In my article on combatives, a reader asked how to get back in the gym if you’ve “hit the half-century mark”. The question behind this question is, “How do I achieve fitness without hurting myself in light of aches and pains I already have?” Regardless of your age or current limitations, the elements of fitness are strength, conditioning, and mobility which are enabled by a training program and nutrition (diet). Training variables such as frequency, intensity, and volume are modified for the trainee’s recovery ability which are affected by age, sex, and persistent pain problems.
Statistically, a third of us have a persistent pain problem which often contributes to us being inactive as we age. Usually, I believe, it’s not our age keeping us from being fit but our pain (and excuses). Bill Hartman, PT has written the perfect book for this type of trainee. Rather than yell, “SQUATZ AND OATZ” at you, he gives you a modern understanding of pain science and a framework he’s used to work-around his own chronic pain to build strength, conditioning and mobility. I’ve had chronic pain from my early 20s and I highly recommend his book.
If you have chronic pain or have been out of the gym a long time, build up volume (number of sets x number of reps x weight) slowly. Pick weights you can lift without pain and increase weight and volume in pain-free steps. The great thing about weight training is it allows you to easily control training variables in a safe, measurable, and repeatable manner while building work capacity and strength. If one exercise hurts, substitute for another. For example, if it hurts to back squat, substitute for a front squat. Reduce weight, rep speed, and range-of-motion if you don’t want substitute an exercise because you like it. Right now, for example, I’ve built up a bit of pain in my biceps so I’ve substitute pull-ups for chin-ups which seem to take the stress off my biceps due to the weird angle between my upper and lower arms.
Cardio is built-up in a similar manner. If one thing hurts, do something else or do it only within a pain-free time-interval and intensity to prevent pain flare-ups. Develop a large variety of ways of doing cardio rather than do the same thing every day since training benefits heavily from novelty. For example, you can use the assault bike one day, the agility ladder the next, barbell complexes a third day, and agility ladders a fourth day. If you’re very overweight, start with walking.
Mobility is another seriously-neglected element of training. Hartman’s book contains mobility exercises for use before training and daily. His YouTube channel and blog contain demonstrations of the exercises in his program and also mobility and breathing exercises.
No fitness program will succeed without proper nutrition. Also, most of us, statistically, are overweight. We need the proper diet to both enable fat loss and strength gains. However, the word “diet” conjures feelings of hunger and deprivation. It shouldn’t. My wife is a dietitian and highly recommends the FDA’s MyPlate system for fat loss and as an easy way of allocating macronutrients at each meal. If you eat this way, and cut your high-calorie snacking and fast food, you’ll definitely get lean (<15% bodyfat) without having to count calories or feel hungry. I tried it myself and it really works, though I still count calories because I enjoy a beer or chocolate here and there.
Jeff Cavaliere demonstrates his modified MyPlate in this video, which is a good explanation of the method. I highly recommend his YouTube channel.
If you square-away your diet and slowly build up your strength, mobility, and conditioning, you’ll find you have less pain and feel much better. You really can’t fail with the steps I’ve described above. Ask more questions in the comments.