How to build muscles as we age.


One of my clients came into the studio after the summer and was discouraged that she had lost most of her muscle tone during her hiatus . She took a break from Pilates to manage a home remodel, and when she returned she felt she was back at square one.

Her concern was that she just didn’t believe that you could build muscle past a certain age.  And of course in typical fashion, I took on her challenge to prove her wrong.  

Here is the thing.  YES, it gets harder the older we get to build and maintain muscle mass and strength but not impossible and far from as difficult as we think it to be. 

So let’s first review what our lovely muscles do for us.  They are the primary movers of our skeleton and provide support to keep us upright and balanced.  Something you may not know is they are the main heaters for our body. Yes, our muscles create most of the heat needed to keep our body temperature at a 98.6F.   

Now how do we build and maintain our muscles?  Without going into a large anatomy lesson here, I will simplify.  Muscles grow when we use them and more importantly when we strain them.  After we work out with weights, or bands or your own body resistance (all of which are considered resistance training), little minor tears occur in the muscle fibers.  So the body sends in the medics to repair them and then also make them stronger. So when we are resting after our workout the body is repairing the tears and building stronger muscles for the next onslaught of training. 


Muscle strength, muscle growth, stamina, and endurance are all different; and personal trainers will set your program depending on your goals.  Strength training is being able to increase the load of the contraction for lower number of reps, basically working at your highest capacity for a shorter amount of time.  Muscle building is lowering the weight to a moderate load and increasing the repetitions.  Stamina is being able to stay at a higher contraction for a period of time.  Endurance is moderate to low contraction of a muscle group for a longer period of time.  Think about the difference between a sprinter and a long distance runner. 

Don’t worry there won’t be a quiz after all of this.

Now most people who aren’t training for a specific sport or event just want to stay fit.  So luckily if you do any of it you’re pretty much working on those muscles and hopefully you can mix things up a bit so that you make sure you are building both muscle and strength.  Because unless you are a professional athlete or training to be a powerlifter, it won’t really matter.  

In the case of my client who is a 60 plus woman, she just needs to keep moving and straining those muscles because as we get older, it gets harder to maintain it.  Which brings me to the familiar quote “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Just like anything else in our body cellular growth slows down as we age.  However, the research shows that older muscles will continue to grow and strengthen as long as we keep training them.  The more often the better.  The main difference is that in our 20s and early 30s we could take a few weeks off without losing a step but that changes every decade we get older, hence the reason to keep moving. A recent post from the NY Times wellness blog states that the age in which muscles can actually start to lose their fiber mass isn’t until age 80 where it decreases 30 to 40%.  So there is really no reason why this 60+ woman can’t strengthen and build muscles.  Check the research on this website:  

As we get older we all just want to be able to move and enjoy our lives.  We want to be able to pick up the grandkids, take them to the park, and be physical with them.  We want to lift the heavy bags of groceries and move some furniture around the house.  These are real things that don’t have anything to do with youth.  They are just part of living but as we age we have to work out to keep those muscles in the best health so that we can do those things. 

I’m reminded of a story my father told me of my grandmother. She passed just before her 95th birthday and this story was many years back when she was only in her young 70s. She wanted to go skiing one winter while visiting us in Spokane. My father didn’t think this was a good idea because all he could think about is how old and frail he thought she was (ironic that now my father is in his 70s) He postulated that if he took her out in the snow she would clearly slip and fall and break a hip.  She insisted and he caved.  You know what happened? She didn’t fall at all and my dad fell several times!



What is important here is to keep moving.  Put your muscles through some strain regularly. Challenge yourself because as we get older it becomes harder to maintain that muscle mass and strength.  We just have to be more diligent about doing it.  So for my client, yes over a long summer away from the Pilates studio, she did lose it, but it doesn't take much to get it back.  My recommendation is to keep at it, work out regularly, mix it up, and be sure to rest.  This is what keeps you healthy and strong.