When Kobe Bryant announced that he was hanging up his sneakers for good, it got me thinking. His incomparable combination of athleticism, skill and sheer determination fueled his ascendancy to become one of the greatest ever to play the game of basketball.
Although the new breed of basketball pundits—you know, those analytics guys with their PER metrics—are eager to point out Bryant's declining abilities, they ignore the fact that he's playing in his 20th season. A paragon of sports health, he outlasted most other luminaries of his time, logging more minutes, scoring more points, and winning more games than anyone in the Hall of Fame-studded 1996 Draft, in which he was chosen 13th.
Although they lack the resources of professional athletes, other athletes can improve their longevity by paying closer attention to their bodies and following approaches rooted in both common sense and scientific evidence. Here are some tips to get you started.
1. Consider an Alternative "Big 3"
The Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift are mainstays for powerlifters, both raw and geared. These lifts, which powerlifters perform in competition, also help improve general physical preparedness for athletes.
Retired lifters who may no longer be able to perform the "Big 3," or recreational lifters who have no need for them in their training, should establish a couple of cornerstone movements within their programs so they can continue to fuel their competitive drive.
Wonky knees? Do some Box Squats. They develop the musculature of the posterior chain, which over time spares the knees of excessive shear forces.
Screwy shoulder? Consider Loaded Push-Ups. This closed chain horizontal pushing variation of the Bench Press encourages scapular upward rotation, better activates the rotator cuff muscles and more significantly engages the core. It's also an excellent counter to the multiple open-chain activities of daily living and sports that involve horizontal adduction, flexion, and extension of the shoulder.
Beat-up back? Deadlifts performed from the floor can place some (not all) people in precarious positions, owing to one or a combination of factors, including suboptimal anthropometry, lack of core stability, and/or poor tissue extensibility.
Instead, try some Rack Pulls or Block Pulls performed from above the knees and progress to High-Handled Hex Bar Deadlifts. Hex Bar Deadlifts evenly distribute the stress between the hips and knees, making it a friendlier option for those who encounter pain when performing Deadlifts of the straight bar variety.
2. Streamline Your Plan of Attack
Lifters who attack the weight room with unbridled fervor, going for broke on every set, will hurt their strength and physique-building efforts. Before you hit the gym, consider how you feel. Gauge your readiness by asking the following questions:
- How was your sleep the night before?
- Have you eaten or hydrated before your workout?
- What is your stress level?
This differs from preparedness. You may be prepared to bench 315, but if you're having a rough day, you may be not be ready for it.
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Also know that stress, like the achievement of fitness goals, is the result of a cumulative process. Recent literature describes stress as a balance between allostatis (the process of achieving stability via alterations in physiological or behavioral stimuli) and allostatic load (wear and tear when the body is exposed to repeated or chronic stress).
Deloads are one way to keep these systems in check. Scale back loading parameters every few weeks—or more frequently if you are prone to injury or have multiple external competing demands such as travel, another sport, or an immense workload. Unless you are a newbie, don't expect PRs every workout. Pull back now so you can push forward later.
3. Incorporate Alternative Loading Stimuli
Lifters, especially strength athletes, forget that there are other ways to target muscles beyond the mechanical tension that results from heavy lifting.
Time under tension (TUT) is a potent cocktail comprised of reduced load, elimination of momentum and a slowed tempo. This approach imposes greater metabolic stress and causes muscle damage while sparing the joints.
Select a movement of your choice and pare down the load to 60 percent of your estimated or actual 1RM. Then perform a set for a total of 50 or 60 seconds with the following cadence:
- 3 second eccentric
- 1 second pause
- 2 second concentric
- 1 second contraction once movement is complete
4. Embrace the Value of Bodyweight Training
Another measure to spare joints—while increasing mobility, flexibility, and conditioning—involves adding bodyweight training to your program arsenal.
Bodyweight exercises can be performed within a dynamic warm-up in the form of Hand Walkouts, Push-Ups, a and Lunge variations. They can also be performed in a metabolic conditioning circuit, as Squats, Push-Ups, and Pull-Ups, or in conjunction with calisthenics in an aerobic capacity circuit. Whatever approach you choose, these exercises provide strength athletes with immense value and versatility (reasons why they ranked second in this year's worldwide survey of fitness trends).
RELATED: The Simplest Bodyweight Workout Ever
And though many lifters possess inordinate limit strength, they usually lack relative strength, or the ability to perform movements using just their bodyweight.
5. Improve Your Aerobic Fitness
Oxidative pathways provide ATP, the body's energy currency, in the most abundant amounts, promoting recovery. Aerobic training sessions, which can consist of walking and low-intensity cycling, can curtail delayed onset muscle soreness. It has been widely demonstrated that aerobic exercise following anaerobic exercise clears metabolic waste and promotes greater systemic blood delivery throughout the body. A recent study involving soldiers revealed that infantrymen with greater aerobic fitness exhibited increased resistance to injury.
- Thompson, W.R. (2015). "Worldwide survey of fitness trends for 2016," 10th anniversary edition. ACSM Health and Fitness Journal, 19, 9-18.
- Tufano, J.J., Brown, L.E., Coburn, J.W., Tsang, K.K., Cazas, V.L., & LaPorta, J.W. (2012). "Effect of aerobic recovery intensity on delayed-onset muscle soreness and strength." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26, 2777-2782.
- Anderson, M.K., Grier, T., Canham-Chervak, M., Bushman, T.T., & Jones, B.H. (2015). "Occupation and other risk factors for injury among enlisted U.S. Army soldiers." Public Health, 129, 531-538.