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.
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.
Did it work? Older people like Vladimir are inspirations to us all.
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.
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.
You can find many other info on back mechanics here.