Being old doesn’t have to mean being slow

Posted on June 1, 2016

(Last Updated On: May 20, 2017)

In the fitness world a couple physical qualities are focused on when it comes to aging. They tend to be strength and balance. A big reason for this is preventing falls. Stronger legs and better balance can hold a person up better. Simple enough.

However, speed and reaction time tend to get ignored. This is despite many believing these qualities age first, fastest and most! Whereby that logic, they should be worked on the most.

I haven’t seen this explicitly said, but my inclination and experience has been-

  1. Older people believe they can get stronger and perhaps improve their balance. We’ve done a decent job improving awareness on this.
  2. Older people don’t think they can get faster.
  3. Personal trainers either don’t think or don’t consider their clients can work on their speed.

Speed is a bit mystical in many ways. Even in sports it’s still commonly said “You can’t teach speed.” This ignores the nice relationship there is between relative strength -how strong you are for your weight- and speed. In other words, you don’t see many fast people that don’t also have some muscle.

Usain Bolt muscleUsain Bolt Water Spray

Sprinters are renown for failing drug tests for a reason.

With something like a vertical jump, the relationship tends to be even stronger. Kelly Baggett has done a great job showing how for many, as their squat goes up their vertical jump goes up, and as they get around a 2x bodyweight squat that’s right around where most will be happy with it. (Provided the person also practices some jumping.)

Frank Yang, a former client of Kelly’s, showed this nicely almost a decade ago. As his squat and deadlift went up, so did his vertical jump.

Warning- Frank is, we’ll call it eccentric. He’s been known to offend. Don’t lose sight of the point of the videos.

405 pound squat-

500 pound deadlift-

40 inch vertical jump-

Of course things like how long your achilles tendon matter, but we can’t change that. Where strength becomes the foundation.

  1. Be strong
  2. Be lean
  3. Practice using that strength in a fast manner

With everyday clients, we’ve been ignoring the third part.

I put together a spreadsheet of events going from strength to speed to endurance oriented. I compared the world record to the masters record for 50-54 year olds. I wanted to see, do speed oriented events have a bigger drop off than strength or endurance oriented ones? Because that seems to be the logic, that after ~30 years old speed drops fast, the most, and we have no say over it.

For strength I used raw deadlifts as powerlifting gear throws the numbers all over the place. Deadlifting tends to be the most immune to technique and gear changes anyways e.g. compared to wraps in squatting and nobody knowing what a parallel squat really means. I used some numbers from Powerlifting Watch and USA Powerlifting. For Powerlifting Watch I used the drug free numbers for the all-time record, but I don’t know if masters were / are drug tested (more on that in a minute). So the USA numbers give us some redundancy.

I used two weight classes in case one weight class had something funky going on. Same idea for other events, where multiple events are used for each strength / speed / endurance category.

We’ll go from pure strength / really slow with deadlifting, then we get faster with shot putting then to discus, as a discus is lighter than a shot put.

Then we get faster with high jumping to the 100 meters, even faster to the 4 x100 meter relay as there is a running start, finally moving to endurance. The mile, then virtually pure endurance with the marathon.

Think of it something like moving down this continuum-

almost pure strength -> strength with some speed -> speed with some strength -> speed with some endurance -> almost pure endurance.

All the non-lifting numbers are from Wikipedia.

You can scroll to the right to see everything:

-> Difference (%) = ((Open Record – Masters Record) / (Open Record)) * 100

While a number jumps here and there, overall they’re all about the same. ~15%. A more accurate way would be to look at the top five performances, as while there are no outliers, we likely still have some anomalies in here. For instance, the events with the two biggest drop offs, the shot put and 4 x100 meter record, involve some freaks of nature with Randy Barnes in the shot put -or maybe it was just really windy that day- and three guys who have run under 9.8 seconds on the same 100 meter relay team. That doesn’t come around too often. Though it’s interesting even with Usain Bolt’s -who was on the 100 meter relay team- world record 100 meters, the drop off to 50 year old performance is still in line with the other events. I would have thought that’d be a greater drop. Maybe the 50 year old performance is just as freaky as Bolt’s!

Anyways, I think we get enough of the picture here. There’s nothing indicating that as we get older speed goes down considerably more than strength.

I also wonder if these numbers are bigger than what would happen for everyday people. My guess is masters athletes are much less likely to take drugs compared to it practically being a requisite for world record performance. Where we may be comparing drug users in their 20s to non drug users in their 50s. That would make the drop off even greater.

Even so, it’s worth taking into account what 50 year old people can still do on an absolute scale. We have ourselves a

  • 650 pound deadlift
  • 10.88 second 100 meter dash
  • 4:25 mile

Being older means being slowER. WeakER. But not slow or weak.

And this is relative to performance in your younger years. I commonly train older people who have never been in a gym. Where for them, they can end up being as strong as or stronger than they’ve ever been, due to their 20 year old self not being in shape to begin with. A well trained 50 year old can be in better shape than a couch potato 20 year old.

Once a client has some decent strength; joints are feeling solid, then I regularly implement some speed oriented exercises. Here are some examples from clients of mine:

In his 20s-

30 year olds can do clap push-ups too-

So can people in their late 40s-

Late 50s and still jumping-

A 59 year old who had given up running for about 10 years, hitting 11 miles per hour on the treadmill for a quarter mile-

(You can also see the woman in her early 60s next to her about to start her speed work.)

And a 79 year old working on his reaction time with a ball drill-

That’s a 79 year old with a fused lower back (happened before working with me) and nerve damage in his calves, still working on his reaction time. With a bow at the end (that I accidentally cut off early).

Speed can be worked on just as well as all the other physical qualities, but it needs to be….worked on. You don’t get what you don’t train.

Want to still be working on your speed? Become a client

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Posted in: Miscellaneous, Sports