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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

Bass & Winett Compare Views on Age Factor

  [CB: The following article (edited and shortened) is taken from MASTER TRAINER (February 2005), a newsletter for lifetime bodybuilders and master athletes published and edited by my friend Richard Winett, PhD. It’s an excellent piece on training as age takes its inevitable toll.  A few days away from 60 and a lifetime trainer, Dick has thought long and hard about this issue, and it shows. Dick and I have a little different perspective on the age factor. He is a health psychologist at Virginia Tech and devoted to the scientific process, while I’m more inclined to make my own tracks. Review of the available research leaves him with a somewhat less hopeful view than mine. Some might say that he’s a realist and I’m an optimist.

It occurred to me that Dick’s well-researched and thoughtful article would be a good vehicle to explore some of our differences. So I asked for and received his permission to insert bracketed comments at appropriate places to contrast our positions—or indicate areas of agreement. It was fun and challenging for me and, hopefully, will help readers formulate their own point of view. Are you a realist or an optimist or perhaps something in between?]

  The ‘Secrets’ to Long-Term Training Success

By Richard Winett, PhD

What are the ‘secrets’ to long-term training success?

The secret is that there are no ‘secrets.’

There are only ideas and lessons, often common sense, that make you successful over the long-term.

Success is defined as your ability to consistently train and reach levels of strength, fitness, and body composition commensurate with your genetic make-up. If you have doubts about what your genetic limits may be consider that if you have been consistently training for at least five to 10 years in some reasonable way, you likely have reached those limits. If you still have some doubts, consider your parents’ physical characteristics and that will provide another good set of indicators. [CB: I don’t like to think in terms of limits. Anyone who has seen early photos of Arnold as a boy in Austria would never dream that he could develop the best physique of his time, much less become Governor of California. Everyone in my family was overweight in their later years and none were fit or exercising at anything approaching my age. You never know what you can accomplish until you try. I’ve been training for over 50 years and still find ways to improve.]

The question for many of us experienced trainees becomes not what our genetic limits may be or how we can get there but how do we remain there? How can we stay successful?

One idea is to train in ways that you prefer and find enjoyable. There’s nothing new with that idea. [CB: Yes, very important for staying motivated.]  

Here is a powerful idea that can be added to your preferences. Perhaps, it is a genuine ‘secret.’

Train in ways that play to your strengths. 

Consider how many of us have spent time trying to alter our training in some way to make up for a genetically based weakness. It’s not much fun.  The reason is that for the most part you can’t overcome a genetic weakness and therefore it’s unlikely that you will ever see very positive results for all your efforts.

When you train in ways that play to your strengths, workouts are fun and if you have realistic expectations, you always see positive outcomes. Fun and positive outcomes are a sure formula for continued training success.

The powerful idea is to do the opposite of conventional advice that advocates focusing on your weaknesses. [CB: For further confirmation, see article 100, “The New Positive Psychology.”]

A second idea, hardly a secret after so many issues of Master Trainer, is that simple training that fits into your lifestyle will provide good results. The results will be as good as anything much more complicated and time consuming. A lesson that many of us have learned from experience is that training protocols requiring heroic efforts to complete each week have to fall by the wayside when anything else comes up in your life. It helps, however, to know that there’s little difference in strength and muscular hypertrophy outcomes between a resistance training protocol that takes 90 minutes a week and one that can take nine hours a week. It removes any inclination to go down that road.

If you are considering any major change to your training that involves more time and effort, simply ask yourself: ‘Given my lifestyle and commitments and responsibilities, can I really do this training program week after week?’ A lesson learned by many of us is if there is some reasonable doubt, don’t do it. [CB: Right on.]

Similar ideas and lessons pertain to diet and nutrition.  Focus on eating a healthier diet that you find tasty and enjoyable and do not make up for any real or perceived deficits in your diet with large dosages of vitamins and supplements.  There’s no evidence that special diets and nutritional aids are needed to optimize your training outcomes.  In fact, some often used vitamins and supplements may have the opposite effects for some people. It’s also difficult to imagine eating foods day in and day out that you do not like. Even if there were some magical foods (fruits and vegetables do come close), eating foods you do not like as if they are medicine you must take in the long run will not work. [CB: Very true.]

There is another set of ideas and lessons involving aging. If you stick around long enough, it happens. You get older and you can’t safely do what you did even a few years before. You either adjust or you pretend and live in the past with all the attendant physical and psychological consequences.

Attempting to train with the same absolute resistance you used years before, or worse, trying to duplicate records you made in your prime – now many years later – is a prescription for failure as the years mount. Unless you’re still comparatively young or a personal record you’re trying to beat was soft, you’ll likely get injured by continuing to train as you did before and fall short of the personal record.

If you are set on ‘equaling’ a record from many years before, consider a correction factor for age. From the peak of your strength at 35 or even 40, an age correction factor is 1% less strength per year with a greater strength loss after 60. If you were able to use 200 lbs on a movement for 6 repetitions at 35, you would break your personal record if at age 50 you could use the same form in the same exercise and use 175 lbs for 6 repetitions. [CB: I don’t like such formulas, especially those that show a built-in decline. While they may be generally accurate, they may not apply to you. An example is the formula found in many exercise physiology books that says maximum heart rate declines one beat per year, whether or not you train. It’s not true for everyone. Mine hasn’t declined in 25 years; see FAQ 3, item 2. Plus, we all change. I was about 30 pounds heavier when I did my best squat. Comparing then and now is like comparing apples and oranges. More meaningful, and far more empowering, to think in terms of improving on what you’re doing now. For example, I didn’t do 20 reps in the squat back then (and never do singles now), which gives me a new area for improvement. It’s counterproductive to think about the distant past. I almost never do it.] 

A good way to look at aging and another powerful idea is that at each point in your life you can find new challenges that are interesting and motivating. With training, for example, small changes to a simple, long enduring protocol that take into account physiological consequences of aging can set you up for great training for a number of more years. Or, at some point, while keeping the ideas and lessons about playing to your strengths and simplicity in mind, you may embark on something quite new and beneficial. [CB: Exactly.]

  Effective Protocols for Experienced Trainees

 Recent issues have emphasized that research shows simple training protocols are effective for strength and muscular hypertrophy regardless of training status. There is no need to use special performance of repetitions, multiple sets of each exercise, periodization, or virtually any other particular way to perform resistance training. [CB: I believe periodization is one of the secrets of long-term success, because it keeps training fresh and always moving forward; see article 8.]

That still leaves a wide variety of possible training protocols. For example, for experienced trainees (anyone consistently training for more than two years) studies show that nine exercises for one set each performed in a whole body routine three times per week1 produced similar outcomes to a split routine. The split routine involved three exercises for one set each for each muscle group with short ‘muscle group’ workouts performed four times per week and each muscle group trained once per week2. The two ‘simple’ routines varied in volume, frequency, and exercise selection yet with experienced trainees produced about the same outcomes.

Another study with experienced trainees compared a whole body routine with one set per exercise performed three times per week with the same routine performed once per week but with three sets per exercise3.  At the end of the study, the group training three times per week showed marginally better outcomes (significant differences on one measure out of a number of measures) than the group training once per week. However, over the course of the study, differences between the groups narrowed. It is likely over years of training that any differences in outcomes between such training regimes would approach zero.

The results of these studies suggest that different simple routines produce similar outcomes and that personal preferences [are a sound basis for] following a particular protocol. Most of us also would like to believe that we’re using the most effective protocol for us. [CB: If you enjoy what you’re doing and believe it’s effective, it probably is. Believe in yourself.]


There are a number of other facets of training that can be considered and tailored to your preferences and experiences. Here is one example.  Everyone is urged to keep a training diary. Yet, there do not appear to be any research studies comparing training with and without a training diary over time. We really do not know how effective this strategy is. [CB: It never occurred to me that I need a study to tell me whether or how to keep a training diary. If I relied on studies, I wouldn’t have started training in my early teens; I might still be at the starting gate.] Even assuming that record keeping is an important part of self-regulation processes that facilitate performing tasks entailing effort and consistency, we do not really know what form those records should take to be most effective. Here again is an area where personal preferences and history will indicate what to do. For example, some people love and do well with detailed records while other people prefer and can do quite well by keeping everything in their head.  Some people may want to have all their records on a computer with spreadsheets and algorithms while a simple notebook will suffice for other people. [CB: All excellent points.]

A good part of assessing your success involves having realistic expectations. Let’s look at realistic expectations for middle-aged to older experienced trainees.

As discussed in prior issues and illustrated with cross-sectional data from Olympic lifters and power lifters across the age spectrum, strength declines with age. After age 35-40, strength appears to decline about 1% per year and declines more rapidly at around and after the sixth decade of life. Similar patterns have been found for aerobic capacity.  If you’ve been training for a number of years, are middle-aged or older, and performing the same or similar exercises, you need to take the inevitable effects of aging into account when evaluating the effectiveness of your training. [CB: If you expect to decline, you surely will. See article 97, “Learned Optimism.”]

There’s no reason, however, to look at this prospect as a case of the ‘cup being half empty’.

Let’s say for a particular exercise you can use in good form 100 lbs for 10 repetitions. That is the maximum that you can use and every several months you work up to that point. By consistently training and avoiding injury, even as you’ve gotten older you can still perform the 100 x 10. In fact, you’ve been able to maintain that level for the last five years.

Because we have been used to thinking about an effective routine as one where there is discernible ‘progress,’ one conclusion is on that specific exercise no progress has been made. You even may feel disappointed and frustrated with your training. However, you’ve really made progress and should not be disappointed much less frustrated. Here’s why.

Data from cohorts of lifters suggest that after five years if you were middle-aged or older we would be safe to predict that the best you could do is 95 x 10. You would have lost 1% of your strength each year. If you were near or past your sixth decade of life, then the prediction is that you would lose more strength.  Likely after five years, you would only be able to perform 10 repetitions with 92. [CB: The 1%-per-year rule of thumb may have little, if any, application to individuals who continue to train at a competitive level. They do not decline at the 1%-per-year rate until they reach their early 70s; see article 26c, “The Competitive Edge.”]

By still being able to perform 100 x 10, you’ve found a very effective way to train and have made considerable progress. Instead of only being able to perform 10 repetitions with 92 to 95, you are able to do 100 x 10.  For an experienced, middle-aged to older trainee to gain 5% to 8% is an astounding feat. Consider that a younger person who has trained consistently for a few years may only be able to gain 5% to 10% more strength. You would have duplicated that degree of progress.

Realistic expectations can help you assess what is the most effective way for you to train and to see that the ‘cup is more than half filled.’ [CB: Agreed, but realistic for one person may be underperformance for another. If you think you can, you probably can.]


  1. Hass CJ Garzarella L, De Hoyos D, Pollock ML. Single versus multiple sets in long-term recreational weightlifters. Medicine and Science in Sport sand Exercise.  2000; 32:  235-42.
  2. Ostrowski KJ, Wilson GJ, Weatherby R, Murphy PW, Little AD. The effect of weight training volume on hormonal output and muscular size and function.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 1997; 11:  148-54.
  3. McLester JR, Bishop P, Guilliams ME. Comparison of 1 day and 3 days per week of equal-volume resistance training in experienced subjects. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.  2000; 14: 273-81.

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