How to build strong muscles, whatever your age

This advice is not about getting a beach body. It’s to ensure you remain fit and healthy for years

Muscles are largely viewed as the result of a gym programme, the hard-worked body bits that you show off just because you can. However, your muscles are so much more than that. Buried deep within their tissue and fibres lie the reasons for your weight gain and energy slumps, your height loss and declining health.

We are all guilty to some degree of muscle neglect. We favour one workout over another or don’t exercise anywhere near enough. Yet the repercussions, particularly as we get older, can be catastrophic. Researchers studying the links between muscle mass and our health now know that the state of our muscles influences our metabolism and fat-burning ability, the efficiency with which our bodies control blood sugar and offset conditions including diabetes and strokes.

What, then, can we do to keep our muscles in order? Plenty, thankfully, and it needn’t entail spending endless hours at the gym or in training for a marathon. There are simple, practical steps we can take to avoid the muscle losses that can spell disaster for our waistline and our health.

Beware sarcopenia: the silent muscle stealer
If we sit back and do nothing, our muscles will wither before our eyes. From the age of 35 sarcopenia (Greek for loss of flesh) attacks our muscles in a similar way to which osteoporosis diminishes bone mass. Most people are unaware that it is happening, yet on average 90g of muscle is lost each year from the age of 40 (men’s greater muscle mass means they have a sharper decline). After 50, sarcopenia bleeds the body of up to 500g of muscle a year; someone in their seventies who does no exercise typically has a third less of the muscle mass that contributes to stature and height, posture and poise than a 25-year-old.

While the losses can’t be stopped completely, they can be slowed, says Claire Stewart, a professor of stem cell biology in the school of exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University. “There is extensive evidence that lifelong exercise of the right sort can slow the decline in muscle loss,” she says. “A mixture of exercise to build both strength and endurance is the most effective way of maintaining muscle size and function.” Old-fashioned circuit training — press-ups, lunges and crunches — combined with plenty of running or cycling is ideal.

Diet can also help. James Collins, the sports nutritionist for Arsenal Football Club, says: “Extra protein can be useful as you get older,” and, in addition to making sure there are protein sources in your daily diet (dairy, fish, soya, meat), adding 25g of whey to a shake can help to top up your needs.

Work your red and white muscle fibre fitness
Our muscles comprise different types of fibre — red and white — and while most people are born with a pretty even share of the two, the precise ratio is determined genetically. What’s important is that we activate and use our muscles as a whole, not favouring activity that works one type of muscle fibre over another.

Our red or “slow-twitch” muscle fibres are the kind used to fuel long-duration, low-intensity movement, such as walking and jogging, standing or lifting something light. They tire slowly and dominate your body’s muscle make-up, meaning they are easier to target on a daily basis with general movement. Our white or “fast-twitch” muscle fibres, on the other hand, fuel speedy, powerful movements — jumping, sprinting, heavy weight training — and, in many people, are underused.

“Since our white, or fast, muscle fibres are recruited only when high-intensity, short-duration exercise is performed, a sedentary person may rarely activate them,” Stewart says. “Exercise programmes should be designed to promote the use and retention of both fibre types and the use of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is increasingly seen as an effective way of doing this by many researchers.” HIIT sessions are short, sharp bursts that work muscles to their maximum — a few 20, 30 or 60-second sprints on a bike, running or walking hard uphill or swimming at speed once or twice a week will balance your muscle fibre workouts.

Pump iron
Dozens of studies have shown that resistance exercise — and weight training in particular — is the most effective way to stem the substantial losses that occur through sarcopenia. Pushing against a heavy resistance — as you might in weight training or when lifting your own body weight in exercises such as the press-up — triggers beneficial tiny tears in myofibrils, the proteins that cause muscles to contract. Cells are activated around the area where this micro-damage occurs and the body recruits protein to repair and strengthen the muscle. In short, it acts as a catalyst for muscle growth, but it also helps to blast the fat that accumulates on the hips and thighs of women and the stomachs of men as hormones fluctuate from age 40 onwards.

When Penn State University researchers split dieters into three groups — one doing no exercise, one attempting aerobic exercise only and the third doing a mix of aerobic and weight training workouts — they found that while everyone lost about 21lb (9.5kg), the lifters shed 6lb more of pure fat as opposed to the fat and muscle combination shed by those who didn’t pump iron.

“Building strength by doing weights will ensure that your joints are stable and your metabolism is faster,” says Matt Roberts, the personal trainer. “A combination of bodyweight resistance exercises [squats, jumps, push-ups] and weights is most effective because overloading your muscles by adding weights speeds up your rate of progress.”

The benefits are unending: weight training also helps to stabilise blood sugar, which has a tendency to go haywire as we get older. Middle-aged men who lifted weights for 30 minutes a day, five days a week were shown in one trial to reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 34 per cent. And stronger muscles mean stronger bones. Sixteen weeks of weight training increased hipbone density and elevated blood levels of osteocalcin — a marker of bone growth — by 19 per cent in a group of women. If there’s one gym change you adopt for your muscles, make it this one.

Light or heavy weights for strength gains?
The jury is out on this one. Most experts believe that heavier weights are important, particularly as we get older. Roberts says that resistance training “should be progressively more challenging and weights progressively heavier” in order to stimulate muscle response and growth.

However, not everyone agrees that weights need to be, well, weighty. Tracy Anderson, the Hollywood trainer who has coaxed into shape the bodies of everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Jennifer Aniston, is a big advocate of performing endless repetitions with light weights to avoid bulk.

We are all guilty of muscle neglect to some degree

Recent findings from a study by Stuart Phillips, a professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada, suggested that light and heavy weights have similar benefits. Participants in his trial were asked to lift either weights set at between 75 and 90 per cent of their one-repetition maximum for an average ten repetitions or lighter weights set at 30 to 50 per cent of their one-repetition maximum as many as 25 times.

After 12 weeks of the participants performing three sets of their various lifts four times a week, Phillips and his team found no significant differences between the two groups. All of the volunteers had gained almost identical muscle strength and size regardless of the mass of their weights.

Stewart says common sense should come into play: “Heavy weights too early could cause injury and have a detrimental impact, but weights that are too light and not progressive will not facilitate strength gains in the long term.” She adds that anything is better than nothing and you need to start somewhere. So get lifting.

Monitor your muscles
How much of your body is fat rather than muscle is usually described in terms of your body fat percentage. The higher the figure, the more work you need to do to bring your lean body mass (everything that’s not fat) into check. But how do you measure it? Most accurate muscle monitoring takes place in human performance laboratories where experts use skinfold callipers, scans or bioelectric impedance analysis (BIA) to check your fat to muscle ratio. Many university sports science labs are now open to the public for services including body composition analysis, so it’s worth trying your nearest to see what’s on offer.

If you prefer home measurements, the next best thing is a set of scales that uses BIA techniques to monitor your body composition. They work by sending an electric current that travels through your body when you step barefoot on to the device’s metal footpads. That small current — far too gentle to cause harm — passes up one leg, through your abdomen and down your other leg, hitting a resistance, or impedance, when presented with fatty tissue.

The impedance is measured, put through an inbuilt equation and presented as your body’s percentage of muscle versus fat. Accuracy varies and a downside is that the scales measure the fat-to-muscle content only of the lower body. A US Consumer Reports study recently suggested that the best body composition scales are accurate up to 80 per cent of the time, but they can be a useful guide and a powerful motivational tool. Among the best is the Tanita RD-953 (£157.68; tanita.eu), which measures muscle mass and quality and gives you an overall muscle score.

Which muscles matter?
So here’s the crunch: the muscles we overwork at the gym because they look good on the beach are not necessarily the muscles that matter in terms of our health and fitness. Indeed, trainers say the “mirror” muscles are overworked at the expense of the musculature that upholds our posture and maintains our movement ability. The six-pack is a case in point. Among men and women, the core muscles have become a fixation in the gym, but Matt Roberts says that people tend to obsess about only the muscles at the front of the abdomen — those on show in their stomach and waist — to the detriment of their gluteal and mid-back muscles.

For men, the current fixation with developing the inguinal crease, the V-shaped twin ligaments that extend below a six-pack, has minimal functional effect unless the entire mid-section, legs and back muscles are worked as well. Likewise, the pectoral muscles in the chest are a big deal for men, but at the expense of the back and shoulder muscles.

“Too much pec work can result in a classic forward-stooping posture,” Roberts says. “For women, concentrating on just the fronts of the arms is also common and causes an imbalance with the triceps at the backs of the arms.” The message is to place muscular balance before vanity, and that the muscles you can’t see are often more important than the ones you can.

Don’t forget your “support” muscles
Joint niggles and injuries that blight the middle years can largely be avoided by strengthening the muscles that support the most vulnerable body parts, says Bob Chatterjee, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Highgate Private Hospital in London. Take the knees, for example, a prime site of injury for middle-aged men.

“Building up the quadriceps muscles at the front of the thighs is probably the most important step for protecting and building up the knee,” Chatterjee says. “Squats — assuming the ‘toilet position’ — are helpful and you can progress to weighted squats and even jumping squats as you become more proficient.”

Lunges are also recommended for knee protection — just make sure you don’t push your knee farther than your front toe, and keep the weight on the back leg.

For the deskbound, working the muscles that remain underused as you sit down all day is essential to prevent injury. “Daily press-ups are great for strengthening the shoulder muscles, and Pilates and yoga are excellent for keeping the back muscles in good shape,” Chatterjee says. “A lot of sedentary workers have their shoulders internally rotated for many hours and so the rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder need to be worked with exercises like dumbbell curls and forward raises.”

Nordic hamstring curls are great for developing strength in the hamstrings, which are also underused when you sit for too long. To do them, kneel on the ground, with someone sitting behind to hold your ankles. Slowly lean forward so that your chest approaches the ground. Use your hamstrings to control your forward momentum and put out your arms at that point to halt your fall. Push back up to the start and repeat.

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