In normal times, ‘dad strength’ (or mum strength) is one of the perks of ageing: strength takes a long time to build and almost as long to lose, meaning that a lifetime of moderately challenging physical tasks can see most people keep their strength well into middle age.
Over a third of over-55s have seen their strength decline, while a further 37 per cent are doing less exercise – making them the age group most likely to have lost strength. This is a health risk, and not just because strength protects your body from decline – resistance training also seems to be protective against Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative conditions.
Over-50s need a ‘Joe Wicks-style’ exercise initiative, amid data that found a third have lost strength in the last year.
We need to see urgent action taken to reverse this trend, or we risk seeing serious consequences for people’s long-term health in the years ahead. Good muscle strength is crucial to staying healthy and active, and preventing falls as we enter later life.
The keys to an effective strength training plan are rest and progression. The first one is good news: working out for strength means doing challenging movements with relatively long rests in between, allowing you to fully recover between efforts. It also means there’s no need to train every day.
As for progression, this just means you need a way to make the exercises harder. For most movements, you’re still building strength when the most reps you can manage in a single set stays in the 3-12 range: much over that, and you’ve moved over to muscular endurance.
Finally, you need to make sure you’re hitting every bit of your body if possible by making sure you push, pull, squat, and load-carry (carrying heavy shopping, for example). In an ideal world you’d also add a hip-hinge (the thing you do when you swing a kettlebell or deadlift anything off the ground), but that’s a bit more fraught, so focus on the basics to start with.
With that in mind, here’s a plan to get your strength back on track over the next few weeks (or, if you like, longer). There are two workouts, A and B, which you should aim to alternate: either do both in the same week, or do ABA one week and BAB the next, taking at least one rest day between sessions. Start with the simplest variation of each movement that you can manage: once you can hit the top of the recommended rep range, switch to a more difficult one in your next workout.
1. Push (horizontal): 5-10 reps, 3 sets
Easy: Wall press-up
Medium: Incline press-up
2. Pull: 5-10 reps, 3 sets
Bent-over row with weights, cans or 2-litre milk jugs.
3. Squat (two-legged): 8-12 reps, 4 sets
Easy: Doorway squat
Medium: Bodyweight squat
Hard: Rucksack squat
4. Carry: 20 minutes, 2 sets
1. Push (vertical): 5-10 reps, 3 sets
Easy: Wall angel
Medium/Hard: Overhead press with cans, milk jugs, dumbbells or a rucksack
2. Curl: 5-10 reps, 3 sets
Biceps curls with cans, bands or a rucksack.
3. One-legged squat variation: 8-12 reps, 4 sets
Easy: Split squat
Hard: Rucksack lunge
4. Carry: 10m each side, 2 sets
Don’t push any of this, and consult a professional in advance if you have any doubts about your ability to manage any of these movements. You should rest for 1-2 minutes after every set, and stop every set well short of ‘failure’ – if you find yourself grinding out slower and slower reps, stop rather than push through. Think of it like a virtual version of doing all the stuff you’d ordinarily have been doing over the last year: a few simple movements, every so often, that will keep you in shape for the second half of your life.
How to eat your way to better strength
After the age of 50, we begin to gradually lose muscle mass, at between 0.5-1 per cent per year. This is called sarcopenia, and reduced physical activity, too little protein, and the menopause all contribute to this decline. And reduced muscle mass means less strength and a slower metabolism.
The adage ‘use it or lose it’ has never been truer than when applied to bone and muscle strength, but changing how – and what – you eat can also make a big impact on strength.
Building and maintaining muscle mass, especially as we age, can help to prevent weakness, fatigue and potential injuries. Eating a healthy diet with a good amount of fruits and vegetables can support bone health.
Although most people consider calcium as the main nutrient for bones, B vitamins, vitamin K, vitamin C, copper, magnesium and many more also contribute to bone health.
Lenherr suggests adding dairy products as “a rich source of calcium to help build and protect bones”, tofu – “a plant-based source of calcium”, oily fish – which is “a source of omega 3 fats and vitamin D that contribute to bone health” and green leafy vegetables, such as kale and spinach, as “these contain vitamin K”.
We all know protein is great for building and maintaining muscle, but new evidence suggests older people’s need for higher-protein foods is not being met and current dietary recommendations for protein intake could be insufficient.
Some studies suggest that protein requirements should increase to 1.2 to 2g of protein per kg of body weight. In practical terms, this could include replacing your typically carb-heavy breakfast of toast and cereal, with protein rich eggs. Lenherr also recommends topping yoghurt and salads with almonds, and to include high protein foods at every meal, for example eggs, chicken, cheese, Greek yoghurt, fish and quinoa. Another tip is to add peanut butter to fruit to boost its protein content.