3 Lifts You Absolutely Positively Should Stop Doing After 40 (And Probably Well Before)

Invincible. Yes, I was.

I was strong, lean and could lift the world. Or so it seemed.

The thing about invincible is it most always feels normal until you it’s gone then you in reflection you realize what you had.

Like all humans, I too have experienced the burden of years on the body. Of which there are two distinct kinds:

  • There is the burden of weight, of lethargy, of inactivity that can lead to all manner of disease and ironically, wear and wear on the body from carrying weight with weak muscles.
  • Then there is the burden of activity which can include injuries, and excessive wear and tear. Of course, not all injuries can be avoided but there are certain adaptations to my weight lifting that I’ve made in my 40’s and would strongly encourage you to consider as well.

Now, let me add that some of these may have been wise to put away earlier but reinstated (pun intended) until I was forced to forgo them, of course.

Here are three lifts that I have given up for wisdom since turning 40… three lifts I wisely concluded were not serving my greater well-being…

1. Overhead barbell press

Be they seated, standing, behind the neck or aft… these are one wholly unnecessary, shoulder wrenching potential nightmare of a lift. The shoulder is an amazing joint… if you can call it that. It’s more like an attachment than a joint… for the shoulder is sort of strapped on there.
And the shoulder is used in just about everything you do, especially training. Thus it is trained with chest, with back, with arms.. shoulders are like your bitch slave joint… always working.


The Barbarian Brothers Loved This Lift

And pressing overhead… it’s focused on a pretty narrow and small band of shoulder muscles that can be better enhanced through much better, safer growth exercises..
Blow a shoulder and it’s for life… you can fix it but you’re never free again… so don’t’ waste your shoulders with a fool-hearty lift…

Be clear that there are no hard and fast rules for what you can at can not do at any age. Fact is where are all built differently with different levers, strengths, tolerances. I certainly know guys in their 40’s and 50’s that can heave huge weights overhead and it works for them. They generally have super thick shoulders and short arms and are just built for compact power.

Such is not the case for most of us and these are three exercises that have nominal benefit (sans squats) for most with maximal risk of eventual injury or at least overuse syndrome.

2. Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns

Back to the shoulders again…only this time focused on the back. (Yes, that is a bit confusing. Read it over…)

I grew up (and out) believing all manner of muscle folklore popularized in the mags and this was one of them. That wide grip lat pulldowns developed a wider lat spread.


Seemed Like a Good Idea… at the time

Yep, now that’s some profound logic. Right. Sort of taro card approach to muscle building. But that’s how it worked. A muscle icon said it and we all believed it.

And I followed it for years until I noted that my shoulders we taking a beating and my back wasn’t. That’s when I opted to engage my own experience and note that my back was more fully engaged and engorged when completing a narrower grip on the pulldown.

Fortunately, science has sense affirmed my experience:

There is actually conclusive evidence from a study by Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies I discussed at length in the SuppVersity EMG Series that an optimal stimulation of the latissumus dorsi is achieved with a shoulder-wide and thus probably 10-15 cm narrower overhand grip; and not with the popular “grip-as-far-apart-as-possible crucification” grip generations of bodybuilders considered the “optimal wing builder.

Lat Pulldowns Revisited: What’s the “Optimal” Grip Width? A Medium Grip Excels – In Spite or Due to the Increased Biceps Activation? Plus: Harder ≠ More Effective

Keep it tighter and grow bigger. Safer, easier on the joints.

3. Heavy (heavy) Squats

Now this is a difficult one to admit because I love heavy squats. I think they are good for making a “man out of ya.” Even if you’re a woman.

I love how they can develop true strength of body and mind. They are a great challenge that teaches but I also see in hindsight that my years of heavy squatting did more damage than they built.


Loved Squats… Wish The Loved Me Long…time

Sure, I have great quads and I can attribute them to squats, because that sounds bold and brave. But fact is my quads would likely build about the same from a mix of other intense work.

The downside is seen on my MRI’s of my back… namely spine. The discs are essentially gone, paper thing, in the lower L4, 5 range. And that’s not good. I can attest to the debilitating pain of back problems. When the pain starts your life comes to a screeching halt.

If I had to swap the sweet victory of a few heavy squats or years for some more life sustaining discs, easy trade.

Barring a choice to be a competitive powerlifter, I’d choose a more moderate rep range. Less 3, 2, 1 reps. I wouldn’t bother setting PR’s but focus on building muscle mass with a variety of movements, squats included.

My Rear View Mirror Of Muscle

That’s my advice to my 20 year ago self—and perhaps to you or any coming up along who thinks the path of muscle is for them. Know it’s a good path—in fact one of the best paths. For muscle is the engine of youth and quality of life.

I hope that you find some wisdom in my words and experience.

Here’s to your life at Full Strength, now and in the future.


PS Here’s how the Over 40 man builds more muscle every day… (50% more according to the research)


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  1. Jeff July 22, 2014 at 8:02 pm #


    Was wondering what you thoughts were on dumbell overhead presses or Arnold Presses. Do you think that using dumbells saves your joints and makes this movement better / more acceptable? Or is it the movement itself that’s problematic?


    – Jeff

    • shawn_phillips July 29, 2014 at 8:52 am #


      I like them better… what’s your take? Feel good? Form and steady movement.. focus matters.


      • Jeff July 29, 2014 at 9:01 am #

        I always like dumbells better. I once heard a very wise fitness expert say that someday people would re-discover just how kick-ass dumbells are, and I’ve taken that to heart : )

        But, I swim on my days off and recently had a bit of “swimmers shoulder” which has made me a bit leery of too much shoulder work. So I’ve switched to reverse grip inclined dumbell presses (rather than Arnold Presses) and it feels much better, especially when I concentrate on keeping my shoulders stabilized and my shoulder blades in proper position. That plus dips and some bent over shoulder raises works just fine.

        I love heavy compounds, but have gained a new appreciation for isolation movements simpy because I’ve been humbled at my inability to properly “fire” the right muscles at the right time. I’m particularly prone to “lazy ass” (aka not relying enough on the posterior chain) syndrome. Combining the compounds with isolations helps me build the right patterns as a “remedial program” for this just-getting-started newbie. And as an over-40 newbie, I’m trying to give my body plenty of time between heavy squat days and still train the muscles for them. All of which makes me think that those “old school” bodybuilders knew what they were doing back when, huh?

    • mark July 29, 2014 at 9:27 am #

      Jeff and Shawn,

      I’m glad you guys are keeping this conversation alive. As I mentioned in my post, I injured my shoulder twice in a months span. As part of my healing regimen, I have been training around my shoulder injury while listening to my body. A huge shift from commanding it to obey my will. The o/h dumbbell press with super light weights actually makes the injured joint feel better. Also finding the right angle of palms facing in to out; somewhere in between lies the sweet spot, and that tricky joint is feeling much better.

  2. Mark Hiddleson June 24, 2014 at 8:25 am #

    Too little too late! This is great advice Shawn. I am 44 years old and injured my right shoulder (actually BP too much weight sans spot. another no-no) It was getting better until I took a spill on my bicycle 3 weeks later. Landed on my right elbow which probably wouldn’t have been a big deal save for the fact that my “bitch slave” joint was already hammered. Great not good advice. My shoulder is ok during the day 4 weeks later, but hurts like a MF at night when I try to roll over in my sleep, and you know as well as anyone… no good sleep no muscle building. Jeez.

    • shawn_phillips June 24, 2014 at 3:23 pm #


      No funny experience but funny share. Bitch slave… ha… joint.

      Yeah, think I’ve done all that in this last few weeks… ugggg…

      Best of Strength,

  3. Steve Czeropski June 23, 2014 at 7:41 am #

    Shawn, Good article. I agree with what you’re saying here. I’m 43 and have had to revise my workouts and tailor them to what my body can tolerate. As we get older we can’t do what we used to do, in terms of weighlifting, etc. Now, Jack Lalanne was a beast, into his later years, but I don’t know if he was still doing “heavy singles” on bench press, squats, etc.

    What are your thoughts on seated dumbell shoulder presses with moderate weight for sets of 8-10 reps?

    Would you advise to NOT do clean and press with barbell, even with light weight? What are your thoughts on Kettlebells?

    Also, I injured myself doing heavy leg presses at age 43 (groin, leg tendon, etc) from coming down too far. I will probably eliminate that movement. Live to fight another day!

    • shawn_phillips June 24, 2014 at 3:21 pm #


      Thanks… clean is different and done with less reps more form.

      Dumbbell seems to be largely much better for most on shoulders. Do what works for you.


  4. Bill Neapolitan June 23, 2014 at 6:47 am #

    You know whats important now. If your lifting experience hasn’t shaped you now , your ignorant. look , were in this for the long haul and what doesn’t enhance your life as you go past 50 you drop and find a different approach (just turned 52) , that’s what wisdom all about.Right on shawn . When I was younger it was the massive guys at the gym I looked up to , Now it’s the guys that are older,wiser and still driven !

  5. Richard Latimer June 21, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    As a practicing Chiropractor for 37 years (for what it’s worth I went to school with Franco Columbu0 I have treated a lot of “weekend” bodybuilders and have seen quite a number of low back disc injuries in my practice from squatting with a heavy barbell placed on the shoulder. When doing the squat movement there is a slight flexion or bending forward at the waist which increases the pressure on the front of the disc, primarily the annulus or outer portion. this can result in slight tears and increased loss of disc hydration. I recommend my patient’s hold dumbells in either hand at shoulder level so they are not pressing on the shoulders and thereby compressing the spine, and perform the squat not going below 90 degrees to avoid knee strain. This will work the Quadriceps quite nicely. Squat lunges with dumbells work well also, again not exceeding 90 degrees of knee flexion. When strengthening the Quadriceps it is important to also strengthen the hamstrings to maintain a proper ratio of 60-75% hamstring strength in relation to the Quadriceps.An imbalance in the Quadricep Hamstring ratio can result in hamstring “pulls” seen in sprinters.

  6. tmac June 21, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

    “Change is a choice… I am only sharing my experience. It’s personal.” Yes it is personal and very hard to admit so thank you Shawn for bring this out in this forum I know it takes a lot to let people know that even people who are in “absolute” great shape can be injured and their bodies age as well… I feel your pain literally 🙁

  7. Cameron June 21, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    Well, i thought you sould provide motivating and inspirational articles that lift people to be better and achieve geater health and fitness. With this article, i can only think you have turned back everything that has built up your foundation of who you are and made you what are today. Shawn, think about it. Millions have successful in transforming their lives through exercise and good nutrition with the knowlegde from texts such as “body for life” and “absolution” which you and your brother bill have written well. I am appauled you have back tracked on exercises that have actually built the mind, body and spirit of who you are today. I will reconsider reading your material in the as it provokes a negative mindset. As you know. Where the mind goes, the body follows. Just my opinion.

    • shawn_phillips June 21, 2014 at 2:25 pm #


      What in the name of ___ are you talking about?

      I back tracked? I cheated you? Or I looked back… and said, wow, be careful?

      Yes, once we decide what is true at age 20 we should never, ever change that opinion? Is that it? Wow…

      Negative? Well… that’s your view. If you read my work, you would know I’ve said this stuff for years. I do not endorse most of the exercises in year… squats but just said I’d not be a Powerlifter squatting 600… I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Did you?

      I don’t endorse overhead press… haven’t. No change there. I talk about all this in spaces for years.

      If you feel let down, take a look in the mirror and see what that has to do with you, not me. And if you need to run away, and take your dumbbells with you. Enjoy!

      All the Best

      • tmac June 21, 2014 at 3:29 pm #

        Preston, all through my 40’s I was doing 400 to 600 sled squats, I know not the same as standing but for a 5’4″ 142lb that’s impressive right? well I thought so, not that i’m looking for glory or adoration but I hit 46 years old and I was teaching a kickboxing class (I was a pro kick-boxer in my younger years) I blew out my back same as Shawn I went and had my MRI’s done and now for the last 6 years i have lived a life of pain everyday. As Shawn I look back everyday and wish I would have never done those squats and other exercises that cause me grief now for having done them like wide grip lat pull-downs. I have worked out since I was 13 years old and in the best shape of my life through my mid 30’s and 40’s much thanks to Shawn and his brother Bill. Shawn is right I see old guys lifting stupid amounts of weight at the gym and that we are all built different but it will catch up with them there is one thing you cannot stop and that is aging so do your self a favor and use other exercises to gain or not that is up to you youngster, we are only telling our experience and it is no skin off our backs with what ever you choose. It is just information do with it as you will. Shawn keep writing and working on better ways for us old timers to workout with bad backs 🙂 I have not seen the gym in almost 6 months as I wanted to let the body heal but writing a book on the best way to stay in shape with an aching back is something I would love to achieve as there are a lot of us older generation people that really need good advise and sound exercise. i am only 52 was very very active and it is a huge disappointing and depressing let down to have to completely change your life because of pain. Just saying be careful and don’t brush off the older generation wisdom. Just saying….

    • shawn_phillips June 21, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

      Where the mind goes? So… if you say, “rattle snake!” … well, that’s negative. “I see snakes… you see rattles.”

      Peace be yours until death… well, damn. If you’ve ever had a slipped disc or herniated disc you’d not think my advice negative but life saving…

      Don’t swim in the riptide! Oh… you’re so negative.

      Oooo. Okay.

  8. SALATHIEL HENDERSON II June 21, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    Good article. I feel you on some of the moves; having already changed my form on afew. As for Preston…let it go, man. Shawn has repeated himself and said this is what HE has chosen to do for HIMSELF, and is just offering advice. Take it or leave it.

    • shawn_phillips June 21, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

      Change is a choice… I am only sharing my experience. It’s personal.

      Yeah, he and they can take or leave it. People are funny….

  9. Jon June 21, 2014 at 11:40 am #

    Every person has their challenges based on physiology. I know from my experience that your joints and any inflammation we may suffer from will play a part in how heavy we should go, especially as we age. Good article.

    • shawn_phillips June 21, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

      Yes, inflammation needs to be understood and one must eat and nourish well.


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