Ask Stew: Tactical Periodization When You're Over 40

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Army reservist runs during physical fitness test.
U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Chase Lawrence runs his final lap during an Army physical fitness test. (Pfc. Jermaine Jackson/300th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

As we age, our bodies change, and inevitably, multiple years of wear and tear can start to take its toll on even the most active people. Here is a question concerning a method of training I have used for 20 years but am starting to realize some alterations are needed from when I started in my late 20s as I enter my 50s:

Stew, I have been following your training methods for nearly 20 years. Periodization has really helped me with my fitness, not just in my job but my overall health as well. However, I am noticing that the running cycles feel like too much running and the lift cycles feel like too much lifting. Any alterations, as I am now in my mid 40s but still pretty advanced in my fitness? I am not looking at making it easier -- just different. Jim

Wow. Twenty years. Good on you, Jim. A great question. I figured out the answer a few years ago and created a few new rules when it comes to training in your 40s and 50s. Consider your fitness life in different phases.

Phase 1: You are young and learning how to train, play sports and receive the foundation of fitness for whatever journey you have in front of you. This is typically your teenage years. A life of subsequent injuries can start here, and learning to work around them later is required.

Phase 2: You now are entering your 20s. You may forgo fitness for a while, get out of shape and consider specializing in sports and advance to college-level athletics. Or you can challenge yourself with new types of fitness in preparation for the tactical professions. Depending on your choices, injuries or long-term weight gain can occur at play or on the job. Dealing with these later will become an issue.

Phase 3: You now have finished athletics, and maybe your fitness halts altogether, you pick up new activities for health and wellness, or you still race competitively. If in the tactical professions, you typically have finished most boot camps, academies or selection programs by now and are working to maintain your fitness. This phase can carry you through your 30s and into your 50s, depending on your choices and goals.

Tactical Fitness for the Athlete Over 40 addresses many of these with a 16-week, advanced-level program.  If you neglected your fitness and saw a steady increase in weight over the years, you need to rebuild that fitness foundation. Treat yourself like a beginner and start building good habits that will save your life.

Phase 4: Typically, after 50 and into the 60s and beyond, fitness is about joint care, longevity, healthy medical scores and fighting the battle of the bulge.  You still can lift, run/walk and do non-impact cardio and calisthenics, but mobility and flexibility can enhance life tremendously. Dealing with a lifetime of aches, pains and weight loss at a slower metabolism is the challenge.

But yes, as I entered my 40s, I realized that my body type and athletic history were great for getting strong and gaining weight/bulk if I lifted and ate like I was in my 20s. 

After a cycle a few years ago, my body weight was heavier than any period in my life. I was strong but out of cardio conditioning and running hurt. To top it off, my health screening numbers were bad for the first time ever (cholesterol, blood pressure, triglycerides). 

So I focused on weight loss and tried a few diets, but I found that eating less (even good foods) was my best answer. Also, during the next lifting cycle, I only lifted about 50% of what I normally did and replaced the other sets of the lifts with TRX suspension training. I added more non-impact cardio into the workouts as well, just to burn off the extra weight that was coming off slowly.

Finally, dropped 20 pounds, back to my college and BUD/S weight, and running does not hurt anymore. However, I now am running every other day (one of my New Rules for Fitness Over 40) with a non-impact cardio activity in between.

This change in mileage and sets/reps of heavy lifting has made a big difference in how I feel. I am still strong enough in the weight room, but am not breaking any records. So consider the few adjustments to your weight-room sets, add some TRX or weighted calisthenics (weight vest), reduce running days per week if you are used to running daily and increase more non-impact cardio.

The spring and summer cycles remain largely the same with high-repetition calisthenics, though if you start to feel joint pain, add some dumbbell movements to simulate those same movements or go with bands, TRX or weighted calisthenics with fewer reps.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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