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Using lighter weights with higher reps is key for older people who want to build muscle, as is focusing on specific muscle groups one day at a time so we give our bodies maximum time to rest and grow. We ain’t kids anymore!
When I first started lifting weights, it was all about my ego. I started at the impressionable age of 12. I wanted big muscles: to look big and strong like the guy on the box that my plastic weight set came in. Growing stronger by lifting ever-increasing amounts of weight. That was the purpose.
Then one day, decades later, I realized my body was aging and that approach was not going to work anymore. When that day came, I was crushed. “That’s it. I’m done. Now, I’m just going to slide into old age, crumple up and die.”
That thought was scary enough to send me searching for a new way to train. Fortunately, I found it and it works great. In a nutshell, it’s about using lighter weights with more reps until the targeted muscle reaches failure. It’s easier on the joints and a faster, more efficient way to workout.
I know from my own experience that this way works. I don’t agree with those who say super high rep counts (30-40) are ok, but that’s only because I would get bored doing that. I do believe that you can moderate between the amount of weight you are using and the number of reps to achieve failure, whatever combination of the two gets you there. It’s about you and how it feels.
The important thing is to achieve failure. Sounds like an oxymoron, right? Achieve Failure.
It also sounds negative. Failure. But in this instance, failing really is winning.
Failure here refers to the muscle reaching momentary exhaustion. It feels as if you cannot possibly do one more clean rep, so you stop, rather than by swinging the weight with some body English. Cheating is a no-no.
Failure Under Continuous Tension: I like to call it Continuous Feedback.
We’re looking to keep the muscle under constant tension to take it to Failure. Bodybuilders call it “Time Under Tension.” They take it to crazy complex levels of thinking. Our focus with it is to perform good clean repetitions with an emphasis on the range of motion that keeps the muscle under a relatively constant load. Good form is essential. But we’re not talking about the classic forms used by hard-core lifters.
For example, take the barbell bicep curl, traditional form begins with you in a standing position, the bar resting on your thighs. You then curl it up slowly and touch the forehead, taking a pause, then slowly lower the bar back to starting position.
Frankly, lots of lifters get sloppy on this lift as they try to push heavier weights for the sake of ego. There’s often swaying of the back and swinging of the weight involved. Frequent cheating. And lots of time, gravity is allowed to lower the weight and the tension is lost.
Under the Tension method, we might only do what a purist would consider a partial rep. We might start the movement with our hands elevated above the thighs and bring the bar up parallel to our chest slowly and repeat this movement 8-12 times or until we can’t do another rep. All the while, the bar is putting constant tension on our biceps. Finish one set, take a brief rest. Repeat. Drop the weight if you can’t keep the rep count in the 8-12 range or drop amount of weight — try to keep it at least 5-6 reps by the last set.
Rest and repeat until you’ve finished off the prescribed number of sets you intended to do.
The focus is on the feeling in the muscle. Not just the numbers.
This method has been proven to work. Dr. Marcas Bamman, Director for Exercise Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was recently quoted in the New York Times saying that men and women in their 60s and 70s who began a weight training program developed muscles that were as large and strong as those of your average 40-year-old.
“Our lab and others have shown repeatedly that older muscles will grow and strengthen,” he said.
In their studies, volunteers used weights calibrated so that the lifters could barely complete a set of eight to 12 repetitions before the target muscles grew tired and had to rest. In the weight training world, we call that ‘failure.’
Dr. Bamman says you should push your muscles in this manner until they are exhausted because this is what triggers the biomechanical processes that lead to larger, stronger muscle fibers.
It’s a great feeling when the muscle is engorged with nutrient-rich blood. It’s not pain. It’s a positive, satisfying feeling. This will also trigger the release of Endorphins, nature’s wonder drug. You get a nice high feeling with zero side effects.
Our muscles don’t think. They don’t know the difference between numbers, whether it’s the amount of weight or the number of reps. They do produce a feeling, however, and it’s that feeling of being Pumped that we’re after.
Failure is a relative thing for each individual. If you’re new to lifting, failure might come rather quickly to you with each movement. So when you first start, take the time to ramp up.
If you’ve been at it for 48 years like me, you might have to work a little harder to reach failure. My level of failure is not any better than yours, regardless of how much weight I use or how many reps. It’s the feeling in your muscles that counts.
The beauty of this method is that it is all about the individual: How you reach failure and get to the Pumped feeling is about you, not some rigid program rules or dogma.
Working out with lighter weights runs contrary to many of the popular methods that are touted today. Many of them insist on ever-increasing amounts of weight to mark gains in strength. That’s great if you’re under 40. Not so great if your joints, tendons, and cartilage refuse to take a pounding.
We can modify our workout style and method so that we continue to build muscle even as we age. I know it’s possible because I’m doing it at 60, without insanity or pain.
In a great article in the New York Times, on a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, one of the lead researchers involved in the study notes that his team has been studying alternative methods to building muscle because many people (me included) eventually find that lifting heavy weights is no longer feasible.
Dr. Stuart Phillips points out that “cellular mechanisms (are) jump-started in muscle tissue by exhaustion (I call it failure) that enables you to develop arms like the first lady’s.” A link to it is below.
You’ve probably heard the term ‘Muscle Confusion,’ popularized by programs like the P90X. It’s all about changing up your routines consistently to confuse your muscles. It’s not really a new idea and actually goes back to the old Joe Wieder days of bodybuilding.
Regardless, the theory says that by constantly changing up your routines, you will confuse your muscles and therefore better challenge them to grow. It’s one of a million theories out there that claim to be the latest miracle solution.
The truth is, our muscles do not have brains. They don’t get confused. Our brains do get confused. All these competing theories are generating a cacophony of noise in our heads.
Claiming that ‘Muscle Confusion’ is the essential key to muscle growth is downright silly. You can argue that it’s important to do more than one exercise for a muscle group and that occasional change is good for any workout routine. Fine. But focusing on confusing a part of our anatomy that is incapable of confusion is BS.
Many other claims in the fitness ‘industry’ are similarly suspect.
Take Apps for example. It’s been estimated there are more than 100,000 fitness apps available between Google Play and the App Store. Most of those apps deal with Diet and Cardio Training. And frankly, even the ones on strength training focus on what apps are good at doing – tracking data points. Just because that works well for the app, doesn’t mean it’s really going to help you.
For some people, tracking minutiae is helpful. If it works for you, great track all the details. But from my POV, the point of training is not numbers. It’s the feeling in your muscles. It doesn’t have to be so over-complicated.
How do you sort through it all? The Confusion is definitely affecting our brains.
Choice is in fact now hyper-abundant in all aspects of our lives. We carry powerful mini-computers in our pockets that can search the world with a few clicks. There is so much choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice,’ that we are so inundated with options that choice is actually creating anxiety rather than making life better.
If you want to test the theory, Google ‘best workout routines for older people.’ You will get a very long list of possibilities. What do you do, throw a virtual dart at the screen? Give up?
There is a science-backed theory on the molecular process that stimulates our muscles to grow. It is generally accepted. Muscle growth is called hypertrophy.
This is the biomechanical process referred to earlier by Dr. Bamman.
I hate jargon and complexity, so I’m going to break it down for you in my own very direct, simple terms. Hypertrophy happens as a result of performing resistance exercises on a target muscle group.
This resistance is designed to cause ‘damage’ to the muscle fibers on a tiny, microscopic level. With proper protein intake and rest, our blood flows nutrients into the damaged fibers and they are rebuilt just a tiny bit bigger and stronger than before. It’s not about pain. It is a very gradual process.
So, if we’re aiming to create hypertrophy, what’s the best approach for our aging bodies?
The key requirements for us in a workout method need to recognize that:
If you embrace the theory that Hypertrophy happens as a result of doing microscopic damage to a targeted muscle group, and then factor in the above three key requirements for our aging bodies, you can start to winnow down to a program that makes sense.
For me, it was obvious I had to:
The old adage that said ‘No Pain, No Gain’ is complete BS. That might be motivating for a 25-year-old using Performance Enhancing Drugs. But its lunacy for the rest of us, especially as we age. Just ask my shoulder joints!
Think of it more in terms of achieving a feeling in your muscles: the legendary Pump. It’s a satisfying feeling of soreness the next day that tells you the workout was good. That it actually worked! Again — no pain. Ever. If you feel pain, it’s a signal something is wrong.
Pain is a stop sign. The Pump is a satisfying, rewarding endorphin-fueled high. How do we get to the Pump feeling with our aging joints and bodies?
That’s the key question.
There is a way for older people to build muscle that really works
I’ve been my own guinea pig. After more than 48 years of weight training, I’ve found the right method for older people like us. I’ve been using it consistently now for more than 5 years.
It is simple and easy to understand and can work for anyone at any experience level. It fits into your busy lifestyle, not vice versa. You can do it at home or at the gym. It’s not about setting new Personal Records in how much weight you can lift. Instead, it’s about generating muscle growth to offset the negative effects of aging on our bodies.
It’s all about the ‘pumped’ feeling. Satisfying. Stimulating. Rewarding.
I don’t claim to have invented the core idea, which is about keeping tension focused on the target muscle and going to ‘failure’ in each set of exercises. In bodybuilding circles, they talk about Time Under Tension or TUT. They can make that idea very, very complicated. I don’t buy into complexity.
Simple things work the best. You don’t need an app to track every moment of a workout. All you need is a solid, proven method that will feel intuitively right for you and produce satisfying results.
Ultimately, the purpose of this site is to share that method in detail.
Stay with me. It will be worth it!
Check out the article I mentioned earlier by Danial Duanemay in the New York Times: “Fitness Crazed“