Mike Palen has practiced Olympic-style weightlifting since he was 12, and 68 years later, he’s still going strong—800 lbs. strong, to be precise.
The 80-year-old has been keen to get back in his local New York Sports Club after the easing of lockdown restrictions, wanting to resume training two to three times a week—as he has done since Kennedy was in the White House.
“What I lifted yesterday happened to be 765 (lbs.), and that’s my own technique,” Palen told GNN in an interview. He’s working towards a higher number in his custom lift, which is in a simple half-squat position and using a rack, but we can’t specify the number because he doesn’t want his wife to find out he’s going back to the “heavy stuff.”
GNN has reported on silver-haired lifters before, such as a 100-year old great-great-grandmother who set a Guinness World Record after completing a 150-pound deadlift, and a World War II veteran who took out the bench press record for his 91-year old age group with a 187-pound press, but for the moment at least Mike is on another level.
Mike Palen’s fitness journey began, like so many others, under the shadow of an athletic big brother—but where his brother Steve took to football, Mike was drawn to the “heavy stuff.”
A fitness journey
“My dad was making a bench in the open lot next to our house… and left some of the remaining cement pillars that held the bench up. They made perfect dumbbells, and I saw immediate results,” says Palen, whose love of the competitive rush of completing a lift led to Olympic aspirations as a young adult.
“I felt I could compete in the Olympics; probably in the late 50s, early 60s,” he said. “I got up to 315 in the clean and jerk, 265 in the military press, and the snatch was a tough lift, but I did a total of 235. And that was up there; that was a lot of weight for those days.”
Tommy Kono, a Japanese-American Gold-medalist weightlifter who is often considered the greatest Olympic lifter America ever produced, was posting world-record numbers which Mike was approaching. In 1953, Kono won the National Weightlifting Championship with a world-record 280 in the snatch, and 350 in the clean and jerk.
Palen’s Olympic ambitions were cooled after he married his wife Sandy and had children, but he never stopped lifting 2 to 3 times a week, even through a host of injuries.
“That’s why I don’t let myself get old”
A member of the Silver Sneakers senior fitness program, the New York state resident now offers immediate inspiration to all those around him, particularly as they watch him continually slide plates onto the bar.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, and like so many heavy lifters he had problems with his knees.
“When I flexed it a certain way, the tissue would go in between my knee, and you can imagine what that does, I was on crutches for awhile,” says Palen. “Eventually that went away, and my knees have returned and that’s why I immediately went back to heavy squats in my late 70s.”
“My legs are still what they used to be, I like to think. They [doctors] told me eventually when you get old…and that’s why I don’t let myself get old—you’re going to feel like you’ve got problems, but I still have that strength. I still ski.”
There’s truth in Mike’s iron-headedness. Intense exercise stimulates the production of chemicals in the brain, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which promotes neuroplasticity—the speed which the brain can create new connections, and neurogenesis—the creation of new neurons.
Perhaps more important than a muscular physique, weightlifting helps maintain bone density, which begins to decline at a relatively early age, and accelerates in one’s silver years. Bone density loss is a leading factor of morbidity, and is why something like a fall can be so dangerous for a senior, when for a younger person it’s pretty harmless.
Silver Sneakers offers virtual classes at pretty much every fitness level, and access to 22,000 fitness centers across the country.
“Our whole mission is to help older adults live happier, healthier lives, and the classes promote physical activity social connection and mental enrichment,” said Debbie Jacobson, from Silver Sneakers. “Not everybody’s Mike, not everybody can do what he’s doing, but we have classes for all levels.”
“I’m a member of Silver Sneakers and I have to say honestly, it should be offered to everybody that’s getting old, because it keeps us off the insurance liability!” adds Mike. “Better health, maintained, is better than the alternative, it puts us on a different course.”
It’s not only seniors he wants to inspire, he left GNN with a message for the youth as well.
“Time flies by so fast, and before you know it you’re 80. [Let] an exercise of your choice be your vehicle to good health. If for some reason you quit always return as soon as possible.”