Bill Pearl, the great bodybuilder, won a handful of Mr. Universe titles over two decades, picking up his final best in the world trophy at age 41. His longevity in the sport is impressive. Is he an outlier or can anyone, at any age, gain muscle?
We think of strength as a youthful asset that disappears with age. Olympians and pro athletes supposedly peak in their 20s; the fittest beachgoers don’t have white hair. There are counterexamples, sure. Pearl, LeBron James, Ed Whitlock, who kept placing in marathons through his mid-80s, and Kazuyoshi Miura, the 54-year-old midfielder who’s been playing soccer professionally since 1986. But they’re scattered across various sports and seem to be rare.
So which is it? Does strength fade as we age — or can we maintain it? And what can older lifters — folks well past 41 — do to get stronger? How can they hang onto their muscle, and should they even bother with training programs?
Research shows plenty of evidence of bodily decline over time: Muscle mass can decrease with age. Motor units, the mechanisms that control skeletal muscles and movement, number fewer, and fire more slowly among the elderly. Outliers like Whitlock seem to inherently have more motor units than people their age, and higher VO2 maxes, which allows them to take in more oxygen, and run faster and longer.
The majority of people though, as they age, will see their bodies decline if they are left alone. But researchers have also found that elderly people can get stronger through strength training, and that there are real benefits in doing so, such as daily tasks becoming easier and having better energy expenditure. One study recommends that elderly populations should train at a high intensity, and a few times a week — the same rough prescriptions that hold for younger lifters. Simply put, older folks lose their muscle strength if they don’t work out, but can build it back up if they do. Workout specifics differ from younger lifters’ regimens, but the math behind both is the same.
Age is a continuum
Stories like Whitlock and Pearl’s resonate because we tend to think of strength and age as opposing poles: someone is either weak and old or is strong and young. But science suggests they’re more like continuums. We all age, and we’re never too old to get stronger, or too weak to improve. Winning competitions gets harder as we age, but becoming strong enough to perform daily tasks efficiently certainly isn’t. Age doesn’t contradict strength — it just vaguely limits it. Lifters can still get stronger into their 80s. There’s no scientific law saying muscles don’t work after a certain age.
Anyone — including seniors — can lift
“What’s helpful for the [Olympic] athlete is going to be helpful for seniors as well,” says Dustin Jones, a physical therapist at StrongerLife, a gym in Louisville, Kentucky that focuses on a 55-and-older client base.
Jones works his older clients through deadlifts, lunges, burpees, and barbell squats: exercises that make up the foundation of the powerlifting programs that get younger lifters much stronger. Jones’ lifters begin at a responsible weight — bodyweight, or an empty bar — which goes up with time. Known as progressive overload, this process of lifting more weight over time is the key to strength: muscle cells tear, and repair, and, when combined with proper rest and nutrition, get bigger and stronger. Workouts are done under supervision, within a responsible weight range, and progress at a rate that takes lifters’ age and movement capabilities into account.
How training is the same — and different — when you are older
Older lifters take longer to get stronger. Muscle strength begins to decline once we hit 30, and at 60, the decline becomes more precipitous. Motor neurons and VO2 max tend to drop, too. While anyone at any age can get stronger, strength doesn’t flower among older populations as easily as it does among, say, teenage boys, who simply by being alive maximize their testosterone production.
But the mental aspect might even be more important. Jones says the seniors who come to his gym often arrive with a negative mindset, built up from years of discouragement from health and fitness professionals from using their bodies or lifting serious weight. “The biggest contributing issues to people not [being strong],” says Jones, are “negative things that have been said to them for decades from healthcare providers and the culture at large: ‘you should take it easy… don’t pick that up.’” When we become inactive and scared to push our bodies, Jones says, we “adapt,” and “become weaker and less resilient.”
This warning against using our bodies is halfway logical at first: My elderly great uncle should probably not be squatting 400. But if we think of strength as a continuum — not a process that requires heavy barbells and weights — then there’s no reason why an elderly person can’t work up, at the right rate, to become strong. Over time, someone in their 60s should be able to squat more than just their body weight and get strong enough to get through their day.
When a lifter starts to push themselves, under supervision, good things happen. Jones says a client might come into his gym after “one to two decades of being fearful and careful, not touching the ground,” and will, in months, do “lunges with their knees touching the ground or full-on burpees, barbell squats, and deadlifts with body weight.” An untrained senior might start off at very low weight until they complete the full range of motion. But once some strength and movement are established, it’ll eventually grow.
Classic movements are great for building up strength. Jones emphasizes squats and lunges, which build up the posterior chain — half of the body — and have a high functional carryover. A functional, strong posterior chain makes daily life easier. A lifter who can squat a barbell loaded with 50 pounds — their body weight, the 45 lb. barbell, and 50 lbs. — can move around with more ease throughout the rest of the day. Having built up strength and control in the squat, they won’t collapse or “plop” into a chair when they sit down. A lifter who can turn out 20 lunges will be able to walk upstairs without getting winded. Jones says the seniors who train at his gym stay in their houses longer, are more independent and delay having to go into assisted living facilities. Seniors with pre-existing health conditions, such as spinal degeneration, should “work with a physical therapist or coach,” Jones says, to ensure they are performing movements in a safe way for them.
No matter our age, we all have muscle
Jones’ gym is in Kentucky, but elderly lifters can find plenty of other great training options at other, more advanced powerlifting-adjacent facilities all over the country. (USA Powerlifting’s list of gyms is a good place to start.) Great gyms like Hyde Park, in Austin, and South Brooklyn Weightlifting Center are amenable to and knowledgeable about getting folks of all ages stronger. At these gyms, a retiree might be taking an empty bar for a spin one rack over from someone squatting 500.
It’s a counterintuitive image — what kind of musclehead gym would be senior-friendly? But it simply shows the full distance of the continuum. Elite lifters and very strong people aren’t categorically different from seniors or beginners: They’re just on the far end of the same lifting spectrum. Well-built lifters get strong through the same process that gets anyone strong enough.
While a lifter in their 70s might not squat 500 pounds, if they push themselves through progressive overload, and eat and sleep enough, they can inch closer to their genetic muscular potential, and get strong enough to get through the day, and then some. Ultimately, no matter our age, or the weight we’re squatting today, we all more or less have the same muscle cells that respond to roughly the same stimuli. In a gym, the seniors working on getting stronger are just like anyone else. It’s not about winning a Mr. Universe, but about slowing time down — maybe even hitting the pause button.
LEG DAY OBSERVER is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.