Ask Greg: Starting Weightlifting at a Late Age & Plateauing
Diane Asks: I am a crossfitter turned strictly to weightlifting the past 2 years and have been able to compete at local meets and do well considering my short time practicing. My problem is, I began competitive lifting at 29 and am now 32. I know I'm not that old, but I feel beat down more often than not, getting nagging injuries more consistently and just feeling stuck in a training rut. I guess I'm wondering, at about what age is it normal to start plateauing? And is it different for lifters who started young vs those of us that started late in the game?
Greg Says: It’s a totally different game starting this or any other sport at 30 years old versus in childhood. The development process is different and the ultimate potential is different. Imagine starting weightlifting at the age of 12—by now, you’d have been training the lifts for 20 years. Your motor patterns would be so ingrained at this point, you’d never even think about how you were lifting, just focus on aggression. Your body would have developed for 20 years to manage the stresses of training of this exact nature and you’d have the ability to endure quite a bit of training stress productively. When you start so late, you’re essentially trying to compress 10 years of long-term athletic development into 1-2 years. This is possible from a conceptual standpoint (i.e. you can learn about lift technique, understand it, and practice it), but you can’t accelerate the physical elements.
Everyone’s training capacity will begin to wane eventually, usually by the late 20s or early 30s. A lifter who starts at the ideal age (12-14 or so) is still going to see his or her maximal volume capacity peak around the mid to late 20s—this is just an unfortunate fact of biology. This process can be slowed somewhat through better lifestyle, nutrition and training practices, but it’s inevitable, even if you’re going to the lengths of hormonal therapy.
So you’ve come into the game already at the chronological point when your capacity is beginning to flag—right from the start, you won’t have quite as much durability or capacity for volume and intensity. I realize I’m painting a fairly bleak picture, but this is a basic reality one has to accept.
All this being said, there is a big difference between not being able to handle as much work and not being able to progress as quickly or as much ultimately, and not being able to progress at all or feeling beat down. If you are new to anything, you will be able to make progress over time, at least until the latent potential of your newness is capped by your physical limits for workload—this should be a fairly long period of time if you keep yourself healthy. In other words, you shouldn’t be “plateauing” yet.
You have to be far more diligent with lifestyle choices and preventative measures than your teenage counterparts in order to stay healthy (in terms of joint pain, mobility, injuries, etc.). A considerably larger part of your overall training time will have to be dedicated to things like foam rolling, stretching, contrast hydrotherapy, massage, better nutrition practices, better sleep practices, and the like.
You also need to be training in an appropriate fashion for both your biological age and your training age. That is, because of your biological age, you won’t be able to handle maximal volume and frequency—you can’t lift as much as your younger counterparts. You also need to be sure your training program is suitable for your level of training experience. Because of the current accessibility of information and training ideas on the internet now, it’s common for newer lifters to get in way over their heads with training programs. It’s akin to the skinny kid trying to use the professional bodybuilders’ training programs from his favorite magazine when I was a kid—the training isn’t appropriate and therefore not effective.
I would reduce your training volume for 2-3 weeks, then gradually ramp it back up and find the average level that stimulates progress without beating you up too much. Use fewer exercises and put more effort into what you are using—stick to the most important lifts such as the snatch, clean, jerk, squats and pulls. Don’t bother with the latest fancy thing you’ve seen on YouTube except to play around with it briefly and occasionally for fun.
Finally, remember that this is a sport, and discomfort, frustration and temporary stalling are all part of sport—learn to distinguish what’s part and parcel of the activity, and what are signs that you’re doing something wrong.