You Don’t Have to Be Young to be an Athlete


Written in 2006 For Todays Man magazine

Remember when exercise used to be fun; when you used to get endless hours of physical activity each week without ever dreading the thought of it? Remember when you used to be able to break out into a full sprint without the fear of pulling a hamstring? How about when you could stand up from your chair without your lower back hurting?

Oh, to be young.

Or maybe it’s actually what we were when we were young…athletes.

Sure as we get older we lose muscle mass and flexibility but this can not be blamed solely on the aging process itself. These problems can be attributed to the sedentary lifestyle that has become as American as apple pie. Those of us that try to combat the sedentary lifestyle usually do so by going to the gym, using the weight machines and then hopping on a stairclimber or stationary bike for a monotonous, mind numbing thirty minutes.

Whatever happened to playing? At what age do we decide that playing is no longer an option? Most of us played sports as kids; if not on a team, at least recreationally. Yet as we get older, life some how becomes less fun and care free as it used to be as a kid. On top of this, playing becomes a thing of the past. What with bills to pay, kids to raise and work to do, surely there is no time to play.

Right?

Well, if that is your line of thinking, I highly recommend you reevaluate your priorities in life. What is more important than your health? And what better way to maintain that youthful look and feeling than doing what you did as a kid?

If you loved playing basketball in high school and college, what made you decide to stop playing when you got your first real job?

It has often been argued that animals have no imbalances or need for static stretching or warming up because they are constantly on the move and rarely sedentary. Unfortunately, as humans we need to travel in trains, planes and automobiles and many of us need to make a living by sitting behind a desk all day. For this reason we can develop many imbalances and problems such as weakness and a lack of flexibility and mobility. Spending forty hours per week in a chair with your shoulders hunched over a computer is a long time. Do you really think that ninety minutes a week on the stationary bike and weight machines, where you are again in a seated position, is really enough to combat this?

And why would anyone ever choose to walk on a treadmill or a stairstepper when there is and endless amount of ground to walk or run on and stairs to climb outside in the fresh air?

It’s time to change the way you think about exercise.

For over thirteen years I have worked as an athletic performance enhancement specialist. In this time I have worked with over 500 clients. While the majority of these clients were usually high school, college or professional athletes, there were also a number of equally hard working weekend warriors. Many times these weekend warriors were average working people who came to me to help them get in shape and feel a little better. They usually expected me to stick them on the typical machine circuit that every typical gym goer is routinely handed. For cardio they always assumed that I would have them pedaling away on a stationary bike for hours and hours, week after week.

Boy, were they wrong.

I always have and always will treat every potential client as an athlete. Weather you compete or not is of no difference to me; you’re an athlete in my eyes and you’re going to train like one. Without fail, nearly every non athlete client who came to me just to get in shape slowly found themselves playing more than they had in years. Some joined softball leagues and others just got involved in games of beach volleyball that they usually would have sat out. In short, they all became athletes again. And more importantly, they felt better than they had in years, both physically and emotionally.

Training like an athlete has nothing in common with training like a bodybuilder or typical gym rat. With training routines like that, it’s no wonder people dread going to the gym. Training like an athlete involves not only building muscle and losing fat but also improving your strength, flexibility, mobility, agility and speed.

Even if you are vehemently opposed to playing a sport of any kind and just want to look and feel better, it still makes absolutely no sense to not train like an athlete. When people think of their ideal physiques, do they think of bodybuilders or Olympic sprinters and NBA forwards? More people would choose to look like a Pro Bowl wide receiver than a Mr. Olympia competitor. Everyone wants to look like an athlete, therefore the smartest thing to do would be to train like one.

But how exactly does one go about training like an athlete?

The first thing that needs to be addressed is the choice of exercises. Total body compound exercises always take precedence over isolation or machine exercises in the training of an athlete. These include power cleans, deadlifts, squats, chin ups and military presses. There is absolutely no room in the athletes program for wasted movements that do little more than temporarily pump up the muscles.

Next, athletes need to always include some single leg training in their programs. Since most sports include transferring strength from one leg to the other and many athletes develop imbalances between the two sides, this type of exercise must be included.

For strength work athletes should use heavy weights and do sets of five reps or less. For muscle gain, moderate weights and reps between six and ten should be used. To develop speed, Olympic lifts, jumps and weighted throws should make up a major portion of the program. Finally, for conditioning purposes and “real world” strength, athletes should use strongman exercises such as tire flips, sled drags, car pushes and sledgehammer swings.

When the focus of your training is on performance and becoming more athletic you automatically develop a great physique. The opposite, however, can not be said. If you train for athletics, you will develop the aesthetics; if you train for aesthetics you won’t necessarily become more athletic.

It’s time to put an end to the days of boring, monotonous workout routines. Skip the stationary bike and head out to the track or field for some sprints with a sled. Ditch the leg extension and go out and push your car down the block. Trash the ab roller machines and start swinging a heavy sledgehammer or throwing a medicine ball. Forget aerobics and tricep kickbacks and start doing heavy deadlifts.

When you go to the gym with a greater purpose than simply to look better, you separate yourself from the pack. Everyone else is there to peak their biceps but you have something a little less narcissistic in mind. Although you will develop an awe inspiring physique and a great pair of peaked biceps along the way, you will be much more than all show and no go. While plenty of people will be able to display a six pack on the beach next summer, how many will be able to display a 36 inch vertical jump on the volleyball court? And which achievement do you think most people will find more impressive?

To answer I’ll share a personal anecdote from a day this summer at the beach. A pickup game of touch football broke out with some of my friends and five other guys that I had just met. Even though I had probably spent more time in the gym than all of them combined and was in significantly better shape, no one was impressed. Everyone has seen that before. But during the first series of downs when my buddy got burned on coverage and I chased his man down from twenty years behind and jumped a foot over his head to grab the interception, people took notice. “Damn you’re fast,” said the guy who I had just out run and jumped over. “You play college ball?”

That statement and question that followed was so much more rewarding than any compliment on my physique ever could be.

For years I made the mistake of training simply to get bigger and leaner. Eventually it became a mind numbing bore and I decided I needed something else. I started joining flag football leagues and softball leagues again and decided that I would dedicate my training to improving my performance instead of just my size. Shortly after changing my training I was back on track again and getting better results than ever. My motivation was renewed and I was once again an athlete.

This is what training should be all about; being an athlete.

Competing is human nature and has been shown to raise testosterone levels in both men and women. Further, and maybe more importantly, competing can relieve stress. And as we all know, stress kills.

With the family and work related responsibilities we all have, it’s often difficult to find the time to play or train. Yet somehow everyone seems to be able to sit down and watch TV or go out and get pizza and ice cream. Skipping a few hours a week of TV to work out is probably a very real possibility for most of us. Instead of spending Saturday afternoons drinking and watching college football, how about getting off the couch and actually playing instead of watching. If you look, you can always find the time. And when you find time, if you look even harder, you can usually find even more time.

When you analyze what’s important in life, hopefully your health; physical, mental and emotional; are near the top of your list. And there is no better way to simultaneously improve all three than training like and becoming an athlete.

Contrary to what most people think, you don’t have to be young to be an athlete. But if you become an athlete, chances are you just might feel young again.

Please leave your comments below.

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16 Responses to You Don’t Have to Be Young to be an Athlete

  1. James November 25, 2009 at 7:31 am #

    One of my favorite articles you’ve written.

  2. Mickey November 25, 2009 at 7:39 am #

    Great stuff brother

  3. patty November 25, 2009 at 8:18 am #

    With a demanding career and a young family, remaining an athlete is a top priority for me. I’m 43, and by the end of the week I will have swum 13,000 yards and my weight training will have contributed to my swimming with (relative) ease. I may have done twice as many yards when I was a teenager, but I wouldn’t have approached the workouts half as intelligently. When I was younger, 6 am workouts would kill my social life. Now my pre-dawn swims are what keep me sane.

  4. Jack November 25, 2009 at 8:33 am #

    Just turned 30 and should hit my first 400lbs deadlift before New years. I’m not old I’m in my prime.

  5. STU November 25, 2009 at 8:39 am #

    The older I get the more effort I put into my training as I appreciate the results so much more!

  6. Vic Magary - GymJunkies.com November 25, 2009 at 8:43 am #

    “For strength work athletes should use heavy weights and do sets of five reps or less. For muscle gain, moderate weights and reps between six and ten should be used. To develop speed, Olympic lifts, jumps and weighted throws should make up a major portion of the program. Finally, for conditioning purposes and “real world” strength, athletes should use strongman exercises such as tire flips, sled drags, car pushes and sledgehammer swings.”

    My god, man. . . thanks for summing that up in one simple paragraph. People too often want some complicated answer when simple and to-the-point is always better. Thanks for the great article (from someone who just turned 38 and is still going strong).

  7. Lawrence November 25, 2009 at 9:27 am #

    I think people tend to forget that playing organized sports are not just for when you’re young. It is a state of mind thing, I believe. I have friends and colleagues, who say that they can’t lift, run, or play any type of sports because they are too old and can cause too many joint injuries. The sad thing is that the people are in there late 30s to early 40s and that is not old at all in my book. I like your way of thinking, in that, if you train them like an athlete they build confidence to try things that they may never have tried before; and can’t use the excuse of being too old. Great Article!

  8. Crook November 25, 2009 at 9:48 am #

    46 and strongest and best shape I’ve been in since my high school athlete days.

    A key for me is to train with younger, committed partners (in my case mostly 20 somethin’s). I’m fortunate to have many of them (both men and women) at Renegade. As a result, I don’t feel 46 in the gym- rather I feel their age and get pretty upset if my gains are not as great or I get beat in a competition. I am driven to earn my keep in their crew and I hope in some way I serve as an example of committment and motivation for them. If they hit a new PR or excel in a gym contest because they don’t want to get beat by the old guy, I’ve done my job. Fact is, they help me every day.

  9. Zach November 26, 2009 at 11:56 am #

    Man, I love waking up to this stuff…So inspiring time after time.

  10. Martin November 26, 2009 at 4:07 pm #

    Google the name Oscar Chalupsky. He is a paddler from South Africa in his mid 40s. Every year he continues to smash Olympians and World Champions half his age in the sport of ocean kayaking. He has his own businesses and a family yet he still manages to train hard and travel the world placing in world cup events. The guy also eats like a horse and drinks like a fish. He’s loving life.

  11. Miguel Perez February 3, 2010 at 10:17 am #

    I’m 34 years young and have played sports all my life (basketball, baseball and some boxing/muay thai). It always amazes me when I sign up for a league and I am often one of the most fit and athletic guys competing, even against 20 year olds. Nobody should worry about their age if they train for competition. The s**t keeps your mind, body and spirit alive. My grandmother is 93 years old and still lifts some light dumbbells every day and refuses to move from her 3rd floor apartment because it’s a challenge for her to climb the stairs.

  12. Ann May 28, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    Great article! I’m 60 and dancing ballet and African dance and samba, as well as lifting weights 5-6 days/week, and Ashtanga (power) yoga pretty much daily. I’ve got alot more endurance than people much younger, and my bench press weight is going up steadily. (I’m also a mother and an RN) I don’t feel old, I feel like I’m constantly improving!

  13. Raymond - ZenMyFitness November 18, 2010 at 6:27 am #

    Yeah a post for us oldies! I’m nearly 50 and I love training like an athlete or better yet like a warrior … every training session I leave nothing on the table if I’m simply running its flat out against the treadmill or up a hill, if its lifting weights its heaviest all the way to the point where I worry if I can squat and get it back up … no straps, belts or spotter …its just me vs opposing force. This way I keep my edge.
    Raymond

  14. Mateusz November 18, 2010 at 7:20 am #

    Damn! IMO one of your best articles. Although I’m young athlete and I train for performance, I felt alone in that (in every gym that I go to, without my own). THX!

  15. clement November 18, 2010 at 8:10 am #

    How do you train like a bodybuilder, exactly? I’m lucky not to know. I’ll just follow your MGS and then transition into some of John Romaniello’s stuff. 2 years’ worth of programmes for me.

  16. Brandon Cook November 18, 2010 at 8:20 am #

    You THE MAN! ;)