New Study Shows How the Body Builds Strength As We Age
You might wonder if there’s a point to working out beyond a certain age, other than to maintain strength and health. In a recent Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study, investigators compared older and younger participants who completed the same exercise program.
When examining the prior literature on the topic, the researchers in this study noticed that the smaller, more individual components of strength and size acclimations to exercise seemed inferior in older people. However, when a whole program was compared, the older people seemed to respond similarly to the younger people.
Ten weeks of exercise were undertaken by 26 senior participants (averaging about 65 years old) and 23 younger participants (who averaged 29 years old). The workout plan was simple, consisting of two to four sets of eight to fourteen reps of various exercises. The amount of resistance progressed over the course of the program. The exercises chosen were typical gym lifts, such as the leg press, bench press, pulldown, and a variety of isolation exercises.
Before and after the program, the participants were tested for the following factors:
- Strength during the leg press and isometric leg extension
- Muscle mass in their legs and in a cross-section of their vastus lateralis
- Muscle activation levels
- Strength: The training resulted in greater strength in both the younger and the older men. The leg press and isometric knee extension strength gains between the two groups were roughly the same. In fact, the older participants experienced slightly greater (although non-statistically significant) strength improvements during the leg press.
- Muscle Mass: Even more interestingly, only the younger men achieved a significant increase in muscle mass in their legs. Leg mass increased in the older men, and their vastus lateralis thickness significantly increased, but on the whole their muscle mass gains were much lower in the older group. However, the older men improved their strength by the same percentage as the younger men.
- Muscle Activation: The older men achieved a significantly greater increase in EMG activity while performing a voluntary activation, during which they flexed as hard as they could against no resistance. There was also greater activity during an amplitude test during exercise. This means the older men achieved a greater degree of muscle activation relative to the younger men. It also explains why both groups got stronger, but the younger men gained more muscle in their legs.
The human body pursues different strategies for dealing with resistance exercise as we age. The good news is, this study shows the capacity for developing strength is maintained at least into your sixties, so you can still maintain good health and build a stronger body.
1. Simon Walker, et. al., “Similar increases in strength after short-term resistance training due to different neuromuscular adaptations in young and older men,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519 /JSC.0000000000000381
Photos courtesy of CrossFit Impulse.