Updated: Aug 1
It has been known for a long time that strength training, or lifting weights, increases muscle mass. However, until relatively recently, many thought this accretion or gain in lean tissue ceased to occur once hormonal levels started to change around midlife. It was also assumed that the loss of any existing muscle tissue from this point into old age, was inevitable. The perception of this inevitability was partly due to the prevailing notion that old people lifting weights was just ‘weird’, if not downright harmful.
Another factor that didn’t help was that some of the early studies into whether weight training could arrest sarcopenia showed poor and inconsistent results. It appeared that the muscles of older people just didn’t get any bigger or stronger from weight training.
However, the failure of weight training to stimulate the regrowth of lost tissue or the gain of new tissue in these early studies, lay not in the tool, but in the method of application.
The researchers had been afraid to push the older people participating in the studies, for fear that it might be too hard or dangerous for them. The subjects only lifted weights well within the capability of their existing levels of muscle. As this level of muscle was obviously an atrophied or regressed level of muscle, the weights they lifted were obviously too light to stimulate the regain of lost tissue, never mind new tissue. It was a flawed oversight on behalf of the initial researchers.
The researchers soon figured it out the problem and went back, this time they increased the level of intensity and exertion. Participants were pushed to lift weights closer to their maximum capability in a controlled manner. In one particular early study, the participants who were men ranging in age from 60 -72, trained their leg muscles with weights close to their maximum strength capability twice per week. Within just 12 weeks of following this regimen, participants had doubled their leg strength.
Numerous studies since then have continued to show the benefits of weight training. When done at the correct level of intensity, weight training can arrest and reverse the effects of Sarcopenia, regardless of age, to such a degree that the effects can almost seem miraculous. One study, done by Tufts University showed that even nursing home residents in their 90’s, who had spent a significant number of years being very inactive or immobile, could build muscle and strength. In fact, two of these subjects were able to return to walking without aid or canes after following a strength building program for eight weeks.
Strength training at a high enough intensity (lifting weights that maximally challenge the muscle for a certain amount of time) creates microtrauma in the muscle cells involved. The body is then forced to repair this damage through nutrition and rest. If the stimulus and recovery are correct, then the body will over-compensate and build additional strength and muscle tissue to protect itself from future similar stresses.
In essence, adaption to strenuous strength training is a protective mechanism within the body, much the same way as the body forms a tan when exposed to sunlight. This is important to understand, because in just the same way as the body does not lose its ability to protect itself to sun exposure as it ages (albeit exposure time and recovery time changes), the body also does not lose its ability to adapt strength training…the parameters just change slightly through life.
“My Doctor says you only need a good walk to stay healthy as you get older”
It’s a fact, more older people take part in aerobic activities for exercise than strength training…it’s not difficult to understand why. Finding time to incorporate a walk into your day is quite easy. Other aerobic activities like cycling, jogging, and swimming are also often chosen preferentially because they offer a degree of familiarity to those who may have never worked out before. Strength training can seem quite a daunting prospect to the uninitiated, especially those of advanced years.
However, regardless of how intimidating the idea of starting weight training later in life is, I cannot emphasize enough its importance. For an investment of around an hour and a half of strength training a week you will get a huge return.
Whilst aerobic exercise does strengthen the heart and lungs, it doesn’t hold back Sarcopenia. One particular study done in Denmark a number of years ago demonstrated this beautifully: men in their 60’s who had lifted weights for a number of years had muscle mass similar to untrained men in their 20’s. Whereas older runners and swimmers of the age, even though they had trained for years, had nowhere near the same level of muscle. There are vast numbers of studies out there demonstrating the clear correlation between weight training and muscle retention despite aging.
However, the effects of Sarcopenia can only be slowed or arrested through the direct application of a weight training at a certain level of intensity that challenges the muscles and neural pathways enervating them. In other words, you must lift heavy weights…and by heavy, I mean relative to your strength levels.
Once you get going on a correctly structured strength training program, you’ll quickly see the benefits. Almost immediately things start happening at a cellular level. Within a few weeks your strength will increase, and in your day to day functional ability, will improve dramatically.
Strength training also provides other benefits that are often overlooked or not even noticed but have a dramatic effect on the quality of life.
Firstly, on a physiological level, the stimulation of muscle regrowth, or even the growth of new muscle, often results in a significant uplift in hormonal production. I see this consistently with my clients. In a strange kind of irony, the very thing that most people assume is a direct cause of muscle loss as we age i.e., the decrease in production of sex hormones, starts to improve as a result of strength training. In actuality, the cause and effect demonstrate a distinct ‘chicken and egg’ quality.
Engaging in a challenging strength training program also provides a clearly observable synergistic effect between mind and body. Providing not just the benefit of new or regained muscle, but also the vigor the accompanies improved physical functionality. The ability to perform activities important to daily life, such as climbing stairs, walking faster, or maintaining balance when on slippery footing, has huge mental benefits for some who wants to continue living independently.
This positive reinforcement loop has immeasurable benefits in terms of boosting the immune system as we age, helping to keep illness at bay, and maximizing our ability to withstand disease.
If we do become ill, then the benefits of having more muscle tissue are enormous. When you're sick, the body burns protein faster than usual, pulling protein components from the muscles and delivering them to the immune system, liver, and other organs to use in healing wounds, building antibodies and white blood cells needed to fight illness. If the muscle protein "reservoir" has already been depleted by sarcopenia then there's that much less ammunition available.
So therefore, regardless of what age you are, if you are considering an exercise strategy for health and longevity, research clearly indicates that it is only prudent to include an element of challenging strength or resistance training within it.
If you are interested in a program that uses the latest research and science, and incorporates all the elements of strength training, nutrition and fat loss, then check out ‘The Edge Program’ at my website (www.stephenoreilly.com). Through my online program I have helped hundreds construct effective nutrition and training programs to fight off Sarcopenia and maximize their functional strength and longevity for life.
Alternatively, if you have any other questions regarding your current program, your health, or your nutrition strategy, then feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit www.stephenoreilly.com to find out more about The Edge Program and everything you need to implement Steve's solution to help you live longer, healthier and happier and through weight loss, exercise and diet.