By Carlon Colker, M.D. Flex
A new style of training to accommodate a changing and aging physiology
I’ll soon be turning 50. After more than three decades in bodybuilding, it’s my reality that I simply can’t train the way I did when I was 20. My body doesn’t respond the same way, I don’t recover the same way, and I can’t lift what I used to lift. I don’t quite look like I did (a lot less hair!). Even so, I don’t let that become a source of discouragement. The truth is that I’m now much more intelligent about my training, in touch with my physical limits, and far more attuned to my body. These advantages have helped me stave of the aging process. I continue to add density and definition to my physique, maintain my strength, and promote and enhance my quality of life. So, with attention to some important points about building muscle as you age, it can be done.
To begin with, the body changes as we age. It’s a hard fact we all have to accept. Again, that doesn’t mean you stop improving your physique and start circling the proverbial drain. But it does mean you have to make some adjustments. One must adapt a new style of training to accommodate a changing and aging physiology. I’ve found that a man or woman can continue to improve and sharpen the physique well into the later years, providing the mind is flexible when it comes to change. I underscore this point first because we are all such creatures of habit. We resist change with the stubbornness of religious zealots. As humans, we instinctively want to keep things the same—it’s in our wiring. Our mammalian physiology compels us to strive for homeostasis, or a condition of sameness. Change makes us uneasy. Fear of the unknown can be scary, and familiarity, on the other hand, breeds security. So it’s not so easy to start changing things up, especially when you’ve been doing them a certain way for many years. On the other hand, while our nature and even genetics do their best to keep us locked in a pattern, our bodies, ironically, change and start to fail.
For most, the body starts to significantly push back at about age 35 in that we no longer put on muscle mass as readily as we used to. Recovery between workouts takes longer, it’s not as easy to reach a high level of intensity, sleep-wake patterns change, and even digestion and appetite are influenced. There are, however, positive changes associated with aging. One such change I’ve noticed has been the ability to recover more quickly, and not between workouts but between sets. This change has allowed me to speed through workouts with greater efficiency while having reached a very high level of intensity. This, in my opinion, is connected to a deep-rooted neuromuscular conditioning born of years of toil. In addition, I’ve also noticed an increased amount of vascularity throughout my body. I’ve always been quite vascular, but as I’ve aged it has become more pronounced. Just as with my outward appearance, I’m convinced that this also holds true within my muscles. So an increase in both age-cultivated neuromuscular adaptation and deep-tissue vascularization from years of bodybuilding training has allowed me to work more efficiently under the weight. As a result, I can work with much lighter weights, do far fewer sets, and emerge with just as good a pump as ever.
In my “glory days” I was deeply focused on the numbers I’d move. Like the other young, hungry meatheads I trained with at the time, I was engrossed in how heavy I could lift. These days, in sharp contrast (although I am cognizant of my strength changes), I pay much more attention to what the weight is doing to me rather than what I am doing to the weight. So the first and foremost major adjustment that must take place is to back of testing the limits of ridiculously heavy poundage in training and instead make the training itself the focus. As I like to say, “train, don’t strain.” If you don’t follow this advice, you are almost guaranteed an injury.
A wiser goal is to focus on refining the physique, adding better lean muscle shape, and improving muscle density and quality. If you have the self-control to do this, it pays of in a big way. I personally have found that the years from my 35th until now have been my most productive years by far. So while I haven’t been putting on massive amounts of muscle due to age as well as to engaging in other types of training (like MMA), I have in my bodybuilding training been more attendant to the quality and refinement of my physique. My training routines, as a result, have become much shorter and more efficient. I’ve been less focused on the poundage moved and more on the “feeling” of the muscle contracting.
For instance, I came upon a key adjustment in terms of the speed with which I lower weight, also known as the “eccentric” movement. While I have always tried to maintain a brisk concentric contraction (referring to the force of pushing or pulling the weight), the eccentric lowering of the weight differs. In my younger days I was reckless by comparison in the way I lowered the weight. Now I lower the weight relatively slowly in a tightly controlled path before exerting the contrastingly explosive concentric force. I started doing this instinctively because I felt that my joints, ligaments, and tendons simply couldn’t handle weight crashing down they way they could in my relative youth.
This is not to be confused with the rate of eccentric motion in ultraslow training or eccentric-only training. Rather, while my eccentric motion contrasted with the concentric component, it was still performed at a high enough rate to significantly load and activate muscle fibers. Some call this eccentric stretch shortening. The truth is that I had tried ultraslow eccentric and eccentric-only training in the past and felt it wasn’t particularly effective, that it actually left my muscles feeling fat and not well pumped. Thankfully I revisited a modification of this technique to help protect my aging body. I still did a contrasting slow eccentric, but modified it by speeding up the stretch cycle enough to keep my muscles stimulated, followed immediately by a brisk “upstroke” of concentric contraction.
Amazingly, what began as a simple instinctive adjustment to the cadence of my repetition in order to protect my body began to produce tremendous new development for my age. As a result, I adapted the controlled, slow, eccentric form followed immediately by a brisk concentric contraction in all my motions.
But that wasn’t the end of it. I began working the slower eccentric while maintaining a vigorous and explosive concentric in the routines of the non-bodybuilder athletes I work with. The results were equally impressive, as they put on significantly greater muscle mass and improved their athletic performance. Soon we adopted this technique in the physical therapy and injury rehabilitation component of our clinical centers. Perhaps most astounding of all, we noticed that the older and elderly patients were also responding. It almost appeared that the much older patients had the biggest response. While this was merely observational at the time, we now have published science to confirm what we were seeing.
One clinical trial recently published in Experimental Gerontology provides scientific support for this approach. While the growth-promoting effects of eccentric training have been well documented, this particular study examined whether the rate of stretch influences muscular response. They tested exercise training of the quadriceps muscle with low-rate eccentric versus high-rate eccentric stretch-shortening training in healthy males age 60–70. While both training programs produced improvement, only the high-rate eccentric stretch-shortening training produced a statistically significant increase in torque development: 30%. So the high-rate eccentric stretch-shortening training was uniquely effective in improving the ability to produce force rapidly. This component of physical movement is the key deficiency of aging muscle.
In conclusion, bodybuilding-style weight training is now a well established and fundamental part of sports training and athletic enhancement. Mountains of research prove that weight training is a profoundly effective adjunct to building strength, power, jumping ability, speed, durability, and resistance to injury among athletes. We also know that the benefits of a solid weightlifting regimen are not restricted to the jocks of the world. The reduction of muscle loss, or sarcopenia, as it is known in scientific and medical circles, is absolutely critical in order to promote longevity, reduce the incidence of illness and injury, and generally enhance quality of life. So as we wait for peer-reviewed clinical research to reveal the secrets of how to best unlock the benefits for all, at least we know a little more than before, specifically that high-rate eccentric stretch-shortening training stimulates a significantly greater development of muscle and power, especially as we age.