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Muscle Changes Everything by Alwyn Cosgrove

Mar 14, 2013

“Sarcopenia” is one those dry, nonjudgmental scientific terms that make the preventable and often self-inflicted loss of muscle in old age sound inevitable. It’s inevitable that you’ll decline from your peak-whatever it may be, and whenever you might achieve it-but it’s not inevitable that you grow feeble. The more muscle mass you have at your peak, the more you’ll have left as a age takes its toll. The same goes for strength and power.

That’s why it’s so important to work harder and train more ambitiously than people our age are typically willing to do (Alwyn is 55 yrs old). If you’ve never pushed yourself in the weight room, you don’t know what your muscles can handle. You can add size and strength at any age; the research is very clear on that point. It’s also clear that the less you’ve pushed yourself to get to where you are now, the more room you have to grow.

Women reading this may be tempted to stop right here and ask for a refund. Who wants to get bigger, especially in middle age? Trust me on this: Bigger, stronger muscles don’t mean a thicker, less attractive physique. (If you don’t believe me, go online and find pictures of Pudgy Stockton from the 1940’s. She was a knockout.) Muscle and fat are separate issues. You can build muscle without increasing fat, or burn fat without out losing muscle. Beginners can often do both at the same time. No matter your age or gender, you’re better off with well-trained and well-developed muscles. You’ll look better, feel better and move better.

But if you’ve never done a serious training program before you probably haven’t developed your muscles to anything close to their full potential. I rarely see a middle-aged man or woman in a gym that appears to be working hard and the research backs up my observation. Studies have shown that mean and women, beginners and experienced lifters alike, typically choose weights well below those that would actually increase strength or size. Lifters rarely work with more than 50 percent of their one-rep maximum-the most weight they could lift once with good form-and when they aren’t told how many reps to do with the weight they’ve selected, they inevitably stop well short of exhaustion.

When scientists conduct strength-training studies with older adults (or, really, with lifters at any age), they typically make them work with much heavier weights than they would choose on their own. Just to pick one example, let’s look at a study titled “Resistance Exercise Reverses Aging in Human Skeletal Muscle.” It was published in 2007 in a journal called PLoS One (the acronym stands for Public Library of Science). Among the authors is Mark Tarnopolsky, M.D., of McMaster University, one of the most innovative, prolific, and respected researchers in the field of exercise science. Dude’s a rock star; his studies have changed the way we think about a long list of topics, including nutritional supplements, neuromuscular diseases, the aging process, and of course strength training.

In this study, he and his colleagues identified 596 genes found in skeletal muscle that change with age, hundreds of which are involved in metabolism and mitochondrial function. They took a group of healthy, older men and put them on a six-month strength-training program. Not only did the men increase their strength by 50 percent, but 179 of those genes shifted into reverse and started behaving like the genes of younger men.

Like magic, the biological clock is turned back by as much as twenty years at the cellular level

There is, however, a catch: The older men in the study were doing a routine in which they used 80 percent of their one-rep max for three sets of eight repetitions of each exercise. They were working hard.

You see something similar in all the studies showing improvements in muscular strength and size in older men and women. Left on their own, these people wouldn’t have lifted heavy enough, or pushed themselves hard enough, to get results. The researchers had to set parameters and then supervise them closely to make sure they lifted as much as they were supposed to. They also made sure they increased the weights as they go stronger.

….You can’t stop the clock, but the evidence shows you can roll it back, if you’re willing to work hard enough.

“The New Rules of Lifting for Life”

-Alwyn Cosgrove


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