My body and I are having a disagreement: It is forty-two and thinks that's an excuse to not be in its thirties. I beg to disagree.
A lot of good that's doing me.
Here's the thing: I have been "the fitness type" for a very long time. Having maintained the basics with casual running since college, I got serious about strength training in about 2006. I started with bodyweight work. Within a year, I'd added a home gym complete with barbell, dumbells, pull-up bar, and bench. Within 3 years, I had kettlebells, a weighted vest, a wellness library, and some pretty respectable muscle mass.
Fast forward to now: My home gym is further tricked out with a power cage, second barbell, box jump, spin bike, and yoga mat. I use them all pretty religiously. Between late December 2019 and mid-July 2020, I worked out every single day. For something like 186 days.
And yet...and yet. My muscle mass isn't what it used to be. I can tell that I'm not as strong, both when I do "real things," and when I look in the mirror.
Part of me says that's a normal part of aging. Everyone has a harder time holding onto muscle (let alone gaining) as they get older. Sarcopenia is a thing. I'm lucky to have a solid fitness base that keeps me motoring along pretty well. I'm even luckier to have a partner who doesn't labor under the delusion that a woman's value rests upon her appearance.
However. Another part of me won't give up that easily.
It turns out that I wasn't imagining things. There are good reasons that what worked well for me a decade ago just isn't ideal anymore. There's a lot of overlap, of course. Most of the tried-and-true principles still apply. But, I can do quite a few things differently to maximize my muscle gains in (gasp!) middle age:
1. Increase Muscular Effort while Decreasing Injury Risk
With age come nagging injuries that persist longer than they did when we were young. I'm almost always tiptoeing around a touchy elbow, wrist, sacroiliac joint, or knee. If I waited for everything to feel perfect before embarking on a muscle-gain effort, I'd never get off the sofa. That said, max lift attempts aren't as appealing as they used to be.
Traditionally, most athletes build muscle by incrementally increasing the amount of weight they're lifting. Working out while avoiding injury means challenging muscles in other ways. The word on on the street is that these methods are as effective -- or nearly as effective -- as stacking on the plates.
2. Commit to Consistency
Back before COVID, I was at a backyard party chatting with a guy who was mid-50s, lean, and ripped. He commented that the biggest factor in staying fit as he got older was consistency. Unlike in his younger years, he couldn't expect to miss workouts without losing ground.
Even in my early 40s, I can attest that not only is it harder to build muscle than it used to be, but I lose it more quickly when I step off the wagon. As I overhaul my workout schedule to focus more on muscle growth, I'll be making sure that each muscle group gets worked 2-3 times per week.
3. Eat More Protein
Across many years and many sources, I have consistently been reminded of the importance of protein for muscle growth, especially with increasing age. Recommendations generally range from 1 gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. The latter is hard to pull off, but it's what I'm shooting for. This will take some planning!
4. Emphasize Mobility
Oh yeah. I know. We all know. Our tissues lose elasticity, old injuries form mental and physical scars, and we lose range of motion as we age. This makes us more prone to injury, which impacts our workout consistency, which invites sarcopenia in for a beer. I'll admit that mobility work isn't my strong suit. It always feels less productive than doing a solid workout, and it takes a lot of time. But, if I want to see gains, I'm going to have to commit to more intentional mobility work and better warmups.
Knowing may be half the battle, but it's only half.
I know what I need to do. Now, it's time to put it into action. I'm going to spend some time this week overhauling my workout calendar and menu planning for extra protein.
How about you? Do you ever get the feeling that whatever you've been doing just isn't working anymore? Maybe it's time to make some changes...and make some change.
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How I Think About Fitness
Years ago (twelve? fourteen? too many!) I visited a middle school with a robust physical education program. Gesturing toward a whiteboard on which students' athletic stats were tracked, the gym teacher asked, "How many pullups can you do?"
Erm... I was there for work interests, not personal ones, but apparently my reputation as a "fitness type" had preceded me. The teacher's face was expectant. Of course I could do pullups.
Except, I couldn't.
I could, however, artfully dodge the question. It stuck with me, though, and that very afternoon, I set out to correct my deficiency.
I can't remember now how long it took me to get my first dead-hang pullup, but I can tell you this: I vowed then and there that I would never not be able to do pullups again. There's something undeniably empowering about them -- especially for women. (Here's a great video if you want to learn how.)
I've kept that vow for over a decade. I've gone through phases of doing exactly zero pullups for months at a time, but I've never lost the ability. Those dry stretches take a toll on capacity, though.
Take now, for instance. Since riding couple 50's at Top o' the World this summer, I've really slacked off my formal workouts. I'm feeling pretty wimpy. Ugh. Time to get my pull-up count back up!
To do it, I'm dragging out an old technique that I've used off and on over the years: Greasing the Groove.
Greasing the Groove is a term coined by Pavel -- you know, the guy who popularized kettlebells in the West -- in his book Power to the People. Basically, it involves repeating a movement frequently, but at a weight and number of repetitions that fall well short of your maximum capacity. The idea is to strengthen neural pathways, essentially training the body to perform the movement efficiently.
GtG is usually used for bodyweight work like pullups and pushups, not least because it isn't terribly convenient to get yourself to a barbell several times a day. The simplest version is to simply do the exercise periodically throughout the day, but only at 40-50% of your max number of reps. The goal is to build neuro-muscular connections, remember, not muscle per se.
Some people do their reps every hour, on the hour. Back before the house fire, I had a pullup bar in my main bathroom doorway (ah, the benefits of living alone) and did a few pullups every time I went pee.
This time, I'm going to try a new routine that builds GtG into my work-from-home weekdays. It's minimal, as GtG goes, but it's manageable. (In my world, not realistic = not done, so this will have to do!)
Here's the plan:
I generally work at my desk for 50 minutes, then take a 10 minute break. Each of my first three breaks will begin with GtG. My schedule makes sure I do each movement at least 3x per day, 3x per week.
Day 1: Pullups and pushups
Day 2: Pullups and chinups
Day 3: Chinups and pushups
Day 4: Pullups and pushups
Day 5: Chinups and pushups
What about max sets? Those are important too, but I'm handing them separately from GtG. They're a whole different concept that I'll work into my overall workout schedule.
The plan goes into action today. Wish me luck!
Thanks for dropping by! I'm an endurance rider in the northwest region of the United States. I believe that how I eat and move impacts not only how I ride, but how I think and feel. This blog is about the practice of being my best self for my horse. I hope you'll come along for the ride. ~ Tamara
The Sweaty Equestrian