Growing up in Kailua, Oahu, Hawaii, Norman Compton played football and rugby, participated in marathons and even surfed. He also has worked as a Hollywood stuntman for 27 years. For him, age is just a number when it comes to working out.
“I’m 64 and have a few videos on YouTube on some of the things I still do to stay strong,” Compton says. “As a fitness expert, I have seen and made many of the mistakes people, regardless of experience, make in strength training as they age.”
Lifting weights and other muscle-building activities can be taxing on the body as we get older. It’s important to understand what’s appropriate for your age and how to take care of your body when it might not recover as quickly.
The weight of testosterone
As testosterone levels start to decline after age 35 or so, the body has a harder time gaining and maintaining muscle. Strength training can help level the playing field.
“Strength training serves to keep that hormone as elevated as possible in the healthy range, which helps men feel like men: strong, energetic, healthy,” says Sarah Walls, a personal trainer and owner of Strength & Performance Training in Fairfax, Virginia. “Strength training also keeps bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons in good condition as we get into later stages of life.”
This testosterone decrease doesn’t mean guys should strive to lose muscle mass, according to John Odden, head coach and owner at Empowered Strength in Bend, Oregon.
“All men should continue to weight train and work to stimulate their muscles to preserve his current status and age safely,” Odden says. “Overall athletic, functional ability becomes more important, but muscle mass is still a major contributor to overall health and wellness.”
Know your limits
Young men’s bodies that are still developing can handle more because their bodies are not yet breaking down, and they can recover quicker, as opposed to middle-aged or older men whose bodies don’t build or recover as quickly.
“Everything depends on your body and your goals,” says Jason McCarthy, a former Green Beret who lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida. “The first step is to know and listen to your body, which you get better at doing as you get older.”
And all weight training is not created equal, he says.
“If the weight is too much, what happens is that you’re likely to break form, which is a recipe for injury McCarthy says, adding that it’s important to recognize any exercise is a form of stress. “Start with less weight and make progress from there. Stress on the body is a great thing if it’s the right kind of stress.”
Odden agrees, adding that pain is always a warning sign to stop or adjust an activity. “‘No pain, no gain’ is dead,” he says.
Recovery will be slower and more important for older guys, according to Odden. Generally, middle-aged men would be best served with brief training sessions lasting less than one hour.
“Older men should focus more on overall mobility, function and strength,” Odden says. “Slow and steady wins here. ... A few examples include exercises like handstands, Indian clubs or kettlebell movements.”
Walls recommends focusing on maintaining function for day-to-day tasks. “Focusing on a more functional approach to your fitness will help maintain joint mobility, range of motion, and the ability to run and jump in the weekend basketball games without getting hurt,” she says. “All of this should be done in a way that is appropriate for the individual.”