September 18 2019

Fitness Advice From A Primal Elder to Younger Groks: What To Focus On and What To Let Go Of

By Mark Sisson
45 Comments

I’ve been around the block. I’ve spent thousands upon thousands of hours in the gym, on the track, on the bike, in the water. I’ve tasted glory and defeat. I’ve been sidelined with injuries, I’ve gone stretches where I felt invincible. I’ve trained with, and trained, some of the best to ever do it. And along the way, I learned a lot: what to do, what not to do, what matters, what doesn’t.

Last week a comment from a reader gave me a great idea for a post: Give fitness advice to younger Groks. Help them avoid the mistakes I made and capitalize on the wins.

Let’s get right to it.

“Gain As Much Muscle As You Can Through Natural Means.”

Lean mass, which primarily includes muscle mass but also connective tissue and organ reserve, is in my opinion the single most important variable for overall health, wellness, physical capacity, and performance. The more muscle you have, the better you’ll age. The younger people will assume you are. The more capable you’ll be. The less frail. The harder to kill. The better to conceive children, give birth, and be an active parent (and eventually grandparent). You’ll have more energy. Basically, more muscle allows you to resist gravity, and gravity is what slows you down, breaks you down, and makes you feel old.

The more muscle you have when you’re younger, the more muscle you’ll retain as you grow older. Because when you’re older, you can still gain muscle, but not as easily. You’ll need more stimulus and more protein to get the same effect.  And entropy is working against you.

And by “natural means,” I mean don’t take anabolics unnecessarily (unless you have low/lower testosterone and a doctor helps you gain physiological levels via TRT). Don’t spend three hours a day in the gym. Don’t let strength training take over your life.

“Listen To Your Gut. If Something Feels Wrong, or Even Not Right, Back Off.”

I realized that every single time I hurt myself, I knew it was coming on some level. I had a premonition that I shouldn’t train or perform that day. Sometimes that message would come hours before the injury. Sometimes it would come moments before. It was usually non-specific, often nothing more than a vague sense of disquiet. But there was always something.

That time I strained my bicep tendon maxing out on bench, I remember waking up in the morning feeling like I probably shouldn’t go for the PR. Still I went for it and paid the price.

And last year during a set of pull-ups, I’d noticed I was leading with my chin—something I’m usually good about avoiding—and told myself to stop. But I thought I had another rep in me and, sure enough, as I was trying to finish the next pull-up, I felt something to the left of my ear and down around my trap give. I actually did keep the chin neutral but still got hurt. Leading with my chin was my body’s way of indicating that I was reaching the limit. I ignored that indicator and regretted it.

It’s not always a physical sensation or “pain” at all. Sometimes it’s just a weird feeling in my gut that says “this isn’t right.” Listen to that feeling. One day it won’t just be a tweaked shoulder or tendon. It might be downright catastrophic.

“Pull More Than You Push.”

Your phone. Your desk job. Look around at the average person walking around—their shoulders are rolled inward, internally rotated. Are yours? Society pulls our shoulders inward at every turn, and then you go to the gym and do a bunch of push-ups, bench presses, and dips, followed by a few sets of rows. That’s not enough. To maintain shoulder health (and build a strong, stable back from which to exert great shoulder force), you should train with a 2:1 pull:push ratio. That means for every 10 reps of presses (dips, pushups, bench, overhead press, etc) you do 20 reps of pulls (rows, pullups, face pulls, etc). If you already have problems with your shoulder or posture, bump that up to a 3:1 ratio.

“Focus On Compound Movements, But Include Some Isolation/Bodybuilding Movements As Well.”

While compound, multi-joint movements are the best way to build total body strength and athleticism, it turns out that training the “beach muscles” is important too. For instance, an exercise like curls can go a long way toward building up your bicep tendons and ligaments, preparing you for placing more stress on the muscles themselves and helping you avoid injuries down the line.

Plus, they make you look good—which is its own benefit but also motivates you to keep going.

“Compete With Yourself.”

Competition is good. Competition compels us to be greater, to improve ourselves. Just be wary about whom you’re competing with. These days, you have billions of potential competitors. You can hop on social media and find hundreds of people with better bodies, stronger lifts, faster times, and more perfect technique than you. It’s fine to use these people as motivation to improve yourself, but don’t beat yourself up—or, worse, get yourself injured—trying to beat them. Not everyone can do everything. We have different skills, different capacities, different priorities.

What you can and should do is compare your current self to your past self. Are you getting stronger than that person? Faster? Fitter? Leaner? Great. That’s how you do it. That’s what matters most.

“Walk Every Day.”

You won’t get the physiological/fitness effects right away, but they build up over time. Walking every day for the rest of your life is all about accruing compound interest.

Benefits?

From being in nature to improving blood glucose control to better cognitive function to improved insulin sensitivity to fat loss to joint mobility, walking is legitimate exercise.

“Get a Tribe.”

There’s research showing the physiological benefits of training in a group setting, but that’s tangential to my main point: having a fitness tribe—a group of friends, a sport, a training school—creates accountability, which promotes consistency. When someone’s counting on you, expecting you, you’re more likely to stick with the training. When you train with your friends or tribe toward a common goal, it becomes a joyous occasion. And even when it’s downright difficult and miserable, you can endure by drawing on the energy of the others.

“Have Fun.”

If you can figure out a way to train in a way that you love and truly enjoy on an intrinsic level, you’ll never be out of shape.

For some people, that means CrossFit. Or powerlifting. Or bodybuilding. Or running, martial arts, wrestling, parkour, or rock climbing. Dancing, mountain biking, surfing. There are many ways to skin the cat, but what really matters is that you enjoy the act of training for its own sake.

For me, I trained in the opposite manner. I loved the feeling of finishing a race. I liked the accolades and pride I felt and received when I won. But the act of racing? The moment to moment experience of training all those days? Miserable. That should have been an indication that I shouldn’t be doing it. I ignored it, though, and paid a price.

“Train To Support Your Goals.”

These days, as I’m fond of saying, I train to play. I train to support my Ultimate Frisbee match every weekend. I train so that I can get out on the paddle board twice a week. I train so I can try all the fun new fitness gadgets. If I were to do heavy squats and deadlifts 3 times a week, I wouldn’t be able to play Ultimate very well or go paddling whenever I wanted. I’d be recovering. Since my goal is to play, my training has to support that.

Search within your soul and figure out what your goals are, then hew your training to them. Are you trying to get as strong as possible? As fast? To build up your VO2max? To look good naked? Then align your training with your goals.

“Don’t Think You Have To Squat and Deadlift and Press With a Barbell.”

Those lifts are fantastic for building strength and developing athleticism, but they aren’t the only paths. Lunges, single leg deadlifts, kettlebell swings, trap bar deadlifts, and dumbbell presses are excellent alternatives that work many of the same muscles and can even be gentler on the body than the Big Three lifts.

There’s probably way more that can be said on this subject, but that’s where you come in. Down below, let me know what you’d say to your younger self who came to you asking about fitness tips. What would you do differently? What would you keep the same?

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45 thoughts on “Fitness Advice From A Primal Elder to Younger Groks: What To Focus On and What To Let Go Of”

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  1. Train for goals. Dig it. All my surf buddies are in their 30’s, 40’s and 50′. A few in their 60’s.

    As a general rule, none us engage in activities that will interfere with surf. Snowboarding one or twice a year? Nope, you’ll just get hurt and won’t be able to surf. Jump on a skateboard even though you haven’t skated in years? Nope, probably hurt yourself. Again no surfing while your wrist heals.

    Our supplemental activities are just that, and we do them often enough to stay in shape for those activities.

    Once you hit your 40’s, one -off spontaneous physical activities are off the table.

    1. Amen! Played in a charity kickball game last week. KICKBALL. I still had sore spots a week later! 40 is no joke. Haha

      1. Yes indeed! I train the Olympic lifts and am 62. I recently gave away my snow skis even though I have skied since I was five years old. Skiing injury keeping me off the lifting platform? No way!

  2. My advice to the younger me, including the younger me that was yesterday 09.17.19 is to say” don’t quit!” Restarting sucks, you can change the thing you are doing but keep doing something.
    About the daily walks. I find I am in better shape when I don’t have a car. That means I have to walk to my bus stop, walk to the trolley, walk back, or bike those routes. When I have a car, walking those routes fades into distant memory. If your goal is to get somewhere today, find a fitness way to achieve it.

  3. Be grateful that we know about Primal living now. In my twenties through forties the mantra was low fat, lots of salad, and lots of whole grains. I was exhausted from cardio and never able to reach my goals. I was malnourished. Now I am of an age where this is supposed to be harder yet I am meeting my goals which much less, albeit smarter effort. I have more muscle mass than I ever have, I am healthier than I ever was. I would tell my younger self to be primal and do high intensity weight training. I would have been happier sooner.

  4. “Pull more than you push” … very interesting and great advice! I will re-evaluate my “standard” (albeit with lots of variety) workout and incorporate more pulling. I know when I go to the gym I love the feel of doing rowing, maybe my body is trying to tell me something!

    If I could go back in time I would tell my younger self to do more balance, mobility and flexibility work … more core and more standing (I’m an IT guy) and more walking. More time in the sauna. Also, buy Microsoft stock when it was 50 cents a share LOL.

  5. Perfect timing with this post Mark!! I’m 57 & did NOT listen to my body until it was too late & an X-ray showed a compression fracture on my S1 vertebrae!!! ARGH!! I used to run marathons & 10 km’s every day…… you guessed it!! I’m heeding your advice & easing up on my heavy lifting….. I just wanted to stay fit, strong & VIBRANT!! I just overdid it…

  6. What a fantastic post!
    This should be shared with everyone.
    The only thing I’d add is to reduce carbs and eliminate as many processed sugars as possible. “Fueling the engine” is an integral part of fitness.
    Thanks for the great content,
    Rob

  7. Thanks for a great post Mark. This kind of post is what keeps me coming to your website, reading your books and respecting you as one of the best sources for healthy living. Your advice is reasonable, specific and based on successful experience.

  8. I like dance as a fun way to support fitness, dance is very primal, we are a dancing animal, and it can take any form you want it to.

    1. I Agree. I do English Country dancing which is great fun & I’m 76 and don’t get out of breath. I recently went on a weekend dancing the dances from the Poldark series. Hard work but great fun. I was quite tired later in the week

  9. Walk every day is critical from my point of view. When I stopped walking every day I gained about 3 pounds a year. For 30 years! It’s now taking a long time to get back to a reasonable weight but I’m doing it–slowly but surely.

  10. The best thing about fitting “walk every day” into your schedule is that you’ll end up getting appropriate exercise on days when you SHOULDN’T do anything harder. For example, when you’ve pushed yourself the day before, or if you’re fighting a cold/flu.

    I regularly park 1-2 miles from work, so even “zero exercise” days for me actually contain 2-4 miles of walking.

    1. Genius! I park a few blocks away, but maybe I need to up my game!!

  11. Good post Mark. As a 61 year old I really appreciate your advice about listening to the body. If any exercise doesn’t feel right just stop and try something else. If it all feels good push hard but always pay attention. Also you need to still compete at some sport and mine is golf. Not very good but constantly striving to improve and figure out exercises to help my game. I also still swim but just for relaxation now and the occasional sprint when I feel like it.

  12. Agree with No 1 with all my strength! Grip strength has been a known surrogate to indicate fitness – and remains a valid indication of longevity. After all, if you’re using your body, chances are you’re using your hands – improving your grip strength.

  13. I’m 50 now and as I look back I wish I had a little better structure and understanding of physiology to plan out my workouts. I ended up finding this online via the Athlean-X channel. The guy running that (Jeff) is a certified physical therapist and goes into the details of specific lifts and has overall programs. Having a laid out workout plan that has the balance Mark mentions, along with instruction on technique, info on myths to avoid, etc. have helped me train for the past 3 years while feeling so much more fit, balanced, & strong.

    I’m not plugging Jeff’s programs specifically, but emphasizing that having a nice varied, scientifically laid out, balanced program makes a HUGE difference. I’m sure a good personal trainer can do the same, but I find working out at home is a) more convenient and b) MUCH cheaper!

  14. Suggestions for a beginner weight lifter? I’m 64 year old female- I walk lots of miles, Pilates twice a week, yoga when I have time! I don’t want to injure myself- do you have a book or YouTube suggestion?
    Thanks!

    1. The Barbell Prescription by Jonathon Sullivan. Starting Strength on You Tube and book of the same name by Mark Rippetoe. Dr. Sullivan is also found on You Tube on his Greysteel channel. At 63, the results of barbell training coupled with a primal diet have been life changing.

  15. Thanks Mark! I am in the midst of my PHCI training and I still am learning so much. I am in my mid thirties and already feel healthier than when I was in my 20s. Working more pulling into my day is something I have no considered. I am just excited to be able to pushups now, strict pullups are still a work in progress. Thanks for this!

  16. What I’d add to this is, learn to tell when you’re sick, instead of when you’re just out of shape. When you’re young, doctors say “you’re too young for that.” That’s an extremely dangerous thing to accept. Almost as dangerous as “well, you’re just getting older…” Not good. The correct response to that is “What age should I be for you to listen to me?”

  17. I really enjoy working out! I have a very physical job but nothing beats going to the gym!!

  18. I injured my back while in the Marine Corps doing heavy squats. I ended up crushing 3 vertebrae and it resulted in a medical separation. It led me to Mark’s Daily Apple (height and weight standards changed for me when I shrank 2 inches from compressed vertebrae and I couldn’t exercise to lose the weight, so I turned to the Primal Blueprint!) But that injury, and others before and few after, were the results of a mentality issue.

    Since then, I’ve coined the phrase, “Lift with your ability, not your ego.” It is similar to Mark’s points on competing against yourself and listening to your gut, but it’s more focused on the mentality. Understanding that I will have “off days” where I don’t/can’t put up what I did the previous session or letting myself feel pressured to replicate what the guy or gal next to me is hoisting because I “think” I’m stronger. It’s advice I give to my tribe and to my clients and I’ve started living by it. Part of me wishes I’d have had this mentality in my teens/20’s, but then I never would have found this community and the Primal lifestyle…sooo….

  19. Excellent stuff, thanks Mark! And definitely true when it comes to injuries…these will stop a person dead in their tracks. Sometimes all physical activity is compromised! Definitely worth avoiding, no matter how “easy” you may think you’re letting yourself off at the moment. If the gut says no, listen.

  20. Mark, you should do a post on “Life Advice From a Primal Elder to Younger Groks”!

  21. This is a great post I could write about the things o wish I knew years ago.
    I’ll just give a few I have learned from 12 years in the fitness industry.
    -walk as much as possible
    -get as strong as possible
    -hit it hard when it feels right
    -core, core, core
    -perfect form over heavy weight
    -change it up a lot
    -try new things
    -recover, recover, recover

    Great article Mark

  22. Do Pilates; most people don’t know what correct posture or how to use their deep abs well enough.
    Always stretch. Stretch your shoulders, your hips, your sides, your calves, all of it, after every work out. Do mobility work.
    Do your PT exercises.
    Always prioritize having a rest day and getting body work done. Do more body work on your own at the end of a day.
    It’s not just about the workout but what you do outside of the work out that will help your longevity.

  23. Two responses to my comments in one week! Nothing left to accomplish!!!

    I’d throw in there a mobility focus on the hips and the t-spine. I think so many back and knee (not to mention hip) problems can be traced to poor mobility in these two areas. Foam rolling, hip circles, and upper back mobility work have made me feel younger than I did in my teens.

  24. Mark,
    I like your updated website layout but please add a simple navigation bar or link for getting the most recent articles.

  25. The new design of the MDA Home page makes it hard to find the latest blog spot. Is it just my computer? Or is it harder to find it for others?

    1. 2Rae, my apologies for the inconvenience. My team is working on a fix and should have something up by the weekend. Best — M

  26. “Compete with Yourself” is a very important point. Weightlifting in high school was always a competition with others, which focused solely on how much you could bench press. I really wish there was a coach or mentor during that time who could explain the benefits of total body exercising, as well as avoiding unnecessary competition with others.
    While it took me years to correct course (and hopefully my shoulders don’t pay the price), I feel much better now and I hope to pass this knowledge on to others.

  27. Like Mark, I am an older athlete (59) that plays ultimate frisbee. I switched to 5 finger shoes about 10 years ago and it changed my life! No more feet pain, my bunion almost disappeared and quit hurting altogether, knees and hips quit aching as well. However, I am starting to lose the padding on the bottom of my feet and playing in any kind of minimalist shoe takes its toll on my feet. Currently, I play ultimate, run trails and hike in 5 fingers and love it, unitl….the next morning – my feet don’t feel good and I know it is due to disappearing padding. Anyone else have this and what have you found to be successful? Thanks

  28. Great suggestions Mark. I agree with Zoe about stretching – which i do as well as have a sauna after my cardio (rowing mostly) and weights work outs. I am 62 and still play touch football (in Australia – a bit similar to Ultimate). Love your work thanks.

  29. 1) Work out smarter, not harder. I used to lift weights for 1 hour sessions 5 days a week, and when I hit my mid-20’s I started getting all kinds of pain, especially in my lower back. Turns out lifting with proper form and allowing your muscles time to recover is a thing! These days I work out with proper form and only do 2 full body workout sessions per week, and never get injured.

    2) Genetics plays a role. I like to think that I could get as big as I wanted to if I worked out hard enough, although in reality because of my family history of being ectomorphs with runner style bodies, I’ll never be a gargantuan unless I doubled or tripled my time in the gym and/or used steroids, and that’s OK. I’m in a great relationship with a beautiful woman who doesn’t care how big I am, and I’m physically capable of doing everything I need to do. I’m in better shape than 90% of men 10 years younger than me. So as long as I’m generally fit and have some muscular definition anything beyond that is really just diminishing returns, and my time is better spent doing other things outside of the gym and enjoying life.

  30. I would tell my younger self to PLAY more and worry about formal exercise less…I have a tee shirt that says ‘Go Outside and Do Things’ and that’s the advice I now give my grandchildren. The muscle mass I developed as a child, in my teenage years, twenties and on upwards were primarily developed by DOING physical things from an early age and on: riding bikes with the neighborhood kids, roller skating or ice skating, playing kick the can or capture the flag (lots of interval running), jungle gym pull-ups or swinging from bar to bar, horseback riding, playing baseball, volleyball, tree climbing, sledding or just chasing around for the fun of it And yes, there was even some work involved. Like weeding the garden, mowing the lawn, picking the raspberries, washing the outside windows…i.e. things your parents made you do! We developed muscle and stamina that we then built on later with golfing, tennis, walking, hiking park service trails, canoeing, skiing, swimming…things that have served this ‘oldie’ well in these latter decades. I only wish I’d ‘gone outside’ and done more of the things I loved doing! (And, just as a final note, my 83 year old mother and her sisters can still work, or play, the rest of us ‘kids’ to a standstill!)

  31. After trying to get a fitness program together for 60 years, your minimalist routine made the breakthrough for me. At 74 I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in through 4 tenens I defined. Consistency, go to the gym 2x/w; Progress, do more this week than last (just a little more); No-Pain, go until you loose form, not failure; and then efficiency, adding more weights and going down in reps. Also, I believe that my mitochondria has been weak and I can really tell the difference with the use of some supplements recommended by Dr. Steven Sinatra. Taken for my heart but the results show up in the gym. i.e. After 8 months I’m walking faster and my heart rate is 15 bpm slower. Thanks for all your real advise that works. Can’t wait to see where I am in 10 years.

  32. I have to agree with you and well said. My younger self was so critical and pushed to train when I probably shouldn’t have also. I have a quieter pace now and still achieving what I want. May take a little longer but so worth the climb.

  33. Hello…I’m 56 year old woman….have you heard from women stating the way they feel through menopause symptoms???? Is it normal to be extremely tired all the time…I’ve been doing the keto for at least 5 months but will do the 21 day reset your metabolism to see if feels better and more energized…any suggestions ???

    1. Hi Guylaine,
      I can’t comment on keto because I don’t follow that way of eating. Your symptoms will be helped by a healthy Whole Foods diet, lots of vegetables,and minimal sugar and alcohol. Your body is going through a big change and fatigue can be part of it. You might want to go see your doctor if you feel it’s excessive. It gets better with time, I promise! Just take good care of yourself and things will improve.