If you’re new to exercise, or coming back to it after many years of a layoff, it is very challenging. You don’t have the same sense of fearlessness that you had in the past. You may lack confidence for many reasons. If you are over 50-years-old and starting out, the challenge can seem overwhelming. The truth is that we have an aging population, more awareness of the benefits of exercise, and a sense of urgency about reducing the cost of healthcare as we age and expenses go up. Unfortunately, the fitness industry is still dominated by the image of youth and muscularity, often neglecting older trainees. Most of this neglect is probably best attributed to the fact that it’s only recently that older people have felt encouraged to take up exercise. We live longer and the quality of our life is directly impacted by our ability to remain active. People are beginning to get it.
Strength and Conditioning for People Over 50
I am not going to patronize older readers by treating them as if they are children. You’ll see plenty of articles about the need to take it easy, pace yourself, and make sure you have your doctor’s permission to start working out. You’ll see conflicting advice about what you can and cannot do: don’t squat, don’t lift heavy weights, make sure you take these supplements, don’t bend here, don’t twist there. Fortunately, at Breaking Muscle, we have access to trainers, coaches, and experts who are in the field and training 50-year-olds at all stages of their fitness journey. Some are older trainees themselves, some are exclusively focused on older trainees.
Matthew Levy of Fitness Cubed doesn’t see any difference between being an older trainee and a younger one, “I would say that people over 50 need the same things as people under 50. The main differences are that you will need to take into account the years of wear and tear on the body and that significantly more time generally needs to be focused on building strength at end range to keep the joints healthy. Additionally, the anatomical adaptation phase and hypertrophy phases generally need to be longer and the maximal strength and maximal power phases more abbreviated and at the higher end of the rep ranges for those phases.”
Levy continues, “So for example, if the recommended rep range for maximal strength is 3-5 reps, I would tend towards lower weight and higher reps – 5 reps rather than 3.”
Every individual is going to be different. Every aging body will have a history of activity that will determine how much wear and tear already exists. You have to be smart about how you start an exercise program if you are coming it fresh at an older age, but you don’t have to be timid about it, either.
“It’s never too late to start training. As we get older strength training becomes even more important because we start to lose muscle mass in older age. But studies have shown that older muscle still responds to exercise stimulus which, is very important for avoiding falls, for example, in old age.” Says Wayne Bradley, Gabinete Dietetico De Rueda-Bradley nutrition clinic.
Athleticism Declines with Age
Your athleticism will decline as you get older. It starts in your twenties. However, we also see that modern athletes are staying in the game longer than previously thought possible by adopting regimens that take into account that they can’t do the volume of training that they did when younger.
Scott Glasgow, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Brigham Young University, and former Xtremeperfect Weightlifting Club President says, “By the time an athlete is in their 50’s, I would estimate that optimal training for competitive weightlifting should include no less than half of the work being performed in modes that are clearly identifiable as bodybuilding in nature.”
Jesse Irizzary, in his article on Bodybuilding and Olympic Weightlifting Aren’t Mutually Exclusive, says, “Bodybuilding work can be therapeutic, help aid in recovery, and used as a means to increase mobility, not limit it.”
So, even if you are a world-class athlete, you’re going to have to adopt an approach that helps in recovery and increases mobility as you age. By extension, if you are not a world-class athlete and starting out later in life, you need to be cognizant of the need for recovery and an emphasis on mobility no matter how often someone touts the benefits of strength training.
Lift Heavy, Even in Old Age (or Heavish)
Tom MacCormick, an expert in hypertrophy out of London, England, is a firm believer in lifting heavyish. MacCormick refers to The Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University that established 10 biomarkers of aging.
“The top two were muscle mass and strength. The higher the levels of these the lower your age-related decline. Fast-twitch fibers are the first muscle fibers to decrease in size as you age. These are also the ones that are most positively associated with strength, muscle mass, and blood sugar management so, it makes sense to train these throughout your life.” Says MacCormick
So, as an older trainee, you don’t need to try and break any world records or risk injury with maximal loads to stimulate the fast-twitch fibers. These fibers will be fully activated with loads at around 85% of your 1-rep max, which will be age-appropriate. Performing challenging sets of 6 reps mean every rep will recruit your fast-twitch fibers.
“I suggest that you include resistance training, on multi-joint movements, in the 6-10 rep range to promote strength, power, and muscle mass. All of this will have an anti-aging effect on your body and extend your healthspan.” Says MacCormick.
This is where you have to be careful you don’t get patronized when getting advice. For someone starting out at age fifty and up, a lot will depend on the quality of the work they do and not ego lifts, personal records in poundage or any of the other things that could end up pushing you towards injury and failure.
Enrico Fioranelli at 4E Fitness Training adds, “When exercising over 50 you need to place greater emphasis on how your body responds to the exercise you are doing, and how you feel that day. Don’t worry so much about what you are doing on a particular day worry more about how you feel throughout your workout.”
Exercising After 50 Means Having Patience
Jarlo Ilano, Managing Director, GMB Fitness also believes that quality of work matters, “In my opinion, the primary issues for exercising after 50 is that progress tends to be significantly slower than someone half that age and that injuries take much longer to heal.
“So the emphasis should be on the consistency of training rather than intensity. The late Robert Follis (UFC Coach) had a great line that resonated with me: It’s better to do a little bit a lot, then to do a lot a little bit. This especially holds true for older trainers. It’s simply not worth it to exercise intensely, only to get injured and then be unable to train consistently.
“It’s a paradox but, trying to improve faster only makes it slower!”
Pain-Free Training for Older Athletes
Rachel Binette of CrossFit City Line is fully aware of the needs of her older clients. She says, “When training older athletes, I have found that their priorities typically shift from needing to be competitive on the board to feeling good and being able to live their lives pain-free. We are fighting decrepitude versus trying to PR our deadlift.
“What this translates to in classes is ensuring that they are modified appropriately. Distances and reps are reduced to preserve the stimulus of the workout and weights and movements are changed to preserve movement integrity in the face of changing mobility.
“As an example, several of my older athletes have “frozen shoulder” or very restricted overhead mobility. We modify away from barbells to dumbbells, focus on core engagement to prevent overextending the low back, and ensure that they have a path through physical therapy to continue to improve.
“When it comes to body composition, maintaining muscle mass is a high priority for all of our athletes. In our older athletes, it can be the difference between being able to get up after a fall or not. When we coach nutrition for these athletes, there is no change between what we do for our middle-aged and younger athletes. Their activity level and muscle mass (we have an InBody scanner to take the muscle measurements) are taken into account when they have plans set up for them.”
Mobility is Key for Older Bodies
“Mobility is the closest thing there is to the fountain of youth. As all of us age the goal should be Not to train to add more years to our lives, but rather to add more life to our years,” says Brandon Richey of Brandon Richey Fitness.
Richey’s sentiments are echoed in comments we get from many other coaches, such as Micki Pauley of Warrior Body in West Virginia, “KEEP MOVING! Moving EVERYDAY is one of the absolute best things you can do for yourself after 50 – even if for a brisk walk. Strength training 2-3 days a week becomes even more important because it helps keep the muscles strong to perform basic, everyday tasks!!”
It’s Never Too Late to Start Exercising
Matt Beecroft of Reality SDC says, “Biologically there are multiple things that age us including, but not limited to- oxidative stress, inflammation and a lowered ability for autophagy.
“We know that in order to help reverse our aging we need to improve the quality of our breathing (including using hypoxia), improve our sleep, experience heat and cold, fast, get sunlight, eat predominantly plant-based, reduce chronic stress and move much more, to help reverse aging.”
Amanda Thebe of Fit n Chips, who specializes in training older athletes and especially women facing menopause, believes that you should just start, “If you are on the fence about strength training, my advice is to start lifting weights straight away- the sooner the better. With major strength declines as we age and a higher risk for chronic diseases, building lean muscle becomes more important than ever as a source of prevention. There comes a time in your life when looking good naked is trumped (you can replace that word with wins if you want) by living life longer. It’s not sexy but it matters.”
Quality Fitness is Key For Aging Bodies
“When it comes to training over 50 focus on quality over quantity. Place extra emphasis on training intensity versus training duration. In the words of Bill Grundler; More is not better. Better is better.” Says Michael Tromello of Precision CrossFit, Agoura Hills, California.
Jesse McMeeking of Adapt Performance adds, “I’ve found that focusing on making things harder before simply making them heavier is a good idea for most lifters, particularly as we age and accumulate the inevitable aches and pains.”
The real key to exercise and workouts in the later years is consistency and a systemic approach.
Jonny Slick of Straight Shot Training explains it as such, “I can’t stress enough the importance of strength training with my clients over 50. And I don’t just mean “strength training” as in lifting light dumbbells for tons of reps…I mean systematic, progressive resistance training that challenges older athletes. Whether my clients are 25 or 75, they all need to be relatively strong. We work on this by establishing good mechanics, practicing these lifts with consistency, and gradually adding intensity appropriate to where they’re at in their fitness journey. Getting stronger makes everything else easier outside of the gym, and it’s one of the best things you can do to prevent injuries, maintain muscle and bone mass, and manage your body weight.”
The Research and Concern About Exercising at an Older Age
There are numerous, popular, sources of research that are widely quoted to encourage more awareness of the benefits of exercise for those over 50, specifically if they are just starting out on their fitness journey. A study called, Comparable Rates of Integrated Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Between Endurance-Trained Master Athletes and Untrained Older Individuals, essentially looked at masters athlete men who had been active for some time compared to those just starting out. Without looking into the genetics or specifics of any of the participants of the study, this study, by Manchester Metropolitan University in England, found that a beginner group could essentially catch up with the group that had been active for a couple of decades.
In essence, one group was into intense exercise, had been for decades, and the other was not. Yet, that was not an impediment to the starters becoming late-bloomer athletes.
In a study called, Association of Leisure-Time Physical Activity Across the Adult Life Course With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality, the findings are even more encouraging because being inactive but increasing physical activity during midlife was associated with 32% to 35% lower risk for mortality.
If all the experts and expertise in this one article, a small slice of the knowledge we have about these things, doesn’t convince you that beyond 50 is not too late to begin an exercise regimen or, even, intense exercise plan, then let’s just leave it at that.