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.
The 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.
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.
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:
- Once-a-week training with sufficient volume is able to increase muscle mass in younger but not older adults.
- 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