Yes. A 70-year-old can still build muscle. Seniors can build muscle, improve balance, and get even stronger as they get older.
For older adults who haven’t lifted weights before, or, where it’s been several years since you’ve touched a weight, you can actually be stronger next year than you are right now.
That’s pretty insane to think about, right?
Popular culture tells you that it’s just an inevitable decline until you’re in a nursing home.
Thankfully, that’s not true at all!
How does building muscle actually work in seniors?
The same exact mechanisms that were at play when you were younger apply to you now.
The physiology hasn’t changed.
As you workout with weights, you place stress on the muscle.
That stress causes microtears at the muscle fiber level which stimulates protein to be brought to the slightly damaged muscle.
That protein then lays down on top of the microtear and begins to rebuild the muscle.
Once you’ve accumulated many months of training and enough of this micro-tearing and rebuilding, your muscles will get larger.
This larger muscle generally is able to produce more force as there is a larger cross-sectional area which is important for force production.
In addition to being stronger, you will likely also be able to move faster, which is an important component in preventing falls in older adults. Here’s an article I wrote about preventing falls for seniors that you can read.
Is there an optimal amount of dietary protein for muscle building in seniors?
There have been numerous studies on this topic. The recommendation for most people is 1 gram per pound of lean body mass all the way up to 2 grams per pound of lean body mass.
The way to calculate lean body mass is to get your body fat percentage, multiply that times your bodyweight, and then subtract total bodyweight from the weight in pounds of body fat.
That would be how much protein would be optimal to grow muscle.
How to get that much protein in your diet?
Protein shakes, lean meat like chicken, fish, eggs, and a mix of protein dense vegetables will get you to a point where you are high enough in protein consumption.
How many sets and reps should you do to build a muscle group?
According to several studies, the optimal range of sets per muscle group per week should be 10-20 sets.
For example, if you want to build your quadricep muscles (front of the thigh), you could do 5 sets of 10 reps of squats, 2 times per week.
You could also do 3 sets of 10 of squats twice per week, and 2 sets of leg extensions two times per week and confer a similar benefit.
20 sets, of course, will stimulate more muscle growth, however, this is quite a bit and will require a gradual build-up to that amount.
Additionally, it’s important to note that each of these sets needs to be close to failure, i.e an RPE 8 or 9.
If you are uncertain of what the RPE scale is I recommend you read this article about the rating of perceived exertion and what that means.
How to fit in 10-20 sets of exercise per muscle group per week?
Compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, bent over rows, bench press, and shoulder press are great exercises because they hit most of the major muscle groups so you don’t have to spend inordinate amounts of time doing accessory exercises.
Now, if you enjoy spending time in the gym then by all means, please do compound and accessory movements.
Compound exercise: Works multiple muscle groups across multiple joints.
Accessory or single joint exercise: works one muscle through one joint at a time.
The only benefit of doing accessory exercises is that it’s generally easier to go close to failure on an exercise as you don’t have to worry about form quite as much and the weight is much lighter.
With compound exercises, it’s likely that you will have to stop before you reach a failure point due to form failure, not muscular failure.
So if you’re strapped for time and your focus is muscular growth, compound exercises are the way to go.
If you’ve got time and are looking for the most amount of muscle growth, then isolation/accessory exercises combined with compound movements will be best.
What type of exercise should seniors do to build muscle?
This question is beyond the scope of this article however I wrote another one about the best strength training exercises for seniors that you can read. 8 Exercises To Try For Seniors