Although the current trend in fitness is to “train your grandmothers like your athletes,” if that idea isn’t approached thoughtfully and carefully, it can potentially be a terrible mistake. Training older adults like you train more competitive athletes is a great concept that I fully support, as long as trainers use proper movement and exercise progressions. The huge problem with putting it into practice is that proper exercise progressions are often thrown out in favor of tire flips.
Think of your grandmother. Now think of the most fit and capable athlete you currently work with.
Should these two individuals get the same workout? Of course not. You know they shouldn’t. At least not at first.
The idea of giving them the same workout is attractive, and it makes for a good sound-bite. Rationale behind the concept is sound and often goes like this: “We can’t load your grandmother with the same squatting weight that we’d assign an Olympic skier, but they both need to squat.”
This statement is 100% correct. But the truth in the above statement disguises the problem within it: You often can’t load the squat with a grandmother at all!
Movement vs. Exercise
The squat (and any other exercise) has to be done well as a movement before it can become an exercise. Everyone moves, but not everyone exercises. There’s nothing about grandmothers that prevents them from becoming athletes…but most grandmothers do not start out that way.
Most grandmothers start an exercise program with some foot, knee, hip or back issue that affects the quality of their squat as a movement. This may be compounded by postural or lifestyle considerations. Any injuries or pathology is only magnified if they haven’t exercised in years.
To put external load – no matter how small – on a skeleton that can’t handle its own body weight makes little sense.
Obviously, improving the quality of a movement can rarely be done in the midst of a higher intensity workout. It takes more than simply “scaling the intensity.” First, address any postural misalignments and muscle imbalances that contribute to poor movement quality. Next, break down and re-learn movements part-to-whole as necessary. Finally, re-integrate the parts back together to improve movement quality once better motor learning of the components of an effective movement pattern has occurred.
A major help to this is to encourage the individual to use the same squat technique you teach them in training sessions while they’re at home. Ask them to mirror the same movement in their everyday life whenever they squat – sitting on chairs or toilets, getting into the seat of a car, sitting at the office, etc. Any time they squat, they should be thinking about what you’ve taught them as this is the only way to re-learn the movement pattern effectively – by getting lots of good practice.
Keep the Horse Before the Cart
Using the ACE Integrated Fitness Training® (ACE IFT®) model and progressing properly by starting in Phase 1 (Stability-Mobility) of Functional Movement & Resistance Training provides the opportunity to promote proper posture in the areas of the body that are intended to be stable and likewise in those intended to be mobile. This allows re-learning of proper movement patterns – like squatting – introduced in Phase 2 (Movement). Then, the opportunity to progress to Phase 3 (Load Training) becomes possible. Ill-advised programs start an exercise program with loads. Smart programs avoid putting fitness on top of movement dysfunction.
Here’s a sample case study: A 60-year old woman who is retired and tasked with caring for her aging mother – and occasionally a grandchild or two – needs strength to be able to sometimes move her adult mother in the bed and other times lift and carry her grandchildren. She has high blood pressure (treated with medication), osteopenia, herniated and degenerated discs in her cervical spine and left-knee arthritis. She is not overweight and exercises regularly, but it’s mostly machine-based cardio and aerobics and Pilates classes.
You cannot simply start someone like this out using lower loads and the same exercises an athlete would do! Rushing to get to ACE IFT® model Phase 3 exercises will cause more problems than it solves.
I will share more details of the specific exercises and strategies used in this grandmother’s program in the upcoming webinar on this topic. I started with her about 2 years ago and she’s now working out 4-5 days per week with challenging, athletic-type exercises. You’ll see her in action on my webinar so don’t miss it! When she started, she was struggling to get in 2-3 workouts per week and I had to constantly push her to make even small progressions on her exercises. It is wonderful to see her progress.
It is easy to make exercises harder, but it is hard to make them easy. It is often difficult to find the right entry point to fitness for someone de-conditioned or presenting numerous physical challenges. But once you do, the body always responds by improving, and this sets the stage for further progressions. This allows you to transform a grandmother into an athlete rather than make the mistake of starting them off like one.