How much should you be working out?
How to be a Man: Rory McIlroy wasn't spending “too much time in the gym”, but are you?
Rory McIlroy at Crooked Stick Golf Club on September 8th, 2016 in Carmel, Indiana. Photograph Andy Lyons/Getty Images
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Golfer Rory McIlroy is the latest in a long line of sporting superstars who has seen a dip in form being attributed to spending “too much time in the gym” – ignoring entirely that McIlroy was spending that time in the gym before he won his grand slams.
The ill-informed opinion came from Brandel Chamblee, a pro-golfer with a history of making comments critical of McIlroy, but they seem to have annoyed the Co Down man.
McIlroy described the comments as a “pet peeve” of his, and attributed his strength and conditioning regime with getting him to where he is.
McIlroy’s comments makes sense. A quality strength and conditioning regime is proven to reduce injury in sport, while also increasing strength, power and endurance; and it is a safe bet that he and his coaching team have carefully thought out the correct balance between gym time and tee-time.
But how much is too much when it comes to training in the gym? How many times a week should men train throughout their life, and how many times should they lift weights?
The annoying (but accurate) answer is “it depends” – on how much time you have, what your general health levels are like, what your goals are, and whether you enjoy spending time in the gym or not.
If you enjoy spending time in the gym and it is your primary form of exercise, then three to four sessions a week might be appropriate.
On the other hand if you are playing another sport and you have a targeted programme to help make you more resistant to injury, then one to two times per week at some points in the season and more often in the off-season might be appropriate.
The ultimate truth about exercise is that you are more likely to succeed if you find something you like and then make time for it. There is no point committing to doing a form of exercise you really don’t enjoy – for me it is running – as it won’t last.
If lifting weights is your preferred form of exercise, then the good news is that it is something you can do throughout your life. I have friends in their 70s who still regularly train and compete in weightlifting and they are far healthier as a result, with strong bones, muscle and connective tissue. And because they enjoy it, they do it regularly.
If going to the gym is the sort of exercise you like to do, here are some points to consider at different stages of your life-cycle.
In your 20s
When it comes to working out we often spend far too much times fretting about the little things and not enough time on the genuinely important things – this is arguably true of all aspects of our life. On the whole we spend too much of our thought process and money on the latest supplement, which will provide at best a very marginal gain, and not enough time eating good whole food on a regular basis, which could make a phenomenal improvement to our health.
Likewise we spend too much time on fad workouts and not enough time learning how to train or to move properly. If you are fortunate enough to start training in your 20s then two of the best things you can do for yourself are to spend some time working on your movement and mobility, and to learn how to squat properly.
It’s not something that most of us ever stop to think about, but by the time we get to 18 most of us have already spent 14 years slumped over a desk for most of the day (at school) and this has a really detrimental effect on our movement patterns and on our mobility. Loading a lot of weight on to a body that is immobile and has poor motor control isn’t a recipe for lifelong health. However, if you learn to lift well now you should be able to do it for the rest of your life.
Spend time working on your mobility – there are a lot of good resources out there – and then learn how to squat.
The squat should be the cornerstone of almost every strength training regime. If you spend time learning to do it well at the start you will build a lot more strength and muscle, and have it for longer.
In your 30s
In your 30s time seems to be a lot scarcer than it was only a few years earlier – work, relationships and more work mean it can be hard to fit in time to exercise. Many men give up team sports in their mid to late 30s as they can’t commit to set training times.
The key to doing anything on a sustainable basis is to commit to what is manageable, and to do something you enjoy. Trying to force yourself to do something that you don’t like or trying to do it too often is not a recipe for a sustained commitment.
While you may have fallen into a team sport in school and done it for a couple of decades, now is a good time to think about what you really enjoy doing. Decide and then do it as often as you can, whether that is badminton or Brazilian ju-jitsu.
If you choose to go to the gym for your workout fix, spend the time you have working on exercises that involve more muscles – squatting, overhead pressing and deadlifting are three good exercises that will get you strong and don’t take long to do.
Whatever exercise you do don’t take shortcuts on quality of movement.
In your 40s
Whether you are starting to train in your 40s or you have been training diligently for more than 20 years at this point, there is one universal truth: you will have to take longer warming up than you used to.
From youth up to old age our muscles, joints and connective tissue are gradually losing a little of their elasticity and it’s important to get your body warm and mobile before you exercise, particularly if you are lifting weights.
Most people underestimate the time they should spend warming up in their 20s and never revise that up as the years pass.
Everyone is individual but time doing the following will be well spent: doing something to raise your core body temperature, doing some slow and controlled bodyweight movements that you are planning on doing with weight later on, and doing some gentle foam rolling before and after you train.
In your 50s
The 50s can be a challenging time for men to figure out what they should be doing for exercise and even if they should be doing something.
While the days of coasting slowly and gently towards the pipe and slippers of retirement are dissipating, there is a significant section of the male population who seems to think that at this point in their lives all physical activity is a thing of the past and that they should be wrapped in cotton wool. That’s not the case!
If you are active and healthy heading into your 50s, as long as your GP is happy for you to keep active there is no reason to reduce exercise levels and every reason to increase them gradually across the decade (within reason).
The “use it or lose it” principle is a simple but prescient one – if you have been active late into your 40s then aim to stay as close to that activity level as possible throughout your 50s. Your body will thank you for it in older age.
If you haven’t been active before now, it isn’t too late to start – if you make a regular appointment to spend some time doing an activity that you enjoy and build it up slowly over time, there is no reason you can’t significantly improve your fitness over the decade and into old age.
In your 60s
Perceptions of what men in their 60s can look like is changing – think more Bruce Willis and less Bertie Ahern – and the number of men in their 60s lifting weights at the gym is gradually increasing each year.
In your 60s and in your 70s it is more important than ever to listen to your body and what it is telling you. Training through pain at any age is ill-advisable, but especially so now.
If you are used to training two to three times a week, there is no reason to stop doing so unless your doctor thinks there are other risk factors at play.
Longer warm-ups and shorter sessions will become the order of the day, but as long as you do that you can minimise injury, keep training hard and even lift heavy (where appropriate).
One of the benefits that we don’t often consider when thinking about the gym is the mental aspect, but socialising with men and women of all ages in a training environment can help keep the motivation to train and stay healthy at the front of the mind.
Being strong isn’t just for the young.
Harry Leech has been Irish team coach at three world championships and eight European championships. He coaches beginners to international level athletes at Capital Strength Weightlifting Club in Dublin 8. For more information see defygravity.ie