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Train To Gain: The Old Man and the T

It?s never too late to hit the weights, but watch your testosterone levels

Older men who’ve never trained often ponder the possibility of taking up weight training, particularly given recent publicity about the health benefits of regular weight-training exercise. Until recently, however, most scientists believed that once people got past middle age, their chances of making any significant muscular gains were slim. About the most they could hope to accomplish was to get a bit stronger and perhaps prevent injuries.

That dogma went out the window when studies conducted by exercise scientists from Tufts University in Boston demonstrated conclusively that you can make muscular gains at any age. Early studies of this kind focused on people living in nursing homes, most of whom were there because they were too weak to care for themselves. After a supervised weight-training program even people over 90 years of age made significant gains in leg strength, though their degree of muscle gain wouldn’t cause Ronnie Coleman to lose any sleep. On the other hand, maintaining strength with age is the key to an enhanced quality of life, as well as physical independence.

Still, you can’t totally eliminate the vanity factor when engaging in any activity resembling bodybuilding. A new study examined the effects of weight training on muscle gains and hormone levels in middle-aged and older men.1 Eleven middle-aged men, with an average age of 46, and 11 older men, with an average age of 64, participated in a 16-week weight-training program designed to increase maximum strength and power. All the subjects were healthy, taking no medications and physically active, though none had previously lifted weights.

Although they trained only twice a week, both groups made similar gains initially in muscle strength and size. But after the first eight weeks of training, when training intensity and poundages increased, the younger men continued to make gains while the older men didn’t. That disparity is probably related to a drop in free testosterone levels the older men showed during the final eight weeks of training.

The researchers relate the level of testosterone to the strength gains in both groups, noting that those who maintained optimal testosterone levels gained the most strength. They also suggest that even if blood levels of testosterone remain unaltered by training, as shown by this study (except for the drop in the older men at the end), training may induce beneficial changes at the cellular receptor level for free testosterone. That means training with weights may improve the efficiency with which cells can use testosterone.

The primary lesson of this study is that it’s possible to make muscle and strength gains at any age, though training must be modified if you begin in your older years. IM

1 Izquierdo, M., et al. (2001). Effects of strength training on muscle power and serum hormones in middle-aged and older men. J Appl Physiol. 90: 1497-1507.

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