. I decided to do something about it and got back into the shape I was in back in my 30s. It took a few years of hard work and sacrifice but I got back down to a very healthy weight and body fat % (BMI 23 and BF 13%). This opened up a whole new world for me. I got into things I would never have even considered, like rock climbing and obstacle course racing. It was a heckuva ride… then COVID brought everything to a screeching halt,

    In January of this year, I decided to stage a comeback. Following on the principles I learned from Pavel’s books and articles, I started building back my strength foundation. Unfortunately, I tried to use the same training patterns I did to get back into shape the first time. And I learned several valuable lessons in rapid succession.

    The 18 proper pullups I could do in 2017 had dropped to 2. The 425 deadlift I could do in 2019 was a struggle at 275. What the heck happened?! I had aged. Apparently more than I thought.

    So I spent the first couple of months of 2022 bouncing from one program to another…with less than productive results and more than a few injuries. I needed something that would keep my focus, let me scale to my age and provide a goal for me to work toward.

    That’s when I discovered the Tactical Strength Challenge on this site. I went back to the fundamentals and started training in March for the Community Event on May 7.

    In keeping with the theme of your article, Dr. McGill, I’m doing the event to complete, not compete. Your article brought up some things about aging that are painful to face. At the same time, it reaffirmed that aging doesn’t have to be painful. It gave me that last little push of motivation I needed to take one more step to my own finish line. Wherever I end up in the standings, one thing is certain: I’m doing the TSC on May 7, 2022 for me.

    And who knows? Maybe I’ll aim for my Simple & Sinister next, or even push myself to win my SFG I.

    Thank you for a well time piece.

    Best regards,
    Bruce McKnight

  • Excellent article. Pavel needs to write an update on his father’s training. Love these articles on how to combat ageing. This is more important than a world title or record. Ageing gracefully with strength and dignity is something missing from today’s society.

  • Great article, Dr.

    It’s funny how our interests and motivations adjust from age. There was a time that I may have never read this article. Now as I sign up to start my Social Security, articles on longevity immediately catch my attention. This was well worth the time spent reading it.

    Two things made me feel good. First, I’m so glad that I found and practice Pavel’s teachings. At thirty, they wanted to fuse two vertebrae in my back. I didn’t go through with that and now in my late 60s, as I do my kettlebell swing training I have never had such a pain free life. And second, looking at Pavel’s 85 year old dad, see point one.

  • Good Morning Mr,

    Thank you for your article.

    As a boxer, I often have to “curl” while twisting during the practice. I usually train with bodyweight only. I also sometimes needs to lean backward and forward.

    Then, what would be, in your opinion, a core routine for boxing, because it requires both spine stiffness, muscle hardness, and flexibility.

    Currently, I do not have back issue but I’d like to incorporate proper core training for both my sport, and also lifting in daily life.

    I thank you very much for your help,

    Kind regards,

    Pierre

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