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Midlife Muscle

Last month I pointed out the lack of information available about training for those between the ages of 45 and 55. There’s certainly plenty for those who are younger and quite a bit for the senior set, but those in between seem to have been lost in the shuffle. My guess is that people assume they have the same needs as those in their 30s and early 40s, but that’s not the case. They have entirely different requirements, even though the majority are still very healthy and can do a wide variety of exercises.

Most people carry with them problems that came about when they were active in some form of athletics, plus injuries that came along later, as well as the plague of genetics that’s beginning to take its toll on the joints. Former football players feel the effect of knees that were frequently abused in that sport. Those who were seduced by the glory and fame of a big bench press are beginning to feel the results of that abuse in their shoulders and backs.

Besides taking on those rather new—or old—physical maladies, the 45-to-55 set is usually very busy. These are the years that people carve out a niche in their various occupations or professions and stack up enough old presidents to carry them well past their retirement and provide for the futures of their spouses and children. While they understand that systematic training is essential to their good health, finding the time to train is difficult.

In addition, the many changes in their bodies since their early 30s have altered their purpose in training. No longer do they desire to move heavy weights. Now they just want to stay strong enough to be able to do many ordinary but necessary physical activities, from mowing the lawn and turning the soil in the garden to playing basketball with friends or taking a long hike in the park with the family. One more thing: They want to look good, not like the multitude of obese specimens waddling around malls and supermarkets in quest of more calories.

While their desire may indeed be sincere, those in the 45-to-55 age bracket have the deck stacked against them in many regards. I mentioned the stockpile of old injuries, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They start to lose muscle mass at age 35, typically a half pound a year. Simultaneously, they begin to store unwanted bodyweight, usually in the form of fat, on an average of a pound a year. So without vigorous physical activity on a consistent basis, a once fit body can turn into a heap of flab in a short few years.

There’s more—and none of it good. Organ functions, particularly involving digestion and elimination, become less effective. Fast-twitch muscles decline, as do flexibility and endurance. It’s also the stage of life when the genetic codes your parents passed on to you manifest. For some they’re a blessing, yet for most they’re just the opposite. The period from 45 to 55 is when people suddenly discover that they’ve inherited some form of degenerative joint disease. Perhaps the hardest blow of all—especially for men—is the systematic loss of the all-important hormone testosterone. Beginning at the age of 30 men’s bodies start producing less and less at a rate of about 1 percent a year.

It’s enough to make people throw up their hands in despair and quit altogether—which is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. That only leads to a faster decline in health and appearance and gives you membership in the fat and lazy community. Once people stop regular training, they also become sloppy about diet and generally shun nutritional supplements. As that downhill slide gains momentum, it’s extremely tough to stop. The only positive note might be getting selected as a contestant on The Biggest Loser.

Even though it seems that the odds are stacked against you, they can be overcome. How do I know? Because I know countless people who did just that. Instead of giving in to the seemingly inevitable, they battled back and won. If your will is strong enough, you can overcome the problems I just mentioned. It’s simply a matter of giving your health priority and making some adaptations in the way you train. I realize that may not be easy if you’re on a busy schedule, but then again, no one ever promised us that it would be easy. If someone did, check your wallet. He was lying.

I’ve written many times that those who have a hectic schedule should consider purchasing equipment that will enable them to train at home. It doesn’t have to be new, top-of-the-line stuff. Used works just as well, and you don’t have to start off with a complete weight room. Begin with a few pieces and add to them over time. Check out classified ads in the newspaper and in those weekly flyers. I put together the weight room at the Marion, Indiana, YMCA that way and ended up with five Olympic bars, a nice bench and a squat rack.

A small home gym solves several problems. It gives you a great deal of flexibility about when you can train. It eliminates the ego shock of having to use light poundages in front of your old workout buddies at the gym. You can set your own pace, listen to the kind of music you enjoy, and experiment with different exercises if you like. Plus, there’s no waiting around for the station you want to use.

Last month I suggested that people in this age group consider a shift from using really heavy weights for lower reps (fives, threes, twos and singles) to a routine built around higher reps—20-plus—for just two or three sets. That’s for the major muscle groups. For the smaller ones I prescribe even higher reps for a couple of sets. The idea is to feed blood to the joints and strengthen the cartilage that surrounds and supports them without aggravating them.

That’s a huge shift for the mind to handle, especially if you’ve achieved a degree of success in a certain exercise or in powerlifting or Olympic lifting. You face two main barriers in making the transition: dwelling on how much you used to lift on one or more exercises and ignoring what you can no longer do without experiencing a great deal of pain.

Step one, understand that Ole Man Usta died. You’re no longer the athlete who could power-clean 300 pounds and deadlift 600. Nice memories, but catalog them as just that. Step two, make a list of the exercises that you know you shouldn’t even try, as they bring far more discomfort than they’re worth. I fully realize that the steps are not easy. I resisted, just like everyone else, because I didn’t want to give up those nice big numbers, but once I made the decision to change the way I trained, I never looked back. That’s just how it must be.

As for lamenting the number of lifts you can no longer do because of some physical problem, get rid of that attitude as well. Instead of dwelling on the exercises that you can no longer perform, embrace the ones you can, and work the hell out of them. Tommy Suggs and I used to joke about how many of our former exercises were now taboo for us and concluded that we’d probably end up being able to do only one-arm swings with a dumbbell. It may well come to that, but both of us will do enough one-arm swings to get in a decent workout.

Recently I ran into a friend who used to train with me during the summers when I didn’t work at Johns Hopkins. He asked for some advice about his training, adding that because of a bum right shoulder he couldn’t rack a bar across his back and was unable to squat. I suggested that he try to find one of those gadgets that fit across the shoulders and that are made for those who cannot fit a bar on their backs, or to try doing squats and lunges with dumbbells.

“How many sets and reps?” he asked.

“As many as you need to do to give your hips and legs a thorough workout,” I said. “Start with two sets of 20.”

Several months later I bumped into him at Ripken Stadium. He was delighted with the results of squatting and lunging with dumbbells. “I only have them up to 20s,” he told me, “so I use them and have worked up to two sets of 100 on the squats and two sets of 50 on the lunges. The lunges are really hard. When I finish, I feel like I just ran a couple of miles.”

The same idea applies to other bodyparts. Can’t do flat benches? Make inclines at various angles your primary shoulder girdle movement. Or perhaps do overhead presses or weighted dips. Even if you find you can do only one exercise for a certain bodypart or muscle group, that one is better than none at all.

Some in the 45-to-55 age group are still able to do explosive, high-skill movements: power cleans, power snatches—even full cleans, full snatches and jerks. Most, however, can’t. So instead, just do static movements: bent-over rows, deadlifts, shrugs, good mornings, almost-straight-legged deadlifts. If machines are available, take advantage of them as well.

I won’t rehash the training and cardio I dealt with last month except to say that you should try to get in three weight and two cardio sessions per week if you’re serious about getting into and staying in shape. If you simply cannot train more than twice during a week, then do that at least. Make one session a heavy workout; Sunday works well for most people, as few work on that day. Then add one abbreviated workout sometime during the week—maybe just a couple of primary exercises followed by one or two auxiliary ones—which you can do in 40 minutes or less. Move quickly from exercise to exercise, and you get the bonus of involving your cardiovascular and respiratory systems to a much greater degree than you would with a slow-paced workout.

Training consistently and with diligence is absolutely necessary if you’re between 45 and 55. A missed session will set you back much further than it would have when you were younger. Regularity, even if your workouts are short, is critical.

Even when you train with weights and do some form of cardio regularly, though, you’ve got to do a lot more to guarantee your good health. Most important in that regard is your diet. You must lower your carb intake and build your meals around protein. Simple, right? Not really. Carbs lurk everywhere, even in the drinks so many of us enjoy. Americans eat too much food to begin with, and the bulk of it is in carbohydrate form.

The absolute worst thing you can do between age 45 and 55 is put on bodyweight. While the cardio and weight training help a great deal, they’re often not enough. I’m not talking about a drastic change in your diet, which usually doesn’t work. I am suggesting that you make gradual changes in what you eat and the amount of carb you gulp down daily. No need for a crash course unless you’re getting ready to attend a reunion or are about to get remarried. Start by cutting carbs in half at each meal. That isn’t difficult. Eat only half the bun with your hamburger, half as many french fries as usual. Eat half of a big salad or a bowl of fruit.

“Hey,” many argue, “fruits and vegetables are good for me.” True enough, but when you eat a huge portion of either, you’re loading your system with carbohydrate. Obviously, the more natural the carbs are, the better. Yet even the ones science has proven to be healthful can end up adding bodyweight you don’t want or need.

Facing the Naked Truth at 45

When someone asks me what he should do to get rid of some unwanted bodyweight, usually around his middle, the first thing I tell him to do is buy a full-length mirror and look at himself each and every day when he’s naked. I thought that was an original idea, but I was wrong. While leafing through the October ’67 Strength & Health looking for the results of a contest that I wanted for a story I was writing about the York Barbell Club, I came across the following in the Iron Grapevine section:

“Here’s a gimmick that you might suggest to your pudgy friends. Canadian doctors contend that a good, long look at one’s midriff bulge each day will help him or her to reduce it. ‘It has been stated that the body image of obese patients, particularly adolescents, is distorted by their emotional attitude to it,’ said the report. What they are saying, in essence, is that one has to realize that he or she is obese and decide that this is an unpopular state. By looking at themselves each day, naked, in front of a full-length mirror, they can see themselves as they really are. Then, and only then, say the researchers, can the individual start the long process of change.”

A full-length mirror in every household may not end the obesity problem in our country, but I’m betting it would put a big dent in it.


Second bit of advice: Don’t snack at night, unless you’re trying to put on weight. During the day, should you feel the need to snack, make it protein instead of carb. I’ll not go to the trouble of listing the snacks and foods that you should be eating a lot of. All you have to do is remember that if it isn’t protein or fat, it’s a carb. Protein is your best friend. More is better than less. Having a protein shake after you train will facilitate recovery, which in turn will help you have a more productive session the next time around.

“But I get so hungry,” many grumble. “I just don’t have any energy when I cut out carbs.”

Most of the time, hunger pangs occur simply due to habit. You’ve consistently had a snack a few hours after your evening meal, and when it doesn’t come, your body signals that it’s time. All you have to do is ignore the signals for a few days, and they’ll stop. If you do lack the willpower to do that, make sure the snack is some type of protein, not carbs.

What about lack of energy? That’s where supplements come in. Anyone seriously interested in staying healthy and physically and mentally fit needs to take nutritional supplements. Why? There’s no possible way to get all the vitamins and minerals you need in the food you eat. So many essential nutrients are stripped from natural products during the preparation of foods and so much added to ensure preservation in shipping and storage on shelves that it’s practically impossible to find dairy products, meats, fish, fowl, vegetables, fruits and grains that haven’t been tampered with.

Let’s say, for sake of argument, that you do have a source of organic products, such as oranges. As we all know, oranges and other citrus fruits provide us with the much-sought-after vitamin C. Yet an orange or the juice derived from it yields only 75 milligrams of vitamin C. So to get even 1,000 milligrams—that is, one gram—of C, you’d have to eat 13 1/2 oranges. Which would include 218 grams of carbs. Who does that? Nobody I know. Besides, a gram a day of C just isn’t enough for someone on the go who’s also training and doing cardio.

Then there’s the problem of obtaining sufficient amounts of vitamins E, A and D, all the minerals, the omega-3 fatty acids, plus all the B-complex group. The only sensible way to make sure you’re getting the necessary amount of those essential organic compounds is to take supplements. That way there’s no guesswork.

The question usually comes up, “Why not just take multiple-vitamin and -mineral tablets?” Because they don’t contain doses high enough to get the supplementation job done for an extremely active individual. While covering the vitamin and mineral dosages is beyond my scope here and while I don’t like to set standards for everyone, as we all have very individual needs, I am going to list what I take.

To my mind, the most important vitamin of all is vitamin C. I take five grams daily, spacing them out through the day and night. That’s when everything is normal. Should I see a quick change in the weather or that the pollen counts are way up and I start sneezing, I take more, up to 10 grams a day. Does it work? I haven’t had a cold for 10 years.

Next comes vitamin E, the key to a healthy heart and circulatory system. It helps much more than that, of course, but in a way, that’s sufficient. I take 1,200 international units of mixed tocopherols [vitamin E compounds] every day, sometimes going up to 1,600 I.U., again spacing my intake throughout the day. The thing to be aware of about vitamin E is that it comes in synthetic and natural versions. If you see “dl-alpha” on the label, you know you’ve got a synthetic product, which is at least 50 percent less potent than the natural version. What you want to see on the label is “d-alpha.” If the product seems to be a bargain, chances are it’s synthetic, which means you’re paying for inferior merchandise.

Vitamin D is very much in the news lately, but it’s been high on my supplement list for more than 40 years, It does a host of good things for health, but the fact that it aids in the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, which are critical to the integrity of bones and teeth, is enough for me. I take 4,000 I.U. per day. Most of that is a combination with vitamin A, and the rest is from cod liver oil.

I also take a lot of vitamin A because of its role in maintaining good vision and battling infections. It is one of the primary antioxidants along with C and E. I take anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 I.U. of A in a mixed form with D and cod liver oil, which also gives me a generous supply of omega-3 fatty acids. You can, of course, buy the various fatty acids in specific packaging, but they cost a great deal more than cod liver oil, which has been around for as long as I can remember. The only medicines we had in my family were aspirin and cod liver oil.

It’s best to take the B-vitamins in a mixed form. They’re invaluable to someone who’s trying to drop unwanted bodyweight and is experiencing a lack of energy during the day. The Bs, in a nutshell, help you convert what you eat into energy. So you can eat less and still be as active as you like. Take a couple of tablets at each meal; I avoid them at my evening meal because they work so well on me that I’m unable to rest. So I take them with breakfast and with a piece of fruit an hour before I train. The only B-vitamin I take separately is B6. I know that its primary function is to help assimilate protein, so whenever I eat protein, I also take 100 milligrams of B6.

The minerals must also be taken in mixed form. They’re critical for my well-being, since I have always been a cramper. In very hot weather I have often taken as many as 20 tablets to ease the cramps in my hands and feet after a strenuous session in a hot gym. Like C and the Bs, they’re water-soluble, so there’s no risk in taking too much. Another mixed mineral that has served me well is a calcium and magnesium combo. The two work in tandem and are an excellent relaxant. I can slow down my mind and body by taking three or four capsules an hour before bedtime. If I don’t fall asleep nicely, I take a couple more. Make sure the combination contains twice as much calcium as magnesium, or the tablets won’t be nearly as effective.

Many complain that the supplements I lay out are much too costly. Not to my mind. My supplements, along with my exercise routine, are my health insurance. While I have Medicare and VA benefits, I’ve never used either of them because I’ve never had any reason to. If more people would take that approach, there wouldn’t be such an uproar over health-care reform.

Finally, a very important bit of advice for the 45-to-55 age bracket concerns testosterone. As I mentioned, we start losing that essential hormone at a rate of 1 percent a year beginning at age 30. Of course, it varies from individual to individual, but that’s the norm. Most people think of testosterone in terms of sexual prowess, but its value goes way beyond the pleasure principle. Although testosterone does directly affect the libido, it also plays a significant role in such things as mood, cognitive function, memory and energy. Low testosterone can bring on depression, sometimes mild, sometimes quite severe. In a study at the Health and Science University, researchers found that while testosterone-depleted men were able to store information over the short term—along with those who were not deficient—there was a sharp drop after just two minutes.

Low testosterone is also linked to the loss of skeletal muscle and bones, obesity, depression, various forms of arthritis and sexual dysfunction, as well as Alzheimer’s disease. The one that bothers people who take pride in their physical appearance the most seems to be gray fat. When there is an ample supply of testosterone in the system, it is responsible for spreading bodyfat throughout the body, laying it down in the legs, glutes, back, chest, shoulders and arms. When the hormone is in short supply, however, that unwanted fat all accumulates in the lower abdomen—the dreaded gray fat. So even a person who diligently works the lower abs, watches the diet and does plenty of cardio will still appear to have a beer gut.

It’s a no-brainer to get to your doctor and have your testosterone checked out. Replacement therapy is readily available in many forms: oral buccal delivery, which simply means it dissolves in your mouth, pills and capsules, topical gels, transdermal patches and intramuscular injection. Most are covered by insurance and aren’t that expensive.

While that may seem very daunting, it isn’t. You can make the changes over a long period of time. Slowly convert to the higher-reps concept, start building a home gym, ease into a cardio routine, eat fewer carbs while increasing your protein intake, add nutritional supplements to your fitness regimen, and find out if you need some form of testosterone replacement. Take care of your physical self, and your other problems in life will be much easier to handle.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit IM

Limberology 101

Flexibility wanes as we grow older, mostly because we stop doing so many activities that we formerly did that required us to be flexible. We also stop paying attention to stretching out our muscles after exercising them. Flexibility, though, is extremely valuable to everyone, regardless of age. So it should be part of the total fitness package. Even if it’s not possible, for whatever reasons, to regain as much flexibility as you had previously, enhancing it to some degree will benefit you.

It doesn’t have to be a big production—no classes or DVDs required. Simply start stretching more. Stretch between sets while you’re training and for a few minutes after you’ve finished. Stretch tight muscles at night while you’re watching Leno or Letterman. You know which muscle groups tighten up the most, so give them priority, then move on to others so they stay loose. A little disciplined effort will go a long way, and it’s well worth the time spent.

Instantized Creatine- Gains In Bulk

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