Maintaining Muscle Mass with Age

 “Vigorous aerobic activity, not just muscle strengthening exercise, helps preserve muscle mass during aging” – Martha Savaria Morris, PhD, Tufts Nutrition Human Nutrition Center

Senior LiftingMuscle mass often decreases with age, and although some of this may be unavoidable, certainly a lot of it isn’t. For example, I carry more muscle mass at 50 than I did at 20, but my father (who does work out with weights) carries far less at 90 years of age then he did previously. I doubt I will carry the same muscle mass if I am blessed to live to 90, and I probably will not be deadlifting over 300 pounds either at that age.

Readers of this site are no doubt aware of all of the positive effects, both physical and mental, of building and maintaining muscle, and as one ages, muscles take on a new and critical role.

  • Maintaining (or building) muscle mass makes independence more likely. No one likes the idea of moving into assisted living, of needing help with daily tasks, of not being able to take care of themselves. Loss muscle mass makes independence less likely.
  • Increased likelihood and severity of falls is also associated with aging and loss of muscle mass. A broken hip at 70 years of age or younger merely sucks for the relatively healthy. At 80 and beyond full recovery often does not occur, and there is often “increased mortality.”

Medical researchers have found what bodybuilders have always known about building muscle, basically that resistance exercises like lifting weights and consuming adequate protein helps build and maintain muscle. They have also found that aerobic activity helps maintain muscle mass during aging. These results were found by the Tufts Nutrition Human Nutrition Center and recently published in the British Journal of Nutrition. The study analyzed 2425 participants over the age of 50 for a 4 year period.

Of course no one should start (or restart) an exercise program without consulting a doctor, although people do every day. Certainly consulting a doctor (which I DO recommend) is increasingly important as one ages. And of course one starts with mild exercise and works up to more vigorous exercise as at any age.

My father began lifting in his 80s and has gotten significant and concrete medical benefits. You absolutely can start or restart later in life (with your doctor’s permission).

The Tufts study stressed the importance of high quality protein intake, and singled out meat, poultry, fish, and soy as complete sources of protein, and suggested low fat cuts of meat. No surprises here.

What is surprising is that vigorous aerobic activities, those that lasted 10 minutes of longer and caused heavy breathing, increased heart rate, and/or heavy sweating, are associated with a higher muscle mass. The health benefits of aerobic exercise are no surprise, but to many of us including myself, but the effect on muscle mass is surprising.

“Muscle strengthening, aerobic activities, and good dietary protein may help slow age-related declines in muscle mass and strength.”  –Duke Medicine Health News

Although certainly not conclusive, it is interesting that those combining vigorous aerobic activities with high intakes of beef or pork achieved the most muscle mass!

Running for Bodybuilders

Running can be a great, or not so great, addition to a bodybuilder’s workout routine. For many bodybuilders it is simply awesome.
Nicely Muscular Woman Running

Bodybuilders CAN run

First let’s dispel the silly notion that bodybuilders cannot run. Of course they can. At well over 200 lbs of (semi-ripped at the time) body weight I ran my last half marathon. I’m not fast, but I wasn’t fast before I started bodybuilding either!

Although regular long distance running is not recommended for bodybuilders, such as multiple ½ marathons a year, marathons, and ultra marathons, running short to moderate distances a few times a week can be great.

Running helps control body fat

Cardio, also known as aerobics, is great for bodybuilders unless it is excessive. It is after all, catabolic. However it also helps control body fat.

You do NOT need to change your diet to run. Runners often go on and on about carbo loading and all kinds of nonsense. I ran my last half marathon while on a low carb diet, actually in ketosis! Yup, my body was burning fat for energy!

It does not matter, at least at our level. Perhaps if running in the Olympics it does . . .

Potential problems with running

  • Running puts more wear and tear, and hence needed recovery time, to your body. It can push you over the hump to overtraining if you already are training very heavily. Running is high impact unlike many other forms of cardio like cycling and walking.
  • Excessive running, and yes running can be very addictive, will definitely lead to muscle breakdown.

    Now if you get totally into running, that’s cool, but which type of freak looks better to you?: A massive ripped bodybuilder or an incredibly thin and unhealthy looking elite runner? I know my answer, and I also think somewhat muscular women are more attractive than gaunt women!

What are the advantages to running?

There are many, including:

  • You can do it anywhere. Although people looked at this big muscular guy a little funny while I was recently running along The Loire River in France, but it helped combat all the wonderful wine and food I was splurging on!
  • No special equipment required. For example I can run when travel which I often do, but I can’t ride my bike.
  • It’s time efficient. I get as good of a workout from running 30 minutes then probably biking for 90 minutes.

Now how much you may run depends on your body type. If you are a typical hard gainer or ectomorph, you will want to serious limit running and most cardio in fact. If you do not, definitely up the calories!

If you are an endomorph like me, and you easily put on fat and muscle, running is fantastic for you. Go for it!

If you are a mesomorph, you can certainly run, just don’t overdo it. I describe a mesomorph elsewhere as “a natural athlete who gains or loses weight easily. They naturally have a hard and muscular appearance, and they build muscle easily.”

I suggest started with maybe a mile, yes only a mile, and perhaps running 2-3 times a week. You can increase your distances over time and right now I run 5k (that’s 3.1 miles) about 3-4 times a week, of course in addition to my weight lifting workouts.

Funny thing about running, even if you hate it, it grows on you over time. This is great as it simple works very well for keeping your body fat low!

Back Workouts for Mass

Large compound movements that work multiple muscles in the back!

Back workouts for mass should be no surprise; they concentrate on large compound movements that work multiple muscles in the back (as well as many other muscle groups). You do not need a lot of sets for the back, and in fact many times I’ll only do 7 or 8 sets for my ba

Boxers do Pullups and Chin ups too!
Boxers do Pullups and Chin ups too!


That’s all it takes, but you need to go heavy and to failure, and of course proper nutrition matters.

My most common back workout follows:

  • Pullups/chin ups: 4-5 sets
  • Deadlifts: 3-4 sets

Pullups/chin ups:

I like to start with pull-ups or chin-ups

, and since I need a few minutes rest between sets in order to be able to crank out 5+ reps, I’ll sometimes superset them with bench presses so that I naturally have a longer break between sets.

Chin ups are done with a supinated or underhand grip. Your palms face you. Shoulder width or a slightly further grip is most common.

Pull ups are done with a pronated or overhand grip. Your palms point face away from you. Shoulder width or a slightly further grip is most common.

I often use a narrow neutral grip, where my palms face each other. The bars at most gyms allow you to do this.

Now chin up versus pullup versus neutral grip is something we could debate, but basically it doesn’t matter. Ideally you will vary as each hits the back a little differently, perhaps every few workouts, but what is far far more important is that you do them!

Now what if you can only do 2-3 reps instead of 5 plus? Well, you can superset them with lat pulldowns, which I do like doing occasionally anyways, or instead of a target number of sets you might have a target number of reps regardless of sets. You might start for example with 20 reps (which might take you 7-10 sets if you are doing 2-3 reps per set) and slowly increase over time to 30-40 reps.


Deadlifts work the entire body, especially the back, and they make me grow more than any other exercise! Yes, they work the back well, as long as much more of the body. They’ll leave you gasping for air. And sometimes starving for nutrition afterwards.

Deadlifts are the killer!

I do two warmup sets of deadlifts, one with just the bar and one with 135 pounds.

Good form is essential and a weight lifting belt is strongly suggested, mandatory if you are going heavy!

I like to work up to a weight that I can only do 5 reps with. Occasionally, I will go extra heavy “powerlifter style” and use a weight a can only do a three reps with (a “triple”) and a weight I can only do one rep with (a “single”). I sometimes need a nap afterwards; I’m serious!

I do not always do deadlifts every week as they can be brutal, and I can easily overtrain. Also, if I’m doing squats, that is a lot of work on the lower back.

When not doing deadlifts, I’ll sometime do cleans instead, or bent over rows. But deadlifts build the most mass!

The best back workouts for mass are simple; a few heavy compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups and leave you gasping for air. My preference? Pull downs/chin ups and deadlifts, together with eating muscle building foods!

Drop Sets for Increasing Intensity

Drop sets are a simple technique to increase the intensity of your workouts. Or course just intensity is not enough: your diet is critical too! They can be done with machines, dumbbells, and with some difficulty (you may need a helper) with barbells. So, what exactly is a drop set?

A “drop set” is when you perform an exercise to failure, then continue with a lighter weight to failure. You might drop the weight one or more times, continuing to failure each time. Sometimes they are also called descending sets. Triple-drops is a term sometimes used when three different weights are used.

Here are two examples from last week’s workouts:Benchpress and drop sets

Dumbell curls: For my last two sets of dumbbell curls, I used 35 pounds until I couldn’t continue with good form, quickly put down the 35 pound dumbbell and grabbed the 30 pounder and managed a few more reps, then switched to a 25 pound dumbbell and cranked out yet a few more reps. I did this separately for each arm, although I also could have alternated arms with two dumbbells. It was important that I had the dumbbells all lined up so that there was a mere second or two when switching dumbbells.

Lat Pulldowns: I use drop sets a lot with lat pulldowns. I had pre-exhausted with 3 sets of pull-ups (one of my favorite back exercises together with deadlifts), did a set with close to my body weight, immediately moved the pin in the weight stack to remove 20 pounds, cranked out another 3 reps, dropped another 20 pounds, managed 4 more reps, dropped 20 pounds again, did 2 more reps, and then gasped for air for a while.

After both workouts I had a post workout shake and then cooked a quick and easy anabolic meal!

It is harder to do drop sets with barbells, but I will occasionally do them on the benchpress when I have a spotter or two. It is pretty straightforward: one set to failure, then have the spotter(s) quickly remove one weight from each side and continue until failure. Of course you can drop several times as well.

I’m more likely to do negative reps to increase intensity with bench presses, where a spotter helps me raise the bar when I fail for the last (usually 2 or 3) reps, and then I slowly lower (hence “negative”) the barbell myself.

As a general rule, you need to use dropsets sparingly as they can easily lead to overtraining. I only occasionally use them and they’re not a weekly part of my training.

There are plenty of variations as well. For example, some people do not do them to failure. Also the amount of weight change can vary quite a bit. For example, with my dumbbell curls, instead of going from 35 to 30 to 25 pounds I could have done 40 to 30 to 20 pounds.

Workout hard, pay attention to nutrition  , and grow!