Perhaps you’ve gotten away without strength training when you were younger, but as you got older you started to notice a few more creaks and cracks in your joints following a tough session. Whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not, our aging body’s ability to handle the same training loads as it did when we were 21 is not the same. This doesn’t mean that we can’t perform at high levels later in life, it just means we need to find new ways to get the best out of ourselves. While altering your training will be inevitable, consider the addition of strength and conditioning as you look for new ways to make training and performance sustainable.
What Happens as We Age?
The importance of incorporating strength training into your routine has much greater benefits than just a performance booster. Strength training is important to maintaining a healthy environment for your musculoskeletal system as you age. Starting around the age of 30, we begin losing muscle mass at the rate of 3-8% per decade. Strength training then becomes paramount in lessening the effects of aging and resulting muscle loss.
Bone loss is another highly important health concern we face as we get older. As we age, the effects of reduced osteoblast (bone-building) activity are compounded by increased osteoclast (bone-removing) formation and function. The resulting excessive bone destruction reduces skeletal volume and strength and predisposes to an increased risk of fracture. Alongside changes in lifespan-regulating mechanisms, age-related changes in sex hormones also affect normal skeletal biology.
In women, the decline in estrogen levels following menopause leads to a dramatic loss of bone in both cortical and trabecular compartments (Riggs et al. 1998, Manolagas 2000). This results from an elevated bone turnover rate where osteoclasts are released from estrogen inhibition to increase overall bone resorption. The coupled relationship between osteoclastic resorption and bone formation triggers an increase in osteoblasts (Han et al.1997)1; After menopause, the protective effects of estrogen are lost and women can experience bone loss at a rate of up to 2-3 percent per year.
In men, low levels of androgens also cause increased bone remodeling and net bone loss (Daniell 1997, Katznelson et al. 1996), attributed in part to reduced levels of estrogen, which is derived from aromatization (chemical reaction) of testosterone (Falahati-Nini et al. 2000).
It is not only our bones that take a hit but our connective tissue too. As we age, our ligaments become less flexible, our cartilage can become more susceptible to stress due to water losses. These changes can lead to arthritis and stiff joints.
How Strength Training Can Benefit You?
There are many health and performance benefits that come with consistent strength training. To combat the changes highlighted above, plus others not previously discussed, incorporating a strength regimen at least two times per week can help to mitigate losses and increase not only your health but performance too.
These benefits include (and are not limited to):
- Increased bone density reducing the risk of fractures
- Increased muscle mass reversing the trend of age-related muscle mass loss
- Increased joint flexibility and reducing the symptoms of arthritis
- Decreased risk of injury
- Maintained or increased ratio of lean mass: body fat
- Increased strength, better body mechanics, balance, and posture
- Better chronic disease management, such as better glucose control in type II diabetes
- Increased energy levels
- Released endorphins
- Better sleep
- Reduced cardiovascular risk factors
- Improved cognitive function
- Improved athletic performance by being able to recruit more muscle fiber
In addition, it can be beneficial to pay special attention to postural exercises that can target areas such as the upper back to strengthen the muscles between the shoulder blades which helps prevent sloping shoulders and rounding of the upper back.
These benefits can be realized at any time, but are especially important as we get older. In order to maintain, increase or slow any decreases in performance, strength training becomes a “must do” to both improve health and performance.
How to Incorporate your Strength Program
Before you begin to dive headfirst into a strength program, there are some important things to consider. When starting your program consider the following: experience level, equipment, time availability, your current training schedule, limitations due to injury or medical conditions, and whether or not to engage a professional trainer or coach. Given all these considerations, here are some key elements that will ensure a successful program:
Phasing into your program: it is important to understand that there will be an adaptation phase to beginning any type of strength program. This is true for all individuals beginning a program. The adaptation phase will last approximately 2-6 weeks (depending upon previous strength background.) Be sure to keep this in mind and ease into any program. Avoid going max effort when beginning…we can save that for later!
Warm-up is crucial: incorporating a warm-up is crucial to your strength program. We put ourselves at a high risk of injury if we start our sessions stiff and tight. Try to do some light cardio, mobility exercises, foam rolling, or dynamic stretching before any sessions.
Make modifications when necessary: as you begin to incorporate exercises into your program, always focus on your form first and foremost! The weight does not matter if your form is not correct. (This is also a big focus as poor form can lead to injury!) If you find that you are unable to complete certain exercises due to limited range of motion, prior injury, etc, then modify the exercises to suit your needs. For example: if completing a squat and you lack ankle mobility/hip mobility/thoracic mobility: avoid pushing yourself to reach a deep squat. Modifying the exercise to keep it within your mobility limits will still yield benefits. Consulting a professional is also a great way to get advice on your form and how to make modifications.
Recovery: Incorporating 2 strength sessions per week to coincide with your current training program. Tip: Try pairing your strength sessions with shorter neuromuscular drill work or a recovery ride (if you decide to ride before or after your strength session.) It is important to take at least one complete day off from both strength and cycling workouts during the week!
Many of us aging adults have been getting by without strength training with good genetics or just good luck. Others have had injuries that come with not having a balanced program. Regardless of where you are at, beginning a strength training plan will yield benefits to yourself at any stage of your life.
Jeff Hoobler is an elite strength and endurance coach with over 30 years of experience coaching athletes of all levels, from beginners to world champions in a variety of sports. He has a degree in Sports Psychology and Exercise Science from the University of Kansas and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is a USAC Cycling coach, MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques) therapist, professional bike fitter, and Foundations Training Instructor. In addition to coaching, Jeff is a competitive racer on the road, mountain bike, and cyclocross.