Past a certain age it’s a constant uphill struggle for men to get stronger, look better and perform at their best (and not just in sport!). If you’re older than in your twenties, this is starting to happen right now.
If you’re in your forties or fifties you’ve probably already experienced how much harder it can be. But all is not lost. So, pay attention if you want to find out why this is, and what you need to do if you want to perform optimally and look great in your 30’s, 40’s and beyond.
Let’s face the facts
If you’re a man in your late-twenties, unless you’re doing something about it right now, you’re already on the physical decline. But what does this mean exactly?
Muscular strength and power are some of the fastest to decline as we get older, and the beginning stages of this can happen when we’re in our mid-twenties. Now this, of course, isn’t old by any stretch, but there are some important changes already happening at this stage in your life, that can have a massive knock-on effect if nothing’s done about it. By understanding what’s happening you can adjust your training to work better for you.
There’s a larger decline in muscular strength and power than any other area of fitness as we get older. Faster than muscle loss, and loss in endurance capacity. Also, the more complex the movement the greater rate of decline.
For example, power output in an Olympic lift variation (snatch, clean and jerk) will decline faster than in a vertical jump. There’s no escaping it, but you do have the ability to fight some of it off. And no, your typical bodybuilding style training routine just won’t cut it.
As a side note, women have it even worse than we do, as the age-related decline in peak power is much greater in women than in men and can start at an even earlier age. So consider your female clients, wives, girlfriends, and mothers when taking this information on board. However bad you think you have it, remember they have it worse!
Now, it’s clear just from looking at the impressive totals you see in Powerlifting events that you can be in your 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s and still whooping the butt of most average guys. The International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) has men born in the 1940’s still getting over 550kg totals in the classic division. Therefore maintaining maximal strength in these lifts as we get older, albeit much harder, is still realistic for you if you play it smart. But there’s the key; you need to PLAY IT SMART.
You can’t get away with what you used to. And this is often why many men find that they adapt their training as they’ve got older to “go lighter”. Going lighter and aiming for a higher number of reps per set might be smart if you feel it allows you to focus on technique, longer time under tension, and reduce the loading on your joints.
But it’s a bad decision if you don’t NEED to do it, and if instead, you’ve trained a little smarter in the years prior. When you choose to “go lighter” and actively reducing the weight you’re using, there’s a lower force requirement and hence actually giving your body permission to get weaker, including the strength of your joints and connective tissues.
Just look up “Wolff’s law” and you’ll instantly see how applying load to your bones helps keep them strong too.
Key point: If you set your foundations correctly you should still be striving to lift progressively heavier weights and hitting lower repetition ranges as you get older. Learn to lift heavy, but always with impeccable form.
Furthermore, it’s never too late to start lifting for the future either. Increases in force production through weights training have ranged from 18% to 113% in individuals over the age of 60. You’re never too late to start or to help improve the life quality of someone else that thinks they are.
Understanding what’s happening
There are a few things that happen as we get closer to middle-age that we need to understand, as these things will play an important role in our training style.
As we get older there’s a loss in fast-twitch fibers and high-threshold motor units (HTMU’s). These units of muscle fibers and nerves are the value to us as they’re the strongest and most powerful. The reason for this loss is unclear, and some of the below points will factor in.
However, it’s been proposed that these motor units are more susceptible to disuse over time. Either you use them or lose them, or even if you do use them you’re probably going to lose a small amount regardless.
One of the biggest contributing factors to power and force development; Rate of Force Development (RFD) is one of the first things to start dropping off. This is mostly attributed to a loss in high-threshold motor units also. So many activities that involve developing force over very short periods of time, and use what’s termed the fast stretch-shortening cycle will see the impact first.
This may be one of the reasons why sprinters and speed athletes have much shorter-lived careers than other athletes. And one of the reasons why you should consider fast and explosive methods to activate and simulate these HTMU’s. You’ll find out more about these further below.
Key point: If you train slow you’ll get slow. Train fast and lift explosively whenever possible, to help reduce the loss in HTMU’s. Also consider your cardio options, as interval-style training will make a great addition, as when done properly it requires you to move fast.
Testosterone and muscle mass
A loss in muscle mass is a primary contributor to losses in strength with aging. A reduction in hormonal signals used to activate muscle protein synthesis has been suggested as one of the big reasons why. So the need to activate these key signalling pathways optimally, and maintain muscle size is of great importance as we age.
Free and total testosterone starts to decline for the average man as early as in their mid-twenties, with andropause (reduction in male hormones) usually occurring around 50 years old. Along with the reduction in other hormones, this means that the endocrine system is working against your goals of greater strength and body composition.
The hormone Cortisol has opposing effects to Testosterone, and elevates in times of stress. When you’re not sleeping well, when work and life stresses get to you, and even when your training or nutrition isn’t working with you, Cortisol will rise.
And yes, that means you might be able to blame your kids a little, or your boss at work, or your clients. But at the end of the day, it’s down to you to learn how to manage your own stresses.
Key point: Learn to activate key hormones involved in strength and muscle mass, and limit those involved in stress. Using ‘big’ compound exercises that involve a lot of muscle mass can help, as well as limiting your workouts to an hour or under. Learn to implement recovery strategies, limit external stresses where possible, and ensure enough quality sleep.
Train like an athlete
Have you ever noticed by looking at generations older than you, the speed at which they do things reduce over the years? The speed at which they walk, sit and stand, reach for something, it gets much slower the older you get.
We’ve already briefly mentioned power, but it’s specifically velocity of movement that has a higher rate of decline than even muscle size and strength. So while we may be getting older and focusing on trying to maintain our strength by striving to lift heavier, it’s the velocity and acceleration of movement that will sneak up from behind and get you.
In order to develop strength (or maximal force) as we get older, as Force is the product of Mass times Acceleration (F=MxA), some accelerative exercise should be used, along with lifting heavier weights in a lower rep range (3-6 reps).
This will help you to develop greater force and assist in power development, as well as help to develop those fast twitch fibers we talked about earlier. Power is the product of Force times Velocity (P=FxV), so as well as moving heavy things (with intent) you should also move lighter things, but fast.
Key point: It all boils down to this; train to get stronger and faster most of the time, with higher repetition hypertrophy training, and injury prevention exercises the rest of the time. Whatever system of training you use to tick these boxes, is completely up to you.
Based on research findings and real-world evidence, there are a few simple rules you should strive towards. As always, however, consider your current fitness levels, age, and abilities. The key word here is ‘striving’ towards:
- Eliminate large decelerations but use a full range of motion exercises. Quality over quantity.
- Isometric exercises can be an effective training tool, due to high force production. Many have found isometrics to be a very efficient form of training.
- Include specific power training exercises using low weight and high speed. No more than 30% One 1-Repetition Maximum to maximise velocity.
- Plyometric exercises may be used if appropriate, such as hops, skips, jumps and so on. Playing fast-paced sports will also help this. Game of badminton anyone?
- Use a combination of hypertrophy, strength and power training within the same training cycles, same day or same week as each other.
- Recovery between sessions are key, as recovery is slower as we age. Reducing the volume of your workouts should be considered, as well as more focus on additional recovery techniques, such as supplementation which includes Muscle Advance Creatine Monohydrate; it is designed mainly with creatine with the aim of promoting your muscular performance.
- Include some exercises that specifically help to improve balance, posture, reaction and functional abilities (standing up and sitting down, getting up off the floor, carrying things, preventing a fall etc.). You’ll see how many of the exercises below are ‘functional’ for this purpose.
- Include a good amount of core and glute exercises to ensure your foundations are strong, as well as it being an insurance policy for your low back and spine, and hernia prevention.
There are many exercises you can choose from, and you should still factor in your goals and abilities of course, but consider some of these as a good starting point for various reasons:
- Heavy Kettlebell Swings, Skier Swings and Banded Swings (see video)
- Box Squats (barbell, dumbbell or kettlebell)
- Deadlifts, Trap Bar Deadlifts, Suitcase Deadlifts, Offset Deadlifts
- All Glute Bridge Variations
- Explosive push-up variations
- Pull-ups and Inverted Rows using Rings, Suspension Trainers, Rotating Handles.
- Turkish Get-Ups and Bottoms-Up Get-Ups
- Loaded Carries (all variations)
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