Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Strength training after 50: The real fountain of youth
Much of what we think is the natural aging process—flab in all the wrong places, weight gain even though we eat less, higher risk for so-called age-related diseases, and eventually, frailty—is simply a manifestation of muscle loss. But there is hard scientific evidence that it can be reversed with the right kind of strength training—restoring energy, strength, and a lean, youthful body.
“Muscle loss is the major cause of metabolic slowdown,” says Wayne Westcott, PhD, a professor of exercise science at Quincy College in Massachusetts, and author of more than 400 articles and 26 books on the subject, most recently Strength Training Past 50. And that slowdown underlies the aging process.
Compared to fat, muscle is denser, heavier, occupies less space, and burns more calories. Consequently, younger people can eat more without gaining weight, and generally look thinner than an older person of the same weight.
Without regular strength training, says Westcott, this is what happens after age 20: Men lose an average of 7 pounds of muscle per decade. Women lose an average of 5 pounds, and after menopause, 10 pounds per decade.
However, studies of more than a thousand older people, by Westcott and others, show that two strength-training workouts per week, done the right way, produce these muscle gains after 10 weeks: 4 to 4.5 pounds for men, and 2.2 to 2.5 pounds for women.
If there is no change in diet, on average, there is also a loss of about 1 to 1.5 pounds of fat for each pound of muscle gain. The net effect is a stronger, leaner body that both looks and functions as it did years—and perhaps decades—ago.
What to Do
For anyone starting a strength-training program, Westcott recommends learning, with a trainer, how to use five pieces of equipment in a gym: a leg press, a chest press, a seated row machine, a lower back machine, and an abdominal machine. These help you work muscles effectively and safely, this way:
- Do 10 to 15 repetitions on each machine
- Set the resistance so that muscles are fatigued at the end of those repetitions
- Take 4 to 6 seconds to perform each repetition
(For people younger than 50, resistance should be set somewhat higher, to fatigue muscles after 8 to 12 repetitions.) If the resistance is too low, so that you can do more repetitions, it won’t build muscle, and if it’s too high, you can overdo it. A third workout per week will produce more fat loss, but won’t significantly add more muscle. Regular aerobic exercise is also recommended.
10 bonus benefits of strength training
With the right strength training, says Westcott, “there’s no significant difference in muscle gain at any age.” That’s even true for 90-year-olds. And, he says, there are additional benefits:
- More energy
- A better mood
- Better bone density
- Less or no lower back pain
- Less discomfort from arthritis or fibromyalgia
- Less type 2 diabetes
- Lower blood pressure
- Healthier levels of cholesterol
- Better recovery from heart disease
- Relief from clinically diagnosed depression
For overall energy, a high-quality multivitamin lays the foundation. CoQ10 (30–100 mg daily) enhances energy production, and fish oil (1–3 grams daily) calms inflammation that underlies aches and soreness. In addition, these complement a strength-training program:
Protein: After muscles are intentionally challenged during a workout, they need enough protein to repair and rebuild. “It isn’t the timing, it’s quantity,” says Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, lead author of the study and author of The M.A.X. Muscle Plan and other books (lookgreatnaked.com). For each pound of ideal body weight, he recommends 0.8 grams of protein per day—e.g., 104 grams for a 130-pound woman (130 X 0.8). Protein powders are a convenient, concentrated, low-calorie source. Look for approximately 20 grams of protein and 100 calories per serving.
Joint Protection: Glucosamine and chondroitin, long-standing joint supplements, are becoming more popular in exercise recovery formulas for people of all ages. They nourish cartilage and protect joints. Other helpful ingredients include Celadrin, a proprietary type of fatty acid, and Natural Eggshell Membrane (NEM).
Relief from Sore Muscles: Look for gels and creams with cayenne, arnica, St. John’s wort, eucalyptus, or MSM.
Garden of Life Organic Plant Protein powers muscle with 15 g of plant protein per scoop. It’s delicious mixed with water or unsweetened rice or almond milk.
Doctor’s Best Celadrin is formulated to keep you moving with a combination of joint-protective Celadrin and glucosamine.
Irwin Naturals 3-in-1 Joint Formula helps to rebuild, lubricate, and soothe joints with glucosamine, chondroitin, and anti-inflammatory herbs.