Difference In The Decades - Strength Training As You Age

Turning 34 this year made me think back over the last decade of my personal fitness journey and how things have changed over the years. If you know me, you know I'm always striving to get better and strength training was one way I could channel that feeling of achievement, of lifting more...but as I got older, I had to learn some hard lessons and adapt along the way - It wasn't easy, but the lessons were invaluable and helped me take a much smarter training approach with myself and my clients for the long term - here's what I mean:

In my 20's, I could go to the gym to lift weights for 1 hour sessions about 5 days a week on a regular basis and recover enough to do it all over again the next week. No cardio, this was just heavy lifting... I loved and competed in power lifting, which included dead-lifting, squatting or bench pressing as much weight as I could for 1 rep. I would do sets of 1-5 reps, rest up to 5 minutes and do it all over again for sometimes up to 10 sets with a single exercise! Sounds boring to some but I couldn't get enough of the feeling of getting stronger and lifting more and more weight every week. This was great and my body felt invincible... of course until my late 20's settled in and I started getting injuries. It was a hard lesson, but a very important one - to understand my body's limits and be smarter about managing my training loads plus planning more rest. Many studies show you hit your muscular peak by the age of 25 and then begin declining, slowly at first and then devastatingly fast later on. By the time you hit 80, nearly half of your muscle will have disappeared especially without any strength training. This was a really hard pill for me to swallow, but being a trainer I had to prepare for the inevitable and do it in the best way possible.

In my 30's, I repeated less of my past mistakes and rarely over trained. For someone who still had a goal of being unreasonably strong, I learned to drop my strength training days to about 3/week, incorporate more cardio so that I could be better at sports and keep up with my kids. Also, I was injured way less. It's hard - when you know you couldn't do what you used to. I see this in my clients all the time. To some, aging just sucks... but the good news is you don't have to see a significant decline or hardly any with age if you train the RIGHT way and know when to take breaks. Also, there's a myth that heavy weight lifting is only for athletes or that it will build bulky muscle. Quite the contrary, heavy lifting (<5 reps) can be extremely beneficial to people of any age if done under the right progressions.

So how does this all apply to you? Well assuming that your goals are similar to most in that you want to sustain an optimal level of muscle mass and body fat for your age, stay fit to perform all the activities you enjoy, and live a long life without disabilities - here are some of my tips/recommendations from working with over a thousand clients, and making a guinea pig out of myself..

In your 20's
Exercise: 30-45 minutes of focused strength training followed by 15-30 minutes of HIIT cardio 4-6x/week

The great thing about being in your 20s is that your body is so strong, you recover faster and can get away with abusing it more with back to back strength days. The bad thing is that you often do, punishing it with late nights, bad eating habits, and not listening to your body's aches can eventually catch up. Various strength training methods such as super sets, and heavy lifting (<5 reps) will work wonders without requiring long rest periods between workouts. 

In your 30's
Exercise: 30-45 minutes of focused strength training followed by 15-30 minutes of HIIT cardio 3-5x/week

With the 30s, you start noticing that weight doesn't come off quite as easily as it used to and it takes longer to recover between workouts. This is because after age 20, your basal metabolism drops by 1 to 2 percent every decade, and as lean muscle decreases and body fat increases, adding cardio to your routine becomes more important. Also, you want to start taking 24-36 hours of rest between heavy lifting days.  

In your 40's
Exercise: 30 minutes of focused strength training followed by 15-20 minutes of HIIT cardio 2-4x/week

This is the decade where some see significant changes in their bodies with hormones and an even faster slowing of metabolism as lean muscle mass decreases.  "After 40 and certainly after 50, virtually all women find that they gain fat more easily in the torso -- below the bra, through the triceps area, on the back, and in the belly" says Pamela Peeke, MD.  Strength training for this group is vital to build a solid foundation of strength/muscle for the later years.  However, you want to be more mindful when it comes to over-training, limit heavy lifting(<5 reps) to 1-2 days/week.

In your 50's and beyond
Exercise: 30 minutes of focused strength training (heavy/light) followed by 15-20 minutes of HIIT cardio 2-4x/week
Stretching and rolling is key daily to maintain mobility.

If your metabolism feels like it's slowing to a crawl, it's not in your mind. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh studying 541 midlife women found an average gain of 12 pounds eight years after menopause. If you haven't began strength training yet, this is definitely the time to start. Aim to take 24-48 hours rest between strength days as recovery takes longer and alternate between heavy/light strength days.  Only do heavy lifting if you've done proper progressions usually with the help of a coach.  

The good news is a lot of the changes that come with aging can be prevented if you train the right way by managing the main training variables: muscle groups, load/intensity, frequency and rest. In my earlier years (even when knowing better), I just trained as hard and as often as I could while paying the price later on. With strength training, there's a lot that goes with the saying train smarter not harder.

I've seen a 60 year old client increase their strength by over 40% in a span of 6 weeks by just doing focused strength training 2x/week. Strength training (with occasional heavy lifting) is vital to life's demands, to stay fit, and to keep off weight.