By Steve Bechtel

The last thing I want to think about again today is getting older. I don’t really like to talk about it and I certainly don’t like doing it. But for me, and probably for you, the worse alternative is getting old quickly. As I look at the people I grew up with, Many of them are frail, immobile, and unable to say “yes” to many activities. These are people in their forties and fifties, not in their 80s. 

I’ll assume you want to keep doing things like climbing, and although sending your hardest routes ever into your sixtieth decade might not be in the cards, being able to go out and climb or hike or bike all day is a worthy goal. I reflect often: Could I go bouldering all day? Could I go climb a big Yosemite route? Could I hammer out a long alpine link-up? And then other, simpler things: Can I put my pants on while standing? Can I get up off the floor without props? Can I carry my share of the firewood?

Staying strong is your job as you get older. We all understand that the eventual destination is the same for all of us, but being useful and overall healthy is a much better way to spend your fifties, sixties, seventies, and beyond. What I want to explore here is the shift from performance-oriented activity as our daily norm (just go out there and climb), to a foundational look at staying generally able to keep doing the sports we love. 

We’re first going to look at a few simple rules of training, and then we’ll talk about the mindset of the aging athlete. I’m then going to delve into some specific sessions in the gym, and some rules for your weekly and monthly programs.

The Prime Directive

Don’t get hurt in training. That’s it. The number one goal of any training program has to be to avoid injury in the gym. This rule is for everyone, but becomes acutely more important as you age. What would have been a minor tweak twenty years ago can be a season-ender today. There is very little to be said for pushing to your absolute limit in the gym, and more conservative approaches can still provide great results…especially since they probably won’t take you out for a month. 

A second directive is this: Train so you don’t get hurt “out there.” Not only is our injury-prevention goal important for the gym, but also for the crag. The more durable you build yourself, the less likely you are to get hurt out at the crag. A list of older climber injuries I’ve dealt with in just the past few months:

  • Bouldering fall, broken ankle
  • Hamstring rupture, heel hook
  • Torn biceps, bouldering
  • A2 rupture, onsight sport climbing
  • Torn labrum, dynamic move
  • Torn ACL, fall while approaching crag 

I’m not saying these injuries could all have been prevented, but the fact that you can handle high forces, dynamic events, and end-range positions will really help. 

And the third goal of training: Performance. Yes, still perform. You need to go to the gym and get after it. You need to go to the crag and try hard stuff. Nothing is more frustrating to me than a climber who whines about their age but clearly gives not one shit about trying hard. Poor baby. If you’re not willing to bleed for it, you don’t deserve the send.

You might not get up the hardest grades anymore, but it’s the struggle, the effort, that matters.

Not sure where to begin?

We have training plans available for any level athlete!

How to Think

Don’t say “I can’t do ___anymore.” Say, “I can’t do _____ yet.” Too often, we stop ourselves with the age excuse, when really it’s an effort issue. As an older athlete you have to really leverage your wisdom, experience, awareness, and sensitivity to walk the line between improvement and injury. It’s narrow, but there is a path. The most essential part of all of this is to avoid always opting for comfort and conservative choices when things get tough.

We need to take a long view of training, seeking for consistency in many exercises, sessions, and phases in our training, and looking for incremental improvements along the way. There are a thousand methods for progress, but embracing a steady and slow progress is the first step.

We must also do the training for the training’s sake, not incumbent on a result. As Krishna, reminds us, “We have a right to our labor, but not to the fruits of our labor.” This means you might go through long periods of heavy strength training, or power development, or endurance training and not be sure you improved your performance potential. 

And honestly, you might not have moved forward…but you also probably didn’t slide back as far as you would have. It’s hard, but holding ground becomes part of the job.

What to Do

This could be an entire book. In fact, I’ve read more than a few books on aging athletes, but most of their advice seems aimed at maintaining the ability to do endurance sports as long as possible. Where we’re interested is the ability to do really high-force work, agility-based movement, and long days. This, then, is where I am going to differ from the typical advice of “Ride your road bike ___ hours per day.” 

Here, then, are six guidelines for training that are different from what we did when we were young.


Show Up Fresh

This might be the hardest one. Don’t get to the gym with strength and power in mind if you’re not recovered. This means bigger gaps between hard days, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get better. You just need longer times to adapt. You’ll still get stronger in the same 10-12 sessions as you did as a kid, but it might be six weeks instead of three. 

Each training session should feature a general warm-up of about 5-10 minutes, and then a simple movement preparation sequence like the one suggested in Unstoppable Force. When you get to the end of this part of the training, you might still feel slow and sluggish. In this case, I say go do some easier boulders and some low-intensity work, add in some stretching, and come back tomorrow. 

Banging your head against limit boulders when you are under-recovered is foolish and threatens to violate the Prime Directive. The goal of your time in the gym should not be fatigue. It should be progress.

Try To Gain Strength

How do you know if you’re getting stronger? You put up better numbers in the gym. With this in mind, you want to stick to exercises that have broad implications—ideally multi-joint exercises done at high loads. 

We shouldn’t do lifts we don’t know how to do well, and if it looks like crap, it’s crap. If you can’t squat, get some instruction. Same with pressing, pulling, or deadlifts. I am always happy when I teach someone the basics of pull-ups and see them immediately get more reps by simply doing the movement better. 

When building a strength session, plan to progress the exercises over 10-12 sessions before making a major change. If you have two different workouts you alternate between (a good idea), do each for 10-12 before switching. And progress the lifts. It is crazy to me how frequently people miss out on this point: if you want to be stronger, you have to tell the body it needs to be stronger by asking more of it.

This is fairly simple:

Do each lift with technical correctness. If your speed of movement or form changes significantly as the reps progress, stay with the same load, or unload until it’s clean. Once you can do all of the planned reps well, I like to ask athletes to do “max good reps” on the last set. For example, you might plan on 4 sets of 5 pull-ups. You do five in the first three sets well, and on the last set, you’ll try to do as many as possible. If you stop at 3 or 4, stick with the same load. If you do 5 or more, add load next time. If you do, say, ten reps on the last set, you probably way underloaded the exercise and might have missed out on a strength stimulus. 

Most exercises can be micro-progressed. Consider adding 1.25# plates rather than fives if you’re not sure. If you can’t add load, consider adding an additional set at the end. The one thing I don’t suggest is adding more reps to each set, as this tends to pull us away from strength development. 

And keep track. Did you lift more weight / generate more force / send harder in the exercises you were training this phase? If not, you need to reassess. Everyone can get stronger, so if you don’t there’s something wrong.

Do Explosive Work

As we age, we decline in all things physical—muscle mass, flexibility, strength—but the first to go for most of us is power. It’s our ability to generate force quickly that starts dipping in our 30s and then declines rapidly each decade after. It makes sense: the nervous system slows, mass declines, joints ache, and we start doing less of the stuff that maintains power. We stop running, move to endurance sport routes, buy road bikes…and naturally enhance our power decline without even knowing it. 

To keep powerful abilities in our quiver, we need to chase speed and power. You don’t need to up and start sprinting again, but within the strength sessions at the gym, some speed will go a long way. Many of us don’t have the durability to jump and sprint after so many years away from it, but there are some great low/no impact exercises you can do to stay explosive. 



Kettlebell Swing / Snatch / Jerk

Medicine Ball Work

Power Push-Up / Pull-Up

My general recommendation is to add one set of an explosive exercise per day until you work up to two full explosive exercises. For example, you do your normal workout, then add one set of five Medicine Ball Chest Pass. Next session, add 2 sets. The following session, three. In the next session, you’d do all three sets of chest passes, and add a single set of Kettlebell Swing. Following the same sequence, you’d add a set the next session, and another the following, until you have 3 sets of each exercise in the routine going forward.

Remember that the key component here is going to be speed, so watch out for the desire to keep going heavy…you want to go as fast as possible with perfect form, and worry about adding load in your strength sets instead. Way too often, I see people trying to progress a ball slam or KB swing by adding load, but the decline in speed is not worth the trade.

Stop at Ten Sometimes

This ties into the section above, but it’s a good rule to keep in mind when you’re not hitting your stride in any boulder session. You should have a series of “fail safes” that are designed to keep you from digging too deep a hole with your training. As you age, your sleep, eating, and general activity can play havoc with your workouts. You might not sleep well one night, and not even know it! When getting ready for a session, you should be warm. If you’re not, I suggest getting on a treadmill, rowing machine, or air bike until you can strip down to a tee shirt. Next, I like to suggest a multi-planar, multi-joint movement prep sequence that really challenges your mobility and balance. If you’re not feeling ready to go after this, end the session and plan to go again tomorrow. 

If you make it through movement prep and start to climb, I suggest a check in at the tenth problem. Am I feeling good? Am I going to get a positive training effect from this session? If you’re tired and already climbing sloppy at ten, nothing good will happen in the rest of the session. More work equals only more tired, which means more time before you can go again.

Combine Sessions

I remember fondly the heyday of my climbing career. We’d go to the crag and spend the day trying projects at our limit, get home in the dark, eat a snack, and then head out to the steep board in Todd Skinner’s garage for a multi-hour session of bouldering. One of my training journals from that time saw me do five attempts at a Wild Iris project one day, and forty-three boulders after returning home. It’s not like that anymore. 

These days, if I don’t really manage the pace and duration of my bouldering, I get tired pretty quickly and start getting sloppy. A thing I noticed in a session a couple of years back, though, was when I was bouldering with my daughter, I actually got a lot more good climbing in. Why? Because she wanted me to do some of the boulders she was trying. Or I would take time to spot her. Or we’d count all the purple holds on the wall. What happened was I rested. But you don’t have to just sit there, tiger! You can do different exercise, which is its own form of rest.

My skin and my toes can be as big a limiter as power, too. 

I have three suggestions that I really find make for a good session.

  1. Combine bouldering with Strength

In this session, I do a normal warm-up, and then do 4-6 boulders. These are usually hard-level boulders at or slightly above my flash level. Then I take off the shoes and do a superset of strength exercises, usually a core movement and a major movement. I rest a bit after doing 3-4 sets of these, then back to the boulders. Again, 4-6 boulders followed by a superset. 

In the end it might look like this:

  • 4 boulders
  • 4 rounds of: Copenhagen Plank 20s+20s | Split Squat x4 each side
  • 4 boulders
  • 4 rounds of: ½ Kneeling Inline Chop 8 each side | Pull-Ups x4
  • 4 boulders
  • 4 rounds of: Ankles to Bar | Single Arm OVerhead Press x4 each side
  • 4 boulders

   2. Combine Bouldering with Cardiac Output exercise

Oh, I know…it’s not ideal to try to develop two qualities in one session (Nor is it ideal to still want to climb your hardest when you're 45 and have to get up to pee twice a night). For the same reasons above, though, you can get a lot out of it. Similar to the first session, I like to do the same 4-6 problems, then switch to a steady pace on an Air Bike or Ski Erg, or even a Rowing Machine with a Flash Board set up on the handle. Five minutes of easy and steady conversational pace here, then back to the boulders. I like three rounds minimum, and up to maybe five. 


    3. Do The Sessions Back-to-Back (i.e. Finish with Weights)

This one is a game changer. As we age, we tend to drop our work capacity. We just get tired. Or our skin is shot. Or an old injury starts flaring up. In my current program, I boulder AND lift weights 3 days each week. I’m not a badass…I do little of either. Once I am warmed-up and have done a couple of drills, I start bouldering. I’ll either do a series of hard boulders as in the combined session above, or I’ll do a Boulder Pyramid where I work up from V1 to a problem that takes me 2-3 tries, then work back down. It might look like this: V1-V2-V3-V4-V5-V6-V5-V4-V3-V2-V1. I tend to make the easier climbs focused on holds I’m not great with, problems that feel awkward, or simply try to apply a skill such as “high feet” to them. 

After bouldering, I go lift. 6 exercises, 3 sets each, 2-5 reps. 

Sometimes, I don’t have time for a climbing and weight session. On Fridays, for example, I have a pretty packed work day, and am often trying to climb on Saturday. In this case I’ll do a slightly longer weight session, and try to let my fingers rest. 

I love to have a focused plan in the weight room, and I like to alter between maybe a dozen templates over the course of a year. Charlie and I had some good ones in Unstoppable Force. There are zillions of plans online. The key here is to find a thing you’ll keep going back to long enough for adaptation to happen. 


Here’s a good session template:

Minutes 1-8: General  Warm-Up

Minutes 9-15: Movement Preparation

Minutes 15-20: Progressive Warm-Up in this session’s movements


3 rounds:

A1: Explosive Exercise 2-4 reps

A2: Stability 


3 rounds:

B1: Multijoint Strength 1 -  2-5 reps

B2: Mobility

B3: Multijoint Strength 2 - 2-5 reps

B4: Mobility


3 rounds:

C1: Assistance Exercise 1 - 4-8 reps

C2: Assistance Exercise 2 - 4-8 reps

C3: Assistance Exercise 3 - 4-8 reps

Cool Down

You might think the cooldown is wasted time, but I find that continuing to move after a hard session is really helpful in recovery. The rule is simple: 10 minutes of easy bodyweight movement, walking, foam rolling, or stretching. This is a great transition time back to the demands of the real world. It’s easy to get pulled into racing to your next commitment. 

One thing I like to do in my training sessions is have a blank sheet of paper or a notebook. This way, when I think of something or get inspired during the session, I can make a note of it and not have to think about it again until I’m done. 


The Day

We over-obsess over the day we are in, and we under-obsess over the training phase. This is why I continue to be critical of fatigue-seeking in fitness programs. Many of us think that, “If I can just get really tired/sore in the next 30-45 minutes, I’ll magically become more fit.” But fitness is a result of repeated overloads that the body can adapt to over time. There are very few successful CrossFitters over 50, and those that are are almost always just riding out the long tail of higher fitness when they were young.

Your day should consist of trying hard in the gym, but avoiding doing the same move/hold position/angle to the point of pain or injury. You should be able to do your reps in the weight room with a couple left “in the tank” and then progress the load the next session if you can do all the reps reasonably.

The Week

Week-to-week, your sessions should show progression. If you look back on last week, the numbers in most of your sessions should improve. If you’re doing strength work, the overall load should be higher. If it’s capacity, your durations should be higher. 

A reasonableness around your schedule is also key. We want to schedule our weeks to keep a regular overload to our systems, but many of us seem to get more busy and less in control of our schedules with each year. This is a separate discussion, but the point is that if you just can’t make the session on Monday, you should make every effort to get it done on Tuesday. Even a short session is better than a missed session. 

Compliance is what we call the number associated with an athlete’s ability to complete the workouts as assigned. An 80% compliance is pretty good, so if you are hitting this number weekly, you’re probably on track. Once in a while, shit happens and you just miss a few days. You’re not going to do well to try and cram a bunch of missed training into just a few days at the end of the week. A better aim is to look at the essential parts of your training, make sure they get addressed, and aim for a better outcome in the following weeks.


The Month

Magical things can happen in 4 weeks. This is a duration at which you should expect measurable improvement in almost anything you focus on. This happens almost every time. You might ask, “Then why am I not getting better?” It’s because you’re “focusing” on thirty things at once. You’re trying to watch your waistline. Trying to get your VO2 max up. Improve finger strength. Get more flexible. Work on your mental game. Your focus isn’t focus at all.

The key to progress is to “stir and simmer.” Pick one pot, turn the heat up to high, and stir that pot like crazy. All of the rest should be simmering gently without having to focus at all. 

My suggestion is to pick one thing to chase, figure out how much of that thing you can reasonably do, and get after it. All of the rest of your stuff, you should do as little as possible to keep it from going away.

Once you see a noticeable gain (in about 4 weeks!), move your main focus to simmer,and get to work on something else.


Recovery isn’t sloth. In fact, doing something helps you recover more quickly than doing nothing. Your day at the poolside will not help you improve as much as a day of walking in the woods. When you’re feeling wiped out after a few weeks of consistent training, it’s wise to step back slightly and take a restorative time. You might not need one week a month, but if you’ve never even tried it, it’s a good place to start.

What does a recovery or “deload” week look like? I like to ask my athletes to maintain about ¾ of their training hours each week, but to reduce the number of high intensity workouts. If I boulder 3x per week for 2 hours, I might knock that back to twice a week for an hour each. If I am hitting it heavy in the weight room, a deload week is a great time to move back to lighter loads and just a couple of sets per exercise. 

Instead of looking at the deload as the last week in the month, I like to use it as the first week in the next month. I introduce new movements and my new workout structure, and take it easy getting to know the new stuff. 

I also replace my hard sessions from the previous week with more easy movement. There is a terrible time-grabbing creep that happens for most of us where we start giving away big chunks of time in the week to things that don’t really matter to us, and it’s hard to get those minutes back. 

Defend The Time

For years, I have held time each week to get outside mid-week. I get a lot of comments like, “must be nice,” from people, but it’s important to me to do it. I feel like I am a less effective worker if I just get locked in my office for 8 hours five days in a row, and I wouldn’t be living. In fact, if life is going to be just answering emails and entering numbers in a spreadsheet, then mowing the lawn on the weekend…well, what’s the point in extending it? 

Every day you get off the couch and pick up some metal, race down a trail, or hit a lap on the Mini Traxion, you’re voting for a better future. The key with aging strong is consistency and reasonableness. It’s not if you should train today, but how.


Steve is the founder of Climb Strong, and is proud to be the worst coach on the Climb Strong team. A climber for nearly 40 years, he has traveled the globe bouldering, sport climbing, and doing first ascents of some of the world's biggest walls. 

He lives in Lander, Wyoming, with his wife Ellen, and children Sam and Anabel.



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