Fitness over 50: CrossFit for the Master’s
By: Mike Collette Owner/Head Coach at CrossFit Prototype
With the rise in “high-intensity functional fitness,” CrossFit has led the way in the reform of a culture which was accustomed to fitness machines and is now taking on the approach that your body is the machine. In the early stages of CrossFit, the thought of who can do it has begun to shift from just a younger population to a slightly older population joining in. The truth is that more and more people are getting involved in personal training and age doesn’t seem to be something deterring the ever-growing fitness programs out there that are based on those principals. To that end, the question remains, “what is appropriate for a population with potential years of wear and tear and potential risk for injury?” This is a great question and this is going to be the heart of this blog post.
Let’s first identify what CrossFit is and how it might be implemented across the world. CrossFit is a high-intensity functional fitness program that combines three key areas of fitness: 1.) Weightlifting (barbells, kettlebells, dumbells), 2.) Gymnastics (bodyweight movements) and 3.) Monostructural metabolic conditioning (running, rowing, swimming etc). CrossFit Inc has gone further to describe itself as constantly varied functional movements executed at relative high intensity. To explain this it means to be performing many different tasks that are based around the way we were meant to move and perform these exercises at a relative high intensity.
In addition, CrossFit has been the first to bring to market a definition of what Fitness actually represents which is defined as an increase in work capacity across broad time and modal domains. To put that into an easier context to understand, fitness is the ability to do more work regardless of the time domain (short, fast, long, slow) across varying fitness modalities (run, jump, row, squat, pick things up etc).
Here are a few common questions/issues when starting to look at training CrossFit in the eyes of an aging population:
- Am I going to injure myself?
- Can I do all of those things and is it appropriate?
- Will this help me reach my goals?
To shed some light on this, we need to always first measure risk vs. reward. Does the risk of not exercising outweigh the risks of exercising? I would make the educated assumption that the risks of trying to lead a more active lifestyle outweigh the chronic debilitating conditions that come with leading an inactive lifestyle. With that said, it is important to put this idea ahead first and foremost when making a decision to starting or continuing a fitness program regardless if it is CrossFit or not.
50+ looking to start CrossFit:
Looking further into the aging population starting a relative high-intensity fitness training as they get older, it’s important to understand that how your body responds and adapts to stress in the form of exercise. Your body now is a much different machine then what it was and how it adapted 20-30 years prior. There are various physiological reasons but mainly due to the amount of recovery time it takes to bounce back from workout to workout, previous wear and tear on connective tissue, prior history of injuries that impact movement quality and to summarize, how life has adapted and changed your body. Have you been sitting in front of a computer or commuting hours everyday for many years? Your body adapts to the stress you put on it and that plays into movement quality.
1.) Am I going to injure myself?
The answer to the above question can only be truly answered by you. As a personal trainer I always tell my clients that no one knows your body and how it feels that day better than you. A second party observation is much different than an individual feeling pain. The simple answer to this is if you are in the presence of pain, stop! If something doesn’t feel right, stop and re-evaluate what you’re doing. Is your goal to lift more weight or go faster and harder than everyone or would you like to be able to continue leading a healthy lifestyle? Functional movements can be great for you. You need proper hip mobility and stability to prevent falls and be able to lead an active lifestyle. You need to be able to bend over properly to pick something up. You need to have proper mobility to everyday activities and in addition be able to create stability in everyday activities. There are tremendous benefits but the intensity and excerise selection is dependant on how you feel and what is appropriate for you.
2.) Can I do all those things and are they appropriate?
CrossFit has given an impression that has made people believe that you need to be able to perform the highest level of movements and to test your maximum physical abilities everytime you workout. I believe that CrossFit has unintentionally created a stigma where everyone needs to be an “elite athlete” but the realitity is that CrossFit has just created a template for people to get into the best shape of their lives but need to do it correctly. A term used quite often is the “scalability” of the program. It is the responsibility of your Coach and also to you as an individual to make the right decision of what is appropriate to do or not to do. If your training facility has an assessment process, this is one of the most effective ways to vet out movements that might not be entirely appropriate for you to do at this point. In addition, the best facilities have some aspects of an introductory program (often called Elements or foundations) to be able to understand your movement quality and also teach appropriate movement practices. Take advantage of this and it will mitigate potential injury risk.
3.) Will this help me reach my goals?
This is an interesting question because everyone has different goals or milestones in which they would like to achieve as it pertains to fitness. I would argue that as you age, the goal of injury prevention and mitigation is extremely important as recovery time for injuries increases and prior history of injury is the number one predictor of future injury. With that said I can’t speak for everyone but regardless of what your goals and what you value most for your physical well being you need to align the decisions you make around them. Specifically, if your long term goal is to “prevent injury specifically in my knees and low back” then I would base every decision you make when you workout around that. So asking the questions, “how do I feel today?” “do I currently have any pain?” “how much sleep did I get?” will align with this goal. If the WOD says 5×5 at 75% and building on a deadlift and you don’t feel right that day, it doesn’t make sense to push it. Are you training for life and to be healthy or are you a pro athlete? Even if you were a pro athlete, they need to know when to not push it as well!
50+ who currently CrossFit:
I believe many CrossFitters and also those looking at CrossFit from the outside in would agree that people who train CrossFit as their training methodology take their fitness very seriously. CrossFit isn’t just “get up and go to the gym” but it’s become an event and a tremendous part of their life. A community has been built within CrossFit that is unlike any other fitness movement which is a huge contributor to its growth and success.
For those people who currently train CrossFit, here are few questions in addition to those above that people that are over 50 and are actively involved in CrossFit might have as they continue their fitness journey:
1. What is the intensity I should be working at?
This is a phenomenal question and the best answer to give is “it depends.” Like mentioned above, you need to measure the factors of how you are feeling that day but in addition observe what is the purpose of the WOD. As your coaches should explain, is the purpose here to focus on skill development? If the focus on training your aerobic pathway? Are you testing a benchmark and measuring your fitness progress? As you might know, there is a major difference between soreness, fatigue and pain. If the intensity you choose to work at elicits pain, then this would require you to stop and reevaluate the movement. If you have a short and fast workout and you take it easy because you are a little sore, that’s a little different and you might not be creating the proper stimulus for yourself that day. Take aways: utilize your coach to help and guide you, but always listen to your body, today might not be the day to push it.
2. Should I do the WOD as Rx or Scale?
I just recently wrote an article purely about scaling vs. Rxing a workout and when its appropriate. It all goes back to your goals inevitably and what suits you but just as important in the context of CrossFit, technical efficiency and moving correctly is very important. If you haven’t realized the amount of time spent on practicing particular exercises because of the degree of coordination that is involved then I don’t know what you have been paying attention to! CrossFit utilizes functional movements to achieve results. We look to teach and educate you on movement quality. If a workout creates a demand that is too high for you to achieve based on what is prescribed, then its not appropriate. How will you continue to be successful and learn movement quality when you are always trying to “survive” a WOD vs. “thrive” in it. We want you to always “thrive”. Perform a movement to your capability or we look at another option to give you a similar desired effect. The Rx numbers and movements are a general guideline to create fitness. Those guidelines might not be aligned with what’s appropriate for you in particular at this time and that ok! Takeaways: Forget about Rx if its not appropriate. You will benefit from scaling more than doing Rx just to say you did it!
3. How do I continue to improve and not plateau?
Many of the areas that I have discussed above has created a baseline of data for personal improvement. The stress put upon your body when you exercise should be enough to create an adaptation and growth. Too much stress can be negative on the body. Proper rest is where your body will see it’s best growth. Specifically as you age, you require proper rest to aid in recovery. Along with proper hydration, nutrition and potential supplementation, these are all things that will help you recover. If you can recover efficiently you will continue to see gains in overall strength and development. You will however get to a point where you do not see the rapid gains in strength and capacity in which you use to. This is natural and has to occur.. You body is continually adapting. If you believe that you can add 5-10lbs on a bar every week and continue to lift it up week after week you are kidding yourself. If that was true people would be deadlifting 10,000lbs by now!
To add, when hitting plateau’s you need to evaluate the reason why you are hitting that plateau. Consult with your coach about what the potential barriers are that are preventing you from getting to the next stage. Similar to business, there are barriers to break though, once we figure out how to do that, the world is your oyster! Let’s put plateauing into context: (I also believe this is true for everyone not just the 50+ age demographic) you can deadlift 285lbs. No matter what you have been doing, that is the number you are stuck at. You have a personal goal of deadlifting 300lbs without injuring yourself. What could be the potential obstacles: sleep, nutrition, work and family related stress, training volume and frequency, hydration, behavioral issues etc, the list goes on. Can you pin point which is the greatest area where you can improve in? Chances are, there are multiple things that are affecting the outcome of this goal. Identify the obstacles, strategize with your coach on overcoming them and develop a plan of action to reach your milestone.
It would ill advised for me to say there are certain things that everyone should do. I can’t make that statement because not everyone moves the same way. Common areas of discomfort or pain that I see are musculoskeletal (strains, previous fractures) and joint discomfort (prior sprains, arthritis). The biggest areas in the body that can get aggravated training CrossFit would be in the shoulder and lower back. Many of these aches and pains are treatable but more than often preventable. It’s important to come to terms with some of the input shared above and understanding your body. As you age, recovery takes longer and those previous injuries you might have experienced in your youth might poke it’s irritating head out. The flip side to this is that everyone has the ability to improve movement quality, increase strength and feel better regardless of age. The difference is the approach you take to it. The simple answer: do things that don’t hurt, super simple.
The reality is this everyone: you aren’t getting any younger. You can’t fight father time, that number is going up by 1 every year that passes! Here’s where we can slow the aging curve though and that is through fitness and taking care of the body you have. You might need to take it easier then you would have when you were in your 20’s but that’s ok. You don’t have to compete with 20 year olds in the gym. Put your focus on self development. Aim to feel better than you did when you were younger, that’s a huge accomplishment in itself. Look for self improvement and tackle the barriers that may be making a negative impact on your health and well being. Finally, listen to your body, it is always right!