While in my early 30’s I could bicep curl a 55 lb dumbbell, but today at age 54 I can only curl about 35 lbs comfortably. Where did the extra muscles go over the last 20 years?
Can men and women above the age of 50 still develop increased muscle mass?
Here is what the research shows:
Hypertrophy Still Possible With Age
Research led by Lex Verdijk at the Department of Human Movement Sciences in Maastricht University in the Netherlands found that elderly men 65 to 85 years old experienced a significant amount of muscle hypertrophy after a 12 week resistance training program.
The training consisted of a 5 minute warmup on a cycle ergometer followed by 4 sets of leg presses and 4 sets of leg extensions and a 5 minute cool down on the cycle ergometer, performed 3 times per week ( a total of 36 sessions). Initially the sets consisted of 10-15 repetitions at 60% of the 1 Repetition Maximum (1RM), but this was increased to 75% of 1RM (8-10 reps) during the first 4 weeks. Starting on the 5th week 8 repetitions were performed at 75%-80% of 1RM, but the workload was increased if the participant could execute more than 8 repetitions on 3 out of 4 sets. Participants were allowed to rest for 1.5 minutes between sets and 3 minutes between exercises.
This study revealed that muscle mass and strength in elderly men can be increased significantly while simultaneously reducing fat mass. Strength for leg presses increased from 170+/- 8 kg to 210 +/-10 kg. Strength for leg extensions increased from 88 +/- 4 kg to 111 +/- 5 kg.
The physiological adaptations that occurred over the 12 week interval of this study were rather amazing in that the cross-sectional area (CSA) of the type II muscle fibers were lower than the CSAs of type I muscle fibers at the beginning of the intervention but were relatively equal after the 12 week program. This is very interesting because in young men the CSA of type 1 and type II muscle fibers is about the same. Thus it is as if this program was able to reverse the effects of sarcopenia (age related muscle loss). It was also found that the number of type II satellite cells (cells that are necessary for muscle growth) in the muscle also increased.
If this can be achieved for elderly legs then why not for biceps?
The Proof is in the Pudding
Meet Sam “Sonny” Bryant Jr. He is a 72-year-old body builder who began training at the age of 44. He is a strong advocate of staying active and stresses that inactivity and mindset are the culprits of accelerated aging. He is living proof that it is possible to stay strong as you age. But the question remains – does retaining or increasing your muscle mass as you age increase your quality of life and longevity?
Muscles vs Aging – How’s Your Hand Grip Doing
Taina Rantanen, et al. have produced evidence that the following factors all promote longevity in males:
- having good muscle strength
- being physically active
- not smoking
- absence of chronic conditions at the age of 62 years
- having a long-lived mother
In this study 2239 men born before June 30, 1909 were followed after baseline physical assessments performed between 1965 and 1968. One of the assessments performed was for overall physical strength. According to the authors, “handgrip strength is a widely used measure of total body strength and a marker of physiological reserve during aging, with good strength protecting from disability and mortality (Rantanen et al. 1999, 2000). ”
Those participants that lived to become centenarians were 2.5 times more likely to be in the upper third in the ‘grip strength” category.
The concept of physiological reserve (Mosqueda, 2004) comes into play here because physical strength in men is associated with a larger buffer for coping with and recovering from stressors. Thus men that had more factors promoting physiological reserve were more likely to become centenarians.
Thus it appears we cannot blame aging for low muscle strength and size, but rather it is our own sedentary inattention to the well-being of our bodies that results in our slow degradation. We basically are sacrificing our health and physiological reserve in pursuit of wealth and other interests.
We can turn this around, while taking into account that aging does impose some limitations. First of all everyone that is starting a new exercise plan should first consult with their primary care physician for advice. Secondly, the volume of training should be limited to provide more time for recovery for people over 50. The key to effective training in the 50s is injury prevention, thus do not try to keep up with the 20 year olds, you need more time for recovery. Find a health coach with experience training older adults.
As for me, I am curious how long it will take to get my 55 lb curls back! I’ll keep you posted.