Can I build muscle by the age of 55

Strong Seniors: Strength training for the elderly and old

There are over 650 muscles in humans. They become active together for movement: you need around 17 muscles to smile, over 40 to frown. The muscles are the largest organ in the body. It keeps the metabolism in balance and is decisive for the basic energetic metabolism of the organism. That is why it is still important to keep your muscles going even in old age. Strength training for seniors is an effective tool here.

Metabolism and muscles

At rest, the muscles handle approx. 40% of the entire metabolism. Their share of total body weight is around 40–50% for men and 25–35% for women (Zimmermann, 2002). With increasing knowledge about the muscles, their importance in the complex human system increases, especially for older and old people.

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The more precisely scientists research the skeletal muscles, the more amazed they are at the findings. For some researchers, the muscles are now the most complex organ after the brain. It is now known that all muscles are connected to one another and to the most important organs - via messenger substances that they release.

There are probably hundreds. So far, however, only a few are known. The messenger substances ensure, among other things, that wounds heal better and fat tissue disappears. (4) If muscle mass decreases in the course of life, this can have a significant impact on performance, quality of life and health.

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Age and muscle strength

In general, it can be assumed that under normal living conditions in healthy adults, the skeletal muscles already lose performance after the 2nd to 3rd decade of life. The loss of mass in the skeletal muscles is the most noticeable change in the skeletal muscle. It starts around mid-twenties. By the age of 80, around 50% of the muscle mass has disappeared.

This is associated with a significant loss of strength, which can have a significant impact on performance, quality of life and health. Up to the age of 45, the drop in strength is approx. 5% per decade of life. After that, an accelerated loss occurs by approx. 10% per decade of life.

There is a gradual decrease in muscle strength and endurance. At the same time, the work economy of the muscles is reduced (see, inter alia, Lexell et al., 1983; Hughes and Schiaffino, 1999; Frontera et al. 2000, Andersen et al., 2001).

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Trained vs. untrained

The biological aging process, like trainability, must be viewed as genetically determined (cf., among others, Frederiksen and Christensen, 2003). In untrained adults, however, the decrease in maximum strength is much greater than in trained adults. The difference in muscular performance between active and inactive people becomes increasingly clear as they age.

Inactive people from the age of 70 only have around 40% of their former maximum performance. On the other hand, those of the same age still show more than 65% of their capacity (Shepard, 1987). In older adulthood, for example, the lack of intense force exertion is mainly responsible for the decline in muscle strength (see, inter alia, Jeschke and Zeilbeger, 2004).

Decrease in muscles with age

Based on the current state of knowledge, the following factors are responsible for the aging-related loss of muscle mass:

  • Reduction of the muscle fiber cross-sectional area
  • Reduce the number of muscle fibers.

However, it is still unclear to what extent one or the other factor is involved in the loss of muscle mass. There is also no agreement as to whether the muscle fiber types are affected to different degrees. Overall, aging seems to hit the fast fibers harder than the slow ones. This would gradually shift the relative distribution in the muscles in favor of the slow and persistent fiber type. However, this is only a hypothesis that has been around for a long time.

However, this assumption would help to explain why the maximum performance age in the sprint is 24 years and in the marathon 30 (Hegner, 2006). Detecting a relative increase in slow fibers with age is still quite difficult. Studies also indicate that the relationship between purely slow and purely fast fibers does not seem to shift, but rather the boundary between the muscle types is becoming more fluid. In addition, a decline in maximum strength in old age also appears to be influenced by a lower voluntary ability to activate the motor units (Andersen et al., 2001; Zimmermann, 2002; 1983; Lexell et al., 1983).

Strength training for the elderly and old

Although endurance training has positive effects on the cardiovascular system, it does not protect against a loss of muscle mass. Only a strength training program for seniors will maintain the muscles and strength into old age.

Elderly and old people react to supra-threshold training stimuli in the same way as young adults. For example, strength training can increase muscle strength, muscle mass and bone strength. Studies show an increase in muscle fiber thickness even for people over the age of 90 (Fiatarone-Singh et al., 1999).

What good is strength training for seniors

Already after the 2nd to 3rd decade of life there can be a gradual decrease in muscle strength and mass. This is associated with a significant loss of strength, which can have a significant impact on performance, quality of life and health.

With a strength training program, muscles and strength skills can be kept at a high level well into old age. The focus should be on the methods of muscle building training (Mayer, 2003; Wagner et al., 2010). Even people over 90 can still gain muscle mass and benefit from strength training.

Training recommendations Strength training for seniors

The training recommendations for the elderly and old do not differ significantly from those for healthy adults of younger age. In any case, just taking into account the calendar age has little effect on actual, individual performance. The following are decisive for planning the training:

  • Individual goal setting
  • Athletic past and state of performance
  • Health status.

Taking these points into account, there are very different body and performance profiles for the individual. These are mainly due to the long history that results from the old age. (5) A 60-year-old athlete can be far more resilient than a 40-year-old beginner. The creation of the training programs in this group must therefore be carried out individually.

Strength training intensity for seniors

Great effects can only be achieved with great resistance. Extensive physiological adjustments can only be achieved with loads that correspond to at least 70% of the maximum force. The methods of muscle building training are considered to be the most suitable way to counteract a reduction in muscle mass in the aging process. (9) The exercise loads must be constantly adapted to the progress of the training. Older people in particular, however, are reluctant to do so. It is therefore a main task of the trainer to monitor whether the athletes are working with sufficiently high intensities. (13) Exercise selection

The goal of strength training for seniors must be to improve the neuromuscular function of the whole body:

  • force
  • coordination
  • Agility.

This can only be achieved through the use of exercises that combine movement and stability and allow a full range of motion. This is made possible above all by training with free weights and multi-joint exercises such as B. the squat. (13) Purely machine-based strength training is not recommended, as balance and coordination are not adequately trained. In senior sports it has long been known that coordination has to play a major role, as it provides important security in everyday life. (11)

If participants have poorly developed stabilization muscles and coordination at the beginning of a strength training, an initial practice on machines can be an advantage. This can initiate movements and train body awareness. However, the exercises on machines are gradually to be systematically reduced and expanded by more complex exercises with rope pulls and dumbbells. Research shows that complex free weight exercises can be learned easily by older people, provided that they are properly instructed!

In a study, the average 67-year-old participants were able to perform exercises such as bench press, squat and row in a bent position from the first training session. (12) These exercises represent movement patterns that are very close to everyday life and are therefore particularly functional for older people.

Andreas Wagner M.A.

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1. Andersen, J. L., Schjerling, P. & Saltin, B. (2001). Muscles, genes and competitive sports. Spectrum of Science, March 2001, 70-75.

2. Fiatarone-Singh, M.A., Ding, W., Manfredi, T.J., Solares, G. S., O'Neill, E.F., Clements, K.M., Ryan, N.D., Kehayias, J.J., Fielding, R.A. & Evans, W.J. (1999). Insulin-like growth factor 1 in skeletal muscle after exercise in frail elders. Journal of Applied Physiology Endocrinology and Metabolism, 277 (1), E135-E143.

3. Hegner, P. (2006). Athletic performance and age. Competitive Sports, 36 (1), 34-40.

4. Henk, M. (2009). The pick-me-ups. The new biology of muscles. GEO, 07 / July 2009

5. Lexell, J., Henriksson-Larsen, K., Winbald, B. & Sjöström, M. (1983). Distribution of different fiber types in human skeletal muscles: Effect of aging studied in whole muscle cross sections. Muscle and Nerve, 6, 588-595.

6. Mayer, F., Gollhofer, A. & Berg, A. (2003). Strength training with the elderly and the chronically ill. German magazine for sports medicine, 54 (3), 88-94.

7. Wagner, A., Mühlenhoff, S., Sebastian & Sandig, D. (2010). Weight training in cycling. Methods and exercises for improving performance and prevention. Urban & Fischer at Elsevier: Munich.

8. Zimmermann, K. (2002). Health-oriented muscle strength training. Theory-empiricism-practice orientation (2nd unchanged edition). Schorndorf: Hofmann.

9. Mayer, F., Gollhofer, A. & Berg, A. (2003). Strength training with the elderly and the chronically ill. German magazine for sports medicine, 54 (3), 88-94.

10. Shepard, R.J. (1978). Physical activity and aging. London: Croom Helmet.

11. Tinetti, M. E. (2003). Preventing falls in elderly persons. The New England Journal of Medicine, 348 (1), 42-49.

12. Wagner, A. (2005). Machines vs. free weights. An empirical study of two different strength training methods in older adults (unpublished master's thesis). Frankfurt am Main: J. W. Goethe University, Institute for Sports Science.

13. Wagner, A., Mühlenhoff, S., Sebastian & Sandig, D. (2010). Weight training in cycling. Methods and exercises for improving performance and prevention. Urban & Fischer at Elsevier: Munich.