BUILDING MUSCLE MASS AFTER 50

by

Tid Bits of Info

  • Sarcopenia is translated in Greek to “poverty of flesh”.
  • Muscle fibers rapidly reduce in total number between 50 – 80 years of age.
  • The rapid loss can add up to nearly ½ of the total number.
  • Selective training of fast twitch muscle fibers stimulates muscle fiber repair and size increases.
  • Seek the advice of a Physical Therapist or certified personal trainer to develop a program that is specific for you

As we age, we tend to lose strength and muscle mass. Some studies indicate that the muscle fibers will drop nearly one-half from age 40 to 80.  This loss of muscle fibers also leads to weakness, which pre-disposes our elderly population to osteoarthritis, fractures, decreased quality of life and even a decreased lifespan.  Proper training can reduce the impact of aging on our muscles and help us to live more fully as we age.

A quarter-century ago it was believed that someone over 50 years old could not gain muscle mass and had to rely on neuromuscular efficiency to produce an increase in strength.  Many studies have demonstrated the opposite. With the proper training, it is believed that muscle loss/breakdown can be reversed to a certain extent.  Muscles can be trained to be bigger and stronger.

Muscles need to be stimulated to gain size and strength.  How a 20 something individual develops muscle mass is different than the 50 plus individual.  Both people have basically two types of muscle fibers, fast twitch and slow twitch (to keep it simple, this blog will not elaborate extensively on muscle physiology) and it appears that the key to developing muscle mass or enhancing the size of the fibers must involve targeting the fast twitch fibers.

Muscle cell loss is known as sarcopenia and it appears that this process of muscle loss/damage can be reversed with the proper activity level.   Today’s sedentary lifestyle of so many people is believed to be one of the primary causes of sarcopenia.  In the “old” days, people were not nearly as sedentary.  The advent of computers, smartphones and video games has developed generations of sedentary adults and children.  It is very difficult to change someone’s lifestyle as they age. People that have been sedentary in their 20s and 30s are probably going to be sedentary throughout their lifetime.

Preventing muscle loss and enabling an aging muscle to reverse this process requires someone to selectively train the fast twitch muscle fibers.  These fibers “operate” in the absence of oxygen or in an anaerobic state.  If training regimens and protocols are developed to selectively train the fast twitch fibers the wasting away process that occurs during natural aging can be prevented to a certain extent.

The most common training regimen that is used to develop strength and increases muscle mass is the “over-load” principle. The American College of Sports Medicine supports a workout that requires heavy resistance to be used in multiple sets or 5-12 repetitions.  The recent studies have shown promising results for muscle repair and maintenance by using lite resistance and performing very high repetitions (50-75) with minimal rest. Total contraction time of a muscle during a workout is something to consider.  Taking the muscle to fatigue and giving it very little rest in between exercises is believed to lower oxygen levels within the muscle.  The reduction of oxygen “tricks” the muscle into selectively training the fast twitch fibers.

building muscle mass

Both training regimens will develop an increase in muscle size but the use of heavy resistance might cause damage to the muscle or its attachments. If too great of a load is placed on the muscle or the tendons which attach it to the bone there is a possibility of causing an injury to occur.  Secondly, heavy resistance training is not fun.  It requires a lot of effort and there is often pain associated with the workout.  Many elderly people do not want to deal with this type of routine and often times stop participating shortly after they begin it.

Building muscle and stimulating the repair process takes effort and consistency regardless of age and type of training program. All of the studies that are mentioned in this blog used a 12 week training period to assess the results of their study.  The one constant that is present in any successful training program is consistency in participation.  If you need help staying consistent, seek the advice and treatment from a Physical Therapist or certified personal trainer.  These professionals can develop a program that is specialized to meet your goals and they can be with you during your workout for support and to ensure that you perform the routine properly.

Everyone will age differently, but not everyone will get weaker as they grow older.  Staying fit and maintaining a strong musculoskeletal system helps to enhance the quality of their life.  This might mean that they can play with their grandchildren or prevent a fall, but no one can ever to be too strong at any age!