It’s 2024, the beginning of a brand new year, and many of us are re-evaluating our fitness goals. You’ve probably considered measuring your cholesterol, your triglycerides, and maybe even your cardiorespiratory fitness. These are examples of common health and metabolic biomarkers. But when was the last time you considered evaluating your muscle health? Not to be overlooked, these mechanical biomarkers are related to muscle health, functionality and longevity.

Our skeletal muscles are biological motors that drive our movements. Muscles help us perform activities of daily living across our lifespan, allow us to continue to engage in the activities we love, and help us respond to unforeseen events in life such as a slip on the ice or a sprint to the bus stop. Consequently, we can think of our muscle strength and power as mechanical biomarkers that have a direct relationship with our functionality and longevity.

Yes, it’s true, muscle strength and power predict our longevity.

You may have thought that muscle strength and power were mechanical biomarkers relevant only to elite athletes looking for that extra performance edge. But as it turns out, our muscle strength, and to an even greater degree our muscle power, predict our functionality with age. Improving these mechanical biomarkers with strength training provides many benefits to our overall health including improved cognition, better metabolic health, more optimal body composition, and protection against slips, trips, and falls. Strength training also protects us against the effects of sarcopenia (literally muscle cell death), dynapenia (muscle strength loss), osteoporosis (bone loss), and tendon degeneration that occurs with aging. One thing is certain: The scientific research is increasingly showing that strength training is as beneficial as cardiorespiratory exercise in many respects, and that our muscle strength and power remain trainable right across the lifespan. Even older adults in their 80s and 90s show substantial responsiveness to strength training and muscle loading.

Strength training is a fountain of youth that confers benefits to nearly all our body systems, and it is increasingly being examined in scientific research across diverse populations that are at risk for impairments to their muscle health. For example, aging and disuse arising
from injury, illness and or physical inactivity cause our muscles to atrophy (become smaller) and our power and strength to decline due to changes in the brain, spinal cord, and muscle.

In the context of aging, there tends to be a larger decrease in the strength and power of our lower-body muscles compared to our upper-body muscles. Also, many sport injuries disproportionately impact the lower body such as Achilles tendon ruptures, Achilles tendon and patellar tendon tendinopathy, hamstring strains and knee ligament ruptures (e.g., anterior cruciate ligament – ACL tears). In all these cases, lower-body strength training can help us prevent the occurrence of these undesirable events and reverse their impact when an injury or impairment is sustained. Our nervous systems and muscles demonstrate incredible plasticity across the lifespan, even after we have sustained illness or injury. And strength training is the medicine.

However, the key to a good strength-training program is a concept called progressive resistance training. Progressive resistance training entails at least three steps. First, we need to define the exerciser’s goals. Second, we need to determine the starting point for the exerciser, namely what type of loading and exercise selection are appropriate given the training history, injury history, and age. And third, we need to determine a plan for progressively increasing the demands of strength training as the exerciser increases their muscle strength over time.

Building from this, the science does not point to a perfect exercise or loading scheme for effective strength training. In fact, research shows that there are several strength training loading strategies and exercises that can help us increase our muscle strength and power, especially for the lower-body muscles. The science has also revised the notion that going to “failure” is necessary for improving muscle strength and hypertrophy. We call this momentary failure the point in a set when the exerciser cannot perform another repetition. In fact, stopping short of momentary failure does not lessen the effectiveness of strength training and might even help us increase our muscle power alongside strength and hypertrophy, especially when we try to accelerate the external load with maximal effort.

A few additional considerations for more effective strength training to improve our muscle strength and power include: Use multi-joint movements (whether that be a machine or free weights), use a controlled eccentric phase tempo (the negative stretching phase when the muscle lengthens), and lift with a fast concentric phase tempo (the positive pushing phase when a muscle shortens). These strategies have been employed with humans of all ages, including older adults in their 80s and 90s. 

Photography by, Opal Photography Boutique and Executive Portraits

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