Muscle mass, like our love for rap and loud exhaust pipes, declines as we move through middle age and beyond. Which is exactly why masters athletes should be paying more attention than ever to strength training. But if you’re expecting the payoff to be (rapper-like) bulging muscles and chiseled abs, you’re missing the key to strength-training success: Think smaller.
Strength training won’t transform anyone overnight. Triumph comes with harnessing your efforts and moving incrementally toward a stronger body.
“If you’ve been sedentary, think about gradually building strength. It can come,” says Lou Schuler, author of The New Rules of Lifting for Life. “Keep saying to yourself that any effort is better than nothing.”
Schuler, who is a strength and conditioning specialist, a longtime fitness journalist, and an ever-committed gym rat, has personally experienced what science has proven concerning the continued decline of muscle mass in an aging body.
“When I was young, I’d just get on the ground and do 30 pushups without giving the effort a thought,” he says. “Now I warm up before I do ten.”
Schuler suggests that you can think of a walk or jog to the gym alone as the kickoff to a day’s strength workout. You’ll feel empowered before you even step into that 24 Hour Fitness.
“If working out has gotten away from you,” he says, “consider that all training is strength training.”
Schuler, who recently turned 60, says that aging athletes will ultimately enjoy satisfaction in slow, consistent progress. “You’ll increasingly find that your body thrives on movement,” he says.
What follows are some additional Schuler guidelines for middle-aged athletes who want their strength-training regimens to stick.
Approach strength training based on the masters athlete you are, instead of the young jock you once were.
The last time you went to the gym was the last time. Whether that weight workout was a year or five years or a decade ago, it should serve as a memory, not a reference point.
“I guarantee that the body I had at 40, the one I had at 50, and the one I have now are three different bodies,” says Schuler. “In terms of performance, recovery, and injury, they’re nowhere near the same. Even if they look vaguely familiar on the outside.”
With muscle mass in decline, movement can be strength training, too.
Find yourself surprisingly sore after a two-mile treadmill run? Don’t dwell on the recollection that such a run once constituted your gym warmup. Schuler reminds middle-aged athletes that, especially for a body that’s often been at rest, aerobic exercise like hiking, running, and cycling are strength workouts unto themselves.
“Muscle tissue is there for locomotion, not just lifting weights or working exercise machines,” says Schuler. “A heart and lungs can’t do anything by themselves.”
Embrace that free training session.
Still new to your gym? Schuler says to take advantage of the free personal training session that perhaps came with your paid membership. Rather than dismiss the tour and advice, be humble. You likely have room for improvement at every weight station, and even between them.
“Moving from one machine to the next will bring you fitness,” says Schuler. “The machines will add muscle, as well as range of motion. You’ll gain stability for your joints.”
It’s not about the size of your middle-aged biceps—or your barbells.
Schuler recommends that you only worry about yourself in the gym. After all, that’s what everyone else is doing.
“People think, That guy is staring at me. No he’s not,” says Schuler. “Everyone is looking at themselves, unless you’re getting in the way.”
Shelving your ego, says Schuler, better paves the way for you to start any weight-bearing program with very light weights. Remember that your middle-aged connective tissue and muscles may be unused to the strain. “Don’t forget to start small,” says Schuler.
In fact, he adds, begin with relatively lightweight dumbbells. Leave the barbells on the rack.
“Lower-body work with barbells can be hard on the back,” says Schuler. “They can also force shoulders into an unnatural range of motion. Your shoulders aren’t symmetrical.”
Enjoy some beginner’s luck.
Schuler says that there are upsides to being a masters athlete novice in the gym. You may be in a better position to gain fitness than aging club junkies, like Schuler himself.
“If you start training for the first time, take on a sensible program, and go at it carefully? Your connective tissue is fresher, and your improvement potential is great,” he says. “Sometimes I’m jealous of what those types can accomplish.”