Learning to Lift at 56 Years Old

How my neighbor went from never touching a barbell to making serious gains with one resistance training session per week.

Jan 14, 2022
I used to think you had to push hard everyday to make fitness gains. I have thankfully evolved. 
I now understand the importance of rest, recovery, and undulating days of high, mid, and low intensity effort. 
Over the last year, I’ve discovered that 4 resistance training sessions per week is my sweet spot. 
I occasionally dip to 3 when life gets crazy. 
I occasionally jump to 5 if I’m on vacation or only have access to dumbbells. 
But all in all, 4 days is what I love right now. But that’s not why we are here today. 
Recently, I’ve learned from first hand experience that even one day of resistance training per week can have a significant impact on a person. 
Had you asked me if this was possible a year ago, I would have said no. Even though I have read scientific studies to the contrary. I was skeptical. 
However, since last spring, I’ve been working with my neighbor once per week and her progress has been nothing short of exceptional. 
Denise is 56 years old.
She has done various sports such as yoga, bar pilates classes, and cardio throughout her life. 
But in April 2021, she picked up a barbell for the first time.
I had gotten to known Denise as neighbors do, in short bursts when she would walk her dog Duke past the open garage. She was curious about the gym and my workouts. 
After a few conversations, I offered to show her the ropes. 
Thinking back on my own fitness journey, I remember feeling so intimidated by the barbell and other equipment in gyms. How do you use it? What if I do it wrong? What is the proper etiquette in the gym? Will I hurt myself? Will someone laugh at me? 
I have spoken to many women in the last couple of years and these fears are widespread. 
Throw in the ever present and extremely frustrating misinformation that “lifting will make you bulky” and it’s easy to see why women don’t embrace this sport… even though it’s one of the keys to feeling your best and looking great. 
When I asked Denise why she didn’t lift before we met, she shared a lot of the reasons above, and pointed out that when she was younger, “they didn’t teach women how to lift”. 
Thinking about a world where women didn’t have the same opportunity to learn about lifting makes me so very sad. 
I also have met many women who have received some lifting education from their well-meaning boyfriend or husband, but they didn’t feel like it was helpful. 
I have nothing against men teaching women to lift - some of my favorite coaches are dudes - but coaches need to understand that different body types require different set ups, stances, and cues. Not the topic for today – but we can go into that later. 
In short, I can only imagine that there is a huge pool of women who would like to lift but who don’t have the confidence or knowledge to do so. This is something I will fight to fix for the rest of my life. 
So Denise comes over to The Pleasant Box for the first time and we jump right in.
My strategy for her has been to focus on the major compound lifts: back squat, deadlift, shoulder press, bench press, and rows. 
As with e v e r y o n e on the planet who wants to learn to lift, Denise started with the barbell. 
We meet on Monday afternoons. After a warm up, a session will look something like: 
Superset
  • Deadlift 3 x 5-8 reps 
  • Bench Press or Pushups: 3 x 8-10 reps Superset 
  • Back Squats: 3 x 5-10 reps
  • Shoulder Press or Rows: 3 x 8-15 reps
These are working sets which means Denise is doing more than 3 sets of each movement as she warms up. We only count the sets when she gets to heavy weight. 
We don’t spend a lot of time on abs or accessories like bicep curls and tricep extensions. Why?
Because the major compound movements will hit all of those areas. We are focused on learning the big ticket items that are going to produce the greatest stimulus in the least amount of time. 
We prioritize two things.
First proper form.
Second, progressive overload, which means that as soon as she can successfully complete a set at a given weight, we go up in weight or reps. 
I write down every set and we track over time. 
In some instances, we took a step back. For example, after a month, I noticed her knees were caving in on squats a little bit. We backed off in weight and corrected the problem. Then we started adding again.
In 8 months, Denise went from never touching a barbell to squatting 100 pounds for 5 reps, deadlifting 105 pounds for 6 reps, shoulder pressing 20 pounds for 6 reps, and getting her first full pushups.
And all of this with one hour long resistance training session per week.
For the record, I did not think this was possible. 
I shouldn’t have been shocked because many studies have shown a minimum amount of resistance training to be very effective especially for beginners and for maintaining your gains.
There is a great review called No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review by Vegard M Iversen, Martin Norum, Brad J Schoenfeld, Marius S Fimland. 
To ruthlessly summarize: weekly training volume is more important than training frequency and they recommend performing a minimum of 4 weekly sets per muscle group using a 6-15 rep max loading range.
Provided you respect the progressive overload principle, you can make gains.  
In Denise’s case, we hit (or come close) to those recommendations in one session. 
How does Denise feel about all of this?!
“I feel stronger, I can see more definition in my abs, legs and arms, and my clothes fit better.” 
Pretty amazing… but wait there's more! 
I asked her why she wanted to start lifting weights in the first place. 
“I was starting to lose my sense of balance. I’m short and I have to step up on stools to reach a lot of things. I was having trouble doing that and started asking my kids to help. But now I have my strength back.” 
Folks! This is why I love resistance training.
It’s our ticket to a kickass second half of life. We do not need to waste away. We can control our quality of life, remain independent, and have fun as we age. 
Denise now feels stronger than ever, can do the things that were feeling too hard, and has noticed that her minor arthritis has not flared up since she started lifting. 
Incredible! 
In conclusion… 
You are never too old to start. 
Lifting is freedom. 
You don’t need to do as much as you think you do to see results.   Progressive overload (doing more over time) is essential.  With that said, it’s important to step back when needed. 
Consistency is key. 
Find a coach who you trust and will push you appropriately. I could (and probably will) write a novel about this topic…
❤️ Thank you Denise for trusting me and pushing yourself every week. It brings me more joy than you could possibly know to watch you gain strength. 
💬 If you have questions about how to get started with lifting, please comment or reply. 
👋 If you are new around here and want more, I suggest reading: