Methods for Muscle Gains at Age 60 and Beyond

Lou Ferrigno performing dumbbell curls
Lou Ferrigno performing dumbbell curls

My recent blog posts have been chronicling my progress toward a shift from moderate weights, moderate reps, and a lower number of sets to heavy weights, fewer reps, and a higher number of sets. While I find all that fascinating and hopefully so do you, I’m not directly speaking to my primary audience who are older men and women seeking to get fit or to maintain the fitness they have.

Then I came across a couple of articles at Flex Online that specifically addressed older bodybuilders. No, it’s not that we all have to become the geriatric versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lou Ferrigno, but what the Flex authors had to say does seem to apply to the rest of us.

For instance, Carlon Colker, M.D., F.A.C.N, wrote Keep Building Muscle as You Get Older, which is subtitled: “A new style of training to accommodate a changing and aging physiology.”

I’ll soon be turning 50. After more than three decades in bodybuilding, it’s my reality that I simply can’t train the way I did when I was 20. My body doesn’t respond the same way, I don’t recover the same way, and I can’t lift what I used to lift. I don’t quite look like I did (a lot less hair!). Even so, I don’t let that become a source of discouragement. The truth is that I’m now much more intelligent about my training, in touch with my physical limits, and far more attuned to my body.

Part of me thinks it’s “cute” that Dr. Colker has concerns about his workout now that he’s about to turn 50. I’d love to see 50 again. But he has been bodybuilding for over thirty years, so his concerns are legitimate. In fact, he says that the body starts pushing back starting at about age 35, so he’s been dealing with physiological changes associated with aging for almost fifteen years.

He confirms what most of us probably know by now. As we age. it’s tougher to build muscle gains, our bodies take longer to recover after a workout, and we have difficulty achieving the same level of exercise intensity. However, Colker also says:

To begin with, the body changes as we age. It’s a hard fact we all have to accept. Again, that doesn’t mean you stop improving your physique and start circling the proverbial drain. But it does mean you have to make some adjustments. One must adapt a new style of training to accommodate a changing and aging physiology. I’ve found that a man or woman can continue to improve and sharpen the physique well into the later years, providing the mind is flexible when it comes to change.

So what sort of adaptations does he have in mind? Well, for one thing, he says he’s started paying more attention to what the weight is doing to him than what he’s doing to the weight.

So the first and foremost major adjustment that must take place is to back of [sic] testing the limits of ridiculously heavy poundage in training and instead make the training itself the focus. As I like to say, “train, don’t strain.” If you don’t follow this advice, you are almost guaranteed an injury.

liftingThe question this raises for me is whether or not I’ve reached the threshold of “ridiculously heavy poundage in training.” I don’t think so, but only time will tell. What I do now is challenging for me, but the limits of that challenge should expand outward as I continue to train and become stronger. The trick is to know when those limits have been reached.

Here’s the key to the major adaptation he made that he believes should be applied to all older weight trainers:

For instance, I came upon a key adjustment in terms of the speed with which I lower weight, also known as the “eccentric” movement. While I have always tried to maintain a brisk concentric contraction (referring to the force of pushing or pulling the weight), the eccentric lowering of the weight differs. In my younger days I was reckless by comparison in the way I lowered the weight. Now I lower the weight relatively slowly in a tightly controlled path before exerting the contrastingly explosive concentric force. I started doing this instinctively because I felt that my joints, ligaments, and tendons simply couldn’t handle weight crashing down they way they could in my relative youth.

Actually, there’s a specific weight training style called Ultra Slow Eccentric Motion which emphasizes a quicker lift and then a slow to very slow lowering of the weight which keeps the muscles under tension a lot longer than a quick concentric and eccentric action.

But that’s not exactly what Colker is talking about.

Amazingly, what began as a simple instinctive adjustment to the cadence of my repetition in order to protect my body began to produce tremendous new development for my age.

That’s right. His change in the cadence of his reps actually resulted in him making lean muscle gains that he might otherwise not have produced. This isn’t isolated just to his personal experience either.

But that wasn’t the end of it. I began working the slower eccentric while maintaining a vigorous and explosive concentric in the routines of the non-bodybuilder athletes I work with. The results were equally impressive, as they put on significantly greater muscle mass and improved their athletic performance. Soon we adopted this technique in the physical therapy and injury rehabilitation component of our clinical centers. Perhaps most astounding of all, we noticed that the older and elderly patients were also responding. It almost appeared that the much older patients had the biggest response.

One clinical trial recently published in “Experimental Gerontology” provides scientific support for this approach. While the growth-promoting effects of eccentric training have been well documented, this particular study examined whether the rate of stretch influences muscular response. They tested exercise training of the quadriceps muscle with low-rate eccentric versus high-rate eccentric stretch-shortening training in healthy males age 60–70.

strong old man
photo credit: ML Sinibaldi/CORBIS

60 to 70 year old men. Now we’re talking. The specific result was a 30% increase in torque development for these older patients. This goes back to why we older people lift in the first place: to reverse the reduction of muscle loss we experience as we age.

Now let’s shift to how often older athletes should lift, which seems to be answered in the Flex article Once-a-Week Training for Mass.

Here’s the introduction:

When Mike Mentzer first came out with his radical book Heavy Duty, people thought he was crazy. Mentzer preached high-intensity exercise once every five to seven days, and every training session shouldn’t last more than 20 minutes in order to achieve maximum muscle stimulation. Mentzer believed many bodybuilders were “overtraining,” so he emphasized brief, high-intensity, and infrequent workouts.

Now I train certain parts of my body once per week, such as chest on Mondays, back on Tuesdays and so forth, but Mentzer advocated for a single resistance training session once every 5 to 7 days for the entire body. The question isn’t so much “does this work,” but “does this work for older people?”

I know what you’re thinking. If you only had to go to the gym once per week and could rest the other six days, it would be heaven. You’d have more discretionary time, and you wouldn’t have to kill yourself by lifting heavy weights multiple days a week.

On the other hand, Mentzer is saying that on the one day you do lift, you go at it for 20 minutes at an extremely high intensity, both in workout speed and amount of weight moved. Could an older person sustain that level of intensity for very long before burning out? And even if we could, would it be effective in maintaining and even growing lean muscle mass?

It seems that new research can validate Mentzer’s claim with clinical trials in younger adults but not with older adults. Researchers examined how strength and muscle mass were affected by cutting back on training to once a week in both younger and older adults. Seventy adults, 39 in the younger age group (between ages 20 and 35) and 31 in the older age group (between ages 60 and 75), completed the first phase of the trial, which lasted 16 weeks.

workout buddy
Photo credit: complex.com

I wish the “Flex Staff” would include links to the original research data or even some sort of summary. Here, we just have to take the anonymous author’s word that this study and its conclusions are accurate.

You can click the link I provided to read the entire article, but in short, the two key points to take away are:

  1. Once-a-week training with sufficient volume is able to increase muscle mass in younger but not older adults.
  2. Bodybuilders may be able to train once a week and make considerable gains in size and strength. Older adults likely require more frequent training to maintain muscle mass gained from resistance exercise.

Remember all those body changes Dr. Colker was talking about? Apparently this is one of them. The effectiveness of Mentzer’s method wanes as we age such that only younger bodybuilders can gain mass with a once-a-week training regime. Not so for we older folks. That means we need to continue to more frequently visit the gym and lift big pieces of iron to keep what we’ve got and to make more of it.

So keep on working.

Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.

William B. Sprague

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20 thoughts on “Methods for Muscle Gains at Age 60 and Beyond

  1. I do agree with that less is better. Giving full force then coming back slowly. I too workout this way and usually work just one muscle group every 5-7 days and I have seen incredible results in both size and overall strength. But as you know, for me it has proven great success in controlling Type II Diabetes. This was a great post and have no other choice but to reblog it. 🙂

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  2. I was doing a search on one lift a day workout programs and found your blog . It is a great source of info. I am sixty five and have gotten back to,working out since November last year after about a five year layoff. My goal is to get my lifts close to,what I had done at age fifty.

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    1. Greetings, Jerry. Glad you found the place. I hope you’ll find some of what I write inspiring and that we can both achieve and even exceed our goals in getting stronger and living better.

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  3. at age 65 I still spend quality time in the gym, bodybuilding. I have seen a gradual decline in my “pump. almost nonexistent at the point. I was using “NO-XPLODE” which seems to work well until I had an allergic reaction to it. 3 hours at the ER and $750 later I threw the rest of it away. I tried vascular dilators but I’m not too familiar with them, the right dosage. Any other products or ideas? Thanks

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    1. Greetings, Steve.

      At this point, having just turned 62, I’m not using any supplements besides the line of vitamins and minerals the missus puts in the cupboard for me to take every morning. I was out of the gym for a month because my granddaughter brought home a nasty cold bug that laid us all out, plus I had to have surgery to stop a vicious nosebleed and fix a deviated septum. I lost a lot of stamina plus some strength, so now I’ve spent the past three weeks using much lighter weights and lighter cardio trying to build everything back up.

      If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you know I’m doing a strength training routine rather than body building, specifically Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 training. Although it does change my body’s appearance, what’s affected the most is my nervous system and training it to activate more muscle fibers faster, resulting in greater strength (or as my chiropractor says, “Muscles are stupid”). I’ll never look like Schwarzenegger or Ferrigno, but hopefully I’ll get stronger and stay stronger longer and be able to keep up with my grandkids as they and I get older.

      Supplements are always a question mark for us older guys since the efficacy is always based on how they work with much younger people.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Feel free to let me know how things are going with you. Cheers.

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  4. In reply to Steve Scott question on PWO drinks. I am a ’50 model, been with a great trainer 3x’s a week for 4 years now. A very strenuous strength circuit doubles as interval cardio workout as well. I have gone from 225# and bench pressing 90#’s to 205# and best bench day of 3 x’s 265 #’s.

    About 4 months ago I started looking at pre workout drinks. Ultimately landed on C4 50X at GNC and have been very happy with results. Helps me with those last few reps late in the hour long workouts.
    But I have a tolerance to caffeine (3-4 cups a day) so would probably affect everyone different.

    Good blog…happy to share details of workouts etc if interested. thnks

    my mantra…..”quit bitchin and pick up the weight”

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    1. Body Beast is a great program…I like ones that I can follow along with the DVD…I am 62 year old
      You should buy it….my advice is to add in an extra off day here and there…

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      1. There’s a shortage of DVD players at my gym, so I don’t think that would work out. Besides, I like my workout just fine and it’s absolutely free.

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  5. I workout quite a bit, like 60 pounds do curls, overhead press and inclines with 50 pound dumbbells. Use 60 pound bar for upright rows, but can not do bench press or squat. I have an arthritic condition called DISH (diffuse idiopathic spinal hyperostosis). It makes my back ache most of the time especially before rain and limits my flexibility. But I do rope pulling , it is a special machine where you pull the rope and it goes around and around and you can increase intensity. I pull a sled with 135 pounds, really I work hard, but even with eating a clean diet with low carbs I have a lot of fat around stomach and more and more seems to deposit. I can not figure out what to do.

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    1. Hey Mark, several years ago I came across a book at GNC. It is titled No Mistakes by Vince Andrich and Robert Thoburn. Their thoughts might help you out. I am 61 yrs. old and have used their ideas for years. I am naturally lean, but have added some muscle mass and kept off weight from my middle section. Hope this helps. Jon

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  6. At first I did not catch on and although I was on a clean diet I was eating stuff like dates, raisins and walnuts and some rice and quinoa. That was not a good idea, I was doing the bulk for 25 year olds and I was getting tremendous amount of fat around the stomach, now after reading your article, I understand what to do, but to get rid of this fat is going to take awhile. There are many articles on bulking but not that I saw for people in their 60’s. You see if I do not workout vigorously I can not get any erections but when I lift and do leg curls and leg presses and hack squats, I have no problem.

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  7. I am a petite 64 year old woman that has been lifting for 30 years, and although I’m in good shape, I would still like to try to build more muscle mass especially on my upper body. I find it extremely frustrating that I put in the effort, but don’t seem to be getting better results. I also recently got my personal training certification and want to focus on folks 50 and older, especially with trying to encourage women to get out onto the weight floor. Any insights and advice would be much appreciated.

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    1. Like the disclaimer says, I’m no expert, but my understanding is that there are limits to women putting on a lot of mass basically because of lack of testosterone. The women bodybuilders you see with really bulky muscles are using some sort of chemical assistance. For me, it’s not so much a matter of building mass as building strength and the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. My favorite Olympic weightlifter is Morghan King, and while she may not look it, she’s incredibly strong.

      As far as insights about getting women out there lifting, I wish I had some. I love it when I see a woman walk into the squat rack and actually squat.

      Actually, my blog attracts a lot of traffic from men 50 and over, especially this particular blog post so maybe creating a blog and promoting it on social media would be a good place to start.

      Good luck.

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  8. It would be good if there were suggestions on here for what supplements men over 60 years of age could take to maintain and increase muscle (while reducing belly fat). At age 61 (despite going to the gym regularly since my 20s), each year i’m losing muscle and strength, especially if if i have to stay away from the gym for a month or more due to minor illnesses. Can anyone recommend supplements that have worked for them, to maintain and increase muscle while reducing body fat.

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    1. Hi Tom. A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece on supplements. Unfortunately, not much research has been done on the effectiveness of various supplements on weightlifters and bodybuilders over 50 and 60. All we really know is how they work on younger people, mainly men in their 20s and 30s. I wish I could help on this one, but I only take those supplements my wife puts on the pantry shelf for me to consume.

      Right now, I’m suffering from some sort of long-term sinus drip which leaves my nose and throat full of mucus. The missus is trying to radically change my diet to see if I’m reacting to something. Hope this works. I don’t like having to eat like a rabbit.

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  9. I’ve been lifting off and on most my life but not consistently, I’m 65 now and in pretty good shape, been in construction most my life. Is it possible to go from a 16″ arm to 17″ at my age? Been lifting for 3 months now, bench 185, dead lift 315, ez curl 110. I’m 6′ 2″ 215lb. I lift mostly once a week since I stay sore a long time.

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