Men Over 40 Don’t Have to Back Squat for Strong Legs

Author, fitness model, and trainer Kirk Charles, NASM-CPT CES, knows that as you get older, life can get more complicated. But that shouldn’t prevent you from being on top of your game. He’ll help to answer the tough training questions that come with age so you too can be Fit Beyond 40.

There’s a chiropractor near the gym I used to work at, a big guy that everybody loves. The first time we met he showed me pictures of what he used to do in the gym. He looked superb!

But, sadly, he told me he’s had a hard time regaining his old form. “I used to move massive weight about 15 years ago,” he said. “Can’t do it now.” Unfortunately, he got too aggressive and went too heavy doing barbell back squats. He injured some of the disks in his lower back. Subsequently, he’s had lingering pain for the past 15 years. He’s approaching 50 years of age, but he can’t work out aggressively like he used to, so the pounds have piled on.

I’ve heard a few stories from older guys about what they used be able to do before injury has forced them to stop. That’s made me deathly afraid of injury. At age 57, my recovery time is not what it used to be, so I try to limit risk whenever I can in my workouts, especially when it comes to my back. I almost never do barbell back squats—which can be safe, if you do them properly and don’t have my personal injury history—but I love another great, lower impact alternative lower body exercise: goblet squats. They minimize the risk of back injury, since the positioning of the load is different and is limited, with the added bonus of a core challenge.

When you do barbell back squats, a common mistake is dropping your chest and rounding your back, putting you at greater risk for injury. Those are compensations that may result from hip and lower body immobility. Limited shoulder mobility, a problem I have myself, can cause further rounding of the upper back. The goblet squat overcomes those tendencies because the weight is front loaded, which forces you to keep your back up straighter.

To set up for goblet squats, I prefer to use a dumbbell (a kettlebell works as well). Stand with your feet a little wider than shoulder width apart, with your feet in a comfortable position for you (I like to point my toes slightly out). Hold the dumbbell on one end, with your elbows high (your hands might be at around chin height). Keep your forearms up and squeeze your shoulder blades together. In the upright position, your glutes and core should be squeezed as tight as possible.

As you bend your knees to sit back and descend into the squat, keep your elbows the same position, fighting against the weight to keep your torso position upright. While keeping you weight evenly distributed on your feet (don’t put most of your weight on your toes), go as deep into the squat as possible. Some younger guys can go deeper than parallel here. If you’re older and don’t have adequate strength or joint (knee, ankle and/or hip) mobility, that may not be possible, so only go as deep as your body will allow. To ascend back to the starting position, fire your glutes and quads until your standing strong and tall.

If you have a fear of injury like I do, the goblet squat will quickly become one of your favorite exercises. If you’ve been injured, you know that bouncing back gets tougher every year, so the goblet squat is the safest way to go. If you’re new to squatting, using a light weight, do three sets of 10 reps during lower body workouts. As you get stronger, raise the weight using heavier dumbbells or kettlebells.

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