Strength, Stability and Flexibility Training

Essentials for improving functionality

With more than 35 years in the fitness and health industry, I see each January a renewed interest in new ways of trying to get fit or stay fit, finding new ways to move one’s body. As someone nearing the Big Five-0, you might ask yourself: what’s new for me – the older athlete – this year? For starters, you’re frequently reminded by your fit but aging body that you’re not so young anymore. You might already be somewhat experienced in how entropy stalks all physical systems that don’t get used enough. Hamstring cramps are beginning to plague you on the bike. Standing in balance on one leg is now tougher than it looks. Twenty pushups leaves you struggling. This new year, how about a thoughtful reassessment of what’s really important at this stage of your athletic training life?

Cardiovascular activities such as running, swimming or biking have always been your go-to form of movement. You’ve occasionally dabbled in gym-based strength training and in group functional fitness training classes like my Hour Of Power HIIT class. You’ve postured over yoga, pooh-poohed pilates, but you always stretch your hamstrings before a ride or run – all good things! But, have you, as an aging athlete beset by annoying reminders of your current limitations, given serious thought to the proven synergetic effects of including regular strength, stability and flexibility training along with your cardio training?

The aging athlete who also embraces strength, stability and flexibility training remains physically integrated; avoids overuse injuries; retains strength, endurance and muscle mass; moves in balance and has a higher work capacity than someone who just trains cardio. The hundreds of older clients I’ve coached and trained, and a lifetime of my own training and racing experiences have helped shaped my perspective on how to avoid a slow unravelling in your older years, complete with muscle imbalances, stability issues and the steady loss of overall capacity. The answer is simple, reach into your essential tool kit, grab Strength, Stability and Flexibility training (SSF Training) and work them into your daily and weekly exercise routine.

In this article:

How strength, stability and flexibility (SSF) training can help you avoid injuries and retain your game as you age, and what you can do on your own and with help from a pro.

Strength Training

Why you may want to include strength training: you’re thinking about that spontaneous push-up contest last week with your 14 year old son: when did you lose the ability to do more than 20 pushups before collapsing?

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Strength Training (or weight or resistance training) can be described as a physical activity designed to improve muscular strength and fitness by stimulating specific muscles or muscle groups against external resistance. At its heart, strength training is based on functional movements — lifting, pushing, pulling — in order to build muscle and coordination needed for everyday. This could include free-weights, weight machines (some, not all), or simply your own body weight. The many benefits include strengthening not just your muscles, but your bones, joints and connective tissue. It increases metabolism, improves posture and helps to prevent potential injury. 

And perhaps even more relevant, did you know that hormone production rates start dropping as early as 35 years old? Strength work can delay, even prevent that. As we age we experience decreased levels of important hormones that are critical to the production of muscle. These hormones include human growth hormone and testosterone. The process is known as Sarcopenia, and it is a major challenge for aging athletes whether they be competitive or recreational. Fortunately, studies have found that an effective way to combat this natural loss of muscle is to embark on a consistent and rigorous strength training program year-round. It is important to point out that sarcopenia has no “off” season, so there’s not time like the present! Making strength training a central part of your year-round training program is critical not only to maintain current levels of performance, but also reduces possible over-use injuries (tendonitis) sustained in whatever aerobic training you do (swim, bike, run). This in turn allows for you to ‘stay in the game’ with potential improvements in performance, as opposed to nursing an injury and not train to your potential.

Depending on the time of year, strength is aimed at optimizing skeletal support, muscular efficiency, strength gains, muscular endurance, and the development of our whole body as a unit. Progression in strength training is essential to achieve improvements. Including a number of challenging workouts or periods during the training year is critical. Just like the “base-build-peak” periodization of one’s cardiovascular training, periodizing your strength training by including at least one strength “build” period during the year is necessary for improvement. Attempt to include exercises that most closely replicate the movements that you make in whatever sport you are into. So stop doing bicep curls! Start with multi-joint multi-muscle Functional Movement Patterns. Good examples are barbell squats for cyclists and runners, or pull-ups with a core contraction for swimmers. Some of these exercises are conducted as “max strength” elements and others as “general strength” elements.

Max Strength exercises utilize added weight that will allow the athlete to complete as few as 6 reps or generally about 90% of maximum capacity. (I’m not a big fan of 1 Repetition Max training simply because of the risk involved).These exercises are critical for both power development and efficiencyGeneral Strength exercises utilize higher reps (12-15) to elicit movement efficiency, and muscular endurance. There’s a time and a place for both forms of training!

Strength training is a potent pathway to muscular power and endurance. A little goes a long way. Think of functional and practical exercises. Think of multi-joint actions that engage simultaneously lots of muscles in both upper and lower body. Think of hiring a professional to teach you the fundamentals of independent training.

  1. Portable Power: Learn from a pro over two or three sessions how to push and pull your body weight from various angles, assisted with stretchy bands and a suspension trainer for a complete, full-body, functional workout that you can reproduce on your own anywhere at any time. No gyms. No crowds. No germs. Using a personal trainer to teach you how to not need a personal trainer is truly cutting the strings and putting yourself on a pathway of independent training for life.
  2. Personal Power: Hire an experienced personal trainer for weekly or twice weekly sessions for a period of time to guide you through the myriad possibilities for nuanced, informed, progressive strength training. This combination of guided and independent strength training allows you to go deep into the world of fun, functional and challenge. Know what your trainer knows and build on that.
  3. Group Power: Take my weekly or twice weekly group HIIT class. HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training and the effect is a greater quantity of work per unit of time, spread over more muscles and joints, challenging them in a practical, functional workout involving a plethora of cool tools.

Stability Training

Why you may want to include stability training:  you’re recalling that yoga class last year where you simply could not stand on one leg in balance? “When did nuanced balance take a hike from my skillset?”, you asked yourself.

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Stability refers to performing exercises while in a/on a unstable platform or surface with the goal of activating smaller muscle stabilizers in and around our joints at the knees, ankles, hips, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. These small muscles may get neglected with other forms of traditional training. An example stability exercise is a Single-Leg Deadlift whereby you stand on on 1 leg while the floating leg is behind you and perform your Deadlift. Sounds easy, but it isn’t for most athletes! Effectively and efficiently performing this simple exercise depends on the recruitment of “stabilizer” muscles in and around the hip, knee and ankle so that you remain linear. If you can train those often neglected smaller muscles, the bigger muscles will work less and therefor more efficiently.

For those entering into the second half of their lives, stability becomes even more important. How often have you heard of an elderly person falling down simply because they lost their balance? My mother was a victim of a bad fall due to losing her balance and ended up with a broken hip as a result. Had she done her homework balance exercises, this could have been avoided. Use it or lose it!

Stability training is by far the simplest of these training essentials to incorporate into your daily routine. Try standing on one leg for a minute and then repeat with the other leg while you wash the dishes. No big deal? As a seasoned cyclist, may be amazed to feel fatigue building in the stabilizing muscles of the hip. Unless you're out of the saddle, these deep posture muscles are getting a free ride!

Here's another far more eccentric, exciting and challenging option for the fitter active older adult. Try a hacky sack for 5-10 minutes every day. You may eventually thank me for sharing this training tidbit. If this activity was not a staple of your youth, there's nothing quite like hacky sack for recruiting posture, stability, balance and coordination in a spontaneous playful way. For the past few months, I've carried a footbag or hacky sack in my general gear bag and play for 5-10 minutes a couple of times per week, more often when I think about it. Here's two things about footbagging or hacky sacking. First, the worse you are, the more you work you glutes and back muscles as you spend most of your time picking up the footbag. Do the pick-up while standing on one leg each time. You will be surprised to find out how quickly you will relax and settle into this focusing activity. Before long, you'll be connecting 5 or 6 in a row before having to pick up the footbag!

Here's a great local source for footbags of all sorts with a physical store and online sales:

https://www.zumiez.ca/accessories/hacky-sacks.html

Flexibility Training

Why you may want to include flexibility training: you are beginning to experience reoccurring, debilitating hamstring cramps these days when you’re in the saddle for more than two hours.

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Flexibility is another essential element that will allow one to progress to a powerful and efficient athlete. Flexibility is the ability of a joint or series of joints to move through an unrestricted, pain-free Range Of Motion (ROM). This is the often neglected part of training.

I’ve experienced many competitive runners who have extremely tight hips, hamstrings and calves due to a myriad of reasons: the demands of running cause tightness, they are naturally inflexible, and/or they don’t stretch. I always ask them 1 simple question: what muscle group will perform better; a strong/tight muscle group or a strong/flexible (full ROM) muscle group?

Flexibility can be broken down into 3 types: longer (30-60sec) passive/relaxed, shorter (1-3sec) active/contracted flexibility, and something in between these two. Your hamstrings are an excellent muscle group to differentiate between each type. A longer more passive hamstring stretch would be seated with your legs in front of you whilst you flex or bend your upper torso towards your feet. A shorter more dynamic hamstring stretch would be a standing forward single leg swing. Active stretches require caution so be mindful of how far you can kick your leg forward. The yoga pose, Downward Dog is an excellent example of a relaxed and contracting stretch at the same time.

Fitting flexibility into the busy schedule of most athletes is a challenge and it is best to be creative with how to sneak flexibility into one’s routine. Spending as little as 10min at the end of most days is a great way to fit this often neglected form of fitness training. I’ve found great value in making yoga a regular part of my fitness routine for the simple reason that yoga has a very strong flexibility component. I walk away from a yoga class feeling more ‘bendy’, supple and limber than ever! As an aging athlete myself, I will tend to bend less, step shorter and jump lower if I don’t stimulate that area of my fitness routine. I keep reminding myself, “Use it or lose it!”

I’m a big believer in yoga as a pathway to improved flexibility. It can be done on your own or through a class. Yoga draws your attention away from your head and into every fibre of your body. Yoga calms the mind while attending to the flexibility needs of the body. Yoga amounts to “stretching with purpose” that also engages tall posture, fine balance and coordination simultaneously, physical capacities also lost to the sands of time through disuse.

I love this Youtube channel: Down Dog Yoga, one of a zillion channels and websites devoted to getting folks started with yoga. Within their selection of instructional videos, this is a great place to start:

Yoga for Complete Beginners, Day 1 – A 12 Minute Home Yoga Workout

Strength, Stability and Flexibility Training – How Much?

The answer is “it depends” and “it will change.” I advocate for year-round SSF training. But further, your goals should be a function of what you want to get from your sport, be it for increased fitness, increased performance in a competitive setting, or the simple pleasure of moving in a healthier more efficient manner. But fundamental to endurance sport is strength, stability and flexibility. Without it, one’s enjoyment of sport, will be compromised.

For athletes with expectations for moderate improvements, two SSF sessions per week would suffice with as little as 30min per session. Yes, 1 session is better than no sessions. However, if you were a runner and only ran once per week, would you improve? Probably not! The same applies to your strength routine. To further that, two sessions per week @ 45-60min per session is a solid standard. Your fellow competitors will likely be doing at least this type of cross training and you will too if you expect to be competitive. The 3 session protocol in the off-season allows for much faster progressions, since the point of the off-season is to focus on building a stronger foundation. However, there can be a tipping point of diminishing returns if there’s too much of an emphasis on Strength if done more than 3 sessions per week, especially when you’re trying to pile on the miles ‘in-season’. But from my viewpoint, most endurance athletes want to be honing their craft (triathlon, cycling, xc skiing, etc) ‘in-season’ and not training in the gym excessively. The timeframe for noticeable improvements in SSF training is roughly 3 months at 2 sessions per week as a minimum, but as I’d mentioned before, making this a year-round commitment will benefit both the competitive athlete and aging populations.

And at the end of the day, enjoyment is the point! Get training SSF style!

To your best efforts,

Andrew Tuovinen,
Athletic Endeavours Personal Training and Multi-sport Endurance Coaching 

NCCP & Triathlon Canada Certified Level 2 Coach
Canfit & BCRPA Certified Personal Trainer
TRX Suspension Trainer Certified

References Used In The Composition Of This Article:

1) Santos, L., Elliott-Sale, K. J., & Sale, C. (2017). Exercise and bone health across the lifespan. Biogerontology, 18(6), 931-946. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10522-017-9732-6

2) Stavres, J., Zeigler, M. P., & Pasternostro Bayles, M. (2018). Six weeks of moderate functional resistance training increases basal metabolic rate in sedentary adult women. International Journal of Exercise Science, 11(2), 32-41. https://digitalcommons.wku.edu/ijes/vol11/iss2/2

3) Oftedal, S., Smith, J., Vandelanotte, C., Burton, N. W., & Duncan, M. J. (2019). Resistance training in addition to aerobic activity is associated with lower likelihood of depression and comorbid depression and anxiety symptoms: A cross sectional analysis of Australian women. Preventive medicine, 126, 105773. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2019.105773

4) Vikberg, S., Sörlén, N., Brandén, L., Johansson, J., Nordström, A., Hult, A., & Nordström, P. (2019). Effects of resistance training on functional strength and muscle mass in 70-year-old individuals with pre-sarcopenia: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 20(1), 28-34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jamda.2018.09.011

5) The Association of Flexibility, Balance, and Lumbar Strength with Balance Ability: Risk of Falls in Older Adults. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3990889/