Get Stronger as You Age — Why and How
You can get stronger as you age, but not by doing what Julie does. At 68 years young, she lifts weights three times a week and does cardio five times, so what can she do better?
To become stronger as you age is among the most important things you can do to forestall the aging process and extend your healthspan. You become stronger by building muscle.
I know that muscle building is a high bar to clear if you’re past 50 and have never done it, but two things you need to know:
- Maintaining/building muscle makes your life better; and
- You’re never too old to start — just begin with what you can do and gradually progress.
Here's what I cover in this post: Get stronger as you age to improve healthspan Sarcopenia = weakness Weak muscles = fast aging Weak muscles = chronic disease How to get stronger as you age Intensity Consistency Nutrition Regenerate
Let’s begin with a question I came across recently:
I’m a 68-year-old woman and have been weight training for 1.5 years, but I haven’t seen much muscle development. I weight train three days a week and also do 45 minutes of cardio five days a week. Why am I not really seeing any muscle firming? I walk 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day. My peak heart rate is 160 when working out, and resting is 57. So why haven’t I seen more muscle?
Let’s call this person “Julie”.
Julie is impressive! At 68 years young, she’s pumping it, literally. Five days of cardio, plus three days of weight training is a lot. Her low resting pulse rate of 57 and maximum peak of 160 is excellent. But Julie is not gaining muscle, despite her effort.
Well, I’m going to answer that in this post, but first I want to convince you of the importance of maintaining/building muscle as you age. If you think this is just for “meatheads”, please think differently.
Healthspan refers to the years over which you remain healthy. Many different surveys have shown that few people want to live, say, to 100 if they were to be enfeebled during their last 20 years; however, the opposite response is typically given if the choice to live a healthy life right up till the end.
Extending your healthspan is within your span of control, and maintaining or building muscle will help you achieve that.
Among the many, here are three important reasons why you should dedicate the time and energy necessary to get stronger as you get older:
- Without the benefit of resistance training, you lose between 1 to 3% of lean body mass each year after age 35, which eventually leads to sagging skin, poor balance and weakness.
- Weak muscles may accelerate how fast you age.
- Resistance training reduces the risk of getting chronic diseases, as well as all-cause mortality.
Let’s examine each of these three assertions.
Sarcopenia is the age related, involuntary loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength. Symptoms of sarcopenia can include:
- Muscle Weakness
- Slow Walking Speed
- Self-Reported Muscle Wasting
- Difficulty Performing Normal Daily Activities
But really, odds are, the older you are, the more muscle attrition has occurred, unless you steadfastly do resistance training (calisthenics and/or weight lifting).
That’s because muscle mass typically decreases 1 to 2% per year after the age of 35, and can accelerate to 3% each year after age 60 .
The average body weight of a 35 year-old American male is about 197 pounds , of which approximately 42% is muscle , or 83 pounds. At a muscle loss rate of 1.5% per year from age 35 to 60, and at 3% thereafter to age 80, his muscle weight would decline to 31 pounds, for a total muscle loss of 52 pounds. Of course, that doesn’t mean that his total weight declined from 197 to 145 (197-52), because, typically, much of that muscle loss gets replaced by body fat.
The average body weight of a 35 year-old American female is about 167 pounds , of which approximately 32% is muscle , or 53 pounds. At a muscle loss rate of 1.5% per year from age 35 to 60, and at 3% thereafter to age 80, her muscle weight would decline to 20 pounds, for a total muscle loss of 33 pounds. Of course, that doesn’t mean that her total weight declined from 167 to 134 (167-33), because, once again, much of that muscle loss gets replaced by body fat.
How’s your grip strength?
Researchers at Michigan Medicine recently published a study that indicates that weakness accelerates aging. The study modeled the relationship between biological age and grip strength of 1,274 middle-aged and older adults using three “age acceleration clocks” based on DNA methylation.
DNA methylation provides a molecular biomarker and estimator of the pace of aging, resulting in the so-called “biological age”, which is distinct from chronological age in its variability — bioage can be equal to, lower than or higher than chronological age.
The clocks used in the study were originally modeled from various studies examining diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, physical disability, Alzheimer’s disease, inflammation, and early mortality.
Grip strength is a widely used, and reliable proxy for overall strength. Results of the study revealed that both older men and women showed an association between lower grip strength and biological age acceleration across all three DNA methylation clocks.
Past studies have shown that low grip strength is also an extremely strong predictor of adverse health events. One study found grip strength to be a better predictor of cardiovascular events, such as myocardial infarction, than systolic blood pressure – the clinical hallmark for detecting heart disorders.
A 2021 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine examined the current epidemiologic evidence that links muscle training (resistance training) to the major chronic diseases that beset humanity. It concluded the use of muscle-strengthening activities over one to two sessions per week (approximately 60–150 minutes) can help reduce the risk of major chronic disease and lower the rate of mortality
Here are some specifics of the impact of resistance training on chronic diseases:
- Seven studies showed a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease of between 20 to 25%.
- Four studies showed a 30% risk reduction of getting type 2 diabetes.
- Four studies showed a 15 to 20% reduction of cancer.
Moreover, six studies showed the risk of all-cause mortality was reduced by 20 to 25%.
The researchers believe that the likely mechanisms contributing to these health benefits include improvement in body composition, lipid profile, insulin resistance and inflammation.
The above video is one of thousands on YouTube demonstrating full-body workouts. Beginners can do the leg exercises without weight.
Now that you know how important it is to maintain or get stronger as you age, let’s circle back to “Julie” and her lament that despite all her efforts she has not been able to build muscle (“muscle firming”).
I have some suggestions for her, or anyone that seeks to improve their ability to gain muscle.
You do not need to do each set to failure, whereby you couldn’t do another rep if your life depended on it. But you do need to exert effort. Intensity matters.
- Finish each set two reps short of failure
- Do enough sets to thoroughly fatigue the muscle or muscles the exercise works (typically 3 to 5)
- Don’t rest more than 2 minutes between sets
- Focus more on exercises involving multiple, large muscles (squats, push-ups, pull-ups and their equivalents) as opposed to small, single muscle exercises (bicep curls)
- Don’t overestimate your effort, as many people do
Generally, muscle building (hypertrophy) requires lifting weights in rep ranges of 12 to 15, Try a rhythm of 2 seconds for the concentric part of the lift (muscles contract), and 4 seconds for the eccentric (muscles extend). For example, when squatting, the eccentric part is lowering your butt toward the ground, and the concentric is standing up from the lower position.
As reviewed above, you can get substantial healthspan benefits and delay sarcopenia with just one to two full-body resistance training sessions per week. But three times per week is better, and if you focus on doing full-body sessions, you can get more done in less time than if you were to do one muscle group at a time.
Full-body sessions inevitably require compound exercises. These are multi-joint exercises like squats and deadlifts that work multiple muscles at a time, and thereby make your training time more efficient.
If you’re new to resistance training, you might want to build some strength by using weight machines before moving on to “free weights” (barbells, dumb bells) or body weight (push-ups, dips). For example, machines built for leg presses, bench presses and lat pull-downs usually properly position you for the movement and allow you to work up to a higher intensity with stability.
Julie complained that she isn’t seeing much muscle development despite doing resistance training three times per week, and that might be because she also does 45 minutes of cardio five days a week, which means that she’s doing a lot of cardio at the same time, or on the same day as her weight training. Don’t do that.
It’s OK to warm-up with low intensity cardio before weight training, or cool down doing so afterwards, but working hard on weights and cardio together is not a recipe for maximizing muscle and strength gains.
High volumes of cardiovascular training can negate hypertrophy, as the two types of training create competing adaptations. Cardiovascular exercise — anything that increases heart rate — promotes heart and lung health and reduces the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. Strength training boosts the metabolism by building lean muscle mass, preventing obesity and limiting bone loss.
Ideally, you do both cardio and resistance training, but if you do them on the same day, make sure that only one is done with intensity.
Check YouTube for some examples of full-body resistance training. You may also check out my six-part series, The Functionally Fit Fast Workout.
You can reduce the muscle attrition that comes with aging by consuming enough protein. I’ve written a bit about protein, and, frankly, this topic can be confusing, because the “experts” espouse conflicting recommendations about what protein source and amount is best.
My suggestion is that you aim for 1 gram of protein per 1 kilogram of body weight (one kilo is 2.2 pounds) divided over three meals. If you need to, supplement with protein smoothies. Whey protein has the best muscle protein synthesis, which basically means that it feeds your muscles better, but die-hard healthspan maximalists should know that animal-derived protein activates pro-aging cellular signals, such as mTOR .
Smoothies are great for helping ensure you ingest the healthy types of food you want to consume, but don’t eat frequently enough. I’m referring to cruciferous or leafy vegetables, flax or chia seeds, and berries. You can easily add them to a 15 or 20 gram serving of whey, hemp or pea protein powder, along with almond, oat, soy or hemp milk to ensure that you’re getting enough muscle-building protein, plus a bunch of phytonutrients as well.
Recovery is undervalued for the role it plays in getting the fitness results you want. When you train hard and consistently, restorative sleep and recovery are of paramount importance. (Here are 7 tips.)
Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night, and pay attention to your stress levels. Exercise is a great way to relieve stress, but you may also need to become mindful of what gets and keeps you at an unhealthy level of aggravation.
One great way to tune in to tune out is to use isochronic tones and binaural beats to help you go deeply into a meditative state. Check out my posts about meditation, and in particular, this one about brain entrainment. Observe your stress melting away.
Your “Get Stronger” Takeaway
I began this post with Julie’s conundrum. She says she weight trains three days per week, and does cardio five days per week, and yet she’s not getting stronger and building muscle.
I compliment her effort, but she needs to reorient how she schedules resistance and cardio training. As I explained, Julie will get better muscle-building results if she does less or no cardio on weight-lifting days, and makes sure she consumes enough protein and rest.
To resist age-related sarcopenia, it is essential that you maintain the strength you have as you age, or if currently weak, to get stronger. Resistance training does more than make you strong and look good — as I showed you, the evidence is clear that maintaining/building muscle is necessary to thwart chronic disease and improve healthspan.
Last Updated on July 7, 2023 by Joe Garma