We can expect to lose about 1% of our muscle strength each year after age 50. By age 65 that rate of loss increases. There are some interesting differences in the how and why of strength loss. When researchers look at strength they tend to look at static muscle strength and dynamic muscle strength. Basically static muscle strength refers to the ability to generate a force. Dynamic muscle strength basically refers to strength in which bones and tendons actually move. As people get older dynamic muscle strength suffers more than static muscle strength. Muscle power (the ability to do a strength movement quickly) also suffers. Muscle power declines faster than strict strength. This is one of the reasons why Masters Athletes, particularly Crossfit Masters Athletes, do not perform as well as younger athletes. You can tell a Masters Athlete over and over that he/she needs to move quickly in order “to get under the bar.” But, simply put, Masters Athletes are physiologically different than younger athletes. As stubborn and strong as they are, they may not be able to move their elbows any faster. At least not yet.
Don’t give up on Masters Athletes. Don’t give up in general.
Strength training can improve muscle strength and muscle power in Masters Athletes. This has been documented in short-term studies. But what about over the long haul? A recently published study sheds some light. A fairly large group of older adults (233) participated in a 1-year strength training program. Measurements were taken before and after. Researchers also evaluated the condition of 83 former participants some 7 years later. Strength and power improved in adults who completed the training. (This is hopefully no surprise). What is surprising and good news is that the adults who completed the training had better measures of strength, power and speed seven years after completing the program. Measures for everyone (trained and untrained) were lower than they had been though.
This study has its limits. It was not clear (or unknown) if subjects kept working out or not. Nor was it known how much more or less active subjects in the control group might have been. Still, it is nice to know that positive effects were seen seven years after an exercise program was completed.
Take away message:
So far research (and anecdotal evidence) indicate you should not stop working out. Trainers: keep encouraging your masters athletes.
Kennis E, Verschueren SM, Bogaerts A, Van Roie E, Boonen S, & Delecluse C (2013). Long-term impact of strength training on muscle strength characteristics in older adults. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 94 (11), 2054-60 PMID: 23831385