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Coaching and Programming Adjustments for Seniors

For seniors, there’s nothing theoretical about it. They feel their choices every day—but they also see improvements just as readily. Because of this, I would argue it is easier to establish buy-in with an older clientele—provided you can reliably make them more resilient to injury, not hurt as much, be able to keep up with grandkids, and enjoy life more. Coaches looking to establish a stable practice in the profession should consider marketing to more seniors if they want a loyal, long-term client base.

Programming Adjustments for Seniors

By Noah Hayden, PBC, Staff Editor & Exclusive BLOC Coach

Seniors are a great demographic to work with. Even though it’s fun to coach young lifters that have a lot of athletic potential, older lifters come with their own surprises. For some of these clients, getting them to a full squat without support will transform their quality of life and how they view themselves as aging adults. A client that is frail to begin with will see demonstrable improvements in their ability to perform everyday tasks in only a few short months. (Keep in mind they might forget just how difficult those tasks were before they started training, so be sure to remind them by showing them their training log.) Others may find that the nagging pains they have been enduring have lessened or cleared up altogether with regular training. A common complaint I hear during consultations is chronic pain across the iliac crests, which can be aggravated by the habit of looking at your feet while walking and the accompanying hunched posture. Many times, this habit has developed over the years so subtly that the person is not really aware of just how much they are leaning forward. It feels normal to them. In refining a person’s lifting form, the coach also refines proprioception, changing how someone carries their body in daily living. When the lifter internalizes these postures, the habit will spill over into other activities—yet another benefit of training.

The point is that all these benefits that we usually consider secondary to getting stronger with barbell training are magnified when you coach seniors. Their gains are expressed in real improvements to their lives, not just in a new lifting PR. When that is the payoff, these lifters tend to dedicate themselves to training, becoming your more consistent and enthusiastic clients and your most vociferous advocates.

I would argue it is easier to establish buy-in with an older clientele—provided you can reliably make them more resilient to injury, not hurt as much, be able to keep up with grandkids, and enjoy life more. Coaches looking to establish a stable practice in the profession shouldn’t shirk the challenges of training seniors. They will make you a better coach and can form a loyal, long-term client base. Frankly speaking, seniors have the money, the time, the need, and the friends, whom they will tell about you if you know what you’re doing.

Rules for Coaching Seniors

Don’t Let Seniors Get Hurt

There are some caveats to coaching this demographic. Most importantly, you cannot let seniors get hurt. If you are used to coaching young athletes, you know there’s a certain degree of recklessness a young person can absorb. It comes with the territory of competitive sports (and, of course, their sometimes less-than-ideal, but age-appropriate, life choices). If a tweak or over-training occurs from programming that is a bit too ambitious, they can usually rebound fairly quickly and get back to making progress. Tweaks are not a major deterrent for most ambitious young people.

Remember, most seniors that give strength training a chance will have many people in their life telling them they’re crazy—peers, family, and medical professionals. “Why would you want to do that?” “Lifting weights is too dangerous.” Even after they have experienced safe, successful progress, many seniors will still hear, “You’re strong enough now. That’s plenty. Any more, and you’ll get hurt.”

As a coach, you won’t hear these things in the gym, but your lifters hear them. A couple of tweaks are all the ammunition those (well-intentioned) trolls need to plant the seeds of doubt in your client. Don’t let a little over-zealousness prematurely end a long lifting career.

Besides this, seniors just don’t heal quickly, and significant tweaks are a mostly avoidable occurrence in the gym. Be vigilant on technique, and err on the conservative side for programming. Enthusiastic clients sometimes push to do more, but be confident in your judgment and stick to your plan. They are paying you for your expertise, so they need to trust your pacing. I have had to have the “what’s the rush?” talk with several clients.

Seniors Are Not Fragile

In seeming contradiction to the above rule, seniors are not fragile and shouldn’t be coddled as such. Tweaks do happen, and it’s not the end of the world. Your client will recover, and they will continue making progress. One of the most important jobs of a coach is to teach their clients how to manage aches and pains effectively, which means learning how to not catastrophize injuries. This is especially important when coaching seniors, because they will have accumulated lots of aches and pains throughout their lives, and getting new ones in the gym can justifiably scare them. They need to be reminded they are not broken or risking disability and that they still have the capacity to weather hard physical effort safely.

When I was interning as a coach, I made the mistake of treating seniors too delicately. Maybe it was a cultural instinct, as I was raised to always respect and assist the elderly. I had a hard time yelling cues at them, making them load their own bars, or properly motivating them when a heavy load seemed daunting. (Sully cured me of this.) Now I know that not only do they benefit from all these things, but they appreciate being treated as able-bodied adults. They do not need help. They just need guidance.

The balance point between these two rules is that the therapeutic window for seniors is narrower. The young can survive a wider approximation of appropriate programming stress and form deviation without incident. Seniors have to challenge themselves, but overdoing it can more easily cause tweaks and regression.

They simply require more careful coaching. Navigating this narrow passage is perhaps not an appropriate task for a green coach—but a coach who is confident in their knowledge and judgment, begins conservatively, and carefully monitors a lifter’s status will do just fine.

Nuts and Bolts

Before any discussion of programming is had, it should be pointed out that seniors always require an initial screening consultation. Besides making sure their doctor approves of them engaging in physical training, a coach needs to evaluate their physical ability. It is the rare lifter over 60 who has no physical limitations or health conditions of any kind. These accumulated asterisks need to be taken into consideration when determining what exercises should be included in their program.

Warm-ups

I find a single empty bar set is sufficient most of the time. Some lifters have learned through trial and error that they prefer a little more warm-up than this. Perhaps their joints protest more than average from a lifetime of use and abuse, or maybe they are lifting more absolute weight than average for their demographic. A couple of extra light sets usually suffice in this case.

A particular 74-year-old male client of mine comes to mind as an example. When squatting a triple at 315 lb, he might warm up with:

2×5 @ 45

1×5 @ 95

1×4 @ 135

1×3 @ 185

1×2 @ 225

1×1 @ 275

1×1 @ 300

This may seem excessive for some younger lifters, but experience has shown that less preparation than this tends to result in minor tweaks, strains, or less predictable form for him. Most other lifters get away with my standard approach.

If deadlifts are done last, an abbreviated warm-up is usually tolerated and appreciated by a tired lifter. If my 64-year-old female client was deadlifting 180 lb, she might warm up with:

1 x 3 @ 155

1 x 1 @ 170

Something along these lines is usually plenty of practice to remember the movement but saves their waning energy for the workset.

Increments

For the average lifter, all the lifts can start with five-pound increases. I tend to start new lifters out conservatively, which prolongs the five-pound increases. This gives me a little more time to refine the movements before the effort is too distracting, and it gives less confident clients time to familiarize themselves with a new activity. It also frames barbell training as a movement-refinement activity instead of a body-building activity, or whatever other notion a lifter might have.

Increments decrease to two pounds when the bar speed starts to slow on final working reps. From here, intermediate lifters may maintain two-pound increases on lower body lifts and one-pound increases on upper body lifts. Late intermediate lifters may have one-pound increases for all lifts, spread out over three- or four-week cycles.

On the far end of the spectrum, frail clients or petite females may start with two-pound increases on squats and deadlifts and one-pound increases on the presses.

Frequency

For most older lifters, two sessions per week are usually ideal. This is not so infrequent that they detrain, and it gives them a couple of extra days to recover between sessions. I have seen many clients continue to make progress for several years with this approach. A good starting point (given they can perform all the standard lifts) is simply:

 

Workout A Workout B
Squat  3×5

Press  3×5

Deadlift 1×5

Squat 3×5

Bench 3×5

Deadlift 1×5

*A two-session per week schedule will alternate “A” and “B” with at least 72 hours between workouts.

Stronger lifters who rarely miss workouts may eventually benefit from an additional mid-week session that adds frequency and volume to the upper body lifts. This might start as simply as an incline bench press for 3×5 and barbell curls (or chin-ups, if they wanted) for 3×8. The lower body lifts are usually still adequately covered by two days, although there is a possible slot for light squats at the start of the mid-week session, which can act as a general full-body warm-up.

Advancing Programming

Here is a general progression I might employ for a hypothetical lifter. For illustration purposes, all lifts are progressing simultaneously. In practice, upper and lower lifts may progress independently of each other:

 

Workout A Workout B
Squat 1×5, 2×5@90%

Press 2×3, 3×5@90%

Deadlift 2×5@80%

Squat 3×5@90%

Bench 2×3, 3×5@90%

Deadlift 1×5

 

Squats and deadlifts usually progress with this minor change for quite some time, especially at two-pound increments. Presses might require this additional adjustment:

 

Workout A1 Workout B1
Squat 1×5, 2×5@90%

Press 1×3, 3×8@75%

Deadlift 2×5@80%

Squat 3×5@90%

Bench 4×5@85%

Deadlift 1×5

 

Workout A2 Workout B2
Squat 1×5, 2×5@90%

Press 4×5@85%

Deadlift 2×5@80%

Squat 3×5@90%

Bench 1×3, 3×8@75%

Deadlift 1×5

 

From here, I might transition to a three-week cycle:

 

Workout A1 Workout B1
Squat 1×3, 2×5@85%

Press 4×8@75%

Deadlift 1×5@80%

Deadlift 1×3, 1×3@90%

Bench 4×5@85%

Squat 2×5@80%

 

Workout A2 Workout B2
Squat 3×5@90%

Press 1×3, 3×8@75%

Deadlift 2×5@80%

Squat 1×3, 2×5@85%

Bench 4×8@75%

Deadlift 1×5@80%

 

Workout A3 Workout B3
Deadlift 1×3, 1×3@90%

Press 4×5@85%

Squat 2×5@80%

Squat 3×5@90%

Bench 1×3, 3×8@75%

Deadlift 2×5@80%

 

Keep in mind these percentages will need to be fine-tuned for individuals. Men tend to need more of a back-off, and women need less. If senior lifters have anything in common, it’s that they are all unique; their individual progress and the specific adjustments you will have to make will vary with every lifter.

The heavy triples in this example can be further tapered to doubles or singles as needed, or you could cycle between triples and singles (and possibly fives) to make six- or nine-week macrocycles.

I have found older lifters to be intensity-dependent. Their neuro-muscular efficiency seems to degrade much faster than their younger counterparts, requiring them to lift heavy during most sessions to prevent regression. Unfortunately, average amounts of volume at these high intensities tend to over-train intermediate lifters—so we need to be a little creative.

I am in favor of having seniors “touch” a heavy load almost every session (one to three reps), making up the needed volume in back-off sets at a more manageable load. The amount of volume needed, and the relative intensity of the back-off sets, requires some experimentation and experience. Try some different strategies and see what works for your clients.

Seniors require more attention and planning than other demographics. Mistakes are more costly, but the rewards of training can transform their independence and are well worth the possible inconvenience. Their challenges are the opportunities most coaches look for.

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