True or False: Older Men Have a Much Harder Time Building Strength, Building Muscle Borders the Impossible!

Are you training for nothing, if you are "too old" (whatever that may be)? Find out in today's SuppVersity Article!
"The older we get, the weaker we are." That's something most normal men accept as a given truth - according to the latest science, it does yet appear as if it was more of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Researchers from the Department of Biology of Physical Activity and Neuromuscular research Center at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland have recently conducted a study to verify the common sense assumption that older men are having a much harder time to to maintain / increase their muscle strength than young ones.

To find out, whether this would also be true for those, who are willing to succumb to a high volume, medium load “hypertrophic” resistance training, the Häkkinen et al. recruited young (28 ± 5 yr, 179 ± 6 cm, 77 ± 12 kg, 21 ± 8 percent fat) and older (65 ± 4 yr, 177 ± 6 cm, 80 ± 10 kg, 23 ± 6 percent fat) men via an advertisement in a local newspaper.
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The experimental groups consisted of 23 young and 26 older men (training groups) and the non training control groups consisted of 10 young and 11 older men. The goal was to achieve maximum strength, muscle mass and muscle activation of the lower limbs in both groups.

Table 1:  Resistance training program of the young and older experimental groups (performed with resistance machines)
To this ends, both groups performed 10 weeks of whole-body resistance training twice per week with the emphasis on lower limb exercises. The training program consisted of high volume, medium intensity exercise with short inter-set rest intervals, as it is typically performed by bodybuilders (i.e. 2-5 sets of 8-14 repetitions, 1-2 min rest).

Lower limb exercises, i.e. leg press, knee extension and knee flexion, were performed before upper body exercises. At least 48 h rest was required between training sessions. Maximum dynamic and isometric neuromuscular performance, as well as lean leg and muscle mass were examined before and after the training period. The changes in body composition were assessed 3-4 d and neuromuscular measurements were performed 7 d after the last training session.

Before participating in the study at hand, the "subjects were physically active but unaccustomed to resistance training for the previous 6 months." Training and testing took place throughout the day (9am-7pm), but young and older subjects were pair-matched to avoid any time-of-day effects on neuromuscular performance measurements. All subjects were given nutritional advice in an attempt to maximize muscle hypertrophy, however, no direct nutritional intervention was performed in the present study.
It's a pity that the diet wasn't controlled for. In view of our main interest, i.e. the question "Are old guys at a disadvantage", on the other hand, it's actually quite interesting, because we usually assume that older guys would have to ingest extreme amounts of protein to keep up with their younger competitors. In the study at hand, they were only told to consume ~20 g of protein within 1 hour of training and in total ~1.5–1.8 g of protein per kg body mass per day, to optimize the muscle hypertrophy response. If you add the "30g of quality (=high EAA) protein with every meal rule that's pretty much the "SuppVersity Suggested" protein intake ;-)
The resistance training program consisted of . Briefly, leg exercises (bilateral leg press, knee extension, and knee flexion) were performad before upper body and torso exercises; bench press, pulldown, shoulder press, seated row, triceps pushdown, biceps curl, abdominal crunches and back raises.
"The subjects performed medium intensity, high volume training consisting of 2–3 sets and 12–14 reps (60–70% 1RM) per exercise (weeks 1–4), then 2–3 sets and 10–12 reps (70–80% 1RM) per exercise (weeks 5–7), and 3–4 sets per exercise and 8–10 reps (75–85% 1RM) per exercise (weeks 8–10). One min rest was given between sets during weeks 1–4, and then 2 min rest was given between sets during the remaining weeks 5–10. One set was performed to failure during each training session." (Häkinnen. 2014)
As you've probably recognized by now this is a more or less classic linear periodization; a very conservative periodization technique with a lot of back up that it works (learn more about periodization).
Figure 1: Pre- and post values for 1RM and isometric leg strength (Häkkinen. 2014)
If you look at the results, you'll see that this protocol led to significant increases in one repetition maximum (1RM) leg press performance in both training groups (young: 13 ± 7 %, P < 0.001; older: 14 ± 9 %, P < 0.001).

Interestingly, said performance improvements were accompanied by increased muscle activation, assessed by voluntary activation level (29 ± 51%, P < 0.05) and electromyography amplitude (35 ± 51 %, P < 0.01) in older men only. Unfortunately, only the young men showed significantly increased lower limb lean mass (2.4 ± 2.5 %, P < 0.01), which were furthermore significantly related to the strength increments (r = 0.524, P = 0.01, n = 23).
Figure 2: The rel. changes in total lean leg mass and vastus lateralis cross sectional area leave no doubt, you can gain muscle at the age of 65+ (Häkkinen. 2014)
Bottom line - true or false? The notion that you can't get stronger if you're past the 60-year mark is flawed. The common understanding that you'll have a significantly harder time to actually increase your total muscle mass and not "just" your strength, on the other hand, appears to be accurate. The signficant local increase in vastus lateralis CSA (Figure 2) does yet indicate that it's not impossible to grow even at the age of 65+ years (keep in mind, though, the subjects were previously more or less untrained!).

Nevertheless, in general, the study appears to suggest that young men are more likely to literally "grow stronger", while older men tend to draw on improvement in the mind-muscle connection, when it comes to lifting higher weights.
  • Häkinnen, 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 (2014). Publish Ahead of Print.
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