Paul, I am 47 years old and I have found myself being injured more and more as I age. I have bad knees, both of my shoulders ache after I bench press, and one elbow has, what the PT calls, “Tennis Elbow.” I train pretty heavy, with mostly free weights. Do you have any suggestions as to how to limit myself from more injury as I age but continue to want to train moderately heavy?

SIDE SHOT NYCI think the key to training longevity and making gains is knowing your body’s musculoskeletal system and how it relates to the exercises that you are doing—the exercises that you chose for each body part will predict your training longevity (as well as your musculoskeletal health). What I mean by that is; knowing exactly which exercises are biomechanically perfect for each and every body part. For instance, you say that you use “mostly free weights.”

My first question then is: Why? Is it a matter of limited equipment? Or, Are you are using mostly free weights because you have read someplace that you can only build big muscles with free weights?

I would say that questions, “B” is not true—at least not for everyone (and not so smart as you age to rely on only free weights). For instance, I am a big believer in finding your most leverage advantageous exercise for each body part; and do them (ala, those) exercises, each (and every) time that you train that particular muscle group; adapting training schemes with the same exercises, i.e., changing the number of reps, doing super-sets, doing drop-sets, etc…

Another instance, you say that your knees hurt. I bet you are one of those guys who believe that your thighs won’t grow unless you grind your femur into your kneecap with heavy squats. By that, I mean squat heavy, no matter what your musculoskeletal structure—(both lower and upper body) and you do them no matter what the condition of your knee and surrounding ligaments and cushioning cartilage.

First, from experiential and empirical wisdom, in relationship to these problems; I have said on numerous occasions; squatting fits some, but not all people who train with weights. You can build great thighs with leg-presses and hack-squats (and leg extensions and leg curls put in after the first two multi-joint movements have been completed).

I would also want to know the length of your thighs, the circumference of your knees and ankle joints, and the length of your torso before I could say with certainty what exercises are most leverage advantageous for your thighs. Same can be said about the shoulder problem you have continued to experience.

Have you been bench pressing for some 30 years–right? I assume the answer is yes. My questions would be; how wide are your clavicles? How long are your arms? How much pectoral muscle do you have to work with? Sometimes, I find that some men are simply not built for bench pressing and should resort to dumbbell declines, machine pressing and perfected-form cable exercises (or, Long-armed Peck-deck).

My suspicion of you and so many others who I have encountered over the years with your questions relate to the follow:

Some who need help with pectorals see the guy with huge pectorals bombing away of the Barbell Bench Press every other day and in everyone’s mind—that has to be the way to huge pectorals—right? Wrong again. While it certainly has worked for many, heavy (free-weight) bench pressing can cause severe long-term injuries.

For instance; if you have very long arms and narrow clavicles (ala, narrow-shoulders) then you are probably going to get very little out of heavy, “free weight” benching pressing, other than (chronic—perhaps, alternate) rotator cuff injuries at best; or, serious nerve-pinching, acute, but, career-ending, immobility at worst. I am not saying this is going to happen to all, or even most people who do free weight bench presses as their standard, hallmark, pectoral building exercises; however, what I am saying is that it (severe injury) can happen to anyone who has that (long-arm, narrow-shoulder) bio-mechanical, musculoskeletal disadvantage.

What is the answer? Dumbbells (usually decline presses to shorten the stroke); Upright, Machine Bench Presses; and some perfected-form cable work.

Let’s start by looking at why the dumbbells work for this type of person’s biomechanics (and probably for you).

For one, a long-arm(ed) person usually has great pulling power. (This is because of the long arm is a biomechanical advantage when pulling heavy weight). The exact opposite with bench-pressing, and thus, the length of the arm is an advantage in biceps curls, low-pulley rows and so on. The point I am making here is that long-arm people usually have, at minimum, a great grip and forearms; and at best, great arms all around.

Using just three moderately heavy Preacher-curls, and one (25 reps) barbell wrist curl set before doing those decline dumbbells presses can give you a ten to twenty percent advantage. You have added extra thickness to the two places that touch during the hardest phase of (any) pressing movement—in this case, decline bench presses for pecs. This is a tremendous advantage you now hold. Now you do another set of preacher curls and wrist curls and start heavy Vertical Bench Pressing and see how that feels. Pectorals are now bigger than ever (at least on your way to that).

Also, when you do flat or even incline barbell presses, you have a psychological block. For years you have struggled with this exercise and you have failed yourself with it so many times that your mind won’t allow you to relax enough to go up in weight. Remember this; Any professional in any sport, should make their sport look easy. Same is true with weight training (bodybuilding in the gym). You should be cranking out those reps like you have pistons in your arms because if you are not—you are doing the wrong exercise.

Now, when you come to the Vertical Bench Press;

the fear of the heavy bar falling on you or embarrassing yourself in the gym is gone. You have just done some really smooth decline dumbbell presses and you slide over to that Vertical Bench and load the weight on and watch how your rhythm changes. From awkward and heart-thumping uselessness and embarrassment on the flat bench; to smooth, crisp sets of ten and twelve without a stop, and looking like Tiger woods driving a 360 yard T-shot, straight down the fairway on these two new heavy, multi-joint pectoral builders. What changed? You didn’t. The weights didn’t. The exercises and how to approach them mentally did.

Lastly, your, so called, “Tennis Elbow”?

Three sets of Wrist curls for ulna and radial heads (ala, inside and outside the forearms) three times a week. Doing both with a barbell and utilizing very short strokes and high reps. (With forearms on your knees, the hand at the edge of your knee—move the bar in toward the belly of your forearms and let your hand roll back just so that it is even with your forearm (wrist straight with hand). Do as many reps as you can, while squeezing both hands of the bar and the positive part of the movement.

For the outer-head, do the same thing, except now your hands are in a (nearly) pronated position and you bring them up as high as you can squeezing the bar and the outer head of the forearms. When you are done training them ice both inside and outside the forearms. (If you can, ice both for 20 minutes, twice after training them—with at least a 20 minute ice-free time in between icings).

Between changing your strategy from a “this works for Arnold so it will work for me” approach; to a “this seems to work for me just right, and I fear no movement that I do anymore because they are bio-mechanically perfect for me”—now you have the rest of your life to enjoy training and the fruits of that labor—more muscle, more power, and NO INJURIES!

About the author :

Paul T. Burke has a Master’s Degree in Integrated Studies from Cambridge College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is presently in a Doctorate Degree Program at A. T. Still University, and will be a Doctor of Health Education upon completion. Paul has been a champion bodybuilder and arm-wrestler; and, he is considered a leader in the field of Over-40 and Over-50 fitness training. You can purchase his book, “Burke’s Law,” A New Fitness Paradigm for the Mature Male, from his website, or the Home Gym Warehouse, call (800) 447-0008, or visit ** His second book: “The Neo-Dieter’s Handbook,” A Guide to Finding Your Nutritional Root; Past, Present and Future, will be out in March, 2009 and his third book, “Burke’s Law II,” Reaching Your Muscular Potential through Musculoskeletal Designation (Book Surge/Amazon Publishing, 2013) will be available soon.

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