Greysteel Gym where Jonathon Sullivan uses a Starting Strength Routine for his elderly clients shown in the picture

Greysteel Strength and Conditioning is a gym located in Farmington within the Detroit Michigan metro that is taking a novel approach to training for those older than most gym-goers. Much of his approach revolves around a starting strength routine that he has adapted and improved for his older clients.

Whereas many exercise regimens for those 60 and older are based on simply staying active, Greysteel does it different–and with a much more effective approach. By focusing on strength, their athletes make long-term adaptations that carry over into living a longer, healthier life with greater activity and mobility.

While research is still on-going, current studies suggest that strength training in elderly populations helps to preserve bone density and encourage vitality. Greysteel takes full advantage of this newfound scientific expertise and puts it into practice with their clients. The results are clear: their athletes are living more fulfilling, activity-driven lives in their golden years.

As a Starting Strength gym their credentials speak for themselves. But it helps that their head coach Jonathon Sullivan is a physician as well as a physiologist with a passion for approaching things scientifically–something that jives with us at Physiqz very much.

We were able to conduct a short but meaningful interview with Dr. Sullivan where he filled us in on his approach as well as the success of his methodologies at Greysteel.

To say the very least, it’s clear that his expertise, extensive background, and emphasis on barbell strength training make his gym one of the best in the country for elderly looking to improve their lives in innumerable ways.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you gravitated towards powerlifting? Towards coaching powerlifting?

Actually, I never really felt like Greysteel was so much about “powerfifting,” which I think of as a competitive sport. My background is as a physician, physiologist and scientist, and as a person who has been active his entire adult life–Marine Corps, weight training, running, hiking, martial arts.

After medical school I became an emergency physician, where the effects of unhealthy aging were in my face every day. I also did research on brain cell death after stroke and trauma, which is a kind of accelerated “aging” that can be partially treated with growth factors. When I saw research on growth factors after strength training, there was a connection.

I realized that training with barbells has the necessary intensity that no other form of training has to combat unhealthy aging.

What inspired you to create your gym which appears to be focused on those much older than the typical trainee?

The more I trained with barbells, and the more I learned about the physiology of exercise medicine in general and strength training in particular, the more I realized that it is the perfect modality to form the keystone of a general exercise prescription for the aging adult, particularly those in their 60s and beyond.

I started training older adults, and before I knew it the practice had become a full time business.

Can you share an inspirational story of one of your members finding success and an improved quality of life from training?

I won’t reiterate the story of John Claassen, my 92 year-old, except to say that he’ll be competing the deadlift at competition later this year. Which is, of course, way cool.

  • I have ladies in their 60s and 70s who don’t have the diagnosis of osteoporosis any more.
  • I have clients with low back pain who get up and move around like young men and women again, because strong backs don’t hurt.
  • I have a 70-year old lady who once upon a time could not stand up out of a chair under her own power. Now she squats 80 lbs below parallel and has a 70-lb deadlift.
  • I have a 60 year-old lady with a 215 lb deadlift and a 150 lb squat who recently went on a Mediterranean cruise. At various stops along the way there were monuments or temples or sights to be seen at the top of a mountain or staircase or hill in Greece or Turkey or Italy, and she was always the ONLY PASSENGER who would actually climb up there to see it.

So, yeah. I got stories…

What made you choose Starting Strength as your training and coaching foundation? Is there something special about SS?

When I began my research into strength training, [Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training] was the one that came to my attention.

There were others, of course, but nobody has thought about this stuff more deeply or systematically than Rippetoe. I think he’s made a major contribution to the culture of exercise, and as an academic I have a lot of respect for his system of training. It’s easily adaptable to the population I serve, and it works.

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Jon Chambers is an Army veteran, powerlifter, strength coach, sports hernia expert, and writer involved in the strength training community for almost a decade on a mission to create the best strength and fitness guides on the web.

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