Adventurous at Any Age: Chin Up Progression
One of my greatest achievements as a physical educator occurred last year. After a two-year endeavor, a 70-year-old cancer-survivor – who I’ll call Lizard – achieved his first chin up. And Lizard didn’t stop there - he had enough strength for 2.
There wasn’t any secret to this success, just plain old strength and conditioning. Looking back, the simplicity, sustainability, and effectiveness of training Lizard taught me some very important lessons as a coach.
It’s Never Too Late.
When Lizard first shuffled into the gym, he was an old man. The situation looked bleak - his posture was so poor and his joints so stiff that most exercises needed manual assistance. During a cable row, for instance, I would have to physically retract his shoulders for him. We had to literally unstick decades of inactivity and poor posture. It was painful work for him, and tedious yet demanding work for me.
To make matters more tricky, Lizard had barely won a battle against cancer. The trauma and lasting wounds had obliterated his endurance and stamina. Part of the first workout consisted of one 10 yard crawl. Despite the name, any reptilian movement was not Lizard’s forte. After a laborious and shaky 10 yards, he collapsed and spent 3 minutes recovering.
My experience working with older adults revealed just how much getting old is really just getting out of shape and poorly recovering from injuries. Life is full of bumps, dings, breaks, repetitive habits, and an unfortunate lack of activity. The resilience of youth and general absence of disease during the first third of our lives means we can play, be active, and get hurt with little noticeable consequences.
I have had a torn rotator cuff, two broken arms (one requiring screws and a plate), multiple ankle sprains, and a broken femur before the age of 20. I know what injury means. I also think I should have drank more milk!
Eventually, everything starts to catch up. Decades of poor posture (due to a lack of mobility or bad habits) solidifies the joints until a stoop becomes your norm. And remember that time you hurt your shoulder by reaching for your bag in the back seat of the car? Oh...you just don’t use that arm for anything anymore? Right.
As we age, our ability to recover from injuries does slow down. However, most people accept their half-recovered functionality as just "part of getting old." In reality, many of the aches, pains, and inability we attribute to getting old are really the result of our bodies not recovering properly (or at all) from injuries and habitual overuse.
Our bodies have a remarkably helpful way of adapting to injuries. We temporarily close the window of movement capability and recruit other muscles to pick up the slack. For example, with a hurt shoulder, you might stop reaching overhead because that movement produces pain. And as the shoulder heals, you use your neck and trap muscles to help in any sort of lifting with that arm. This allows you to function while the healing process occurs – but for many people, that window of movement never opens back up. The muscle activation, atrophy, and compensatory movement patterns we developed during the injury don’t just correct themselves.
The purpose of physical therapy is to help the mind and body switch back to pre-injured patterns of movement and establish baseline function. However, I always say that therapy only gets you back to 0%, not 100%. As necessary as therapy is in the recovery process, the injury occurred in the first place due to a weakness or poor movement pattern. Thus, injured tissue must recover beyond the original pre-injured condition to regain full function and durability. Thanks to insurance and the cost of healthcare, most therapists cannot work with a patient long enough for them to truly strengthen their joints beyond the pre-injured condition.
Let’s take a quick second to differentiate between exercise and activity. Exercise, like strength training, conditioning, mobility work, etc. is a progressive plan for improving weaknesses and developing resilience. Exercise allows us to safely and confidently engage in activities - running, jumping, climbing, throwing, swimming, fighting, games, sports, etc. Activity is where most of our injuries occur. Consistent, mindful, and holistic exercise prevents those injuries.
Unfortunately, it’s easier for most people to just stop doing certain activities than it is to devote time and energy to healing your body.
Consistency, Adaptability, and Progression are King.
For the majority of the 2 years I worked with Lizard, we performed one variation of each of the fundamental movements, 3 times per week. A sample workout would look like the below image, plus 10-15 minutes of mobility work. With the exception of the deadlifts, no weights progressed past 50 lbs.
Between good-natured complaints, Lizard would occasionally throw out a question like “Hey! Do you ever think I could do a chin up?” Like any good coach, I told him that with commitment and time, we could accomplish any goal.
Whether he knew it or not, Lizard's hopeful questioning was making goals. I would let his dreams subtly guide the training and exercise choices over time. The goal set the direction and gave Lizard something to strive toward.
The exercises slowly progressed in difficulty: a coach-assisted TRX row turned into an independent TRX row. A row turned into a dead hang, and a hang into a flexed-arm hang, and a flexed-arm hang into an assisted chin up, and on and on. The program was simple, progressive, and covered all the bases. It was easily completed, and adapted to match Lizard’s condition or motivation level.
Creating or modifying programs that adapt to you is the key to ensuring success. This is the antithesis of all the “just do it” or “every day is a grind” bullshit you see appear on those T-shirts. If you keep grinding, you’ll end up with a bloody stump.
Lizard showed up on his worst days because he trusted in my ability to adapt, and he was committed to his goal. He treated the training as if it were a job. There are good days and bad days, but you always have to go to work. If your work is well planned, you can adapt it to the day and not fear going in. If your work is not a fit for you, you will dread going in, or call in sick.
No matter how technical or brutal, a program is only good if the individual completes it. The real success of this story belongs to Lizard, who tirelessly showed up for 1 hour a day, 3 days a week, most weeks, for 2 years. Because of this, exercise was literally an elixir of life! Lizard went from a stooping, 70-year-old man who could barely crawl 10 yards, to a spry, active individual who could deadlift his bodyweight, do 10 strict push ups on the floor, 2 chin ups, Row 1200m in 5 minutes, and sled push his bodyweight for 5 minutes. I doubt most 20 year olds could do that.
Be like the Lizard - realize it is NEVER too late, set goals, commit to consistency, and adapt the program to your life.