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Adding More Repetitions Increases Protein Synthesis In Older Adults

Without question resistance training is quite possibly the most important form of exercise for adults age 65 and older. The reason is simple. Resistance training works to offset the progression of sarcopenia (muscle loss associated with aging).

Aerobic exercise is great, but without resistance work lean muscle wasting will occur due to hormonal shifts and decreased protein synthesis in the body.

It’s no secret that resistance training helps to stabilize testosterone and other hormonal balances while maintaining, or yes even building lean muscle, at any age. The idea that you can’t build muscle once you get to a certain age is a complete myth.

Sure nutrition and recovery strategies need to be adjusted, but with the right training methods muscle growth can and does still occur.

So you need to lift heavy in order to build muscle, right?

Well not so fast, new research is showing that older exercisers respond differently to higher repetition training compared to younger adults.

More after the jump…

Most strength and conditioning coaches and exercise scientists would agree that in order to increase the growth of lean muscle tissue, there must be an overload stimulus placed on the muscle itself.

In general, heavier weights or loads placed on a muscle cause the greatest increase in hypertrophy. Basically, it’s been thought that lighter loads with more repetitions was more for toning and not effective at stimulating growth.

However, it does appear that more repetitions has increased benefits for older adults.

Recent research published in the Journals of Gerontolgy Biological Sciences showed the following:

Researchers has 12 young men (average age 24) and 12 older men (average age 70) do either three or six sets of weighted leg extensions. The scientists then took biopsies of the men’s leg muscles to measure protein synthesis (important for repairing and building muscle).

In the younger men, doubling the number of sets had little or no impact on protein synthesis. However, in the older men, doubling the sets resulted in greater protein synthesis. Interestingly, it didn’t matter whether the men were using moderate or heavier weights.

This can be explained rationally since the sets with less weight had more repetitions than the sets with heavier weights.

Reference: J. Gerontol. A Bio. Sci. Med. Sci. DOI: 10.1093/gerona/gls141

The common denominator…there was increased VOLUME of work on the muscles.

So what does all this tell us?

In my humble professional opinion, I believe this has to do with the fact that older men have less sensitive muscles and need to do more work to activate their protein making machinery.

Let’s face it, there’s a lot of changes in the body of a twenty something and a adult over the age of 65. The tissues become less responsive to hormonal influence as cell receptor affinity decreases.

In simple terms, the muscle cells don’t respond in the same way.

When you’re younger the muscle cells respond very “openly” to insulin, IGF-1, testosterone and other hormones. This impacts the rate of protein synthesis and lean muscle development.

Yeah, when you’re young and you’ve got hormone floating all over the place it’s pretty easy to build and maintain lean muscle with some vigorous physical activity. When you’re older, not so much.

Doesn’t mean you can’t do it, just means the game has changed.

One of the reasons I’m such a proponent of “burst training” for middle age and older adults has everything to do with the hormonal responses produced with short bursts of all-out effort that produces metabolic disturbances.

When you’re younger you’ve got enough hormone (and better receptors at the cellular level) to work in your favor without having to create a metabolic disturbance for a hormonal response.

Let’s just say when you’re older you’ve got to “prime the pumps” a little more to increase hormonal response and protein synthesis.

Does it have to be heavy? Nope.

Does it have to be light weights with more repetitions? Nope.

But what there needs to be is enough “volume of work done” on the muscles to produce a favorable hormonal response.

Truth be told, burst training can create metabolic disturbances with EITHER heavier weights and less repetitions or more moderate loads and higher repetitions.

Notice I didn’t use the word “light.”

You’ll never hear me use the term “light” weight with more repetitions. This creates a misleading idea that the load can be “easy.”

Easy does nothing as the muscle must encounter an overload stimulus of some type in order for an adaptation response to occur.

Regardless of whether you’re doing 5 reps or 20 reps, you need to be exerting considerable effort on the last couple of reps. If you’re not, it’s pretty suffice to say you’re not creating a metabolic disturbance.

Ok, for practical advice with your workouts.

If you’re over the age of 65 or training someone over that age, I’d look to do the following:

1. Use burst training principals to create metabolic disturbances and therefore a favorable hormonal response and increased protein synthesis within the muscle.

2. Alternate between heavier weights or loads and fewer repetitions and more moderate loads with higher repetitions. Either way look to work the muscle with “incomplete” rest periods.

3. Avoid the traditional bodybuilding method of doing a set and waiting 2-3 minutes before repeating another set. Look to incorporate functional movements in-between for active recovery or employ the use of super-sets.

4. Don’t get stuck doing the same “3 sets of 10 reps” for each exercise and mindlessly going through your workouts like a check sheet. When you’ve got a lot of hormone and excellent cell receptor affinity you can get away with this to a degree when you’re younger, but no so much when you’re older.

Bottom line is you’ll have to adjust your training to meet the CURRENT needs of your body.

Sure, any resistance based training is better than no resistance training and you can offset sarcopenia with even a small amount of light (did I just use that word?) weight training.

Even band and bodyweight training with basic movements like push-up’s will go a long way towards maintaining lean muscle.

Just remember, if you want to see “optimal” results you’ll have to train smart to accommodate for the changes in protein synthesis, hormonal decreases, and lowered affinity with the muscle cell receptors.

My advice, use burst training principals to create metabolic disturbances, allow sufficient recovery, and integrate more whey protein into your diet.

A few final words on these last two points…

I’ve found that the older you get the more important it is to provide adequate recovery periods between higher intensity exercise routines. This means keeping the burst training sessions to two-three times per week.

Sure, you can do other functional exercise, stretching, or lower intensity resistance training on the days in-between, but don’t look to go high intensity on back-back days.

Recovery time is increased due to all the hormonal shifts and changes we’ve discussed. Listen to your body and provide recovery when you need it.

On the last point, which will be a subject for a post itself on another day, I highly recommend the use of whey protein in older adults.

The reason is older adults have less sensitive muscles like we’ve discussed. The fast assimilation rate and shorter window with protein synthesis associated with whey protein make it an ideal choice.

Not just with post-workout, but with other meals or snacks during the day.

Ok, that’s a wrap for now. As always feel free to leave any questions or comments below.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides personal fitness training in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation. Sign up today for a no obligations consultation.

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Category: Fitness Training.