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Weight Training Over 50

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by Robert S. Herbst, special to SportsMD.com

Wikimedia/Valera N. Trubin

The ancient Greeks believed that a man reached his peak at 40. In fact, if they did not know when a particular poet or philosopher was born, they would take his best work and say he wrote it when he was 40. There may be something to this ancient wisdom, because as people head towards 50 and beyond, they start to notice that they are getting old. Household chores such as yardwork or shoveling snow get more difficult, they get out of breath running for the bus, and they can’t keep up with their kids on the basketball court. When they look in the mirror, they see that they have lost muscle and are putting on fat as their shirts get loose and their pants get tight. This is especially true in our modern world where people sit too many hours a day in front of a computer screen, drive everywhere, and a delivery of empty calorie fast food is a phone app away.

credit: Meagen Madison of Uniquely Madison

It doesn’t have to be that way. There is a proven way to slow or reverse the effects of the normal aging that occurs over time: lift weights. After their 20s, men start to make less testosterone, the primary hormone which supports muscle growth. As they get older they start to lose muscle, and by their 50s, they can be lose 3%-5% of their muscle mass a year, especially if they are inactive. That much wasting can really start to add up. It then becomes part of a vicious cycle, because as they lose muscle and exercise and chores become harder, they tend to become even less active, so they lose even more muscle. They need to pick up a barbell and put the brakes on this aging process.

Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema

If you lift weights performing compound movements such as squats, lunges, bench press, and deadlifts which use the major muscle groups of the legs, back, chest, and arms, you will cause your body to make new muscle under a principle called supercompensation. If a muscle lifts a weight of X pounds, the body will anticipate having to lift greater weights in the future and will build additional muscle so that the body will be able to lift X + 1 pounds. So if you start a workout routine where you increase the weight or number or times you lift a weight each week, you will build more and more muscle. Also, because the compound movements put a load on the spine and long bones, your body will make your bones denser. This can slow or reverse the loss of bone density or osteoporosis which also occurs when people get older.

U.S. Air Force photo/Ilka Cole

Women also lose muscle and bone density over time and weightlifting will also help them regain what they have lost. It is especially important that post-menopausal women lift weights as they are at a greater risk of developing osteoporosis.

To begin a weight training program, you may want to start with body weight exercises such as push ups, chins, squats, and lunges to get you accustomed to the range of motion and strengthen your tendons and ligaments. You can then move to barbells, dumbbells, and machines, increasing the weight used 5 or 10 pounds a week for a six to eight week cycle. You should then take a few days off to rest and then begin a new cycle with a weight heavier than you started the previous cycle. You should do two heavier work sets per exercise, plus warmup sets as necessary. Reps should be in the 2 to 8 range, although it is fun to sometimes test your progress with a max single attempt as you end each cycle.

Meagen Madison of Uniquely Madison

You should always use good form to avoid injury and so that you will get the most benefit from each exercise. You may wish to consult with a trainer, coach or experienced lifter to learn proper technique.

While there are many diets out there, to support muscle growth, you should eat a balanced diet of about 1 gram of protein per 2 pounds of body weight a day, carbohydrates for energy, and good fats. You will find that lifting weights will raise your metabolism so that you will lose fat. You will also be able to enjoy food without guilt as you will be burning it off.

Pouring Water (PicJumbo-Photo by Victor Hanacek)
PicJumbo/Photo by Victor Hanacek

You should also stay hydrated because muscle are filled with water and you will lose water from sweating and breathing during exercise. There is no set amount you should drink a day, but you should drink enough so that your urine is clear or slightly yellow tinged. For more on the importance of hydration see my earlier article here.

For best results, you should also get seven and a half hours sleep a night. Most muscle growth and repair occurs during sleep when testosterone levels are highest. With weight lifting, eating right, staying hydrated, and getting a good night’s sleep, you will show how far we have come since the ancient Greeks and make 50 and even 60 the new 40.

Robert Herbst, 61, is a personal trainer, weight loss and wellness coach, and powerlifter (19 time World Champion, 38 time National Champion, member of the AAU Strength Sports Hall of Fame). He supervised the drug testing at the Rio Olympics, and is quoted frequently in national publications. Learn more at .

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