Protein, Testosterone, and the Older Weight Trainer

What you eat is every bit as important to promoting health as when, where, and how you exercise. In fact, any exercise program can be inhibited if not outright defeated by a poor diet and insufficient or inadequate nutrients.

Like I describe myself in my profile, I’m not an exercise guru, I’m just a guy. I’m also not a guru for info about diet and supplements as well. On the other hand, I’ve done some research and determined what seems to work for me. I’m glad to pass what I know along to anyone who visits my virtual “old man’s gym”.

seniors eatingActually, it’s my LSW (Long Suffering Wife) who has done a great deal of research on dietary supplements for the both of us as we’ve gotten older. I trust her judgement since she seems to want to keep me around for as long as possible, and I take what she recommends. She’s lined up series of bottles containing supplements for me to consume each morning.

I won’t get into the whole range in my diet now, but in addition to vitamins and minerals and such, but I do have to admit that I had to change my diet significantly over the past six to nine months in addition to my exercise routine. If I were more disciplined at what and how much I eat, I’d probably be able to break through my stubborn plateau.

What About Protein?

But first things first. If you want to build muscle, you’re going to need to consume enough protein to do the job. After all, that’s what muscles are made out of (Okay, it’s more complicated than that, but let’s start out with a high level view of the topic). Granted, you won’t be consuming protein like a professional body builder, but if you don’t ingest enough, you won’t build lean muscle mass and strength, which is one of the major goals for older weight trainers.

How much protein should we eat?

According to MensFitness.com:

Depends on whether you work out or not and how strenuous your workouts actually are. Your average desk-bound male requires just 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.

I did a quick calculation and found that with a body weight of 205 lbs (as of this morning), I’d need to eat 73.8 grams of protein if I didn’t workout at all and was just trying to maintain what I have right now. Of course, that doesn’t take age and an increased rate muscle loss into account since the information I’m presenting is meant for a much younger group of men.

Nevertheless, the article goes on to say that endurance athletes should consume between 0.5 and 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight and that strength athletes should eat even more.

Well, let’s not go crazy. Remember, you’re not (in all likelihood) a 25-year-old bodybuilder, so even though you want to build muscle mass, you won’t have the same dietary requirements. So what should we eat?

drinking proteinI like to take the conservative approach, so I tend to start out with less and build up over time monitoring my results. If I took the 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight figure and applied it to me, I’d be eating around 102.5 grams of protein a day. Does that sound like a lot? It probably isn’t.

I take a protein powder supplement three times a day on days I lift. Each serving is 25 grams of protein. For one day, that’s 75 grams. My first protein shake is my complete breakfast (I’ve also got to replace the carbs I burned while at the gym so I eat a piece of fruit, too), so I have two other meals, lunch and dinner, where I need to eat protein. Let’s say I have an omelet or three scrambled eggs for lunch. Three fried eggs deliver about 18 grams of protein. Doesn’t sound like much. That put me up to 93 grams. Now let’s say for dinner, I have a baked chicken breast. A chicken breast contains about 30 grams of protein (you can Google all this and find it on the web), which brings me to a grand total of 123 grams of protein.

That’s 0.6 grams of protein for one pound of body weight for me, which seems about right unless I’m planning on getting huge. I’m not the sort of person who has a lot of patience for counting calories, grams of protein, carbs, or anything else. I shoot for an approximate amount and proportion of the different kinds of nutrition I need, but I also have to eat in the real world.

Testosterone and the Older Weight Trainer

While gaining a great deal of mass isn’t impossible for older weight trainers, it’s not just a matter of how much protein we ingest. For seniors looking to increase our fitness, it’s always going to be more difficult for us to gain muscle than for younger people for the simple reason that we don’t process testosterone as efficiently as we get older.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

Testosterone peaks during adolescence and early adulthood. As you get older, your testosterone level gradually declines — typically about 1 percent a year after age 30. It is important to determine in older men if a low testosterone level is simply due to the decline of normal aging or if it is due to a disease (hypogonadism).

One of the results is that as we get older, we experience a greater accumulation of body fat, reduced muscle bulk and strength, and a decrease in bone density, which is why older people tend to be weaker, gain unwanted belly weight, and break bones more easily.

Resistance exercise and adjusting the intake of protein can help us regain some of the muscle and bone density we’ve lost and to lose some of that unwanted body fat. I’m not about to jump into any testosterone therapy if I can help it, and according to WebMD.com, I shouldn’t have to since exercise helps increase testosterone levels. But there’s a caveat:

Doctors and fitness professionals still have a lot to learn about exercise and its effects on testosterone. Several factors besides your workout are involved.

But one thing is clear: You need to make exercise a habit in order to get the benefits.

After exercise, testosterone levels rise — but not for long.

“Sometimes it’s 15 minutes after exercise that testosterone is elevated. Sometimes it can be up to an hour,” says Todd Schroeder, PhD, who studies exercise and hormones in older men at the University of Southern California.

The article goes on to say that for men suffering from low testosterone, exercise alone won’t help much, but for men who are on the borderline between normal levels and low, “it’s going to have a much more potent effect.”

However, once our bodies get used to the challenge of increased resistance and cardio training, we’ll experience a lower hormone response from the same workout. That means over time, we’ll need to set higher goals for ourselves to keep on reaping benefits.

But while both resistance and cardio exercise boost testosterone, resistance work such as weight training has the bigger impact on increasing hormone levels. Research presented in this article recommends:

  • Using more muscles. For instance, a full-body workout affects this hormone more than doing one exercise, such as biceps curls.
  • Lift heavier weights rather than doing many reps of light weights.
  • Have shorter rest periods during your workout.

That seems to match up with my recommendation for a full-body workout for beginners which includes cardio and stretching. It also maps to my personal standard of resting no more than one minute between sets. The use of heavier weights and fewer reps per set will probably be something a beginner shoots for rather than something you begin with. Also “heavier” is a relative term depending on the physical condition of the weight trainers involved.

Arnold now
Arnold Schwarzenegger training for the film Terminator Genisys

The other side of the coin is that if you overtrain, which in the beginning probably won’t happen, you can actually cause your testosterone levels to drop. The number one sign of overtraining is a dramatic decrease in exercise performance and strength from previous levels. This is why I like the middle road rather than going too light with 20 or more reps, or too heavy with 3 to 5 reps. It’s good to switch up your routine by sometimes going lighter or heavier, but generally I stick with weights that let me to 3 sets at 8 to 15 reps per set.

Also remember that rest is just as important as work. You don’t actually build your muscles while you’re lifting, you’re tearing them down. Adequate intake of protein and getting sufficient rest is what builds lean muscle mass, so work to challenge yourself, eat properly, rest, and repeat are the steps to follow.

I know it’s pretty obvious I’m writing to male seniors in the gym, but I haven’t forgotten about women. I have to write from my own perspective and experience, which is to say, a guy’s experience, but I promise that I’ll focus on older women in the gym as I continue writing these missives.

There’s a lot more to what you eat and what supplements will help for the older weight trainer than what I’ve offered here. I’ll talk more about all this in future “old man’s gym” blog posts.

Training gives us an outlet for suppressed energies created by stress and thus tones the spirit just as exercise conditions the body.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

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