Can you gain muscle mass in your 50s?

That was my question for my good friend, and our medical director for social media at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Farris Timimi.

It came up in one of our informal conversations about 18 months ago, as I was getting more serious about restoring and preserving health.

I had been reading about how loss of muscle mass is one of the big problems as we age. The medical term is sarcopenia. I read really depressing studies that told how muscle mass in the legs decreases by about 1% a year, and that strength is reduced even more.

So that’s why I asked the question. It was kind of like the question I had asked myself when I was at about 260 lbs., working out 30 minutes a day on an elliptical trainer, and not making much weight loss progress.

It’s kind of cool that in my job I get to have these conversations with Mayo Clinic doctors. And so I’m glad to share the answer with you:

“Yes, you can gain muscle, but it’s not as easy as when you’re younger.”

Armed with the understanding that even though the general trends in muscle mass in a population are downhill, it’s possible to reverse the decline even after 50, I started looking for guidance in how to do it.

That’s when I stumbled across a book recommendation I’m glad to be able to pass along to you: The Barbell Prescription.

This book was tremendously helpful for me, partly because I didn’t have a lot of experience with weightlifting. In my high school basketball days, it wasn’t generally recommended as it is today. The feeling back then was that it would affect your shooting touch. I focused on cardio.

This book emphasizes use of free weights, and four main barbell exercises:

  • Bench press
  • Overhead press
  • Squats
  • Deadlifts

Jonathon Sullivan and Andy Baker do a great job providing an overview of each and an introduction to good technique, along with an explanation of what happens when you stress your muscles through weightlifting and the indispensable role of rest and recovery.

They start with everything a novice needs to know, but also provide a program for those who want to continue and push further, with separate chapters for those in their 60s, 70s and beyond, as well as for females.

I had begun to do some weight training using machines at our local YMCA and following a variation of what Tim Ferriss calls Occam’s Protocol.

But after reading The Barbell Prescription I learned how much better free weights are, especially these big exercises with a barbell, because they involve so many muscles throughout the body.

Instead of pushing a weight through a fixed path as on a machine, you have to maintain control of a loaded bar, using scores of muscles instead of an isolated few.

After I had used the free weights at the YMCA consistently for several months and Lisa knew it wasn’t a fad, I went online and found a used weight set and bench for about $250, paying for it with about 4 months of savings from cancelling my Y membership.

In our current COVID-19 confinement, that has turned out to be a savvy move. In a future post I’ll show my home gym setup and routine, and some of the benefits.

But for now, I just want to definitely answer my opening question in the affirmative: in the last year my bench press maximum has increased 40% and my maximum deadlift is up 33%.

The original values weren’t all that impressive because I had been out of shape and a weightlifting novice.

But the point is that even past 50, with perhaps 90 minutes a week of lifting, you can make a noticeable difference in your body composition over a period of months.

Have you incorporated weight training in your fitness routine?

If so, what benefits have you seen?

If not, what questions do you have?

See the whole series about my health journey. Follow along on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

4-Hour Body: Occam’s Protocol and the Minimum Effective Dose

In mid-2016 when Lisa suggested that I might consider adding weightlifting to my 30-minutes of daily cardio, I couldn’t see a way to make it work into my schedule.

After reading The 4-Hour Body, however, I had new inspiration to give it a try.

As Tim Ferriss explained the concept of a Minimum Effective Dose of weightlifting (as well as other interventions), it made sense to me.

To add muscle…do the least necessary to trigger local (specific muscles) and systemic (hormonal) growth mechanisms

Tim Ferris, The 4-Hour Body

The idea is that you need to stress your muscles for a relatively short period (he said about 80 seconds) to trigger an adaptation response.

More than that is not only wasteful, but may even be harmful.

Ferris also describes what he calls “Occam’s Protocol” which involves two alternating every other day between two daily weight-training workout that take about 20 minutes each.

I adapted it for my purposes, using equipment available at the YMCA:

  • Incline press (one set…increasing weight when I could do seven reps)
  • Pull down (same approach on reps and going up in weight)
  • 10 myostatic crunches (using a Bosu ball for full range of motion)
  • 10 Cat Vomits (gotta get the book for a description of that one!)
  • 25 minutes of cardio on the Precor elliptical machine

Later, instead of the incline press on a weight machine, I started doing a dumbbell chest fly (although probably not with very good form.) Still, it was my first real work with free weights.

I didn’t lift every day, because I knew days off for recovery were important. And I still wasn’t doing leg work, because I didn’t like the feel of the leg press machine and I had tight hamstrings. I figured the elliptical training was enough.

And I was still making it all fit in 30 minutes a day.

Still, by starting to add some muscle I was beginning body recomposition. The number on the scale wasn’t going down as quickly, but I was becoming fitter. And adding muscle meant my basal metabolic rate would increase.

See the whole series about my health journey. Follow along on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.