Supple At 60: A Thought Experiment On Longevity

By Craig Hysell, MTI Contributor

My jiu-jitsu instructor’s movements were smooth, patient, and meticulous. When he demonstrated being in a bad spot, he made the bad spot look better than the good spot. He was light, lean, lethal, highly energetic and looked like he was in his early to mid-50’s. 

He was closer to 70.

Having spent 35 years in the gym, experienced numerous impacts in lacrosse and rugby, and worked as a professional firefighter every third day, all I know at 48 years old when I see a guy like that is this: I desire it.

I have the incredible luck of being trained by jiu-jitsu royalty: three men with direct ties to the Gracie family who have each been on the mat for more than 50 years. I call them my “Supple Elders.”

All of them move with the same fluidity but their “movement character” on the mat is different:

  • One resembles a panther and plays with his opponents like a relaxed cat would a ball of yarn. 
  • One resembles a wolf: hunting, nipping, waiting, hungry. 
  • One resembles a ferret: slippery, cunning, playful with a bad bite if you earn it.

The wolf never works out in the gym, preferring to work outdoors doing various handyman-type projects or riding his dirt bike. 

The panther does a bit of resistance training at higher reps with lighter weights 1-2x per week plus a bit of rehabilitative work on his surgically repaired shoulder. 

The ferret is a real student of both fighting and strength and conditioning; he works out daily but only resistance trains once per week.

How can a person achieve the suppleness of my jiu-jitsu instructors in his 60’s, 70’s and beyond without decades of daily work on the jui-jitsu mat. 

A 2016 study published in The Journal of Strength Conditioning titled “Functional Movement Screening Performance of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Athletes From Brazil” looked at sports injuries over 12 months from 33 BJJ athletes. The study found that “A poor FMS score was observed, and lower scores in the FMS were associated with a higher risk of injury in BJJ athletes.”

Perhaps a higher degree of “functional movement” is a great place to start. But none of my Supple Elders seem to possess something so vague as this and I seriously doubt they would score greater than a 14 on the FMS. Not to mention that the effectiveness of the FMS at predicting injury rate is far from gospel.

Instead, what my panther, wolf, and ferret mentors do possess is incredible control of their bodies in space as well as a supreme efficiency in their martial art. It’s not just fitness, it’s also wisdom. But it’s more than that, too.

We could call it “wellness” but that’s not quite right. Wellness is also a murky term and let’s be careful about romanticizing these Elders. They all have injuries and matters in their personal lives that need attending to. 

They aren’t robots. They aren’t perfect. 

What they do have is “command” …

  • Command of their bodies.
  • Command of their space.
  • Command of how they want to live. 

All three avoid processed food. Each has  great sense of humor. After 50 plus years, all three are passionate about jiu-jitsu and still consider themselves students of the sport. 

My ferret mentor is the only one who works out regularly.

By “working out” I mean he moves his body in a manner consistent with maintaining the ability and the durability to do his sport/martial art. Which, oddly enough, is a sport that allows him to maintain strength, balance, coordination, stamina, agility and elevate his cardiovascular output and respiratory effort. 

My ferret mentor is a searcher, a traveler and most likely as a result, a reductionist. He was front row during the golden age of bodybuilding, and ringside as Westside Barbell went public with its powerlifting approach. He was right there for CrossFit, the kettlebell, and the resurgence of strongman implements like stones and sandbags. He has had time to deep dive them all and test them on himself. He has developed firm opinions as a result.

He advocates Mike Mentzer’s philosophy on training less days with resistance in order to allow for more days in recovery/gains. He believes time under load (or tension) is more helpful than volume for strength. His favorite current strength tool is nothing more than a strap and pushing against the strap at various intensities within various time frames (80% effort for thirty seconds for example). He strength trains a squat, a hinge, and a push/pull in both the horizontal and vertical plane.

He does this type of isometric strength training one day per week. The rest of the week he moves his body in various animal and jiu-jitsu patterns often at timed intervals (30 seconds of work, 30 seconds of rest) to establish some stamina and conditioning as well as maintain durability. If he wants to run, he does sprints or intervals on the echo bike. He’s over 70 years-old.

And what about mobility and flexibility? In his opinion, his movement patterns in his workouts, as well as jiu-jitsu itself, have largely been what has developed these things to the degree they are needed. While neither his flexibility or mobility could be considered “freakish”, he is just as mobile as a majority of athletically sound people 50 years younger.

Where do these observations lead me in developing a regimen that fits my lifestyle and my goals?

Personally, I enjoy lifting weights, have been practicing jiu-jitsu for two years now, am rehabbing a winging scapula issue, and want to move everyday (I just feel better when I do). As we begin 2024 I will be running a 6 month test on the following protocol:

  1. Strength training with weights every fourth day following Mike Mentzer’s principles, as well as a majority of the movements he suggests, at a tempo of 4 second eccentric drop, two second pause at the bottom of the lift, and 4 second concentric lift back up.. Conclude with neck strengthening/development at 2-3 work sets of 12-15 reps.
  2. Conditioning with animal patterns and jiu-jitsu movements, sprint or echo bike intervals, and winging scap rehab on 2-3 days of the four day interim between strength workouts. I also like to shove a lacrosse ball or roller in my stiff or tender bits as needed.
  3. Keep my current jiu-jitsu schedule.

After 6 months I will re-evaluate and adjust as needed.

Craig is a father and firefighter in South Carolina.

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