Four Pillars of Fitness for the Over 40s

I love it when I get emails from people asking me for a “program”. You know how it goes. They want a deadlift plan, or a triathlon plan, or maybe a BJJ plan. What they never seem to realize is that “programs” are for non-beginners. A non-beginner is someone who has all the most important elements of training nailed down. They eat in a way that is conducive to both recovery and bocy composition, sleep enough, are strong enough, move well enough to be able to perform common exercises, and have a heart that is more powerful than an asthmatic hamster’s. Yet there they are with 25% bodyfat, a deadlift that is barely above bodyweight, no cardio fitness, and they can’t touch their toes.

The fact is that there are only four things you can offer most people, unless they are seeing you for specific rehabilitation. Most trainees, despite their protests, are very much still beginners. As beginners there is no need to prioritize one aspect of fitness over another, as they are all equally poor. These four pillars of training are:

  • Flexibility/ range of motion
  • Strength
  • Body composition
  • Cardiovascular fitness

Here are some basic guidelines:

If you can’t touch your toes you are lacking adequate range in trunk flexion. That means that any exercise like the deadlift or kettlebell swing should be off the menu until this issue is resolved. If you cannot overhead squat with your arms in the air and break parallel while maintaining your arm position you are dysfunctional for the squat. This means that all squat patterns should be off the table until it is resolved. Mobility and flexibility come first always. Failure to develop these will see you getting continually on the injury merry-go-round.

Until men can achieve a double bodyweight deadlift they are beginners at my gym. For females this is 1.5 times bodyweight. Men must be able to do five pull-ups and twenty-five push-ups. Females must be able to do a single pull-up and fifteen push-ups. Men should be able to double press 24kg kettlebells for multiple sets of five, while women should be able to do this with 14kg kettlebells. We also set a minimum standard of 100 reps with a 24kg for men snatching in five minutes and the 16kg for women.

Males with more than 20% bodyfat and females with more than 25% bodyfat stay on fat loss programs, including diet assistance until they reach these goals. BMI cops a massive amount of flack from people yet there is an overwhelming body of evidence to show that a BMI of more than 30 results in a significantly greater risk of diabetes type II, and all the corresponding illnesses that come with being overweight and obese such as hypertension and heart disease. For reference, a BMI of 30 would require me to gain 20kg (45lb). You can use this easy calculator to figure it out for yourself and your clients. (

While cardiovascular fitness seems to have fallen out of favour in the fitness world I will guarantee you that once your clients get even a little past forty they won’t care about adding another 5kg to their deadlift but they will care about the health of their heart. It’s well know that I am a big fan of running but I understand that many dislike running. However there are ample fitness tests available in the gym through the use of rowing machines. Our benchmark fitness test is a 2000m row. Men must meet a standard of less than eight minutes and females nine minutes. If they fail to meet that standard then they have to work on their fitness.

Many people eschew cardiac health these days. Many will flat out tell you that cardio makes you weak, or that gaining strength is more important. The number one killer for men aged over 44 is heart disease. The number one killer for women of all ages is heart disease. In other words, actual cardiac fitness is terribly important if you want to stick around for a while. While those who normally will point the finger and scream about body acceptance and fat shaming will also debate my points about BMI, as stated above, there is massive evidence to show the links high BMI values have towards heart disease. Having your body composition/ BMI within normal values is part of being healthy and minimizing heart disease risks.

By now you are hopefully realizing that nearly everyone fails to meet most of these standards. That’s fine – training exists to rid the body of weaknesses. It should therefore be directed at addressing those weaknesses too though. I see too many plans focused on adding more strength to a trainee that already can barely move, is visibly out of breath after walking up a flight of stairs, and is clearly over a desirable BMI.

The best way to do this is to create training plans that feature all four elements at once. One of the things that Crossfit very much has in its favour is the number of circuit type sessions (MetCons) within it. Circuit training is a valuable way for people to address multiple fitness qualities at once. For example, an EMOM of power cleans and airdyne sprints, with a mobility exercise during the recovery period, will address all of the four pillars equally.

If this isn’t feasible then the way I do this is to split each session into three parts. I say three because the reality is that cardiovascular training and body composition training can be linked together. Body composition will also be heavily targeted by the use of strength training and through diet counseling.

My belief is that the majority of people I see need to focus on range of motion. As such at my gym it represents nearly 50% of their daily workout time and includes both the warm up as well as mobility and flexibility exercises between every strength exercise they do. I know many will panic here and say that stretching has been shown to hamper power production but you need to remember that study was conducted on elite athletes and we’re talking about people who struggle to deadlift bodyweight, or even possess adequate range to reach the bar on the floor and maintain their posture. Our warm up takes about twenty minutes and includes both joint mobility as well as stretching and dynamic warm ups in various forms.

The strength portion of the session will usually consist of two non-opposing exercises. This can be either a push/ pull set up such as overhead presses and pull-ups or a lower/ upper pair such as front squats and pull-ups. (And if you can’t tell pull-ups are prized at my gym because they reward having your body composition under control as well as possessing a decent level of strength).

From there we go into cardiovascular conditioning. While I am a big fan of steady state work for many the reality is that for those who only train a few days per week the most time efficient form of training they can do is intervals. Contrary to popular opinion the best way to gain cardiac function is not to lift weights faster but to use something like a rower, ski erg, or Airdyne, if running is out of the question. Running should always be the first choice, but again if we’re dealing with overweight beginners unused to moving then one of the low impact options will be a better choice.

A building needs more than a single support beam to hold it up and fitness built on a single quality is a deck of cards that will lead to injury and ill health later on. Developing all four pillars of athleticism will help you become much greater as you progress. Neglecting one or more will make progressing to truly all-round health and fitness next to impossible later on.