My dear old friend Mrs. Virginia Gustafson Rizan will be 92 very soon. She’s been training here at my gym, the Wichita Falls Athletic Club, for over a year now, and she’s accomplished several very important things. I thought you’d like to know about some of them, primarily because I’m very proud of her, but also because I think it’s important to remind you that you can benefit from strength training too, and that I won’t be accepting your advanced age as an excuse.
1. Gus has gotten much stronger.
When she started in February of last year, she was very frail and could do very little with her body. She showed up with a walker and a cane, and looked for a hand to hold every time she moved. She could leg press 45 pounds for 10 reps, the lightest weight the device permits, and do 30 pounds for 5 on the lat pulldown machine. Those rather conservative exercises were all she could do at the time. Now, she’s leg pressing 115 for 5 reps. Grip strength limits her lat pulldown to about 45 pounds.
She does squats from a box that places her depth at parallel — meaning her hips even with the level of her knees — while holding a 5-pound plate, and the weight is still moving up gradually. The process started with sit-to-stands from a much higher bench, and has progressed to an actual parallel squat over about 6 months. The box is for stability – Gus is not yet able to balance over the whole range of motion of a squat without the box to steady her at the bottom, but that is coming along too.
She deadlifts a barbell in the rack, from a level well below her knees, and has handled 60 pounds for reps.
This exercise is perhaps the most important for her balance, since we give her no support or spotting. She’s responsible for the whole movement herself. And with the bar hanging from her hands, her entire skeleton is loaded, which keeps her bones healthy.
Her bench press, done inside a rack for safety, has been as heavy as 45 pounds for 3 reps. We weren’t satisfied with her range of motion at that weight, after determining that the old gal could in fact lock out her elbows, so now she’s handling about 29 pounds correctly. We’ve recently started her on the standing press with a barbell, and she’s using 14 pounds for 3 or 4 reps.
The conventional resistance exercises we use are the leg press, lat pulldowns, barbell bench press, standing barbell press, partial barbell deadlifts, and squats to a box. More innovative things developed especially for her situation are what we refer to as “movement problems.” These are Gus’s version of “functional training” — they take the place of sports-like movements as typically used in an athlete’s program.
Gus has some macular degeneration, and claims to be fairly blind — I have my doubts as to the extent of her blindness, since she can see me eating all the way across the gym. To improve her ability to move like a younger person, we have her walk around the gym in ways that challenge her ability to negotiate the room, while being sure to keep her safe during the process. She walks across different surfaces at different levels — we have several elevated platforms on the floor — in different rooms between her sets under the bar.
We also have Gus lie down on the mats on the floor and get back up by herself, using a variety of benches and pieces of equipment to help her with handholds.
This has been very helpful for her confidence, and is an extremely specific way for an older person to learn to use her increased strength in a very practical way. For a little conditioning, we have a very light prowler sled she pushes every third or fourth workout, being careful not to get her too tired so as not to interfere with her recovery from the other work.
Gus has some obvious limitations that require a different approach to her training than the basic program of barbell exercises we use for more conventional trainees. She is exposed to more exercises, and as opposed to younger novices who need variation primarily in loading, Gus’s exercises vary quite a bit from the standard six barbell movements we use for most other people. But we still emphasize exercises that require her to balance herself as she moves a load. Squats, deadlifts, and presses share an important feature: you can fall down while you move the load. Not falling down while still moving the load is solving two problems at the same time.
This means that every workout is a little different for Gus. This is neither necessary nor desirable for younger trainees, but for a woman Gus’s age who cannot recover well from constant increases in load, it is imperative that she derive a training stimulus from more infrequent yet still-increasing exposures. The stress/recovery/adaptation cycle still operates, and the Laws of Physiology must be obeyed, but at 92 Gus takes a slightly different approach to the problem.
2. As a result of having gotten stronger, Gus hasn’t fallen in over a year.
This all started when I called to check on her last year, and she told me she had fallen in the house a few times. This made me decide to try a more aggressive approach to her situation, and I made the necessary arrangements for my manager Carmen Phillips to make sure Gus makes it to the gym twice a week, and to train her. Since she started with us she has not fallen in the house.
Even if she does, she knows how to get back up, because she is now strong enough to do so and she knows how, because we practice it at the gym.
But not falling at all is a lot better than getting back up after you fall, since the fall itself can hurt an older person quite badly. A pelvic fracture is very often an injury with fatal consequences at Gus’s age. Balance is the ability to keep your body’s Center of Mass close enough to your feet that any perturbation in position is within your ability to compensate for. Balance is a function of strength, just like agility and athleticism is for athletes. Gus is now strong enough that the common balance problems encountered by most older ladies are not a problem.
3. Since she hasn’t fallen, Gus is now more confident about her physical existence.
She’s not afraid to do things a normally active person enjoys. Her walker stays in the closet now, and her walking cane is now merely a weapon (I gave her a sword cane last year — be very careful what you say to Gus). Leaving the house represents far less of a challenge and is much lower a risk that it was just a couple of years ago. She’s able to enjoy herself in ways she could not before she started training. And she enjoys her time and her friends in the gym, quite a different social exposure than most nonagenarians experience. I can’t think of a better thing for her to do twice a week than challenge herself physically, and overcome the challenge.
3. Gus is liable to be around a while longer than she would have been had she not gotten stronger.
And she’ll be here in ways that makes the time more enjoyable. She’s not immortal — she has diabetes, and complications from this will get her eventually. But the “compression of morbidity” is a very significant feature of this type of approach to exercise. Instead of wasting away in bed, or being so infirm that lots of other people’s time and money must be invested in her last years, Gus will continue to kick asses for a long time.
We’re working with a very special person to begin with: at almost 92, Mrs. Rizan’s mind is sharp, her memory is better than mine, and she has no other significant health complications. There are a few more miles left on the chassis, and the engine has tuned up well. Gus is a collector’s item.