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How should I modify the M.A.X. Muscle Plan in my fifties?

This is an excerpt from M.A.X. Muscle Plan 2.0-2nd Edition, The by Brad Schoenfeld.

Question: I’m in my fifties. Are there any modifications that I should make to the program?

Answer: The aging process most certainly takes a toll on the body in a manner that alters its response to exercise training. In simple terms, your hypertrophic potential becomes blunted with advancing age, which is known as age-related “anabolic insensitivity.” There are several contributory reasons for this phenomenon. For one, chronic levels of anabolic hormones fall precipitously with age. In men, there is a substantial decline in testosterone that accelerates exponentially in the later stages of life; in postmenopausal women, estrogen levels (the primary female anabolic hormone) are reduced by as much as one-tenth of that before menopause. Moreover, the number of satellite cells decreases with advancing age, particularly in the larger type II muscle fibers, as does their ability to activate and proliferate. The upshot is an impaired capacity for synthesizing muscle proteins. On top of everything, joint-related issues such as osteoarthritis become more prevalent, hindering the ability to train with heavy loads and high levels of effort.

While these issues may seem daunting, take heart that you can continue to build muscle into your golden years. Research shows that even the oldest of old achieve substantial hypertrophy when they adhere to a regimented resistance training program, just to a lesser extent than younger lifters. Still, there are some things to keep in mind as you get older that may require modifying certain aspects of the M.A.X. Muscle Plan.

First, recovery abilities generally diminish with age, and it thus tends to take longer to restore performance to baseline levels. These impairments may be a function of greater muscle damage from training or a heightened fatigue response, or both. Regardless of the mechanism, older individuals therefore need to place a greater focus on managing recovery and may benefit from performing fewer weekly training sessions to allow for regeneration of neuromuscular capacity. It also may be helpful to engage in various post-workout recovery strategies such as hot baths, foam rolling, or massage. The effectiveness of these strategies remains somewhat equivocal, but some claim to achieve positive benefits from their use. There is little downside, so give them a try to see if they are of benefit to you.

Second, you may not be able to tolerate as much volume as when you were younger. Although it’s difficult to provide specific guidelines, volume reductions of 25-50 percent are often necessary to avoid nonfunctional overreaching as lifters progress from their 30s and 40s to their 60s and 70s. You need to listen to your body and be in tune with how it responds to the cumulative effects of the program. If you feel the amount of volume is causing undue fatigue, reduce the number of sets accordingly.

Third, it may be advisable to reduce or even eliminate very heavy loads. Most older individuals probably should avoid training at their 1RM during the strength phase and focus on the three to five rep range (although this will be somewhat dependent on the individual). If you have an existing joint-related condition, you may need to skip the strength phase altogether. While this may somewhat negatively impact the potentiation effect on the muscle phase of the program, you’re better off erring on the side of caution. Remember, you can’t make gains when suffering from a debilitating injury that derails your training efforts.

Finally, the number of so-called “poor responders” to resistance training increases in older individuals. That said, assuming there are no underlying medical conditions, everyone can ultimately build appreciable muscle, regardless of age and genetics. It’s just a matter of figuring out how your body responds to stimuli. Thus, you might need to experiment a bit more with manipulating variables to determine what works best for you.

It’s important to appreciate the fact that the response to aging varies greatly between individuals. In this regard, you must take into account chronological age (your actual age in years) versus biological age (a function of physical and mental capacity). I’ve known people in their 70s who have a greater muscle-building capacity and fitness level than some in their 20s. If you’ve followed a healthy lifestyle over the years, it’s likely you have aged better than someone who did not. So while chronological age is a factor that warrants consideration, also consider your biological age from a programming standpoint.

More Excerpts From M.A.X. Muscle Plan 2.0 2nd Edition