There is a belief among many people that building muscle is reserved for young people. This couldn't be further from the truth.
Recent research shows elderly and very elderly individuals can successfully build strength and muscle with proper exercise. Building muscle is for more than preparing for beach season or making a medium size t-shirt look like a smedium. Building muscle provides a foundation for strength.
Why is strength important?
Strength is the amount of force we can generate at a given moment. There are varying degrees of strength. Recently, “Game of Thrones” star Hafthor Bjornsson — known as “The Mountain” — deadlifted 1104 pounds to set a world record. But strength does a lot more than demonstrating your ability to lift a barbell weighing as much as a polar bear off the ground.
Strength dictates our ability to stand up from a seated position, whether that be from the ground, an office chair, or a low toilet. Strength allows us to carry groceries, climb a flight of stairs, and rearrange the furniture. Strength is a representation of how effective our muscles work (not the only one but an important one).
We can easily take these tasks for granted, but many people struggle with the simple act of standing up without assistance. To improve our strength, we have one of two options.
How Do We Get Stronger?
First, we can improve the efficiency of our nervous system through exercise. Strength represents how effectively we can use the muscle we have. Essentially, through repeated exercise at a challenging intensity, we improve the efficiency of the movement.
This is why physical tasks gradually become easier the more you perform them. Within an exercise session you will experience a deterioration of strength — fatigue will ultimately win the battle and force us to stop — but across sessions, our strength will improve. When you experience improved strength without much change in muscle mass, that is a representation of changes in the nervous system. These changes can occur after a single session. You can even improve strength through visualization and mental reps.
The gains from efficiency are limited, however. You will eventually max out the efficiency of your movements. Also, strength gains from neural efficiencies diminish as you exercise more. At this point, you need a bigger foundation
The second option to improve strength is by building muscle. A racecar driver can use strategy and skill to outmaneuver someone in a comparable car, but a Toyota Prius will never beat Ferrari (unless you cheat). At some point, you need a bigger engine. The same holds true for our bodies.
Our strength potential increases as we build muscle. You may be reading this and think you don't want more muscle than you currently have. If you can perform the tasks you desire, then you may not need to. But sometimes training can be to maintain muscle, not only build it.
Inactivity and age can quickly weaken our bodies. It is common for individuals to lose muscle as they age. The good news is this can be reversed. Like a GPA in school, it is much easier to lose muscle than to gain it, but through consistent effort, it can be improved. According to recent research, it can be achieved regardless of age.
Age Is Just A Number
As people age, strength becomes a greater concern as muscle tends to diminish. This makes functional activity, such as standing from a chair, more challenging. The common belief is that once someone qualifies for the senior citizen discount, their opportunity to build muscle is gone and they are resigned to a future of walkers and wheelchairs.
A recent systematic review — meaning a study that pulled the results from many studies on the same topic — examined the effects of resistance training on muscle size and strength in very elderly individuals (greater than 75 years old). The study found the very elderly can increase their muscle strength and size by participating in resistance training programs. These effects were observed with resistance training interventions that generally included low weekly training volumes and frequencies.
For strength, the exercise programs lasted from 8 to 18 weeks with a training frequency of 1 to 3 days per week. For hypertrophy (a fancy term for building muscle), the interventions lasted 10 to 18 weeks, with a training frequency of 2–3 days per week.
When looking exclusively at the oldest subgroup of participants (80 + years of age), there was a significant effect of resistance training on muscle strength as well. To quell any concerns on safety, there were minimal reports of adverse events associated with the training programs. Most adverse events are delayed onset muscle soreness, a common effect when weight training, especially if you are deconditioned or a novice weight lifter.
It is important to note strength and hypertrophy training requires intense exercise. Walking is beneficial for your health, but it will not build muscle or strength. The same is true for light dumbbells and bands that you can perform 100 reps of at a time. The general rule for building strength is to perform an exercise at an intensity of roughly 80-100% of your 1 repetition max. This means if your max bench press is 200 pounds, to build strength you should perform sets of 2-6 at weights of 160-190 pounds. For hypertrophy, the range is muscle wider, but the generally accepted targeted zone is 8-12 reps at 60-75% of your 1 rep max.
Our bodies adapt to handle the challenges it faces every day. If you walk or run a lot, your endurance improves to compensate. If you lift weights frequently then you will build bigger muscles. Of note, the benefits of building muscle extend beyond strength and looking good in photos. Increasing muscle mass can improve glucose control and improve your metabolic rate, while strength training, in general, can improve cardiovascular health (aerobic exercise is not the only way to do this), bone mineral density, and psychological health. (source)
You Don’t Have To Do It On Your Own
This study helps us understand the potential for improvement following exercise in elderly individuals. Whether someone is exercising for general health, beach season, or part of a rehabilitation program, age will not prevent them from building muscle.
As a physical therapist, I have the opportunity to work with patients across the age spectrum and all demonstrate remarkable adaptations to exercise. The same holds true for personal trainers and strength coaches.
If you have been holding off on exercise believing it is a waste of time, I encourage you to give it a chance. If you are unsure where to begin or have concerns about safety, reach out to a local physical therapist, personal trainer, or strength coach. Age is not a barrier to building muscle and strength.