Training for Strength

Strength development for the aging athlete is essential due to an age-related decrease in muscle mass and strength observed in not only aging non-athletes but also masters athletes who have maintained hard training into older age. My own research suggests that this decrease in strength and muscle mass begins to occur at around 45-50 years but accelerates after age 65-70 years of age. Thus, the older the athlete, the more important strength training becomes.

Loss of muscle mass is one of the major factors affecting reduced performance in aging athletes. In aging non-athletes, research has shown that muscle mass decreases by nearly 50% between the ages of 20 and 90 years. This appears to occur in four stages.

  1. Muscle size peaks between 16-19 years of age for females and 18-24 years for males.
  2. Between 25 and 50 years there is a 5-10% decline in muscle size.
  3. Between 50 and 65-70 years there is another 15% decline,
  4. After 65-70 years there is another accelerated loss of a further 25%.

This decrease in muscle mass is due to a number of age-related factors including:

  • Decreased muscle fibre size, particularly in the fast twitch muscle fibres.
  • Decreased number of muscle fibres (less muscle per unit volume), especially the strength and power producing fast twitch fibre (at age 30, about 60% of muscle fibres are fast twitch, at age 80, it’s about 30%).

These changes in muscle mass are even more marked in women. Apart from these changes, the reasons for the decline in muscle mass with age have been suggested to be due to impairment of the nerve-muscle junction function and a lack of activation of the fast twitch fibres with age through inactivity. Given that the fast twitch fibres are activated with speed, power and strength training, it makes sense that the aging athlete should be placing a strong emphasis on strength and power training as well as high intensity endurance and sprint training, all of which can activate the all important fast twitch fibres.

Taken together, the age-related decrease in muscle size and strength impacts all aspects of athletic performance in masters athlete, in particular events or sports that demand speed and power. In non-athletes, research has shown that strength increases up to age 30 years, plateaus between 30 and 50 years, then decreases by about 30% between ages 50 and 70 years and then dramatically declines after 70 years of age.