A Whole9 guest post by Skyler Tanner, fitness and nutrition coach with 15 years of experience.
I like helping people to avoid the medical machine as long as possible. That said, I’m often asked this: What does a 30-something year old guy know about what it’s like to be 60/70/80 years old?
My response: “Does an oncologist need to have survived cancer to earn the right to treat cancer?” The simple fact of the matter is that humans, as unique beautiful flowers as we seem believe ourselves to be, function within consistent parameters on an anatomical or physiological basis assuming no pathology or injury. Further, people have been old before and we’ve documented how that process goes. With that in mind, I’d like to talk about some training guidelines one may want to consider through the aging process. This is based both on my 15+ years of training experience and my graduate research on resistance training throughout aging.
First, don’t get hurt
This seems obvious on its face, but a question you may want to ask yourself is Why am I actually training? This is incredibly important, as too often people training out of guilt for some food they ate or rest they had or they think they’re on the verge of being the next Usain Bolt at the age of 50. The former is no reason for training, while the latter is incredible unlikely. If you’re training for an athletic competition, you’ve accepted the injury risks inherent in the chosen sport. However, very few people past the age of 18 will actually compete in anything organized, so what often happens is someone is endlessly “training” for a competition that may never come, accepting the risks without the rewards.
We as human beings are meant to be generally athletic, but unless your paycheck or medal count is on the line, there’s no need to subject yourself to a training load that an athlete would require. If health is your overarching goal, the amount of input (training) one requires to maintain robust health and function is incrediblly small in comparison to the training volume an athlete requires.
You shouldn’t get hurt training to maintain your health, that’s just silly, so the aim is to maximize the upside with the lowest possible downside.
Second, expect more of yourself
Having said that, don’t take my previous point as an excuse for not pushing oneself at all. That’s not what I said; in fact, I expect people to work very hard in very smart ways. Just keep an eye on the goal of health over performance.
So what do I mean by expect more from yourself? Take a look at this photo:
That image is from the study “Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Mass in Master Athletes” and demonstrates that muscle mass is maintained with activity to almost the same degree throughout the aging process. Sure, it might not look as good, but that’s a function of collagen and saggy skin rather than muscle volume. If you carry on with the same volume, you set the expectation that you’ll need to carry that much muscle because that’s what your activities require.
That’s great, but what if you’re new to resistance training in your later years? Simple, you can still gain back a significant amount of what was lost. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the thigh MRI of this 92 year old after 12 weeks of training. Would you believe a 44% increase in cross sectional area?
All that muscle is great, but we need to keep in mind that there’s more to muscle than just having big guns and sexy calves. It’s beyond the scope of this blog, but muscle is an endocrine organ that helps to regulate the hormonal milieu of the body and this is largely due to high quality use of the muscle tissue. In fact it is the loss of strength (termed dynapenia) which reduces the quality of our contractions, which leads to an endocrine cascade that favors fat mass. A recent literature review demonstrates that strength is lost more rapidly than muscle mass as we age. Considering it’s the very strength that would, for example, help prevent a fall or maintain balance through aging, we should pay attention to attempting to at least maintain strength.
So our goal is to train in a manner that maximizes the maintenance of strength and muscle mass. However, it’s important to note that as we age there are things that change in the connective tissue that reduces our maximum strength, such as a reduction in fast twitch muscle fibers, slower rate of force development, and reductions in elastic storage and recovery from the large tendons. Having said that, one should still train in a way that would increase strength so as to make the decline have as gentle a slope as possible. This means some form of resistance training, folks.
Third, keep up the protein
Not that one should go shotgunning entire cans of whey, but let’s provide some context. Aging sees not just a reduction in protein intake but calorie intake in general. However, if we’re going to maintain the high quality muscle tissue, protein intake needs attention. It was thought that as we aged that our ability to synthesize amino acids from dietary protein was reduced, but recent studies have shown that the amount of amino acids from protein are the same whether young or old if the older trainees are resistance training.
Research from the same lab has demonstrated that age attenuates the anabolic response of insulin, thus reducing muscle anabolism. But, if you’re training, this doesn’t happen. Again, smart hard work maintains the ability to synthesize new tissue throughout the aging process. If you’re eating in an ancestrally-appropriate manner, your protein demands are likely covered, especially compared to an age-matched peer group.
Finally, keep it simple and compete only against yourself
It’s very easy to get caught up in how your peers may be progressing, or to try to become a data-driven automaton, fearfully adhering to training at 77.5787% of your one rep max…or else! Here’s the thing: we have good days and bad days, independent of our diet, sleep, and lifestyle. We can do everything right and still have poor workouts. Every lifelong trainee I’ve spoken to admits as much. Understanding that, you should try to be flexible and give yourself a bit of grace.
If your performance isn’t quite where you’d like it to be, you can either back off the resistance, pick a simpler progression, or wait until tomorrow. You will be OK! Remember that resistance training is a stimuli that must allow for enough time to manifest the result. Sometimes life stressors will slow that process and your expected performance simply won’t be there. Calling it a day and getting a couple extra recovery days will allow for a better effort, and better stimulus, the next time you’re in the gym.
If something is so complicated that the only way to determine if you’re progressing is to call your statistician nephew, you won’t stick with it. What matters most is that you’re resistance training, with an eye toward progressing in the long-term, without getting hurt, in the large basic exercises with as few work sets as possible.
Recent research on this topic has titled this idea “uncomplicated resistance training for public health” and that simply means that your goal is to perform one set to nearly fatigue (where form would breakdown) and not a lick more. The research is clear that more sets can stimulate more gains but not proportionately more (e.g. 2 sets does not yield twice the result). You can do more than one exercise for a given muscle group or region, but stop when form wants to start breaking down or the quality of your effort would decrease.
The Suggested Protocol
With all that in mind, how might a week look? Well, remembering this is for robust health, I suggest no more than 2 resistance training days per week. Notice I said resistance training, which includes barbells, dumbbells, machines, and calisthenic training. Rep count in the 8 to 15 rep range would be ideal, and you can even vary it depending on your subjective readiness on a given day. If you can progress an exercise over weeks and months compared to your current level, it’s a good use of your time. What matters is the quality of effort: you have to work hard, get close to fatigue, and attempt to add weight when the exercise starts to feel easier. That’s your reward for hard work: stronger people use more weight or harder exercises because they can.
What should you do the rest of the time? Anything you want! This foundation of strength will allow you to perform any of the activities you’d rather be doing without burning out. (You’d rather be doing something other than training, right?) And remember that you should feel better more days than you feel worse, so if you’re constantly sore or tired, cut back on the weight training, either by reducing the exercises per workout or the number of training days per week. Don’t worry about “cardio,” as all this new strength makes any activity you’d do easier, thus easier on your heart. If you like doing things that leave you breathless, great, but if you don’t you’re not going to keel over because of it.
I could write volumes on this topic, but I hope you’ll at least reflect on your current routine and see how you can tidy it up to facilitate robust health throughout your years, no matter where in your life you currently find yourself. To good health!
Skyler Tanner is an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer and holds his MS in Exercise Science. He enjoys teaching others about the power of proper exercise and how it improves functional mobility and the biomarkers of aging. You can read more of his writing at SkylerTanner.com or at EfficientExercise.com/blog.
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