Strength Training: How to Maintain Muscle Mass as We Age

Repeating an exercise to the point where you can’t do it any more is often described as doing it “to failure,” “to exhaustion” or “to fatigue.” Considering the power of words, I prefer the latter.

Performing a strength training exercise to fatigue involves exercising a specific set of muscles to the point where you can’t do another repetition. If you were doing pushups, for example, it’s the moment where you collapse onto your belly and can’t do another pushup.

Why is this important? Working a set of muscles to fatigue breaks down the muscles being exercised, and the cells grow back stronger. Think of it like pruning a bush in the fall: The bush is weakened from the pruning, but it grows back fuller and healthier in the spring. Your muscles need time to recover also, but not as long as a bush. You can do strength training to fatigue safely two to three times each week.

Men and women normally lose about 8 percent of muscle mass per decade beginning in their forties, and even more in their sixties. That translates to a loss of approximately 50 percent by age 90. Those who do quality strength training can minimize the loss over time. No one will be as strong at 90 as they were at 40, but we will be much stronger than without exercising.

Stronger muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments lead to greater strength, endurance, speed, coordination and balance. They help us maintain our fast-twitch muscles, the explosive ones we need for movements that require quick acceleration, such as golf and tennis. We tend to lose these as we age at a more rapid rate than the slow-twitch muscles.

Ease into strength training to fatigue. Your muscles need to get used to exercising regularly, no matter your age. Gradually increase the weights, resistance and repetitions. Once your muscles are accustomed to regular exercise, do two to three hard sets of a specific exercise with 8 to 12 repetitions per set (to the point where fatigue sets in). Or, if you prefer, you can do more reps with lighter weights – provided that you work to the point of not being able to do another rep. Recent research suggests that this is even more effective.

Some women I know have suggested that they don’t want to work on strength training this hard because they run the risk of becoming muscle-bound. This is highly unlikely without the use of steroids, so there are no excuses, ladies.

If you have questions, I’d be happy to answer them. I’d also like to hear about your strength training regimens. Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this blog.

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3 Responses to Strength Training: How to Maintain Muscle Mass as We Age

  1. Leslie says:

    Great advice! I added “crossfit” training (a workout that involves weights and functional movements) two years ago and have developed a stronger core than I ever had before when I was just biking and nordic skiing for fitness — even though I was including interval training in my biking and skiing. I am also just more “fit” all around — stronger arms, stronger back, etc., exercising muscles that didn’t get used much in biking, etc. This past winter my husband and I went back country skiing, climbing daily to snow peaks at 9000 ft. in the Sawtooth mountains, and we both agreed we wouldn’t have had the strength without our crossfit training.

  2. Tom Hart says:

    Interesting…so to maintain lower body strength and speed are sprints running and biking going to do it or do I have to spend time in the gym on those darn machines…and how often do I need to push to ‘fatigue’? Though I do think the word failure much better describes that last push up. Fatigue begins quite a few push ups before failure.

  3. Sandra says:

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