Muscles. We all have them, and without them, we’d have a pretty tough time moving through the day. But are you using yours enough? If you spend much of the week behind a desk and commuting to an office, chances are, the answer is ‘no,’ even if you do manage to get a few workouts in during the week. Trouble is, all that muscular dow time is associated with increased cancer risk, depression, lower cognitive ability, prediabetic blood sugar levels (even if you’re at a healthy weight), diminished sex life and reproductive health, sleep disruption and insomnia, disk degeneration and resulting back pain. And then, there’s declining muscle mass to contend with which is, unfortunately, a natural part of the aging process. With most of us losing roughly 1% of muscle mass each year after the ‘big 4-0,’ by the time retirement rolls around we’re likely working with about half the muscle mass we had at 20.
Though it can seem a bit like swimming upstream, the good news is that you can build muscles and keep them strong no matter what age you are, as long you treat them right.
Here are a few strength-building muscle habits to develop now so you can keep them in good form for years to come:
Work your muscles wisely.
To stave off natural muscular deterioration, resistance training and aerobic work aren’t an either/or proposition – you need to do both to hold the line. Resistance training will build and strengthen muscles, while aerobic work will increase blood flow, and pump up your mitochondria (the power plants inside the cells), bring more oxygen to the muscles, building your endurance. So the question becomes: how to start? There are numerous muscle-building options to choose from, such as weightlifting, kettlebells, bodyweight training but they can be intimidating. Or perhaps, not intimidating enough: Jumping into strength training from an unconditioned state, or doing it on your own without learning proper technique, is the fast-track to wear and tear or worse, injury, because your joints and connective tissues aren’t ready to handle the load. From there, it’s a hop skip (or hobble) to the physical therapy or surgical office to fix the damage. So, your muscle mission here is to just do it, not over do it.
Get a guide for your journey.
If you’ve been out of the fitness loop for a while, the first step is to enlist the help of a qualified trainer who can slowly ramp you up on a strength-training program, chart your progress and help keep you on the injury-free path. If you’re pushing 40 or beyond, make sure the trainer you choose has experience training older clients, to help minimize your risk of injury from doing too much, too soon. If you travel frequently or are on a tight schedule, you can also take advantage of technology and sign up with an at-your-convenience streaming video plan, live fitness coach service or beginner level group fitness program.
Try our ‘strength starter’ course.
You can also begin the journey with our low-key, yet very effective ‘roadmap’ to help you build strength from the ground up. Designed by strength and movement coach Adam Ticknor, this slow and steady program is one of the best ways we know how to get into (or back into) a strength-building groove.
Here’s your on-ramp:
Start with basic conditioning drills. Every day, do the following sequence five or six times throughout the day to build good movement patterns, turn on those dormant trunk muscles, and prep your shoulders, hips, and connective tissue. Do a sequence when you get out of bed, and once after breakfast, and you’ll have two under your belt before you even leave the house. Do it again instead of a midmorning coffee break; that’s three. And so on:
Use a pull-up bar installed in a doorway or a monkey bar in a local park. If you’re in an office without access to a bar, do a modified body row using your desk or other sturdy table at your workplace: Sit on the floor with your legs extended all the way under the desk, grab on to the top of the desk, and, keeping your trunk tight and your body in a straight line or “plank,” pull your chest up to the desk and hold that position for 30 seconds.
With your feet hip-distance or wider, shins 90 degrees to the floor, reach your butt back as you squat as low as you can go without compromising shin position or letting your knees fall inward.
3) BEAR CRAWL
Start on all fours with your hands on the floor, arms straight below your shoulders, knees beneath your hips and bent to ninety degrees, and feet raised so you’re on your toes. Crawl forward across the room, then backward to starting position, moving the opposite hand and foot in unison: right hand and left foot move forward or backward at the same time, then the left hand and right foot. Keep your back flat, not rounded, as you crawl.
4) HANDSTAND (AGAINST A WALL)
If getting vertical is too hard, walk your legs up a wall to 90 degrees or place your legs on a chair.
5) WALK – LAZY AND LOADED
- Take a daily, 45 – 60 minute walk with an extra load added to your body in the form of a weighted vest, one that weighs in at no more than 10% of your body weight. It’s a safe, effective way to improve conditioning because it loads the spine from all directions while compressing your trunk, increasing stability, improving posture and cuing your trunk to “fire up” and hold you up straight.
- As you go, take it slow. No need to run or even walk at a speedy clip – this is all about long, lazy, and loaded.
- Introduce a barbell deadlift with excellent technique. This one basic movement will give you a baseline of trunk and pelvic floor strength, correct knee and hip hinge movements, and get you to pull your shoulder into place before you use kettle bells.
- How to do the barbell deadlift: Perfect your form with a few sessions with a coach first either at the gym or via an online coach service. When you’ve got great, coach-approved form down, and you’re ready to start lifting, load a bar with weight below your bodyweight and do single lifts with 1-minute rests in between.
- Then, over the next two weeks, increase the load to your bodyweight, and then, over the two weeks following that, to 125 percent of your bodyweight.
- As you increase the weight, gradually increase the number of sets, to 5 sets of 5 lifts in a workout.
- Keep doing your daily (Month 1) drills and keep doing your loaded walks.
- Introduce a basic two-arm kettle bell swing (to chest or nose height, not overhead). Group classes or online coaching can make this affordable—look for Russian-style kettle bell training. This puts what you’ve learned with the deadlift into dynamic motion.
- Start with a weight of 25 to 28 pounds for women or 30 to 40 pounds for men. Your aim: 100 swings a day, broken up through the day however you like. By the end of the month, it should only take three sets to achieve that 100-swing goal. Keep doing your deadlifts and daily loaded walk.
- To successfully get strong requires ongoing development of skills and capacity—or your body adapts too efficiently to the muscle building, and you begin to plateau (not to mention get bored). These drills serve as your launching pad for a strength-building journey, so now go have fun!
- After three months of groundwork, you will be in great shape to join whatever strength and conditioning program appeals to you, whether it be barbell-oriented (Olympic lifting), kettle bell training, calisthenics-based bodyweight training, or activities like rock climbing that build strength through motion. You are also prepped to do high-intensity metabolic workouts with much less risk of injury. Take a look at Strongfirst.com to connect you to expertly-trained strength coaches.
Feed your muscles well.
Building muscle is more than just movement. It’s also got a lot to do with what you put in your body, and protein is essential to the mix. How much do you need? Though opinions vary on what is the perfect amount of high-quality protein to consume every day to maintain muscle mass, you can estimate your daily needs based on the following equation: Take your body weight, divide it in half, subtract 10. The resulting number will give you the approximate amount of protein you should be eating daily. So, for example, if you weigh 160 lbs, then half of that is 80, minus 10 = 70 grams of protein spread over the course a day’s worth of meals. NOTE: If you have renal issues, check with your MD to determine an appropriate daily protein intake for your condition.
Eat the foods your muscles love.
Eating meat and poultry can be helpful in building muscle, but it’s easy to get most of your high-quality protein from non-meat sources. Going light on animal sources and heavy on plants is kinder to the earth – and your wallet. It’s also better for your body because non-meat protein is less likely to trigger metabolic acidosis, a condition that’s believed to be a significant contributing factor to age-related bone and muscle-mass loss. A few good sources of non-meat proteins include organic white beans, black beans, chickpeas and lentils; organic, grass-fed dairy; leafy greens like kale, spinach, broccoli and asparagus. Another great source? A scoop of grass fed whey protein as a base for a smoothie
Supplement your strength.
Even if you are getting most of your nutrition from fresh, whole, organic veggies, legumes and low-sugar fruits, a few key supplements are also helpful to the strength and muscle building process, particularly in middle age and for older adults who may not be eating enough of the right foods. Topping the list of supplements that have shown promise in preserving and supporting muscle mass, are omega-3 EPA/DHA; vitamin D; carnitine; glutamine and B12/folic acid.
Bottom line: Consistent strength training and aerobic exercise, smart dietary choices and strategic supplementation – they’re your ticket to a strong, healthy body – so get moving and keep moving!