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By Bob Whelan

"Age is a question of mind over matter. If you donít mind, it doesnít matter."
- Satchel Paige "Getting older is not for sissies."
- Jack Palance

Thereís no such thing as the fountain of youth, but strength training is the closest thing to it. Strength training is no longer thought of as only a hobby of youth, but a lifetime endeavor. In fact, it gets even more important as you get older. Cardiovascular training is vital, and everyone should be doing it regularly-at least three times per week-but in addition to strength training. If you only do cardiovascular training you may live to be 90 years old, but youíll more than likely look and feel old for the last 40 years of your life.

Cardiovascular training gives you the "quantity of life," but strength training gives you the "quality of life." Without strength training youíll probably still struggle to carry your groceries, you could fall and break your hip, and have the same age-related problems of lean muscle tissue loss, bone density loss (osteoporosis), arthritis and lack of strength that other senior citizens have.

Have you ever stood at the end of a marathon race, and watched the runners come in? Even though they are accomplishing a tremendous physical feat, most of them (who donít lift weights) look like hell. Other than being trim, the older runners look no different than any untrained older person. After they shower, change and put their business suits back on, they will look ordinary, and most people wonít believe that they even completed the race. Cardiovascular training alone will not come close to retarding the aging process. Youíll just end up with a healthy heart in an average body.

Every year, more and more research information is coming in about the benefits of "strength training for life," and the news is good. In fact, some of the latest research states that strength training is now considered at least as important as cardiovascular training for overall health, with some studies claiming itís even more important, especially when you get older. A big reason for this is that many people are unable to move much at all when they get older. Strength training liberates them to be able to do cardiovascular exercise and other things in order to lead independent lives.

Most of my clients are in their twenties and thirties, but Iíve some older ones who are dedicated and train very hard. Youíve previously read about "Big Daddy" Joe Bunton, who went from "grey afro" to shaved head, disco to rap, and off the high-blood-pressure medication. Joe looks about fifteen years younger than when he started, and is in such good shape that I let him do the sandbag carry at age 47, without fear of him dropping. I also have other older high achievers like him.

Frank Farrow
Frank Farrow is in his early fifties but is tenacious, with great mental focus-sometimes too great. He is one of the best Iíve ever seen, regardless of age, at truly going to muscular failure. Frank seemed to understand the concept right away and took to it like a duck to water. He is the only person for whom I have to end many of the sets because he wants to persist until he ends up looking like a "tortured, vibrating sack of isometrics." In one of his first workouts with me he was doing shrugs and kept going till the weight totally stopped moving. But he didnít stop, and was shaking, grimacing, growling, breathing like a steam engine, and dripping with sweat for another 20 seconds doing what looked to be isometrics. I watched with amazement and finally had to make him stop.

When people first call me about training, I donít sugar coat anything. I lay out my philosophy plain for everyone to see regardless of age. Many people get scared off, but thatís okay because we would probably not be a good match anyway. Training with me is not a democracy, but I donít turn away anyone who is determined to join the program and follow my instruction. I donít care if they have trained before, or are beginners. I donít care about their gender or age. All I require is a philosophical match. If they are willing to work as they have never worked before, are not looking for gimmicks, and want to maximize their natural, genetic potential for muscular development, strength and overall body stamina and fitness, then we will get along great.

Art Brown
Recently, Art Brown called me. Art is 63 years old and was not in great shape. He had never exercised in his life and didnít know anything about training. All Art knew was that he felt weak, old and unhealthy, and wanted to make some changes. I came on strong with Art but he was not scared off, and had a great attitude. He put his trust completely in my hands. Even though Art is by far my oldest client, I was happy to help him. Frank Farrow used to be my oldest client, but Art jokingly calls Frank "sonny boy" now. I had to start Art slow. I mean s-l-o-w! For the first month I mainly built up Artís cardiovascular conditioning and overall fitness, doing mostly Stairmaster, ab work, stretching and a very short weight workout. My main goal was just to keep him alive through the one-hour workout.

After a month, Art was able to perform 30 minutes on the Stairmaster fairly easily, so I weaned him into more strength training and gradually let him do the cardio work in his own time. I have to admit that the first few workouts with Art were scary. I made him take long rests between sets for the first month or so, and made sure that he did not breathe too hard. I would tell him, "Breathe deeply, Art, but above all, breathe!" He could only go down one hole on the Tru-Squat, with no weight, and used many other machines with a very light weight to start with.

Art has now been training for about three months and has doubled his strength on most exercises, and now goes to the bottom on the Tru-Squat for 10 reps. He has greatly increased his range of motion in many exercises. He noticeably suffered from arthritis when he started, but now the arthritis does not bother him. He acts and feels ten years younger already!

The main motivation for Art to train was his work. He works in the National Science Foundation, a branch of the US Government. He specializes in polar operations, and spent the first twenty years of his career going to the North Pole area and Greenland, and heís spent around the last twenty years making trips to the South Pole area (Antarctica). The last few trips have been rough and he has literally almost been blown away (or frozen) a few times, and he has barely passed the physical required. Art is one of just a few men who have gone to both the North and South Poles. Heís making another Antarctica trip soon, and recently passed his physical with flying colors. His doctors were amazed, and told him his physical data had not looked this good in over ten years.

Vic Boff and Joe Marino
Vic and Joe are friends of mine, and are in phenomenal shape for their ages. Vic is in his eighties and is one of the all-time legends in physical culture. He still trains regularly and hard, and looks and acts twenty years younger than his age. Vic does not let age slow him down at all. Joe Marino is in his sixties and trains as hard as ever. Joe competed in a lot of major bodybuilding contests in the fifties, winning several titles. Joe is very fit and still as enthusiastic and dedicated to his training as ever. He puts most younger guys to shame. Vic and Joe have an abundance of energy and enthusiasm, and an endless supply of physical culture stories from the glory days long past when there were no such things as steroids. Vic was a good friend of both George Jowett and Sig Klein, and Joe was a long-time training partner and still a close friend of Marvin Eder.

Vic and Joe visited me recently, at Whelan Strength Training, and we had a great time. The three of us, together with my girlfriend, Sue, had dinner later, and talked so much that it was like going back in time.

Itís never too late to start
Dr. William Evans, Chief of the Human Physiology Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston has spent a lifetime studying aging and the benefits of strength training. In a usa today interview, Dr. Evans states, "There is nothing like a lifetime of physical activity to help prevent a whole host of chronic diseases. Starting early on is important...but itís never too late to begin. Our oldest subject is 101 years old. Heís been lifting weights for four years. Heís probably as strong as a typical man who is forty years his junior but who doesnít exercise...Much of the loss of muscle with age is preventable...We can make a 70-year-old man stronger than he has ever been in his life. We can bring back strength and aerobic capacity. We can make people thinner and reduce their bodyfat levels."

Personally, Iím stronger now than Iíve ever been. Itís really true that you donít lose strength for decades longer than previously thought. It just takes more thought and discipline to maintain conditioning and avoid injury. I now need a longer warmup and more stretching, and more rest and recovery than I used to. But once Iím warmed up, especially my elbows, I can lift more than ever. I also need less food and more cardiovascular work than I used to. I used to be able to eat anything and everything, but now, if Iím not careful and disciplined, I can gain bodyfat very easily.

Everyone needs to make adjustments as they get older, but the basic philosophy remains the same. The rewards are great, as strength training, probably more than anything, helps keep you young. Strength training, just like brushing your teeth, should be a lifetime activity.

"Maximum" Bob Whelan runs Whelan Strength Training in Washington, DC

Reprinted with permission from HARDGAINER magazine issue #58,
January-February 1999


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