“Why do I Hurt?”: An Ode to Mobility for Aging Athletes
I’m 28. I would venture to guess that, to most, that would not yet be considered old. And, indeed, there are days when I spring from my bed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, leap up flights of stairs two at a time, get up off of the ground without making any noises, laugh at fart sounds, and feel like a youthful, spry version of myself. But, then, there are other days…
There are days when my knees feel like they have thumb tacks buried deep within them, when putting on my socks raises my heart rate more than it probably should, when my ankles sound like pepper grinders, when I think to myself, “damn…I really shouldn’t be feeling this bad.”
Don’t get me wrong, the good days still well outnumber the bad but, in the last couple years, I’ve noticed the bad ones appearing more and more. This has prompted me to approach my training a bit differently than I used to.
First, you have to understand that, between the ages of 21 and 26, my workout routine would look something like this:
11:26 AM – Arrive at the gym
11:29 AM – Perform one token warm up set of Exercise X with arbitrary weight
11:31 AM – Begin grueling, intense, max-effort workout
12:45 PM – Complete grueling, intense, max-effort workout
12:47 PM – Leave the gym
“But, Lucas, why no mobility work? Why no cool-down? Why no stretching?”
Well, I used to tell myself that I was too busy for that stuff but, in reality, I was just lazy. “Mobility,” “stretching,” “cool-downs,” – all were things that I made my athletes do but, at the same time, were things that bored the hell out of me and kept me from doing what I really enjoyed: moving weight.
For the most part, though, I got by fine without them. Youth can be an incredible panacea.
Now, a little older, with a little more mileage, I’m finding that my ability to recover between workouts, to brush off multiple max-effort sets, is waning. My quads get angry fast and tug on my achy knees. My shoulder can only handle 6-8 sets of pressing exercises before it starts to bark. Muscle soreness lingers just a little longer than it used to. Consequently, I’ve made three overdue changes to my training protocol:
1.) I warm up better.
Warm-ups are annoying and I don’t think I’ll ever learn to like them. To me, warm-ups feel like someone has but a triple bacon cheeseburger in front of me but I have to recite the alphabet fifteen times before getting to touch it. However, I do them now before every workout and I feel a lot better. And, by “warm-ups,” I don’t mean the 2-4 practice sets that I do before my big lifts. I mean the stuff I do beforehand that gets my heart rate and body temperature up.
And just what do I do, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. I aimlessly run around like an idiot. I lunge, I jump, I skip, I walk, I sprint, I choose movement patterns at random and do them up and down a 20-yard stretch of turf until I’m hot and almost out of breath. It’s not glamorous and it doesn’t need to be. It usually takes me 5-10 minutes and I hate every minute of it. But, I remind myself that this stupid little warm-up will help my upcoming squat sets and allow me to walk up stairs the next day without pain.
My guess is, if you’re like me – a washed-up athlete, south of 40-years-old, with a busy schedule and limited time to train – you skip your warm-up too. Don’t. My advice if you’re strapped for time is drop one or two sets of the least desirable exercise in your workout and use that time to run around like a spaz before you start. It really doesn’t matter what you do. Just try to find a movement that targets multiple muscles groups and move to get your blood pumping. Your body will thank you.
2.) My daily volume is less, but my weekly volume is the same.
I used to workout for 60-80 minutes, three to four times a week. The workouts would be pretty intense with big lifts (e.g., squat, deadlift, etc.) at the start, accessory lifts in the middle, and bodybuilding/conditioning stuff at the end – typically 18-22 total sets of work. Workout days would be followed by a day of rest – on, off, on, off – and this worked for a really long time.
But, as of late, I find that I don’t recover as well on my off days and I falter earlier in my workouts than I used to. The solution? Listen to my body. Go with the flow.
Now, I try to workout everyday and each workout is shorter in length, if not in intensity. Instead of 20 sets in a workout, I aim for 12-15. My big lifts are largely unchanged, but I then just hit a couple of accessory lifts and maybe one physique lift before calling it a day. My workouts are shorter, which is great for my schedule, and I recover faster in between.
Plus, rest days always made me feel guilty – like I should have been doing something but wasn’t. Now, each day I get the mental boost I need from a workout to keep me from feeling like a no-good, lazy, garbage person.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
A1. Deadlift – 4 x 4
A2. Dips – 3 x 10
B1. Glute Ham Raise – 3 x 10
B2. Dumbbell Bench – 3 x 10
C1. Kettlebell Swings – 3 x 30 seconds
C2. Push Ups – 3 x 30 seconds
C3. Farmers Carries – 3 x 30 seconds
= 22 total sets
A. Deadlift – 4 x 4
B1. Farmers Carries – 3 x 40 yards
B2. Glute Ham Raise – 3 x 10
B3. Dips – 3 x 10
C. Push Ups – 1 set to failure
= 14 total sets
“But, Lucas, what about your dumbbell bench? YOU DIDN’T DO YOUR DUMBBELL BEEEENCH!!!”
It’s okay, bro. Calm down. I just throw that in to one of the 2-3 extra workouts I get each week by not having rest days.
There is also one more benefit to a shorter workout:
3.) I do mobility stuff.
With each workout taking only 30-40 minutes instead of 60-80 minutes, I have more time at the end of the workout for stretching/mobility that I would typically skip. I used to feel that taking myself through full range of motion on all of my lifts was enough to keep me limber and mobile (and, maybe it was) but, now, with the amount of volume that I do, my muscles tend to get gummed up and tight, reeking havoc on my joints.
I’ve found that the extra 10 minutes of dedicated mobility work that I’ve thrown into the end of each workout has reduced my recovery time, all but eliminated my joint pain, and made me feel stronger in what are, for me, challenging positions (like, lateral lunges or pistol squats).
Now, “mobility” is one of those quasi-ambiguous terms that gets thrown around the fitness world a lot. It can encompass a lot of different things. I will tell you that, as someone who trains to be athletic and explosive, I don’t do a ton of what would be called “static” stretching – that is, pulling my muscles into end-range and holding them there for long periods of time. Rather, I do a lot of deep tissue work, such as rolling out with a lacrosse ball or barbell (if you want help with this, I would advise reading stuff by Kelly Starrett), and I do more sets of shorter duration stretch holds.
Want specifics? Here’s a pretty common lower-body “mobility” session for me:
After a workout, I’ll grab a protein shake and sip on it while I do the following stretches. I hold each position long enough to take 4-5 deep, slow breaths (as physiotherapists will often say, you don’t own a position until you can breathe in it) and I will typically go through 2-3 rounds on each side.
- All-Fours Glute Stretch
- Seated Hip Stretch
- Side Lying Quad Stretch
- Supine Hamstring Stretch
- Supine Glute Stretch
Remember, whether you’re training to look better, to perform better, or for just general health and fitness, a high quality of life is contingent upon your body possessing a base level of functionality. That means being able to move without pain or dysfunction. 10 minutes of a boring warm-up, 10 minutes of monotonous/painful mobility work, and listening to your body at times are small prices to pay for a healthier life outside of the gym.
Thanks for reading!