Functional Hypertrophy and the Ageing Athlete

The number one thing I work on with clients is maintaining athleticism as we age. My guys are all pretty hard charging, fit, older guys. The kind of guys who embody old man strength and definitely do not fit in the dad bod basket.

So how do I accomplish that?

The first step is in training the forty-plus year old athlete so successfully is identifying the changes occurring as they age, and modifying programs accordingly.

Often the first downturn in performance happens in the mid to late thirties. To be honest, this little slide is noticeable but isn’t like the sliding off a cliff face that happens later on. For me, the first really noticeable downturn was at 38. Suddenly I felt the cold for the first time and staying lean was harder. Muscle soreness after exercise was increased. And that was for regular workouts. If I did a new movement that I wasn’t accustomed to the soreness was next level.

But then you hit your forties and things start to make more noticeable and frequent downturns. First at 38, and then at 43, and 45 things have taken a few noticeable steps back. What are these steps I’m speaking of that may affect older athletes?

VO2max can decline
Max heart rate is reduced
The volume of blood the heart can pump with each heartbeat is reduced
Muscle fibers are lost, resulting in decreased muscle mass and/ or strength
Aerobic enzymes in muscles become less effective and abundant making fat loss harder
Blood volume is reduced

That all sounds very gloom and doom however having spent my entire life as an experimental crash test dummy I can safely say that it doesn’t have to be that way. In the last five years I’ve managed to keep my body fat levels the same, gain 6kg of muscle, and keep my VO2 the same as it was at my peak for Ironman in 2013. So how did I do that?

As I said above, the first steps in successfully navigating these possible backsteps is in being aware of them. One of the problems with what is thought to happen with ageing and what can actually happen is the population that the research is based on. Our grandparents, who this research is based on, lived very different lives to us. As an example, not so long ago doctors told people over forty to stop exercising and take it easy. These days they’re rightly encouraged to do so and you can see the huge change when you look at Masters’ level competition. The men’s 40-44 age group at an Ironman event will likely have a winner only half an hour behind the top pro winner. The Masters’ World Championships for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the biggest competition in the world, far eclipsing the open world championships for participation. These days, it’s quite normal to find fit forty-year olds. So that is going to significantly change what you see in research over the next twenty years.

The key point here is that if you stay active you can offset much of the negatives associated with ageing as long as you correctly identify the biggest issues associated with ageing that can’t be changed.

For instance, connective tissue becomes less elastic as you age. There’s nothing you can do about that, even with hormone therapy. You just lose some of your bounce as you age. So some exercise options, like sprints and jumping, can be fraught without disaster if the body isn’t properly conditioned. I have clients who perform these types of activity but we’ve spent two years or more building them up to deal with them. They are not drills for beginners or casual exercise enthusiasts, despite what fitness magazines will tell you.

The loss of enzymes that utilise fat is a much bigger issue as it means that older trainees will often carry more weight because their ability to burn fat is impacted. That’s further hampered by the use of most calorie charts as they over estimate calorie usage in older athletes. Metabolism decreases by 1-2% per decade after twenty years old. By forty then you will have somewhere between a 3-5% deficit versus what the charts tell you. It doesn’t sound like much but a 5% difference is enough to gain 1kg of fat every two weeks. If you’re over forty and you’ve been eating the same and training is stable but you find yourself struggling to stop that slow, constant weight gain this is why.

That’s easily fixed with the use of smart aerobic training. That’s the good thing about aerobic work – firstly, it burns far more calories than any other workout can. Forget HIIT, forget EPOC as none of that pans out when you look at what the research really says on both. What you’re looking for is something that is sustainable and can be done year round, and moderate, steady state aerobic work is it. The second notable thing about moderate steady state work is that it actually encourages the body to make sure that you keeo plenty of those fat burning enzymes. HIIT doesn’t do that.

The magic thing that people miss about steady state work is the rough percentage of maximal effort that it ends up being. The magic number is 70%. You see this magic 70% number turn up again and again when it comes to training. And this brings us nicely to functional hypertrophy work for the ageing athlete.

As we get older it’s really important to rid ourselves of some of the stupidity of the fitness industry. Don’t forget this is an industry that was built off the back of bodybuilding and the sham supplements that were designed to help people try to pack on muscle. However, if you strip away all the ills of bodybuilding what you really have is a desire to be muscular and lean, and those aren’t bad goals. The caveat is that as we get older, because of our slower metabolism there needs to be a conscious effort not to fall into the trap of the endless bulking cycle that many guys seem to be in. There are a lot of fat, older guys walking about with imaginary watermelons under their arms thinking how swole they are. No mate, you’re fat, and at your age it’s a bad idea. All that perma bulking cycle ends up doing is sending you to the doctors for a chat about your blood pressure, cholesterol, visceral fat levels, and how being overweight has crashed whatever remains of your testosterone levels.

So how big should you be? The answer is simple – you need to be strong and muscular and get away from that size at all costs mentality that many guys get sucked into. Think Spider Man, not The Hulk. Because I hate to break it to you – if it hasn’t happened at forty, it isn’t going to happen. All you’re really doing is stuffing yourself one hamburger closer to that impending heart attack (because these guys never want to do any actual cardiovascular work because they’re worried about losing all their gains).

So what kind of rep ranges should older guys be doing?

This is where it gets really interesting. On a continuum from 1 rep to 15 there are a lot of different possible results that you can get based on what you choose. These results all come about from various types of strength training. Did you know that there is more than one kind of strength? There’s maximal strength, absolute strength, relative strength, speed strength, starting strength, strength endurance, and even a thing called general strength.

All of these types of strength have a blend of what is known as metabolic and neural components. The easiest way to think about what those terms mean is that metabolic components change something within the muscle, such as the number of mitochondria, or even the size of the muscle cell itself. Neural changes are more like swapping the connection from the brain to the muscle from dial up internet to cable. The stronger the neural connection the more strongly that muscle fiber can contract. And all of these types of strength, and all the rep ranges that correspond to them, have varying degrees of each.

So how do you pick the best rep ranges for a forty-year old athlete?

This again goes back to having a think about what is likely to damage an older body. An older spine isn’t going to appreciate max effort reps in the 1-3 range on the squat and the deadlift. Elbows and shoulders will complain in those ranges on exercises like bench press too. The best crossover for strength and muscle gain (both neural and metabolic properties) happens in the 5-8 rep range. But again, too much time spent there performing multiple exercises, will eventually cause joint and tendon issues.

What about that magic 70% number? What happens there? Well, 70% when it comes to strength training is that general strength thing typified by 10 reps per set. Strangely we see that a lot in bodybuilding rep ranges. The difference here is that instead of using it for isolation work we will continue using it for compound work like bench press or similar. It allows a lot of joint friendly reps to be performed and helps keep as much muscle as possible to offset the ageing issue. We even use circuit type work here not discriminating between bodyweight or resistance training with external load. To be honest, it’s the rep range I care about, not what the exercise looks like.

It’s always funny to me when people blast hypertrophy work (ie bodybuilding rep ranges) as being non-functional. Well, if you stand still in a gym, or just sit on machines, and that’s all the activity you do then perhaps you won’t be very functional. But I don’t train those guys. My guys may be standing still in the gym doing supposedly non-functional exercises but on their days out of the gym they’re running, boxing, climbing, and generally kicking ass and looking amazing doing so.

You see, function is not about what an exercise looks like but about how it helps you perform. People say squats are functional. Maybe. But past a certain age squatting with a decent weight is going to make you feel like crap, and that’s not going to lead you to do a lot of other activity. So how is that functional? To be honest, a lot of older guys would be better off performing something like moderate load kettlebell goblet squats in their warm up to maintain that movement, and then do the majority of their leg work on the leg press or with lunges. I know it may sound heretical but I’ve got the results to prove it. In fact, I doubt anyone in the world has more forty-year old guys with six-packs crushing athletic events. And the best part is we’re doing it without pain and in all cases so far having been able to remove blood pressure and cholesterol medication.

So what are the takeaways?

Keep body fat low through eating strictly.
Help maintain cardiovascular fitness and low levels of bodyfat with moderate, frequent aerobic sessions.
Perform one key lift per pattern per week in the 5-8 rep range.
Perform 2-3 exercises per pattern per week in the 10 rep range to maintain joint health, muscle mass, and stay injury free.
The majority of your training should be around the 70% average intensity mark for best effect year round.