Strength Training at Age 92 With Mark Rippetoe

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.