Is It “Safe” to Lift Heavy?Nov 28, 2023
At Off The Mountain, we’re frequently asked about which weightlifting movements are appropriate, safe, and useful for 100 Year Athletes (i.e., people ages 35-100+ who are prioritizing longevity over max performance). Let’s tackle the four most common questions.
1. Should I lift “heavy”?
Short Answer: Yes, train heavy deadlift and squat variations to prevent injuries. Aim for sets of 5 reps.
100 Year Athletes often worry that heavy lifting is too risky or that it will make them “bulky.” In truth, heavy lifting won’t bulk you up, but it will help you prevent injuries.
“Heavy” is relative to you. Doing 5 reps with a heavy load should be so hard that if I offered you $100,000 for two more reps, you couldn’t do it. That means we’re leaving a little in the tank because you could do reps 6 and 7 if we instantly switched you to a lower weight.
Usually, the issue isn’t the heavy weight but rather the choice of movement. If you have knee mobility problems and try to do a full barbell squat loaded with your body weight, there’s a good chance it’ll bother your knees.
The alternative is simple: lift heavy but reduce the motion to a quarter or half squat. Same with the deadlift—if a classic barbell deadlift doesn’t work for you, there are countless variations that change the range of motion yet work the same muscles. There’s always a modification or substitute movement that will enable you to lift heavy with minimal risk.
2. Aren’t I too old for plyometrics?
Short Answer: No! By training low-impact plyometrics, like jump-roping, you can get bouncier and prepare yourself for unseen obstacles as well as rapid changes in direction and momentum.
You should absolutely train plyometrics if you want to play in the mountains into your 100s. Rapid acceleration, deceleration, and momentum changes are part of most mountain sports. Does that mean you should do the same plyometric drills as a 20-something World Cup skier? Hell no.
If there’s no cartilage left in your knees, don’t jump off a high box to train drops and jumps for ski season. At best, it’ll hurt, and at worst, it’ll fast track you to knee replacement surgery.
As with heavy lifting, there are safe ways to train plyometrics. Start with jump roping, progress to pogo hops, line jumps, and eventually a box jump. When you jump up to a box, there’s minimal impact on landing.
If your knees and hips don’t tolerate any form of jumping, there are alternatives. Kettlebells, for instance, can train plyometric ability without you ever needing to leave the ground.
3. Should I do Olympic lifts and other skill-based movements?
Short Answer: For 99% of 100 Year Athletes, Olympic lifts don’t make sense. Use explosive medicine ball throws to get the same effect with minimal risk of injury.
For 99% of 100 Year Athletes, the answer is no, don’t try to get heavy barbells from the ground to over your head. It takes a lot of gym time to learn to clean-and-jerk or snatch properly. If you love these movements and are willing to practice with a broomstick and unloaded barbell for months, maybe it’s worth it.
If you do Olympic lifts because you’ve heard that’s the only way to become explosive, good news: not true. You can substitute explosive medicine ball throws that require almost no skill. If you’re a mountain athlete who prefers time outdoors to time in the gym, Olympic lifting isn’t for you.
4. Should I be doing more volume when I lift?
Short Answer: Probably not—most mountain sports involve plenty of volume (i.e. time under tension). Rather than attempt to replicate your sport in the gym, train the pillars of fitness that don’t get enough love from your sport.
Many triathletes and endurance junkies think they need high-volume gym work because their sports involve a lot of volume. Plus, the sweat, exhaustion, and endorphins from high-volume training feel good. In the gym, though, you want to complement your sport, not replicate it.
Most mountain sports involve high volume, so sets of 15 to 25 reps in the gym are redundant. They just sap the energy you need to train for your sport.
In the offseason, a high-rep bodybuilding program might make sense because it can help you gain muscle mass (a must for longevity and injury prevention). But bodybuilding programs will leave you too tired and sore to fully enjoy your sport in season.
Bottom Line: Heavy lifting and plyometrics are essential for longevity in the mountains. Olympic lifting isn’t worth it for 99% of 100 Year Athletes. High-volume lifting is useful during the offseason but not when you’re preparing for big missions and endurance events.
If you want a well-rounded training program made for seasonal mountain sports, we highly recommend signing up for the 100 Year Athlete Program. Available in person and online, you can find out more and sign up for a free, week-long trial here.