As we get older, we tend to collect things. Piles of artifacts representing memories both lost and treasured, old receipts we think we may need, and that shirt you know you can’t pull off anymore but just can’t find it in yourself to part with all take their places in our lives and homes like a physical manifestation of our own cluttered minds.
These collections start as a byproduct of the lives we lead, but over time, they come to define us. The tools in my garage and guns in my safe are more than an extension of my interests, in many ways, they’re an extension of me.
Of course, as the years go by, there’s also another kind of collection we tend to assemble, though not one that’s as easy to tuck away into a junk drawer: injuries also have a way of piling up on us. For some of us, they can be a point of pride — my list of injuries represents a long list of great accomplishments and bad decisions, but most importantly, none of them have managed to kill me yet. I’m not proud of every broken bone or torn ligament, but I’m proud that I’m still in the fight, dragging my aching ass into the gym despite all the ways life (and my own choices) have conspired against me.
Like my collection of tools, my collection of injuries defines me in many ways. It informs the way I approach my life, as I work to mitigate old injuries and prevent them from leading to new ones. Many of you can likely relate to things like giving your knees some time to warm up in the morning or adjusting the gait of your walk because your ankle is acting up today.
Pain is like the check engine light on the dashboard of a car. When you’re young, and the car is new, it means something’s wrong that you need to address.
But as you get older and the odometer clicks over into six digits, the check engine light tends to come on more and more often until eventually, it’s just on all the time. My car, creeping dangerously close to the 200,000-mile mark, has its check engine light on perpetually now and both my knees do as well.
So, adorned in our collections of old injuries, we carry on, busting our asses and getting things done like we always have, using the wisdom gained through experience to mitigate the ways our physical problems can extend into the things we do. My right knee has a habit of giving out on me, so over the years I’ve become really good at catching my balance before I crumple into a pile on the ground when it does. The detached retina in my right eye earned through years of fighting has led to me shifting the way I use the optics on my rifle. A lot of times, you may not even think about the ways you manage your injuries, you just do what you need to do the best you can — and it works.
Tailoring your workouts to injury should optimally work the same way. We tend to think of “diet and exercise” like alchemy — some strange foreign science we can’t hope to grasp on our own, and as such, we rely on the expertise of others (in the form of products and diet fads). The truth is, exercise is just a way to imitate physical challenges in a safe and repetitive manner, and if there’s one thing you’ve learned to manage over decades of collecting injuries, it’s physical challenges.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do most lifts — form is important to maximize your results and minimize your chances at adding to that collection of injuries, but sometimes it’s okay to stray from the path and adjust your activities to suit you. Just like I occasionally switch hit and shoot lefty to compensate for problems with my eye, I’ve also changed many of my lifts to better suit the pile of old problems and surgically installed steel I call my lower body. I do front squats because of the slipped discs in my back, as one example. I don’t pursue one-rep maxes on my lower body lifts either. Would it be cool to know how much I can deadlift? I guess, but not as cool as being able to walk tomorrow.
A reader recently asked me if I could discuss the types of workouts that are good for older guys that may not have the experience behind them to lean on that some of us military types do — it was a great question, and there are some general suggestions I can always provide: focus on functional strength and compound movements when you can, walk and swim to ensure you’ve got muscular endurance without putting too much strain on your joints, and place an emphasis on stretching and flexibility to keep you capable and to stave off injury.
But more important that any of that is developing a level of trust in yourself. Start with a generic workout plan and try to work through it with light weights — when you come across something that hurts, give yourself a sincere gut check about whether the pain is truly indicative of injury. If it is, either adjust how you execute that lift so it doesn’t hurt, or pull it out of your regimen all together. Squats too hard on your bad back? Your form may be the problem but if it isn’t, maybe swap in the leg press in instead. No, a leg press machine won’t give you the same results as squats, but we’re not talking about working out the way you wish you could, we’re talking about working out the way you can safely.
Struggling because something is hard is a good thing. Struggling because you’re hurting yourself is not.
Eventually, we all have to leave things behind. My wife stopped wearing miniskirts at around 30, my brother stopped installing fart-can exhausts on his cars at around 25, and I stopped trying to break records with my deadlifts right around my fourth surgery. It doesn’t mean she gave up on fashion, he gave up on racing or I gave up on lifting — we just adjusted our approaches as time went by.
There is often a “best way” to reach your fitness goals, but when the best way proves infeasible for you, you can either walk away from the fitness endeavor altogether, or you can find the way that works best for you. Maybe that means using more machines or less weight, maybe it means adjusting foot positioning or possibly not lowering all the way down on your squats (SACRILEGE!)
If you have access to a trainer, it never hurts to get a little help adjusting your game to suit your specific needs, but for those of us working alone and unafraid (with no clips on the bar), always err on the side of light weight. As you get more comfortable, it’s always easy to add a few pounds — but if you hurt yourself, you’ll have that much further to go again once you’re back on your feet.
What matters is that you get something out of your workout and stay healthy. That collection of injuries is going to keep growing, but in time, your ability to compensate for it will as well.