Mature Muscle?

A few weeks ago we tackled the importance of lean muscle mass in aging and its typical correlation with organ reserve. Conventional wisdom tells us that muscle is easiest to develop when you are young, that we tend to lose muscle as we age, and that it becomes more difficult to put on muscle as we grow older. We thought we’d investigate and give you a clearer picture of what the research has to say.

Just to review, we’re talking skeletal muscle here, which includes two types of fibers. Type I fibers are associated with endurance training, while type II fibers are associated with weight training. It’s true that adults do tend to lose muscle mass during typical aging (typical being the operative word here), and it’s the type II fibers that are depleted. Type I fibers are generally preserved. But the type II fibers, research is finding, play a crucial role in regulating the body’s metabolism. These guys help direct the activities of tissues in other systems of the body. Given their influential roles, maintaining type II fibers (i.e. muscle mass) as we age can reduce the risk for diabetes and obesity.

The fact is, resistance training can allow anyone to gain muscle mass at any age, and older adults, in most respects, can indeed keep up with their younger counterparts.

Let’s take a closer look.

A recent study examined the theory that mitochondrial dysfunction contributes to the loss of muscle mass as we age. The study compared older adult subjects’ strength levels and “gene expression profiles” before and after six months of weight training. Their tissue samples and strength levels were also compared with those of young adult subjects. Ready for some good news? Results showed that the weight training had allowed the older subjects to not only dramatically increase their strength but to reverse the aging process itself. Their genetic fingerprints had been “reversed to levels similar to those seen in the younger adults.” Granted, the older adults didn’t achieve the same strength levels as those of the younger set within the six month period. This result, however, isn’t to be taken as an absolute lesson in limitation.

An Ohio University study found that older subjects gained strength “at the same rate as untrained young men.” The older men didn’t achieve the same “heft,” but researchers noted that the difference in muscle size could at least partly be attributed to the “smaller, less developed” state of their muscle tissue upon beginning the study. Still, the older subjects experienced a 30-40 % growth in muscle and up to a 100% stamina increase at the end of 16 weeks.

With all this said, our upper years do take their toll on muscle mass. Research out the University of Minnesota (logically) shows that muscles with a higher proportion of type II fibers are impacted by age more than those muscles with a more balanced proportion of type I and type II fibers. While we’re able to rebuild muscle mass as older adults, we may not be able to rebuild it to the same degree as younger adults do. It can also take longer to recover between weight training sessions, which means our goals might take us longer than they would’ve a couple decades earlier. The University of Minnesota’s research, however, suggests that we have the ability to build muscle strengths into our nineties.

The lesson here? Building muscle is absolutely possible, but the best scenario is to both build and maintain muscle mass throughout your life.

Here are a few extra tips for doing just that.

Exercise: Include regular weight training in your fitness routine, and avoid the sabotages of chronic cardio. Check out the Dear Mark post this week for suggestions on a lifting and recovery routine as well as other activities to round out your work out program.

Nutrition: Grains and sugars not only cause inflammation, which perpetually taxes your organs, they throw off your hormone levels. (You definitely want to keep your endocrine system running in top shape.)

Obviously, protein is key. In our Pondering Protein post a few weeks ago, we mentioned the University of Texas at Galveston study that found older adults have the same capacity as their younger counterparts for converting protein-rich food into muscle. Earlier research, including a study out of the University of Nottingham, found that older adults had diminished ability to recognize and process amino acids. Their study, however, used protein drinks rather than actual food, which the Galveston study used. The researchers at Nottingham had suggested older adults eat a protein rich snack or meal directly following a weight training session, since they believed the body was better able to process protein post-workout.

We think there’s good advice to be taken from both studies. Older adults should certainly eat a protein-rich diet with natural protein food sources. In addition, it’s not a bad idea to go for that protein-rich snack after your weight workout. While we’re on the subject of protein, omega-3s from fish oil can enhance the conversion process of food protein to muscle protein. Be sure to include a good fish oil supplement (unabashed self-promotion ;)) in your diet.

Sleep: A good amount of shut-eye is imperative for the release of HGH (human growth hormone), which aids the development of muscle mass.

Other suggestions: Beyond the suggestions above, avoid toxins/additives/livestock hormones as much as possible. Endocrine disruption can lower testosterone levels and wreak other havoc in the body. Choose organic when you can and take other protective measures when you can’t, such as washing veggies and fruits well and looking for dairy and meats from livestock raised without hormones. Although we appreciate dietary fat around here, we’re not fans of the toxins found in meat and dairy fat. Of particular concern are dioxins, which can remain in the system for decades. (The kicker: dioxins are even found in organics as a result of acid rain on grass and feed grains.)

In short, those of us in the more “seasoned” crowd have all kinds of opportunity (and few excuses) to not give those youngsters at the gym a run for their money.

POPOEVER Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

The Secret to Great Abs

FitSugar: Strength Training Tips for Women

CrossFit NYC: Weight Training Not for the Light of Heart

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18 thoughts on “Mature Muscle?”

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  1. Mark,

    This is some uplifting news. Thanks for putting together all the various studies to affirm what I thought to be true in the first place. I’m 55 and do a pretty good job keeping up with the young kids. In fact, I probably have as much or more muscle mass now than I have ever had and feel stronger and more fit because of it. I imagine you suggest the same weight-lifting routines for older adults as you do younger adults. Any differences? I just want to say I have been a long time reader of your blog – going back to ’06 – and have never commented. I’m looking forward to starting to finally get more involved on the comment boards. Keep up the great work!

  2. Frank,

    Great to have you join in the discussions here.

    Generally, I suggest that “older” Primal beings do weight regimens similar to the younger people. However, in both cases it’s important to do exercises that have “real world” application. Basic movements like push-ups, pull-ups, dips, etc are great. Larger compound movements like lunges, squats, clean&jerk are also great for not only strength, but stability, core foundation, etc. Then you can finish off with the vanity moves like biceps curls, lateral raises, etc. Point being, evenone can lift in a similar fashion as long as you keep excellent form throughout the lifts AND you avoid injuries from trying to be a superhero and doing too much.

  3. man, and Im heading toward being more seasoned each day 🙂

    loved this post and the picture made me laugh.

    just did a magazine column on super slow lifting (nothing new as Im sure YOU know its been around for ages) but that works so well for the 60+ weight lifting newbies!


  4. (and I echo your real world sentiments. when I owned my training studio SO many more seasoned people came in asking about achieving strength they could use to plop luggage in the overhead bin!)

  5. As an “older Primal being,” I find taking on weight training at this stage of my life to be quite challenging. I’ve never been one to spend much time in the gym, and when I did it was to do lower body work in support of my running and cycling. So I have to leave my ego at the door, and use weights I can handle (while looking at the Crossfit WOD and dreaming:-)).

    The goal that drove me as a weekend runner was breaking 40 min for a 10K. Now the holy grail is doing one lousy pull-up.

  6. Very good article. Interesting how science catches up with “common sense”. I’m 63 and have been weight training pretty much my entire life. I think learning the different exercises and, in particular, the number of reps and sets that work for you is important. Changing up is very important as noted. But I think the one most important thing to keep in mind is to try to always get stronger. Now that doesn’t always mean more weight lifted. It could be more reps or longer sessions. Diet along with training are important. The information found here is really good stuff.

  7. Usually I don’t learn article on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do it! Your writing taste has been amazed me. Thank you, very great post.