We all want strong muscles, regardless of our age or general health. There will be some time in your life, I can assure you without reservation, when muscle strength becomes a real concern for you. Perhaps you’re an athlete, and you want to have a better performance in your chosen sport: you’ll want to make sure you are building muscle during your workouts. Perhaps you’ve endured a period of reduced activity—an illness or an injury—and you want to get back on the proverbial horse: you want to build up muscles that aren’t what they used to be. And for those of us over 50, the concern becomes a chronic one. The more years we have on the calendar, the more frail we are, the harder it is to maintain muscle mass.
I have written elsewhere on this site about maintaining muscle mass and strength, but I've been thinking a lot about this recently. What I want to emphasize here are four key steps that belong in your muscle-building program. You may not need all of them, but they are all worth trying. The goal is strong and supple muscles, of a normal size proportional to your body. These tips are not enough for the body-builders among us!
1. Lift heavy objects two or three days a week. You can do “body-weight” exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups, but I would recommend at least advancing to a suspension system, such as the TRX, the one I use. Ideally, you are actually going to lift quite heavy weights, even more than your body weight. If you are new to weight-lifting, get yourself a personal trainer. It’s easy to injure yourself with weights, particularly when you aren’t at your best. Proper form is key to avoiding injury.
2. Don't do anything strenuous with those muscles the other four or five days a week. You can walk, swim, row, but not all-out strenuous. Ideally you have actually damaged (yes, damaged!) your muscles during your heavy workouts, and they need time to recover and rebuild, hopefully stronger than before. Inadequate rest time results in shoddy muscle repair and ultimate muscle weakening.
3. Give muscle-preserving supplements a try. I recommend two approaches to muscle supplementation. Start with branched chain amino acids, 2-3000 mg taken either before or right after exercise, to restore the amino acid pool in your bloodstream, allowing for more efficient muscle remodeling. Next, follow your workout with at least 20 grams (up to 30 depending on your size) of whey protein. You can find whey in dairy protein (such as yogurt or cottage cheese), but I opt for whey protein powder, in a smoothie with some sugar source and very little fat. I might throw in some berries, or a banana, or cocoa powder and maple syrup, depending on the day. I use diluted coconut milk, so there is some fat in that, and dilute it fairly well. You can choose other forms of protein: real food, or other protein powders, many of them have performed as well as whey protein. Timing and dose are most important.
4. Attend to your hormones. If your levels of the hormones DHEA and testosterone are less than optimal, you will be challenged in your muscle building, and this is true for both men and women. Hormone levels are considered normal in a wide range: you want yours in the upper half of the normal range. Hormone levels naturally decline somewhat with age, but consulting with a hormone-savvy doctor can help you sort out a solution if your levels are low.
Agile, strong muscles are crucial to good health and well-being. We use our muscles to move around, to balance, to dance, and to play! Muscle metabolism keeps the rest of our metabolism healthy. So, what’s your muscle health program?