The Starting Strength Coaches Who Taught An 88 Year Old To Deadlift…

Beau Bryant, Dr. Austin Baraki, CJ Gotcher, Eric Shugars, Dr. Jonathon Sullivan

 

Apparently we have caused something of an internet ruckus.  In the event you haven’t seen our video making its rounds on social media, here it is:

And here is a link to the original Facebook post:  https://www.facebook.com/419913101430743/videos/1111513308937382/

As I write this there have been over 2.6 million views, 26 thousand shares, and 4.3 thousand comments. All in about a week. The elderly deadlifting is obviously popular.  In the eyes of the general public, an elderly person strength training is clearly remarkable.  However, in the eyes of a Starting Strength Coach the fact that that an elderly person can squat, press and deadlift is less than remarkable.  It is less than remarkable to us because we teach EVERYONE to squat, press and deadlift.  Every single person who walks into our gym will learn to strength train utilizing the basic barbell lifts or some variation to accommodate for age and injury history.  We do it every day and we have helped thousands of people learn how to gain strength using a barbell.  And we have very good reasons why we do it for everyone, particularly the elderly – they quite possibly need it more than anyone else.

Mrs Fox began training with us shortly after suffering from a pretty severe fall.  Her face was still black and blue from the fall, and her wrist was still sore the day she started training.  X-rays revealed no fractures and we began training about 10 days after the fall.  As Starting Strength Coaches, we choose the basic barbell lifts (possibly modified for age and injury history) to get a person stronger as fast and safely as possible.  The likely hood of a fall increases as we age due to lack of strength.  Lack of balance is often mistaken for lack of strength – absent a problem with the inner ear balance is usually never the problem.  The crux of the problem is simply lack of strength. To understanding this fact simply stand up on your own two feet.  Stand with arms at your side, legs straight and weight on the middle of the foot.  Now lean forward slightly. You will feel your calf muscles contract to prevent any more foreword lean. Now return the weight to the middle of your foot and lean backwards slightly.  You will feel your quads contract to help prevent you from falling backwards.  If we lack sufficient strength in these muscles, eventually enough of a loss of balance happens that the muscles lack sufficient force to return the body into balance. The body begins to fall and gravity wins.  The moment we begin making you stronger we are decreasing your likelihood of a fall.  There is urgency and we need to do it as efficiently as possible.  The barbell accomplishes this better than anything else.  You can read more about this here.

So, how does this process start for an 88 year old women who has never been in a gym?  Believe it or not it is pretty simple and every Starting Strength Coach in the country can do it. Mrs Fox began practicing the Starting Strength modeled squat from a box set up just below parallel.  Her first sets of squats needed some assistance to stand. Once she mastered the hip drive from the box she finished the session able to stand on her own without assistance.  If you want to see true joy, teach someone who can not stand on their own without some form of assistance to get up on their own. Needless to say she was pretty excited.  We then taught her to press with a 5 pound training bar.  Our second session revisited the squat and we taught her to deadlift with that same training bar and 5 pound training plates.  She deadlifted 15 pounds on her first day.  And so it went from there.  She trained every Tuesday and Thursday for several months.  Slowly making progress.  Slowly adding weight to the bar as she got stronger.

mrs-foxToday Mrs Fox can squat for sets of 5 reps while holding a 25 pound dumbbell in a goblet squat, press 27.5 pounds and as seen in the video can deadlift 88 pounds.  Absolutely none of this was possible when she walked in the door.  She is STRONGER today than she was at 87 years old.  Increasing her ability to produce force has had a dramatic impact on her daily life.  She can hang her laundry without taking breaks due to arm fatigue.  She can move 50 pound bags of mulch on her own without calling a neighbor to help.  She even walks to the gym.  Most importantly, she has not fallen again since beginning strength training.  This is why we teach 88-year-olds to squat, press and deadlift.  There are simply no greater tools to increase strength than the basic barbell lifts and a skilled coach.

With over 4.3 thousand comments clearly lots of people had something to say about Mrs Fox pulling a loaded barbell from the floor.  The overwhelming majority were positive.  Most loved seeing her excitement when she hit a goal she had clearly been working on for quite some time.  We share video like this to celebrate the trainees accomplishment and with the hope it will be the spark to drive someone else to start the journey of getting stronger.  I’d be willing to bet the majority of people over 60 years old have no idea they could possibly begin strength training with a barbell to build strength and muscle mass.  Seeing someone their age or older doing something you think impossible can have a powerful impact on getting them moving.

Of course not everyone sees things this way.  One thing good strength coaches know, if you post a video of the elderly or a child lifting a barbell you better be prepared for the uninformed to let you know how dangerous it is.  When I posted the video at 8am I had an idea it would be popular. You don’t see an 88 year-old-woman – dressed like she was out for tea with friends on her birthday – deadlifting a new personal best every day.  It didn’t take long for the usual comments like “I can think of a thousand moves that are far healthier for this woman than a deadlift”, “she’s going to destroy her spine by lifting with her back like that”, and “ I can see a vertebral compression fractures any second”.  Those that understand the basics of adaptation, are trained to actually coach the barbell lifts and understand the benefits of increased force production can wave off comments like this from the uninformed.  The issue is that we are trying to convince the general public of the same benefits Mrs Fox has reaped from getting stronger.  This is a difficult job when nearly everyone around them seems to think that strength training is dangerous.  As Starting Strength Coaches we have taught thousands of people to squat, press and deadlift.  An amazing thing happens when you start a person where they are capable and slowly increase the stress over time.  They ALL get stronger.  Every one of them.  And stronger is better.  Stronger makes your physical life easier.  Stronger makes most of those nagging back and knee pains go away.

There is little doubt Mrs Fox has inspired many to find a strength coach and start strength training.press  There’s also little doubt that some of the “experts” with uninformed opinions prevented a few from every starting and that’s a shame.  This stuff is too important for anyone to miss out on.  While we can’t address every negative comment and concern from the uninformed public what we can do is continue to try to educate those that need to increase strength about the benefit of barbell training.  I have asked several fellow Starting Stength Coaches take a look at the Facebook Post that went viral and address some of the misinformed internet experts who raised concerns over an 88 year old deadlifting.  These are some of the best strength coaches in the country and arguably have more experience training the over 60 population with basic barbell strength training than anyone else.

One of the common responses to the video was “the trainers are irresponsible for having an 88 year old deadlift that much weight”.  Of course if we had an 88 year old deadlift that much weight on her first day it would be irresponsible.  This is obviously not what happens.  Eric Shugars explains how we get to a nearly 100 pound deadlift for Mrs Fox.  Eric is a Starting Strength Coach at Westminster Strength and Conditioning.  He has a degree in Kinesiology and has been a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist since 2012.

The human body is an amazing machine with the ability to change to reflect the demands placed upon it. When a person is exposed to a certain stimulus (or lack thereof), the body begins the process of better preparing itself should it encounter the same situation again. This process occurs in all humans – young or old, male or female. As strength coaches we use this continuous cycle as the basis for how we construct a training program – the key for us is to determine the right type and amount of stress to elicit the change we want.

We use barbells for this because, simply put, a barbell is the most efficient tool we have for stressing your body as a system. It offers a way to load normal human movement with virtually any weight, making it possible to scale movements to anyone – from the deconditioned elderly to the professional athlete. In a movement like a deadlift the weight of the bar is carried through the arms and shoulders, down the torso, through the legs, and to the ground. Every single piece of this kinetic chain is carrying part of the stress. Muscles do the heavy lifting, but they aren’t the only things involved. Bones respond to the magnitude of the load. Tendons and ligaments grow stronger along with the muscles. Even your heart and blood vessels adapt. As the weight on the bar is increased from workout to workout, literally every part of your body adapts and becomes stronger.

What most people will miss from this video is all the work that occurred over several months to build up to 88 pounds. When someone first comes to work with any of us, they will finish their first workout by pulling a set of five deadlifts at a weight we deem appropriate for them. For an elderly client, this may be as low as just a couple pounds (at Westminster Strength and Conditioning we can use PVC pipes or bars as low as 5 kilograms with plastic bumper plates to use). For this person, that load is enough to create exactly the stimulus we want. We tell them to go home, eat well and sleep, and come back in a few days.

What many people will get wrong in this situation is a lack of progression the next time they train. If this person came in diligently over the next several weeks and lifted the exact same weight, they would never get any better than they did after that first week. After an exposure to a stimulus, the amount of stress needs to be increased the next time in order for any meaningful change to happen. You have to give your body a reason to adapt. Your body’s not going to get stronger just because you want it to.

So we add five pounds to the bar the second deadlift workout. It is not such a huge jump in weight that form erodes (in fact, you get better at deadlifting as you do it more often), but it is a slightly larger stress than your body encountered before. Your body recognizes this, and just like the last stress you recover and your body adapts. Then five more pounds are added to the bar and the process repeats itself over and over.


There were concerns raised in the comments by a few orthopedic surgeons, who reported that they had operated on a number of elderly patients like Ms. Fox who had suffered vertebral compression fractures and stress fractures from picking up far less weight than her 88 lb deadlift. The implication, of course, being that Ms. Fox was being subjected to a high degree of risk of similar fracture through her training. To answer the concerns of an orthopedic surgeon we asked Dr Austin Baraki to help us out.  Dr Austin Baraki is a Starting Strength Coach and resident physician in Internal Medicine at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, Texas. He received his doctorate in Medicine from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia and his B.S. in Chemistry from The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

press2Orthopedic surgeons often make similar claims and recommendations regarding squats being “bad for the knees,” deadlifts “bad for the back,” and presses “bad for the shoulders”. They unfortunately tend to see a very selected patient population — the already injured — resulting in a number of biases and misconceptions about the safety of resistance training. If all they see are patients with chronically painful knees, backs, and shoulders, it’s hardly surprising that they make these claims.

But consider that there exists a weight at which everyone can safely perform the basic barbell exercises without pain or injury. The job of the coach is to help the trainee find this starting weight — however light it might be — and from here take advantage of the continuous, lifelong, inevitable cycle of adaptation in response to stress. Ms. Fox did not attempt to deadlift 88 lbs on her first day — because that would be irresponsible. She gradually titrated the load upward over time, forcing her body to adapt until the 88 lb deadlift was possible to perform safely.

Consider the alternative – if she had not chosen to begin training, the lack of any meaningful stress would have resulted in a continued decline in health, strength, and bone density. This would certainly predispose her to falls, fractures, and ultimately landed her on the orthopedic surgeon’s operating table.

Instead of ending up under the knife — get yourself under a bar.


Probably one of the most common criticisms of the video was the form used for the deadlift.  Many people felt Mrs Fox was deadlifting using her back and she would certainly hurt herself if we didn’t teach her the proper way to “lift with her legs”. This is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but nobody really knows what it means.  For this we asked Starting Strength Coach CJ Gotcher to explain why the deadlift is a back exercise and why she used the form she used in the video to deadlift.  CJ is a barbell strength and conditioning coach with a passion for general health, high school athletes, and military preparation/selection. CJ completed 6 years as an active duty Naval Officer and is currently in the reserves, coaching out of north San Diego County, CA.

“Don’t lift with the back”

We’ve all heard this well-meaning advice since we were young. As the story goes, you should pick everything up by bending your knees and squatting down, keeping the back as upright as possible. Several commenters cautiously wagged their fingers at Mrs. Fox’s coach, saying that having her lift with a horizontal back is dangerous.

Quite the opposite, actually. As a Starting Strength Coach, Beau has her lift that way for several reasons:
1) It places the bar over the middle of the foot, so Mrs. Fox doesn’t have to do any extra work to lift the weight.
2) It places her shoulders just forward of the bar so that her lats can assist both in lifting the weight and maintaining a healthy curve in the lower spine.
3) Her limb proportions require it. She has long legs, specifically long femurs (thigh bones), which means she’s going to be more horizontal than others might be in order to make the previous two points happen, an individual difference that must be accounted for.

I don’t use the word “require” lightly, either. When picking something up off the floor, you can really only “squat” a relatively light weight. As the object gets heavier and the legs alone are insufficient to pull the bar up from its inefficient position forward of the midfoot, the lifter has no choice but to lean farther forward, pull the knees back, pull the weight into the shin, and drive the weight up from what we call the standard pulling position. This happens every time a truly heavy deadlift is pulled from a vertical-back ‘squat’ start without exception.

Trying to start Mrs. Fox from a knees-bent upright position leaves her with three options:
1) She could hold her form with a weight so light that she’s unlikely to adapt from it.
2) She could use a heavier weight and pull until she comes to a jolting stop at the position that she should have been in from the beginning. Like slamming the gas pedal on a tow truck while there’s still slack in the connecting chain, something will give in this situation, and it won’t be pretty.
3) She could use a deadlift variant, like a ‘trap bar,’ which allows her to place the bar wherever she wants in relation to her body, allowing her to squat-deadlift as much as her strength will allow. This is many coach’s first choice, but it misses the mark. The fact that the back muscles must work to keep the spine rigid in the deadlift is not a problem. It’s the point. We are using the deadlift to train the muscles of the back progressively, under controlled and balanced conditions, to build excess capacity in a task of daily life: picking an object up off the floor.

Mrs. Fox’s position may look wrong or seem counterintuitive, especially to people who haven’t trained for strength, analyzed the biomechanics of the deadlift, and coached thousands of lifters. Beau has. On top of that, like any good coach, he knows Mrs. Fox, her anthropometry, prior injuries, and training history, and combined with his extensive knowledge as a Starting Strength Coach, is in a better position to help Mrs. Fox reach her goals than internet worrywarts.


Lastly, some may ask why we address these comments at all?  For this I asked DR Jonathon Sullivan to explain why uninformed comments not only annoy us, but cause more problems than people imagine. Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, is focused on the use of strength training in middle-aged and elderly populations as a way to improve function and fight the diseases of aging: sarcopenia, osteopenia and metabolic syndrome. His coaching practice, Grey Steel Strength and Conditioning, is located in Farmington, Michigan.

THE UBOA: A BARRIER TO THE BARBELL EXERCISE PRESCRIPTION

When we as coaches post images or videos of our older clients working under the bar, most comments are supportive and positive. This is useful, because every positive example and display of support makes it easier to get this training to people who need it.

And that’s important. Barbell training is big medicine for the aging adult, and meets every criterion for an exercise prescription. It is incredibly safe, because it recapitulates normal human movement patterns through a natural range of motion, on stable surfaces, at precisely managed loads, without unpredictable or violent forces, impacts, or joint moments. Barbell training is subject to exquisite dosing and therefore has a wide therapeutic window. It addresses a broad range of fitness components: strength, power, endurance, mobility, balance, and body composition. Barbell training for strength directly attacks dysfunctional aging processes: It improves insulin sensitivity, fights the metabolic syndrome, increases muscle and bone mass, promotes better metabolic and cardiovascular health, reverses the loss of powerful Type II muscle fibers, and even appears to retard cognitive decline. And barbell training is simple—just a few exercises, two or three times a week, will  make aging adults stronger and healthier. No other exercise formulation comes close for this combination of safety, simplicity, effectiveness, and specificity for beneficial effect in aging.

But there are many barriers to the delivery of this powerful medicine to the people who need it the most. The most important barriers are misunderstanding, misinformation, and fear. It is frankly unusual to see an octagenarian doing a deadlift, and unusual things can provoke cognitive dissonance, anxiety, or fear. Seeing an elderly lady pulling, pressing or squatting a heavy weight may not comport with your world view…yet. You didn’t know such things happened, and weren’t aware of the benefits, safety, and growing implementation of this approach.

When confronted by such unfamiliar images and concepts, most people, again, respond intelligently and constructively. Some merely offer their support. Some ask questions and begin to learn about the new phenomenon. A few will dig deep, explore, and even try it out for themselves.

But some people simply react, without thinking, without questioning, without learning. They see unfamiliar images of seniors lifting heavy weights as an opportunity to bloviate, to spew out dire warnings of broken backs and heart attacks, to make unsolicited and uninformed technical critiques, or to call into question the motivations, competence, or judgement of the coach or athlete.

These are the behaviors of the UBOA: the Uninformed-But-Opinionated Asshat.

The UBOA is one of most pernicious and widespread vectors for misinformation about training for seniors. The natural habitat of this viper is the internet, an ecosystem rich in misinformation but lacking in critical thinking, hard data, practical experience and analysis—the UBOAs natural enemies. The UBOA is thus a sort of apex predator. Like most boas, he functions at a reptilian level. His postings are thoughtless and ill-considered, not based on experience, expertise, analysis, or concern for others, but rather more along the lines of a primitive mating or dominance display. His primary objective is to be seen and heard, to direct the focus of conversation toward himself, and to attack a phenomenon that challenges his ossified view of reality, so that he doesn’t have to shed old ideas.

This is not to say that any contrary view expressed on the internet is that of a UBOA. Disagreement and dialectic are critical and constructive. But the UBOA is venomous to critical discussion and thoughtful debate.

Fortunately, this species can be identified easily by his natural markings and habits.

The UBOA’s comments are mere assertions. They are never backed up by data. They flow not from expertise or experience, but rather from conventional wisdom, ideology, anecdote, and his own visceral reactions to the material. His postings are reactionary or even hysterical, couched in dire warnings of impending doom, invariably taking the shape of some medical or orthopedic catastrophe he has never diagnosed, witnessed, or even understood.  For the UBOA, the strange image of an elderly person lifting heavy weights is unfamiliar and therefore dangerous and, even worse, it’s not about him. Any potential benefit must be impeached, any potential interest must be attacked, and any potential danger, however insignificant, improbable or imaginary, must be highlighted. It will only end in heartbreak, he tells us. “I knew this guy once…”

The UBOA helps to perpetuate longstanding mythologies and misconceptions that make it harder to deliver a valuable form of exercise medicine to those who need it the most. Eradication of this pest is probably impossible, but pest control is not, and it begins at home with the simple question: Are you a UBOA?

When you are shocked by a picture or video of an old lady or old man lifting heavy weights, and feel compelled to post your outrage or warning or diapproval, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you even lift? If you have never trained the deadlift, squat, or press, have never followed a dedicated strength training program with progressive overload to get stronger, or did once upon a time but stopped long ago, then you are uninformed.
  2. Are you familiar with the literature on the subject? If you haven’t been exposed to the extensive peer-reviewed literature on strength training for older adults, which documents the profound safety and benefit of this form of exercise medicine, then you are uninformed.
  3. Have you ever trained seniors? Have you spent any time in the gym teaching older adults how to perform the exercises? Have you ever designed or executed a strength training program for an older adult and used it productively, to make a senior stronger and healthier? Have you ever had to deal with the unique challenges and opportunities presented by this kind of work? Are you familiar with the concepts of volume-sensitivity and intensity-dependence? Have you ever heard of a 3-in-2 or Heavy-Light-Medium program? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you are uninformed.

 

It’s important to note here that it’s okay to be uninformed. Being uninformed is not a sin. It’s an opportunity to get informed, to learn, to grow.

But if, after looking at the list above, you must conclude that you are uninformed, then how are you possibly entitled, intellectually or ethically, to post an opinion on the matter, especially if that opinion is negative and might be discouraging, misleading, or frightening to the elderly man or woman who screwed up the courage to get under a bar and get strong—or the one who’s thinking about it? The answer, of course, is that you aren’t entitled to such an opinion.

Of course, if you want to post your uninformed opinion anyway, you’re free to do so. And that, dear reader, would be the behavior of an asshat. That would make you a UBOA. And if you want to be a UBOA, well, we can’t stop you. We just have to clean up your mess while you slither on to your next meal. But don’t be surprised or outraged when we call you on it. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, and you talk about it anyway, and make it harder to deliver the barbell prescription to the people who need it–we’re going to tread on you. This work is important, and you’ve been in our way long enough.

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