You’ve probably had an older friend or relative tell you that after you hit your late thirties, everything goes downhill.
They moan about the aches and pains, lack of energy, and the middle-aged spread. They probably remind you that it’s common knowledge that we gain fat, lose muscle mass, and our strength plummets as we age.
Being on the receiving end of this bad news broadcast can be depressing. Especially, given it is true that most people do tend to lose muscle mass, strength, power, coordination, and many other markers of fitness as they age.
But just because this is common doesn’t mean it is normal or a foregone conclusion. Many people accept their fate and assume strength and muscle loss are inevitable. The general belief is that nothing can be done to prevent it. This belief is false and I have a stack of scientific papers a mile-high to prove it.
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The scientific name for muscle loss as we get older is sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is defined as a progressive and generalized skeletal muscle disorder involving the accelerated loss of muscle mass and function that is associated with increased adverse outcomes including falls, functional decline, frailty, and mortality.
It affects all of us, but at what age does sarcopenia set in, and how bad is it? A large amount of scientific research on the effect of age on strength, muscle mass, and metabolism has been conducted over the years. Recently, some ground-breaking research has shed even more light on the impact of age and physical capacity. As someone who is approaching their 40th birthday, I found delving deep into this research fascinating. What I discovered was exciting and hugely motivating. The good news is the rate of decay in physical capacity most people accept as normal is not inevitable. In fact, you can completely prevent it for quite some time.
Sports Give Us a False Sense of Physical Peak
I believe one of the major reasons people accept that their body is in decline when they hit their late thirties is that very few of our most popular sports have athletes competing at the elite level beyond this age. It seems like compelling evidence of the inevitable physical slump we all hit after 35. If very few NFL, NBA, or MLB athletes are 35 or older then it must be because father time catches up with us all and your mid-thirties is when the decline occurs. On the surface of things, this seems a pretty logical conclusion. If, however, you look a little deeper you will see that there are many reasons why Tom Brady is the exception rather than the rule. I’ve got some good news for you – age is not the only reason. In fact, in many ways, it is not even the major reason. If you apply the information in this article, you too could look, feel, and perform at your best well beyond your 40th birthday just like the NFL’s most successful quarterback.
The age of peak physical performance varies substantially from one sport to another. The range is pretty wide with some sports favoring athletes in their late teens or early 20's while in other sports athletes in their 40's are in their prime. The great news for bodybuilders, strength athletes, and weekend warriors is that most sports that are heavily dependent upon the strength and muscle mass athletes tend to peak later in life.
Powerlifters reach their prime on average at age 35.3 In bodybuilding, many of the all-time greats weren’t at their best until they were in at least their 30's. Ronnie Coleman was still winning Olympia titles in his 40's, Phil Heath is still at the top of the sport in his 40's and many athletes like Jay Cutler, Dorian Yates, Lee Haney, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were winning Olympia titles in their 30's.
Tom Brady is an obvious example of someone who has continued to improve physically past his 40th birthday. Meanwhile, in soccer, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are two of the most impressive physical specimens aged 36 and 39 respectively. Lionel Messi is probably still the best player on the planet and he’s 34.
These examples fit closely with the scientific research, which shows no relation between age and the rate of muscle growth or strength development between 18 and 39-year-olds.4 This suggests that age is not a limiting factor in your response to training in any practical way up to the age of 40.
But what about after the age of 40?
Is 40 the end of the line for the gains train?
While 40 seems to be something of a barrier to elite-level sports performance. It might not be the death sentence for your strength and muscle mass gains. There are numerous reasons why there are so few elite athletes aged 40 plus. For example, their motivation to train may have reduced after years of grinding away to reach the top, they might have earned enough money to throttle back and take things easy, they might have family commitments and responsibilities which change their focus, they might have suffered injuries which hold them back. Or they might have just become complacent.
The point is, age is not the only factor. It isn’t even the most significant factor. Our life choices are far more significant.
The decisions we make and the environment we create for ourselves usually make it so much harder in our 30’s-50’s. We often find that we want greater financial security or our costs increase so, we prioritize getting ahead at work and climbing the corporate ladder. We begin to prioritize the needs of our families at the expense of responsibility to ourselves to stay active, healthy, fit, and strong. We are stressed out and overworked and we try to distract or numb ourselves to this reality by staying up later than we should, watching Netflix, scrolling social media, and eating junk food.
These negative routines and rituals seem unavoidable for lots of people. They accept their fate and drift into these detrimental habits. We’ve all done it at times. Myself included. The fact is we are passively settling for a lower quality of life by making these choices. And they are choices. You can choose to do and be better.
It might seem hard to make the choices needed to change your environment but it is worth it! In fact, there is a wide array of research indicating you can stay strong, lean, and muscular past the age of 40.
Is Sarcopenia Set in Stone?
Is rapid muscle loss a given? Are you guaranteed to get weaker every year from the age of 40?
To get a more detailed analysis of when muscle and strength loss is a real concern you can use sarcopenia research as an indicator. This shows that muscle loss in the general population shows a linear decline starting at the age of 20. Yes, you read that right. On average, there is a fairly linear decline in muscle mass from the age of 20. I bet that made you sit up and take notice.
While the available data does, in fact, actually show muscle mass steadily declines as we age and this process begins at a surprisingly early age, there is good news.5 There is not a pre-determined muscle loss set point or age-related trigger. There is no inflection point. Not a sudden breaking point where the human body begins to crumble to pieces. Muscle mass doesn’t suddenly start falling off at an alarming rate. Instead, it tends to be a slow, steady, and gradual decay over time.
Understanding Age and Muscle/Strength Loss
You could be forgiven for thinking, ‘wait a minute if we start losing muscle mass in our 20's, how is it possible two of the best footballers in the world are nearly 40, most powerlifters peak at around 35, bodybuilders win shows in their 40's, and Tom Brady is a super-bowl winning MVP at 43?’
It’s a fair question. Here is the answer…It’s because age is not the primary determinant of muscle loss and strength loss. Re-read that last sentence. Let it sink in.
Sarcopenia is not primarily a problem of age. In fact, some interesting research, involving muscle biopsies, suggests that muscle tissue does not suffer from age at all.6 Instead, a scientific review placed the blame for our decline in athletic capacity firmly with our lifestyle choices.7 The authors state that “The primary causes of sarcopenia include a sedentary lifestyle and malnutrition.”
We Only Have Ourselves to Blame
We allow ourselves to get fat and weak as we age. We are guilty of becoming inactive. Sitting on the sofa, stuffing ourselves with junk food, rather than nourishing our bodies and exercising often. These lifestyle choices are more likely the reason for muscle loss than our age. We eat like crap. Move like crap. Look like crap. And feel like crap.
That’s great news! No seriously – it is. You don’t have to let things slide as the average person does. You can stay fit, healthy, lean, muscular, and strong well past your 40's if you commit to making the right choices and placing a priority on these. Losing muscle and strength as you age is not inevitable. Being strong for life is possible. In fact, it is within your control.
Research in elite masters athletes found no significant loss of lean body mass or strength from 40 to 81 years of age in people that kept exercising.8 Most people are dead by the age of 81, let alone alive and kicking, lifting weights, and retaining their muscle and strength levels.
Which one would you prefer? Weak and feeble or strong and powerful?
Another wide-ranging study on sarcopenia supports the view that you can stay strong and healthy as you age. They concluded the following, “These findings contradict the common observation that muscle mass and strength decline as a function of aging alone. Instead, these declines may signal the effect of chronic disuse rather than muscle aging.”
Never has the phrase ‘use it or lose it’ seemed so important.
Now you might be thinking I’ve cherry-picked the data and found a select few studies that say what I want. You’d be wrong! Multiple scientific studies support that age is not the major cause of frailty in the elderly and does not limit our physical capacity nearly as much as most people think.
Here’s the Scientific Proof:
A research paper published in 2000 established no difference in muscle growth rates between trainees in their 20's and trainees up to age 70.9 In 2001, Roth et al. studied elderly men and women aged 65-75 years and found they gained just as much muscle as men and women in their 20's during 6 months of strength training.10
A study conducted in 2009 found a group in their mid-60's gained just as much muscle and strength as a group in their mid-20's during 4 months of strength training.11 Research conducted in 2017 found no difference in the rate of muscle and strength development during strength training in 18-25 and 50-65-year-old women.12
A study published earlier this year compared how 5 groups of individuals from age 20 to 76 years responded to a maximal strength training program. The results showed that all age groups gained strength and there were no differences in improvements between the five age groups.13 Only last month, a scientific paper busted the myth that our metabolisms slow down as we age. In fact, the research shows that age does not affect our metabolism until after 60 years old
Before you get carried away and you think you can just keep growing muscle and gaining strength until you hit 100, I do have some bad news. A 2020 meta-analysis concluded that when we look at all available studies, muscle growth from strength training does diminish after age 60.14 However, age only explained about 10% of the variance in muscle growth. 90% of the results were due to other factors which are in your control. So, while you might not make the best gains of your life at the age of 60 plus, you can still see results and you should make excellent progress well past the age of 40.
Train Like Your Life Depends on It
The principles of good training and nutrition apply to everyone. You just need to keep applying them as your life circumstances change and you shift from responsibility-free 20 something to middle-aged parent and beyond.
While you want to keep improving (and as the research indicates - you can), it’s even more important to prevent the regression that can come with a beat-up body.
From a training perspective, that means some changes will probably need to occur to your exact training methods. If you’re over 40 (or even in your 30's but feeling a bit beat up), here’s your choice:
- Keep training like a dumb 20-something, train recklessly, be ok for five more years, but beat up your joints then gradually find yourself losing what you have because you can’t train hard anymore. OR,
- Recognize that you’re not 20, make some changes, still progress, and keep training and preventing decay well into your 70's.
I know which one I’m choosing.
To thrive as you age you should still be training to get stronger in fundamental movement the patterns:
To highlight why older lifters, need more recovery consider these factors:
- Hormonal Disruption: Decreases in anabolic hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1.
- Gradual Anabolic Resistance: A decrease in the sensitivity of the androgenic receptors that makes you less responsive to testosterone.
- Life: You have more responsibilities now that reduce the time you have, your energy, and your recovery capacity.
- More Strength: You’re stronger than a beginner. Moving bigger weights puts more systemic stress on your body.
Benefits of Grip Strength
Another training tip worth following as you age is to include grip work.
The correlation between grip strength and healthy aging is well established. More grip strength in aging adults is correlated with lower premature mortality, lower development of disabilities, and shorter hospitalization following injuries and health issues. There is also a strong correlation between grip strength and higher strength levels.
Now I’m not saying grip strength will make you immortal. Grip strength is simply a non-dangerous way of assessing strength, and the studies show that higher strength levels tightly correlated with healthier aging.
Strength aside, there is another reason to train your grip. It could actually keep you sharp. Grip training shows promising signs in slowing down the reduction in mental function that can come with age. There is a positive correlation between grip strength and mental function in older adults.3 Grip strength is highly neurological. You don’t have that much muscle mass in your hands; the difference in strength levels is more a matter of neurological efficiency.
To illustrate this, Google “cortical homunculus”.
This is a distorted representation of the human body, based on a neurological "map" of the areas and proportions of the human brain where each body part is of a size relative to the amount of information sent to and from the nervous system. Parts of your body that send more info to the brain are bigger, while those that send less info are smaller.
I first saw this at the Science Museum in London. And it looks kind of freaky but, very quickly illustrates the point.
When you look at the image that Google throws up you’ll see your hands have the most important connection with your brain/nervous system. By the way, that’s why the first sign of incoming training burnout is a decrease in grip strength. Challenging your hands either through high force production (e.g., grip training) or complex movements (e.g., playing the piano or guitar) can help keep your brain young. These are both reasons to include grip work as you age (and to learn a few riffs on the guitar). They will help prevent mental decay and promote nervous system efficiency. They will also help keep strong.
Benefits of Sled Work
Back when I started studying under Charles Poliquin he was big on emphasizing the benefits of sled work. Louis Simmons of Westside Barbell has highlighted the benefits for powerlifters in great depth too. I have personally found it to be a great way for me to train around the knee injury that ended my rugby career. It allowed me to train my legs, get some conditioning work in, and all at a very low risk of injury.
I’m not saying you stop traditional lifting for your leg training. If you don’t have injuries that limit the exercises you can do, you should still include lifting for your legs. But I am recommending you reduce lifting volume in favor of sled or work.
The way I program it for a lot of my older clients is one traditional leg training session per week and one or two days of sled work. By combining a moderate dose of both, you’ll get the same type of growth as you’d get from a high amount of lifting, all while reducing the risk of injury as well as wear and tear. This will allow you to keep training hard for longer. It’ll also make it easier to recover from your workouts.
I suggest performing sets of around 30-50 meters for building muscle. These sets should be hard. Treat it like the rest of your training. Grinding out the final few meters of the 50 should be tough! For knee health, I’ve found performing sets of forward pushing and backward dragging to have amazing benefits
Eat Right to Age Right
From a nutrition standpoint, there is some interesting research that is very instructive when it comes to the age-related decline in muscle mass. A solution that is so simple it almost defies belief is to eat more protein at breakfast or lunchtime. This could help older people maintain muscle mass with advancing age.
As mentioned earlier, you tend to lose muscle mass as you age. The rate at which this happens probably shortens your life expectancy. Muscle mass is highly correlated with lifespan, healthspan, and resilience to illness. If you want to live a long, healthy, and happy life, preserving muscle mass as you age is a wise decision. Your dietary choices and training habits can go a long way to determining this.
In this section, I’ll cover a simple diet strategy that will help you.
When we eat protein-containing foods it stimulates muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS is the process of repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue. As we age this process becomes less efficient. We do not get the same high levels of MPS in response to meals compared to our younger selves. The MPS response to eating protein is blunted. This is one of the contributory factors to muscle loss past the age of 70.
To quote a leading researcher,
“We know that older people show a blunted response to muscle building when consuming a certain amount of protein. Therefore, older individuals need to eat more protein to get the same muscle-building response as younger and middle-aged people.”
This muted MPS response has led to the term “Anabolic Resistance” being used to describe the impact of muscle mass.
As we age, stimulating new muscle mass growth and maintaining what we have is harder. The body doesn’t give us the same muscle-building bang for our buck it used to. This doesn’t mean you can’t retain strength and size though. You just need to be proactive.
A simple solution is to eat more protein throughout the day. Most people eat a diet that is very low in protein at breakfast and lunch and then have a bolus protein serving at dinner. Cereal or toast for breakfast. A sandwich for lunch and then meat and two vegetables for dinner sound familiar? This approach is NOT enough to overcome anabolic resistance even if you have a hefty hunk of meat for dinner.
Researchers in the School of Sport, Exercise, and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham studied the diets of young, middle-aged, and old-aged. They paid particular attention to the type, amount, and pattern of protein consumption.
The results of their study showed that despite exceeding the national guidelines (RDA) for protein the distribution of protein across meals was extremely varied.
Side Note: If you train with weights and want to build muscle you will be best served to consume considerably more than the RDA.
The researchers discovered that the elderly were more likely to consume lower-quality protein sources. With large quantities of their daily intake coming from trace quantities in foods such as bread. Not high-quality complete protein sources like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.
To maximize MPS, consuming sufficient protein is important. Consuming high-quality protein sources (egg ones including all the essential amino acids) is also very important. Complete protein sources with high levels of Leucine should be a priority. Examples of such foods are eggs, chicken, beef, and whey protein.
Eating high-quality protein sources is good, but to get the biggest muscle-building benefits as you age, how you split this intake throughout the day matters a lot too.
Splitting your protein intake evenly across the day in multiple meals seems to have powerful effects on MPS and overcoming anabolic resistance. So, eating a sufficient serving of a complete protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner will go a long way to helping you to retain muscle and stay healthy as you age.
Eating the same total protein, but spread over multiple meals will maximize your daily MPS much more than eating the same quantity of protein in one huge serving.
The researchers concluded by saying that, “…our results show that a one-size-fits-all guideline for protein intake isn’t appropriate across all age groups. Simply saying older people should eat more protein isn’t really enough either. We need a more sophisticated and individualized approach that can help people understand when and how much protein to consume to support muscle mass.”
There Is Hope
If you apply the training and nutrition information from this article you can prove that friend of yours wrong and show them that turning 40 doesn’t have to be a death sentence to your physical health. While you may not be an elite-level athlete past your 40th birthday you can always stay strong, muscular, and lean for decades to come. Give your body what it needs, stay lean and fit, and it will serve you for a long and strong life.
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