Having goals in the gym doesn’t have to stop once you’ve hit 60, and this time in your life can still be a great opportunity to focus on building strength in the squat, bench, and deadlift.
How do you start getting stronger after 60? In order to start powerlifting and getting stronger beyond the age of 60, you must start focusing your training on the squat, bench, and deadlift while paying great attention to recovery, form, as well as other accessory exercises to support your overall joint health and mobility.
While the strongest powerlifters in the world are not typically over 60, powerlifting is a very inclusive sport because of its age group categories with appropriate standards for lifters aged 40-70+. It’s important to remember that strength is relative and if you’ve never focused on it before, you may be surprised at how much progress you can still make.
In this article, we will go through:
- Whether you can get stronger after 60
- The benefits of powerlifting over 60
- How to get started
- How strong you need to be for your first competition (if you want to compete)
- Some inspirational examples of elite powerlifters over 60
- A sample routine to get you started on the right track
But first, one thing to mention…
If you want a complete understanding of how to compete in powerlifting, then check out my online video course The First Time Powerlifter.
The course promises to eliminate mistakes at your first competition, help you make more attempts, and allow you to achieve your personal best lifts.
I’ve been the Head Coach For Team Canada Powerlifting through 8 World Championships, and this course is everything I know about preparing athletes to feel confident in their abilities to perform at their first competition.
I created a video that explains what the course includes HERE or click the button below.
Can You Get Stronger After 60?
Society long believed that building muscle and strength was not possible for older adults, but that belief has since been rebuked, and if anything, it’s now recommended.
Muscle builds through the same mechanisms in a young body as it does in an older body. What may affect your overall rate of progress is recovery speed and your current training age, meaning how much of your life you have spent being physically active or lifting weights of any kind.
In addition, one 1999 study suggested the hormonal response in older men wasn’t as profound as in younger men so, while strength and muscle increased in both, the degree of the response was less for the older men. This, however, should by no means be discouraging because improvement over time is still possible and your potential may still surprise you.
It should be noted that one caveat for older adults is that regular training is more important for them than their younger counterparts. This means a 20-something who misses a couple weeks in the gym can probably bounce right back into training at a similar strength whereas the effects on someone over 60 would potentially be more significant; therefore, adherence to your program is even more important now.
In short, assuming you are dedicated to adding at least 2-3 days of regular training into your weekly schedule, you should expect to build both strength and muscle mass over the course of even a few months, depending on your current fitness level.
Benefits of Powerlifting Over 60
Powerlifting is more than just lifting heavy weights for the sake of lifting heavy weights, it comes with an array of benefits and many that are especially important to those over 60 like bone and muscle health, core strength, mental health, and cognitive improvements.
Bone is a metabolically active tissue, which means it responds to stress, and in the case of bones that stress comes in the form of resistance exercise. Training with weights is one of the best ways to prevent or mitigate frailty and loss of bone density.
Aging and, for women, perimenopause, is a time where bones that aren’t being placed under stress regularly will start to lose integrity. Powerlifting can be an incredible tool to keeping you as independent and structurally healthy as possible throughout your upcoming retirement.
A 2020 systematic review looked at the evidence for physical activity for the prevention of osteoporosis in those 65+ and found that programs with higher doses and more variety of exercises seemed to be more effective.
The squat and the deadlift in particular are two exercises that require a great deal of core strength, a skill necessary as we move into older age. In addition, most powerlifting programs will include core strength and stability accessory exercises to improve overall performance.
When it comes to older adults, a 2012 study found that core instability strength training can slow or reduce age-related mobility problems. In addition, a 2013 systematic review suggests that core strength training can be used to support fall prevention in older adults.
While in your 60s you may not be dealing with falls and broken hips just yet, the earlier you start working towards prevention, the better off you will be 10 years from now once these effects may become accelerated.
Muscle Hypertrophy and Retention
If you don’t use it, you lose it. Similar to bones, muscles also need stress placed on them in order to build more or keep what you have already built.
A 2019 study of 70-year-old men and women with pre-sarcopenia found they retained functional strength and increased muscle mass after a 10 week resistance training program.
The incidence of falls and the onset of sarcopenia can be prevented through regular resistance training and powerlifting is a great tool for that as it combines compound movements as well as accessories that can target both the upper and lower body.
Improves Mental Health
Although mental health benefits can appear to be subjective, powerlifting is a sport where many competitors or recreational lifters will tell you they keep doing it because of its significant impact on their mental health and self-efficacy.
With retirement age coming up, or already upon you, it’s important to have hobbies and goals that you continue to strive for and work towards.
Interestingly, a 2020 study compared aerobic exercise and resistance training in improving major depression in older adults and found that both can have significant benefits for mental health.
A 2016 study, as well as a 2015 review, found that those who trained for strength into old age showed improved cognitive capacity without pharmaceutical intervention. Further, a 2017 study found that it was strength gains specifically, and not improved aerobic capacity that was associated with cognitive improvements.
This is an incredibly important finding because aging really is just a progressive loss of mental and physical capabilities, meaning if strength training can attenuate that, your quality of life will look different than that of your peers and will ensure you continue to have a fulfilling life, regardless of your age.
In short, it can be concluded that when implemented appropriately, strength training for older adults is an excellent tool for maintaining quality of life through improving physical function, reducing the risk of falls as well as mental and cognitive benefits.
How To Start Powerlifting At 60?
Now that you know you can and should build strength, you need to learn the technique, how to structure your workouts, and how best to optimize your recovery to ensure long-term success.
Build Technique + General Fitness Level
Good powerlifting technique is important because it ensures you do not place yourself in positions where the risk of injury may be higher, it will also ensure that you are able to be as strong as possible, and it will prevent competition judges from ever doubting whether your lift was good enough to count towards your total.
Before going all in and focusing on adding pounds to the barbell, ensure that you are capable of executing the appropriate movement patterns. This includes, but isn’t limited to, proper bracing, squatting to depth, bench pressing using leg drive and deadlifting at the right back angle or without extreme hunching.
During the phase where you are learning the technique, don’t focus so much on how much you are lifting. These workouts can be split up into 2 parts: squat, bench and deadlift practice and then a combination of resistance exercises and cardio to maintain or build your fitness level.
Depending on your training age and current mobility it may take you just a couple weeks to possibly a couple months of progressive practice to move the 45lbs barbell efficiently.
We have several articles addressing the common obstacles you may run into as well as exercises you can select for building strength and muscle here:
- 9 Squat Cues To Improve Technique (And 1 You Should Not Do)
- 13 Bench Press Cues For Max Strength (With Pictures)
- Top 10 Deadlift Cues For Stronger Pulls (With Pictures)
- 22 Exercises To Improve Squat Depth (That Actually Work)
- The 9 Best Ab Exercises for Powerlifters
- 9 Squat Exercises to Improve Strength and Technique
- 18 Exercises to Improve Deadlift Strength
- How To Increase Ankle Mobility For Squats: 13 Exercises
Learn to structure your workouts
Training for powerlifting is different from training for the sake of just exercise, and it’s important you learn how to structure your workouts to optimize building strength in the 3 main competition lifts.
In powerlifting you can think of your workouts as being made up of the following components:
- Warm-Up (general and movement-specific)
- 1-2 main lifts (competition lifts or a similar variation)
- 2-4 accessory movements
The warm up in powerlifting is more than just warming up your internal body temperature, although that is one component.
This is your opportunity to warm up your body, mobilize and stretch your joints, activate the muscles specific to the movements you are working on, as well as actually warming up with the barbell itself until you reach the desired weight.
For more details about warming up for powerlifting check out our article here.
After the warm-up is complete you then move on to your primary and secondary movements for the day which will almost always be a squat, bench or deadlift. In the beginning stick to doing the competition variation of each as it is most important that you learn to do them properly and continue practicing them specifically.
One tip is to make the very first lift of the day the one where you will be lifting most intensely, meaning if you’re lifting 3 times a week give each competition lift its day to be the primary movement.
When it comes to accessory movements, this is where you want to throw in some individualization based on your weaknesses and the needs of the sport as well as your own health. As someone over 60, core exercises should definitely be included as well as exercises that will promote muscle building and overall joint health.
Since powerlifting focuses a lot on horizontal pressing, an example of good accessories to preserve your joint health should be the inclusion of pulling exercises for your back as well as vertical pressing movements like a shoulder press.
Now you know how to do each of the movements and understand how to structure the training days, but how do you ensure you build strength over time?
As a beginner you will notice that the learning process itself will allow you to linearly add more weight to the bar once you get enough practice. This may not always be a weekly occurrence, but over time you’ll notice you do get stronger.
With your primary movements you want to stay in the 3-6 rep range for most of your training since that will promote strength adaptations better than higher rep ranges. It’s also important to note that your training sessions should not feel like you’re giving your 100% all the time. It should feel moderately challenging and like you have at least a couple reps left in you at the end of your sets.
As someone over 60, recovery is something you must pay attention to since your body will be less forgiving than younger lifters. It’s important to note that your recovery needs may differ from others your age and it’s better to start off slow and progressively test the waters.
It is recommended for older adults to have at least 1 day, but in some cases 2 days consecutively before going into the next day of training. You may also not want to do as many accessory exercises in the beginning if it’s limiting your ability to recover efficiently.
Your recovery activities can include light walking, household chores, stretching or some yoga. It’s important to make sure you’re getting quality sleep and nutrition in addition to just taking days off from training.
Without proper recovery you will compromise your long term strength gains as well as make yourself more susceptible to injury, so remember: slow and steady will always win the race with powerlifting.
How Strong Do You Need To Be To Compete In Powerlifting At 60?
The short and simple answer is that you can be as strong as you wish, however, there are some figures to keep in mind if you’d like to challenge yourself and set some goals.
It’s important to remember that your first powerlifting meet is more about the experience and less about how well you score. It’s about learning about how the day works, how you react to the pressure and just doing your best, no matter what your best is.
As someone 60 years or older you would fall into one of the Master’s lifting categories when signing up for a powerlifting meet, meaning your competition will be similar in age to you. A Masters 3 lifter is between 60-69 and a Masters 4 is anyone 70+ years old.
If you have goals that include qualifying for a regional, national or international level competition you will need to find the qualifying standards of the country and the federation in which you want to compete in.
For example, in the USAPL Masters 3 and 4 standards are just achieving a 75kg/165lbs total to qualify for nationals. In contrast, the CPU in Canada has more specific requirements based on body weight, but adjusted for age.
If you’d like to think about some goals you can set for yourself that aren’t tied to qualifying for any competition standards consider the following as guidance for yourself:
- Novice Women can expect to squat between 47kg – 74kg, bench press around 32kg – 50kg and deadlift 56kg – 88kg, depending on their body weight.
- Novice Men can expect to squat between 72kg – 111kg, bench press 54kg – 83kg and deadlift 82kg – 127kg, depending on their body weight.
However, if you do not meet the above by competition day, it shouldn’t discourage you from still showing up and giving it your best shot. What’s more important is that you’ve spent at least 2-5 months practicing the movements and have seen improvement from the first day you started your strength journey.
If you’re not up for competing in an official competition right off the bat, you can also plan for a personal “mock meet” in your gym to test how far you have progressed!
For more information on getting ready for your first powerlifting meet, check out some of these articles:
- What You Should Bring To A Powerlifting Meet
- How Powerlifting Meets Work
- Competition Gear For Powerlifting
- How To Pick Your Attempts In Powerlifting
- How Powerlifting Is Scored
- What To Eat During A Powerlifting Meet
- How To Pick Your Weight Class For Powerlifting
- 55 Powerlifting Mistakes To Avoid
- How To Find Powerlifting Meets
Examples of Elite Powerlifters Competing Over 60
Powerlifting is a unique sport in that it actively promotes and includes people of all age groups in their competitions, allowing them to continue doing what they love and expressing their strength.
Lack of representation may be why you ended up searching whether you can do powerlifting, but rest assured there are plenty of lifters all over the world who fall into the 60+ age category.
Here are a few elite examples who continue to compete over the age of 60 to hopefully inspire you to give it your all:
David Ricks has been powerlifting for 39 years and has achieved 12 national titles as well as 8 world titles. His most recent competition total from March 2020 is 785kg/1730lbs and in October 2020, at the age of 61 he squatted 320kg/705lbs for 3 reps at a charity event. These feats of strength are not just strong for an older adult but strong for anyone who walks into the gym.
He seems to be defying every preconceived notion the fitness community has had about ageing and strength gains and should serve as a reminder that your body is capable of greatness at any age.
Ellen Stein is a 67 year old, Masters 3 lifter and has been powerlifting since the early 90s after a long history of long distance running. She has competed raw, in wraps and single-ply equipped powerlifting and continues to do so, with her most recent meet in December 2020 where she hit a 467.2kg/1030lbs total in wraps.
Ellen has been to several national and international Masters powerlifting competitions in the last 27 years and continues to lift weights into her professional retirement and shows no signs of stopping.
Powerlifting Routine For Over 60
When designing a powerlifting routine for older adults it’s important to take into account the specific individual since everyone will have a different starting point and needs regarding recoverability and accessory movements.
However, below you will find a sample program to give you a sense of how you can get started once you have determined you can perform the proper technique without pain or limitations.
The following program can be used to progress by adding weight to the bar, adding an extra set of the primary movement or increasing the frequency of training (i.e. benching twice a week).
Powerlifting For Over 60 Workout #1 – Squat Focus
- Back Squat 2×5 @ 65-75% of 1 Rep Max
- Incline Chest Press 3×8
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts 2×8-10
- Weighted Lunges 2×8-10
- Split Stance Paloff Press 3×10-15 each side
Powerlifting For Over 60 Workout #2 – Bench Focus
- Bench Press 2×5 @ 65-75% of 1 Rep Max
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press 2×8-10
- Chest Supported Single-Arm Dumbbell Row 3×8-10
- Dumbbell Glute Bridge/Hip Thrust 3×10-12
- Weighted Step ups 3×10-15
Powerlifting For Over 60 Workout #3 – Deadlift Focus
- Deadlift (sumo or conventional) 2×5 @ 65-75% of 1 Rep Max
- Goblet Squat 3×6-8
- Lat Pulldown 3×8-10
- Tricep extension 3×10-15
- Birddog 3×20
While powerlifting may seem unconventional for someone over the age of 60, if you ask me, it should become the norm. With evidence for benefits for both physical and mental health, powerlifting is a sport that keeps on giving no matter your age or current strength abilities.
While ageing does come with its challenges and some modifications to training may have to be made, healthy and mobile older adults should be encouraged to pick up the barbell and see where consistency, effort and good recovery will take them.
Check out my other articles on Master Powerlifting:
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.