Lessons from Larry – Coaching Older Athletes to Maximize their Golden Years
Written by Michele Vieux

Larry “the Legend” Blum is an 80-year-old who has been my client for nearly ten years and I have learned many lessons – both life lessons and lessons on training older clients – over those years.

We have had over 50 other members at Invictus who would be considered “older” adults i.e. older than 60 years, most of whom have no intention in competing in the Masters Division at the CrossFit Games and they have all provided us with lessons, epiphanies and life-changing moments. Here’s a shout-out to a few of them: Mary “the Muscle”, Bruce “the Silver Fox”, “Smile with your Eyes” Janice, “Flash” Gordon, “Pops” Martin, “Crazy” Helen, and “Farty” Harvey to name a few.

Like many 60+ athletes who seek out CrossFit gyms, Larry has no intention of competing at the Games. His hard work and dedication to his workouts are a testament to his belief not only in maintaining physical activity and prioritizing health throughout his lifetime, but also his belief in us as coaches, to help keep him strong, mobile and safe. With those intentions in mind, here are some lessons I’ve learned from coaching Larry.

Mobility, Mobility, Mobility

Mobility is the key to being pain-free, avoiding injury and enjoying life. This applies to anyone, but especially older adults. We must remain mobile to remain independent, avoid falling and to prevent injury from not being able to properly lift everyday items.

Do a basic functional movement screen. Is your older athlete able to put their arms overhead; bend over far enough with a flat back to pick up a bag of groceries or dog food; turn their neck to check the lane beside them while driving; stand up out of a chair without arm rests; raise their feet high enough to step up a curb, climb stairs, or out of a bath tub? These are all indicators of being able to remain independent as we age and mobility work to achieve and maintain these movements should be included in every older adult’s program.

We spend at least twenty to thirty minutes of every hour-long session working on mobility for both Larry’s independent living and sports/activities of choice. See the “Everyone is Different” section below for more on the activities specific to Larry’s plan.

Warm-Ups May Become Workouts

As people age, what they once considered a warm-up might now be considered “skill work” or even “Part A” and that’s ok. Because I noticed this, I was able to better program for Larry. For example, we used to count his agility work as part of his warm-up but now I mix it with some supplemental pre-hab work and count it as Part A of the workout. This means that his lifting session in Part B looks more like interval work (every minute on the minute, for example) and if there is a Part C, it might be mobility work or some more supplemental work. We hardly ever do Warm-Up + Strength (Part A) + Conditioning (Part B). But my goal is to keep him moving throughout the entire hour whether it be with mobility, supplemental work, weightlifting or intervals. It doesn’t, and usually shouldn’t, look like what you program for your group class that caters to 20 to 40-somethings.

Be Flexible with Your Program for the Session – Listen to Your Golden Athlete

If a person with many years under their belt comes to me for physical training, I assume they are there to do the best that they can each time they come in. People of age don’t usually waste their time in a gym, cheat themselves, or look for an easy way out. They are there for a purpose and that is to function at the highest level they possibly can. They have spent many years coming to understand their bodies’ capabilities and how and when to push hard but also when pushing too hard is detrimental to living their lives.

Of course I come into each session with a plan but I also know that plan might need to change depending on how Larry is feeling, what he did the day before, or if he has a big tennis match the next day.

Besides being willing to try anything, what I love about Larry is that he never slacks off, even with the excuse of being “old”. He is a hard worker and is honest with himself and me about what he is able to do. If he says, “Let’s go up in weight for one more set!” I think it’s great he is able to push himself. And sometimes when he says, “That’s enough for today.” I believe him and then usually talk him into doing some Crossover Symmetry or mobility work instead to which he agrees.

Because of our communication, he has never injured himself in the gym (outside of nicking his shin with a barbell or getting a blood blister from using the hook grip for multiple reps of hang power cleans). He understands that people of any age can, and should, workout safely.

Everyone is Different – Consider Specific Lifestyle Needs & Wants

Many older people just need to move, remain mobile, work on fall prevention, and perform exercises that will help them remain independent. So make sure and talk to your client about what their goals are, what they struggle with in daily living, what they wish they could do, and their general health history. If you are the client, be sure to talk to your coach about these things so that they can design a program specifically for making your life as easy and fulfilling as possible. There is no point in working out if it leaves you injured, tired, too sore to enjoy time with your grandkids, or isn’t getting you to where you need and want to be.

For many older adults, exercise programs might focus mostly on mobility, getting up off the floor, walking up stairs, carrying groceries, pressing oneself out of a chair, safely picking objects up off the ground and placing objects overhead.

Larry is different than many older adults I have met so we approach his training differently. He is a lifelong athlete and continues to play tennis, golf, fly fish with old college pals, and hike with his wife, Liz, when they travel. And, he – like many – wants to remain active to play with his grandchildren who range in the ages of 3 to 20 years old. Because of these desires, we incorporate movements that will directly help him to continue to pursue these activities.

We always warm up with some sort of footwork agility drill for his tennis and he gets better every time we do the ladder or cone drills. He’s even received compliments on the court from other – much younger – players and has noted that he’s the one who typically gets to the ball when playing doubles or that the other team thinks the point is over and turn their backs but are then surprised when the ball comes back over the net.

For both his golf and tennis games, we work on thoracic and shoulder mobility. A few years ago, we had to take overhead lifts and other movements out of his programming because his lower back was hurting. It was also hurting him on his tennis serve so we identified this as a priority area. Within a few months of extra thoracic and shoulder mobility work, he was serving better than ever and also without pain. We were able to start incorporating jerks and snatches again and he continues to PR those lifts even though at one time he noted that he thought he’d no longer be able to increase the amount of weight he put overhead.

Along with the thoracic and shoulder work, we incorporate many rotational and anti-rotational exercises which both of his sports use for power and precision. These exercises also help him maintain a solid midline and prevent injuries – such as those to the back – that he has dealt with in his past. He actually sought out Olympic lifting instruction years ago as a way to rehab his back from a past injury and has never had a problem since, due to proper coaching and application.

And for the traveling, fly fishing and hiking…lots of farmer carries and box step-ups! He “complains” at the time but always comes back from a vacation thanking me for making it easier to carry suitcases up stairs, hike remote areas, and stand strong in river currents while fly fishing, all without fear of falling or not being able to make it the distance required.

Nothing is Impossible

In my ten years of knowing Larry, there have been many laughs and lots of ups but I can’t think of a single down time except for when he finally broke parallel in his squat – something he told me was impossible when we first tried. I’ve been accused of using snake oil and making up strange exercises and stretches for him to try but he always comes to our session willing to give it a go. It only took five years but he did it and now he has one of the best Sotts Presses in the gym. I like to have him do the Burgener Warm-Up every time he comes just to show the youngins that anything is possible and they are always impressed when they see him do it.

The point is, anything is possible, it might just take a little longer with older clients. Don’t give up though! If you determine the movement important to quality of life, then keep working on it until there is success or at least improvement.

Are you an older adult looking for a training plan? Or do you know someone who is? Post to comments below or contact me directly at michele@crossfitinvictus.com to set up a consultation and discuss training options.

Also Check Out…

Foot Mobility Drills To Help Positioning & Prevent Injury

Wall Slides – A Fantastic Exercise

The Four Stages Of Learning

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Antony Kingstone
Antony Kingstone
August 2, 2023 4:56 am

This article about life lessons learned from CrossFit is inspiring, and it shows the value of dedication and hard work. As a student, I can relate to the commitment required to succeed in both academics and fitness. Sometimes, managing coursework can be overwhelming, but the option of hiring essay writers from reliable services, as mentioned in the linked article, can be a helpful support system to maintain a healthy balance between studies and other pursuits. Embracing these lessons from CrossFit, I’ll strive to excel in all aspects of life.

Last edited 8 months ago by Antony Kingstone
Sharon Ronstadt
Sharon Ronstadt
November 2, 2017 7:27 am

I’m 65. Crossfitter since 57. Amen to all you said. Is your last name really Vieux?!

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