11/17/2011 05:07 EST | Updated 12/17/2011 05:12 EST

Building Strength as You Age

For most people there is a common perception that we are at our physical best in our 20s and then it is "all downhill from there." But I believe that our decline in strength as we age is not as dependent on physiological declines in our bodies, but mostly due to the lack of opportunity to train effectively to build strength.


It is often assumed that as we get older, we will also get weaker. According to Roy J. Shepard'sEncyclopedia of Sports Medicine and Exercise, our strength will peak by age 25, plateau until age 40 and then show an accelerating decline as we age, with losses of up to 25 per cent by the time we reach 65. Of course, these numbers vary by individuals and there is a large effect of exercise on the rate of decline.

I often question the application of this research when I am dealing with patients that are lifting weights in their middle ages. It seems that for most people there is a common perception that we are at our physical best in our 20s and then it is "all downhill from there."

A more accurate evaluation of strength would be to look at the results of competitive power lifters as they age. In this group we see a much later peak for maximum strength. Many of the powerlifting world records were set by men over the age of 35. Steve Goggins set the all time world record squat, just over 1,100 lbs, at age 39!

You could also argue that, with a group of power lifters it is difficult to make this sport a full time career, and eventually the demands of everyday life would interfere with their optimal training schedule. Based on these ideas, and my own anecdotal observations watching people strength train, I believe that our decline in strength as we age is not as dependent on physiological declines in our bodies, but mostly due to the lack of opportunity to train effectively to build strength.

There are many examples of people who are at their "strongest ever" at much older ages, or you hear someone say they are in "the best shape of their lives" even though they are middle-aged. Professional sport provides further support to this idea, with players such as Wayne Gretzky, Steve Nash, and Olympic swimmer, Dara Torres performing at their peak levels in their 30s and 40s.

For the general public, it could be argued that many people never reach their full strength potential, and it certainly does not happen in our mid-20s when we are busy finishing our secondary education, starting out in a new career or starting a family.

For those committing to a new fitness routine, the most common goal is weight loss. Very few people, especially women, focus on strength gains and monitor their strength increases in an organized manner. Most fitness programs are designed to improve the way you look, instead of how efficiently or effectively your muscles actually work. How many of us have dreamed about having a six pack, instead of training our abdominal muscles to actually function to their optimal ability or strength.

Training with a goal of increasing your strength can be a very rewarding experience because the gains are easily measured with the weight you are able to push or lift. If you have not trained in this manner, you will probably see significant changes within the first few weeks of training. Most importantly, if you do not try to improve your strength as you age, you will lose muscle mass. When you lose muscle mass, your metabolism decreases and your ability to maintain a healthy weight will diminish.

In my experience I see many people who are missing three essential components needed to build strength properly:

1. They do not lift weights that are heavy enough.

2. They do not consistently monitor their progress and increase the amount they are lifting.

3. They do not consume enough protein in their diet to help maximize their muscle development.

If you are someone who has never tried resistance training before, it is best to start out with one month of base training, ideally working with resistance two to three times per week. Base training would consist of light weights and higher repetitions. During this training you would focus on proper lifting technique.

To build strength, I think you need to lift heavier weights with lower repetitions (six to 10) and it is very important that you lift to failure regularly. Lifting to failure is defined as not being able to complete one more rep of the weight because your muscles are completely exhausted. For this reason it is helpful to lift with a professional or a partner. Monitor your progress and try to increase the weight you are lifting every few weeks. Adequate rest and proper nutrition is important for these increases to occur. I believe you should have at least one to two days off between sessions and you should try to consume at least half your body weight in grams of lean protein per day.

A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition, showed that a higher protein diet was the most effective for long term weight loss and can also produce a better blood lipid profile in obese patients. This is not an excuse to go out and eat a huge steak every day. You need to find healthy, lean forms of protein such as fish or chicken. For vegetarians, it is important to combine your proteins to ensure you have a complete amino acid profile at each meal.

If you follow the above guidelines consistently, you will notice significant strength gains. These improvements will allow you to function better in your everyday activities and eventually increase your lean muscle mass to improve your metabolism. If you have no idea how to strength train, I recommend working with a professional in this area, at least until you feel comfortable working on your own. Another good resource is a book called Maximum Strength, by Eric Cressey and Matt Fitzgerald.

Gaining strength as you age is possible. If you feel that you 'physically peaked' in your 20s you need to change this way of thinking. Research shows us that our perceptions of aging have a significant impact on our physiological systems. If you limit yourself based on how old you are, your body will respond by manifesting those limitations. If you remove those limitations in your brain, you are one step closer to a healthier, stronger and physiologically younger you.