Are you gaining or losing strength? Evidence suggests that we will begin losing muscle mass and strength after the age of 40.
Losing too much muscle and strength increases your odds of mortality and the susceptibility to the diseases of aging. Here’s how to get stronger and build better muscle mass.
I recently came upon some health data that everyone over the age of forty who is concerned about their health should be keenly aware of. Here’s a visual representation of the data. Take a close look.
These graphs represent data from a 2014 compilation of British studies that included 49,964 participants. They measure strength, as determined by grip strength, versus age. Handgrip strength appears to correlate well with overall body strength. See my article: Get a good grip: how your hand grip strength predicts longevity.
The horizontal lines on the graph represent different centiles of strength. The higher the number, the stronger you are. The dots are different individuals within an age cohort.
What these graphs show us is that generally, everyone past the age of 40 is in the process of getting weaker. (By the way, this is not an isolated study. There are many that confirm this trend.)
I think most of us intuitively know that humans get weaker as they age. We’ve all seen some of our relatives age. In their 20s, 30s, and 40s, they were vibrant and strong. Then all of a sudden in their 60s, 70s and 80s, they seem to have grown weak and frail.
I think most of us also suppress this fact. We know we’re aging. But that’s something to worry about in the future.
However, some of us know we’re aging and getting weaker. It terrifies us to think of our future selves as helpless individuals who at some point will need someone to take care of us.
This might all seem slightly depressing, and you really didn’t need to start the new year depressed, did you?
But hear me for a second. This fact of life has a lot of nuance attached to it. And there is a lot more reason to be optimistic than depressed!
There’s Reason for Hope
I’m 65 years old. I’m stronger now than I was last year, and I’m stronger than I was 30 years ago.
Does my personal experience invalidate the above model? Not necessarily.
If we look a little more deeply into muscle strength, we’ll see that we can actually defy the trend and get stronger and healthier. Stay with me, and I’ll show you how I’m doing it and how you can do it too.
I’m assuming you want to get stronger. After all, the stronger you are, the harder you are to kill and the more useful you are in general.
However, this also applies to longevity.
There are numerous studies showing that the stronger you are, the greater your odds of living longer and staving off the diseases of aging. I’ll unpack that more later, but let’s take a closer look at the graphs.
The Tale of Two Graphs
Keep in mind that the graphs represent people at specific times in their life; they don’t represent strength for a specific individual lifespan.
We don’t know if people are moving up or down in strength from age to age.
However, the overall trend for both males and females is that strength peaks in the mid to late thirties, remains relatively stable for a few years, and then declines.
As I mentioned, at different age points on the y axis, there are people of different strength ability.
Some people start adulthood stronger than others. In later years of life, some people end up weaker than others. No doubt you’ve seen this.
In high school, there were strong people and weak people. And today we see some 70 year olds out on the tennis court while others are barely able to get around without a walker.
As a general rule though, your strength will decrease as you get past your forties.
No matter what Arnold Schwarzenegger does, he’s never going to be as strong as he was at 35. Again, this is a normal part of aging.
Let’s take a quick look at what normally happens to our muscles as we age.
Why do we lose strength as we age?
Researchers estimate that everyone, beginning around the fifth decade of life, will lose approximately 0.5-1.2% of muscle mass per year. That loss can accelerate up to 3% per year after 60 years old.
This is called age-related sarcopenia and, again, it’s a normal part of aging. See my article: How I’m beating sarcopenia with weight training.
The loss of muscle mass and muscle quality are highly correlated to the loss of strength.
Strength however, is lost at a greater rate than muscle mass. Researchers estimate that individuals can lose strength at ~3% per year. Some individuals will be on the upper end of the range, others on the lower.
There are various scientific theories on why you lose muscle mass as you age. They are a little too technical to go into here, but researchers do know that there are some things that worsen the decline, and there are things that lessen the severity of the decline. More on that later.
But think about it. If you were to lose strength at 3% per year, you would have lost about 44% of your adult strength by the time you’re 60 years old. That kind of strength loss could have a severe impact on your lifestyle.
Think about navigating stairs, lifting packages, or even getting off the toilet.
Fortunately, though, strength and muscle loss don’t usually happen that way. The biggest drop-offs in strength and muscle mass occur after the age of 60.
Okay, you say. I’ll get weaker as I age. Again, no big news there.
Hold on, I say. What’s ultimately going to matter is where you end up on the strength curve later in life.
Let’s get back to the graphs and make a few more observations.
The Gray Areas
See the gray areas on the graphs. This is the area where the authors of the study determined a weak grip and its corollary, weak strength, exist.
Any reading under 27 kg for men and under 16 kg for women was considered a weak grip. The authors of the study do point out that other studies have found similar data but suggest slightly higher cut off values for a weak grip (32 kg, 19 kg). See here. That dramatically increases the number of people who are considered weak.
Several studies have also shown that a weak hand grip is also predictive of other future diseases of aging such as cognitive decline, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Also, remember that strength is related to muscle mass. A host of medical issues such as frailty, heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome are all related to poor muscle mass. See here and here.
The Gray Area Population Increases as Age Increases
Notice how as age increases, the number of people populating the gray area is increasing. This is not something to be underestimated.
For those entering older ages, the complications of low strength can be even more severe.
Since older individuals lose muscle mass at even greater rates than younger people, their odds of suffering from the health conditions I mentioned before also increase dramatically.
Okay, let’s recap and see what conclusions we can draw.
- Everyone after the age of 40 will start to suffer muscle mass and strength loss.
- Some individuals will lose it at a greater rate than others.
- Muscle mass loss is associated with strength loss.
- There is a population of people who are considered weak.
- Excessive loss of muscle mass and weak strength is predictive of greater odds of suffering a negative health outcome.
- As people age, more individuals will enter the weak strength population.
So far these are the important questions.
- As you proceed on your health journey, have you considered the fact that you’ll be getting weaker as you age?
- Do you know where you stand on the graph? You can get an idea by using a hand grip strength evaluator. Are you in the weak strength category or are you about to enter it?
- Are you someone who has poor strength? If you are, do you have to stay there for the rest of your life and be resigned to poor future health outcomes?
- Have you made modifications to your health and wellness program to deal with declining strength (more on that later)?
Okay, enough negativity. Let’s get to some good news!!!
Let’s take one last look at the graphs.
Who’s Moving Up, Who’s Moving Down
What the graphs don’t tell us is who is moving up and down between strength categories.
We do know that there are individuals who have good strength even into old age. These individuals have increased their probability of maintaining good health into their golden years.
That’s what you want. You want to avoid that gray area of poor strength, and you want to stay out of it as you age.
No one knows the future, but if you’re not desperately ill, you don’t have to stay in the weak strength category or fear falling into it.
About 15 years ago, I had my grip strength tested. It was very weak. At 57 years old, I could barely bench press 25 lb. dumbbells. But now, at 65 years old and at 165 lb. body weight, I can bench press 185 lb.
By the way, I did this after suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome for over 20 years.
So here’s the important thing: there is hope for all of us. Unless you’re severely disabled, you are not consigned to spend your whole life at any one point on the graph. There are ways to keep or increase your muscle mass and strength. Even if you’re in your 80s.
Let’s see how we can do that.
How to Have Good Strength In Your Later Years
1. In order to have good strength in later years, you can start out strong
One way to keep yourself in the highest centiles of strength as you age is by starting out strong. Look at this graph.
As you can see, some people start out strong and stay strong throughout their life course.
How do you start out strong? The answers to that question are fairly straightforward.
The first is to have good genetics. There is some evidence to suggest that birth weight is correlated to strength in adults. This study found that a higher birth weight was suggestive of greater strength in later years.
So, individuals who are able to pick strong parents seem to have a good base to continue being strong throughout their life.
However, exercising and having a good diet will also get and keep you stronger in early life as well.
If that’s the case, then this is a great motivation for parents to encourage their children to get and stay strong throughout their lives.
One of the best ways to get strength is through resistance training. There used to be some controversy concerning children using resistance training (weights) to get stronger. Several studies have now shown that resistance training has a positive effects on children’s health.
Personally, I was one of those individuals who didn’t start out with exceptional strength. In high school. I was kind of a tall Steve Rogers before he met Howard Stark. But in college I worked out to get stronger.
While I was only able to attain slightly above average strength, I was able to move myself up on the curve.
Okay, maybe you didn’t start out strong, and you didn’t exercise into your adult years and beyond, and maybe you didn’t have a good diet. Does that mean that you’re confined to the lower centiles of strength for the rest of your life? Not necessarily. But if you stay there, you’re in for a world of hurt.
How to Have Good Strength in Your Later Years
2. Maintain your strength through your adult years
Let’s look at the graph again.
In the early adult life (? 35 years old) section of the graph, strength in the strongest individuals maintains for a time. However, the weaker population starts to decline. Remember muscle mass decline begins in the 4th decade of life.
The maintainers of strength are those who either started out stronger, continued to exercise through adulthood, ate well, and choose healthy lifestyle practices. These factors gave them a greater reserve of muscle and strength.
Notice what happens to the maintainers at about 45 years old. They decline, but at a more gradual rate than those with poorer strength.
As you can see, the bottom trend line, representing poorer strength individuals, is diving headlong into the disability threshold.
They are going to hit the disability threshold at a much earlier age than those who have been maintaining their strength through their adult years.
Some maintainers may never even hit the disability threshold.
So, the second thing to do if you want to maintain good muscle and strength in later years, is work to maintain strength throughout your adult years. If you do, you’ll reach older life with a much better chance of avoiding disability.
I’ll discuss how to do that shortly.
How to Have Good Strength in Your Later Years
3. Avoid muscle disuse
This was written way back in 1992:
First, for most persons 50 years of age and older, increasing age is not a cause of physical inactivity. As noted by Berger, current research, especially by Smith, suggests that 50 percent of the decline frequently attributed to physiological aging is, in reality, disuse atrophy resulting from inactivity in an industrialized world. The Second Fifty Years Promoting Health and Preventing Disability (1992) /P. 224
In other words, at least half of the decline in muscle mass and strength is not due to normal aging but to a sedentary lifestyle.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking”. Okay, sitting is probably not as bad as smoking. But you get the point.
Today, more people are working from home, watching TV, playing video games, etc. People are generally more sedentary than years ago. The CDC reports,
It is estimated that only 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 5 high school students fully meet physical activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. About 31 million adults aged 50 or older are inactive, meaning they get no physical activity beyond that of daily living.
These are frightening numbers that do have consequences down the line. There is good documentation that a prolonged sedentary lifestyle will lead to poor health outcomes.
Intermittent periods of disuse
However, while sedentary behavior over a lifespan can have a deleterious effect on metabolic health, intermittent periods of disuse can also have serious negative effects on muscle mass and strength, especially after the age of 50.
Take a look at this graph.
It shows that after the age of 50, periods of muscle disuse can have a profound effect on increasing an individual’s chances of encountering disability at an earlier age.
In this study, researchers point out that this doesn’t only happen from periods of disuse resulting from injury, illness or hospitalizations but also from reduced ambulation. In other words, simply not walking enough will reduce muscle mass and strength.
So another way to maintain strength is to avoid periods of extended muscle disuse.
This is especially critical in older populations as they have an impaired ability to recover from muscle loss.
A practical case history
At 30 years old, I was in excellent health. I lifted weights and ran everyday. I was not at the top centile for strength, but I was above average. Then it happened.
I awoke one morning and was literally unable to get out of bed. I had no fever, no upper respiratory infection, no aches and pains. But I couldn’t move my legs. After about 30 minutes, I was able to get up, but I couldn’t walk more than a few feet before I had to sit down.
As it turned out, I had come down with a severe case of chronic fatigue syndrome. Nine years ago, I recovered enough to resume some normal activity, but then I developed severe shoulder bursitis, which lasted two more years.
Altogether, I was basically sedentary for about 25 years.
What I didn’t realize was the damage that was being done to my muscles. However, for some reason, one evening at 55 years old, I looked at my arms and became shocked. They had become thin and frail looking.
Visions of myself as an aged old man weakly ambulating around in a walker shot through my mind.
What I didn’t know at the time was that when you lose muscle mass, you generally lose a greater percentage of it in your legs. If my arms looked like that, what was the state of my leg muscles?
Muscularly speaking, I was a wreck.
Life comes at us hard sometimes
At 30 years old, I was at an acceptable centile for strength but rapidly fell to a very low centile and stayed there for 25 years.
But here’s my big point. At 57 years old, though I fell into a low centile of strength and was on the curve heading for early disability, I was committed to not staying there.
What about you? If you’re in your 40s, 50s, or 60s, and for whatever reason you’re in the lower centiles for strength, do you have to stay there?
Are you saying to yourself that your strength is already shot? That a future of frailty and disability is already written in stone?
Well, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be.
Everyone, unless you’re severely disabled, can get stronger and move up on the curve away from early disability.
Even if you’re 80 years old.
Now, let’s look at the most important thing you can do to maintain and improve your muscle mass, strength, and muscle quality.
How to Have Good Strength in Your Later Years
4. Resistance training is the best way to improve muscle mass and strength
Remember your goal is to improve your strength capacity. To do this requires improved muscle mass and quality.
The best way to do this is through strength training.
Read what Dr. Thomas W. Storer, director of the exercise physiology and physical function lab at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has to say,
Older men can indeed increase muscle mass lost as a consequence of aging. It takes work, dedication, and a plan, but it is never too late to rebuild muscle and maintain it.
Here is the plan that Dr. Storer recommends for rebuilding muscle,
Therefore, the best means to build muscle mass, no matter your age, is progressive resistance training (PRT). With PRT, you gradually amp up your workout volume—weight, reps, and sets—as your strength and endurance improve.
Of course this applies to women as well.
Dr. Storer is simply reiterating what numerous scientific studies have found. The best way to build muscle and strength is through resistance training. And this applies to older people as well.
What is resistance training?
Resistance training is any exercise that forces the muscles to contract against an external resistance with the expectation of increases in strength, power, hypertrophy, and/or endurance.
You can do this in a number of different ways. You can use barbells, dumbbells, exercise bands, your own body weight, bricks, bottles of water, or any other object that causes the muscles to contract.
Stressing a muscle through contraction is a potent stimulator of muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Increasing MPS is what drives muscle mass and strength. As you continue to stress the muscle over time, it eventually adapts to the stress and improves.
Here’s an important question: How much can your muscles improve at an older age?
Resistance training can make your muscles younger?!
I mentioned earlier that researchers have some theories of why muscle mass and function decline with age. I already shared one: muscle disuse as the years go by.
Another is decline of muscle mitochondria function. Researchers have found that aging muscle decline is highly associated with mitochondrial DNA dysfunction.
If you’re interested in the deep science, see this review.
But here’s the thing. Even though mitochondria function declines as muscle ages, the process can be reversed. This is done through exercise, particularly resistance training.
But get this! This study revealed that after 6 months of resistance training, the muscle of older individuals showed that the “transcriptional signature of aging was markedly reversed back to that of younger levels for most genes that were affected by both age and exercise.”
This means that their muscle showed genes that were consistent with a younger age.
Yes, you can reverse aging in your muscles. I told you to be optimistic. Strength training may be a fountain of youth.
Oh, and remember all those diseases associated with poor muscle mass and strength I previously listed? Check this out!
Resistance exercise training as a primary countermeasure to age-related chronic disease
This in depth review presents scientific studies showing the efficacy of resistance training for preventing and improving many of the diseases associated with aging.
These diseases include sarcopenia, mobility issues, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Also see here.
Okay, one last thing on keeping your muscles and strength in good condition.
How to Have Good Strength in Your Later Years
5. Get enough protein in your diet
Do you know if you’re getting enough protein in your diet? In order to build muscle, your body needs essential amino acids. You have to get these by consuming protein.
How much protein?
If you rely on current recommended daily allowances, then you’re probably not getting enough. Current protein researchers suggest these values are not high enough.
Another thing is that as you age, your ability to utilize protein decreases. So older individuals will need more protein than younger people.
Here are the current recommendations from top protein researchers.
The consensus among leading protein researchers is that young adults should consume at least 20 g/meal (0.24g – 0.3g/kg/) per meal and at least 3 – 4 meals per day.
In a recent review, protein researcher Stuart Philipps suggests that older adults should consume 0.4–0.6 g of high quality protein/kg/meal for 3 meals per day to attenuate age-associated muscle mass loss.
This would translate to about 30 – 40 grams of protein per meal.
See my comprehensive post on protein consumption: Do you get enough protein to maintain muscle?
Okay, these are some of the major things you can do to improve your muscle mass and get stronger.
For me, while they are all important, the most important was employing a good resistance training program.
Let me tell you how I started resistance training.
How I started Strength Training
Before anyone starts an exercise program, they should check with their physician to make sure they’re medically able to do so.
As I mentioned before, there are many different ways to do resistance training. There are a lot of good programs out there using body weight, bands, etc.
However, at 57 years old, I chose to start lifting weights. I started with 20 pound dumbbells. As soon as I was able to lift 45 pounds overhead for multiple reps, I was ready to begin barbell training.
After a lot of research, I chose the Starting Strength Method.
This is a barbell training program that focuses on 4 main exercises (deadlift, squat, overhead press, bench press).
The program takes an individual from a novice level to an intermediate level. If you do the program, you’ll be amazed at how strong you can get regardless of your age.
To find out more about the program, check out these resources. //ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=wewh-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon®ion=US&placement=0982522738&asins=0982522738&linkId=58300fc3490bba8abbd81e4c138548eb&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true
Here is a new video that goes into the program in some detail.
*If you’re over the age of 45, you may need some modifications to the program. Those are covered in the above book. For example, generally if you’re 45, power clean exercises are not recommended.
Also, since older individuals can’t sustain the same lifting volume as younger people can, volume is somewhat reduced for older populations.
This book gives excellent insight into barbell training for people over 40 years old. //ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=wewh-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon®ion=US&placement=0982522770&asins=0982522770&linkId=e55be0ec63a5c5f5010ce973d6193bf2&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true
Check Dr. Sullivan’s youtube channel here. It’s specifically geared to older lifters.
Okay, that’s all I have for this post. God bless and have a great week.
This article first appeared on the Glutenfreehomestead.com