How Strength Training Can Help Prevent Age-Related Muscle Loss

Adding these moves to your exercise routine could help protect your body from age-related muscle loss.

How to prevent age-related muscle loss

Getting older is inevitable, but you don’t need to resign yourself to the side effects of increasing age. More aches and pains, moving a little more slowly, and losing some of the strength and muscle that help power you through your day aren’t foregone conclusions.

Caring for your body is the best way to resist many of the negative side effects of aging. Specifically, a regular strength training program can help prevent (and even reverse) some of the commonly expected age-related muscle loss.

Here’s what you need to know about age-related muscle loss, including how to combat it with strength training and more.

Yes, you do tend to lose muscle with age

Age-related muscle loss tends to start around 50 years of age, although this varies from person to person.

According to a 2018 study published in Ageing Research Reviews, typical muscle loss accrues at a rate of about 1 percent per year, with severe cases reaching up to a 50 percent loss of total muscle mass by between 80 and 90 years of age.

(Here are other things that cause you to lose muscle.)

Man exercising with dumbbells on a sunny day outsideWavebreakmedia/Getty Images

Muscle loss leads to major problems

It might be hard to wrap your brain around the idea of what a 50 percent loss of muscle mass can do to your daily life, but it’s not good.

This is because it’s not like you just lose 50 percent muscle mass from a single muscle group. Rather, it’s a loss from all muscle groups (although the loss from each individual muscle may vary), which will negatively affect your ability to do just about everything.

“You should work to prevent muscle loss as you age to have the ability to perform activities of daily living,” says certified strength and conditioning specialist Jose Rodriguez, a performance coach with Future, an online training app.

“Without strength, you run the risk of experiencing the negative effects of muscle-loss on human function.”

Walking up and down the stairs, going on a hike, and taking the groceries from the car to the kitchen get harder as you suffer from muscle loss, according to Rodriguez.

“This leads to a higher risk of injury, slower recovery rates, and an overall decreased quality of life,” he says.

As if those issues weren’t enough, Rodriguez adds that ongoing muscle loss also tends to contribute to an increase in fat-mass gain, which may increase your chances of suffering from a chronic illness, like type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or cardiovascular disease.

“Losing muscle not only impacts what you see in the mirror, but how your body internally protects itself,” he says.

So even if you’re not feeling motivated to hit the weights, if you want to protect your lifestyle and health from taking a heavy hit, it’s time to start prioritizing a strength training routine.

Why muscle loss occurs

One very simple reason muscle loss tends to occur with age is that people tend to become less active as they get older.

If, as a young person, you played sports, participated in more outdoor activities, engaged in long walks with your family, or were just generally “on the go,” chances are you were protecting your muscle mass, even if you weren’t aware of it. But as life slows down, a more sedentary lifestyle naturally leads to a loss of muscle mass.

But that’s not the only reason people experience age-related muscle loss.

“Hormonal variance occurs with age,” Rodriguez explains. “For strength loss, that’s a change in anabolic hormones. As you age, whether you’re a man or a woman, a natural decline of testosterone occurs.”

This is the primary hormone that stimulates protein synthesis and muscle growth, according to Rodriguez.

Another factor triggered by hormone changes is anabolic resistance. This lowers a person’s ability to break down and create protein to supply muscle growth, Rodriguez says.

“With both factors, as time passes, our muscle breaks down and leads to diminished strength,” he says.

Preventing age-related muscle loss with strength training

The good news is you don’t have to accept that your golden years will be plagued by progressive weakness.

Protecting the muscles you already have comes down to sticking to a regular, ongoing exercise routine and eating a well-balanced diet, Rodriguez says.

“A training regimen based around strength training two to three times per week is sufficient for slowing down the loss of strength that tends to come with age,” he says.

“Your training routine should focus on multi-joint (compound) movements that use more than one muscle group. This, mixed with some cardio, is a great recipe for a successful attack against strength loss.”

And this type of program isn’t just great for preserving your strength. Staying strong can help preserve your bone mineral density, your power, and your agility.

“You’re likely going to suffer injuries as you live your life to the fullest. Strength training can help ensure that any accidents don’t take you out for too long by helping reinforce bone strength and joint health,” Rodriguez says.

“Plus, losing strength leads to an inability to create force, which impacts power development and how quickly you can move and react in situations that demand your attention.”

This becomes especially important as you get older because slow reflexes and reaction time can lead to falls or other accidents, which become increasingly likely to cause significant, life-altering injuries.

A strength-training program for muscle maintenance

You don’t have to become a bodybuilder or CrossFit athlete to reap the benefits of strength training.

A simple program that involves two to three sessions of total-body strength work per week is a great place to start. Then, you can bolster this program with cardio. Rodriguez says, together, this combination is a major weapon against muscle loss.

He provides the following program as an example of a good, total-body strength training routine. Just make sure you start with a dynamic warm-up to prep your muscles before diving in.

(Try this 5-move dynamic warmup to get you started.)

Dead bugs

Dead Bugs Laura WilliamsCourtesy Laura Williams, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-C

Dead bugs engage your core and help improve cross-body coordination as you move your opposite arms and legs simultaneously.

Lie on a mat on your back, your knees bent, feet on the ground. Extend your arms directly over your chest, your hands pointing to the sky. Engage your core and press your low back into the ground.

Lift your feet from the ground and bend your hips and knees so both are at 90-degree angles so your knees align directly over your hips.

Keeping your core engaged and your hips steady, simultaneously extend your left arm overhead as you extend your right leg toward the floor, pointing in opposite directions. Hold for a beat, then return to center before repeating to the opposite side. Perform three sets of eight repetitions per side.

(Give these core exercises a try.)

Hip lifts

Hip Lifts Laura WilliamsCourtesy Laura Williams, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-C

Hip lifts, also known as glute bridges, engage your core, low back, glutes, and hamstrings.

Lie on your back on your mat, your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, your arms extended at your sides with your palms face down.

Engage your core and glutes and press your hips straight up toward the sky until your hips align with your knees in a diagonal line. Hold for a beat, then reverse the movement, returning your glutes to the mat. Perform three sets of 10 reps.

(Glutes feeling tight? Try these stretches.)

Quick feet

Quick Feet Laura WilliamsCourtesy Laura Williams, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-C

Quick feet are just what they sound like—you try to run in place as fast as you can.

Start with your feet hip-distance apart, your knees and hips slightly bent, your weight on the balls of your feet. Bend your arms at your elbows and stand as though you’re about to start running.

When your timer starts, run in place, pumping your arms as fast as you can as you pick up and set down each foot. Try to keep the balls of your feet close to the ground, your body “light on your feet” to keep the movement fast.

Go at your own pace, and if lifting your feet from the ground is too challenging, keep the balls of your feet affixed to the ground as you alternate lifting and lowering your heels as fast as you can. Perform for 10 seconds before resting for 30 seconds. Complete three sets.

(More cardio moves you can do at home.)

Dumbbell goblet squat to bench

Dumbbell Goblet Squat To Bench Laura WilliamsCourtesy Laura Williams, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-C

A dumbbell goblet squat to a bench is a great way to work on proper squat technique as you strengthen all the major muscle groups of your lower body—your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Based on the dumbbell’s position, you’ll also work on core strength and may even feel engagement through your upper back and shoulders.

Stand tall, directly in front of a bench or sturdy chair, your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, your knees slightly bent, and your toes angled slightly outward. Hold a dumbbell perpendicular to the ground in both hands in the center of your chest, your palms cradling the upper head of the dumbbell as though it were a goblet.

Engage your core, pull your shoulders back, and make sure you’re standing with good posture. From this position, press your hips back to sit down on the bench, bending your hips, then your knees to steadily squat down. Keep your chest lifted high with your elbows pointing downward.

When your glutes touch the bench, your elbows should be able to touch the inside of your knees. From here, reverse the movement, press through your heels, and return to standing. Perform three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.

(Incorporate these leg stretches before and after your workout.)

Elevated pushups

Elevated Push Up Laura WilliamsCourtesy Laura Williams, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-C

An elevated pushup works all the muscles a regular pushup works—your chest, shoulders, triceps, and core—but makes the movement more accessible if you lack the upper body strength to perform a regular pushup.

Using a bench or a sturdy piece of furniture, place your palms on the object directly beneath your shoulders. Step your feet back, balancing on the balls of your feet, so your body forms a straight line from heels to head.

Engage your core to keep your hips from sagging. From here, bend your elbows, making sure they point out and back at roughly 45-degree angles from your body (making an arrow shape) as you lower your chest toward the bench.

When your chest is a few inches away from touching down, reverse the movement, press through your palms, and return to the starting position. Perform three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.

(Mix things up with these chest exercises.)

Three-point row

3 Point Row Laura WilliamsCourtesy Laura Williams, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-C

A three-point row refers to the “tripod” position you use to perform the dumbbell row, supported by your legs and one arm. The exercise works your upper back, shoulders, core, and even your legs and biceps as you maintain the position needed to perform the exercise correctly.

Stand facing a bench or sturdy object. Place a dumbbell on the ground between your feet and the bench. Position your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart.

Engage your core and bend over, placing your right hand on the bench. Bend your knees, engage your core, and roll your shoulders back to ensure you have good posture in this bent-over position. Once you start the exercise, it’s important that your shoulders remain square and at the same height; you don’t want one twisting toward the ground or the sky.

Reach down with your right hand and pick up the dumbbell. Reset with your right hand hanging straight down from your shoulder, your shoulders square and perpendicular to the ground, your core engaged and straight. Keeping your torso steady, bend your elbow, drawing the dumbbell straight up to your chest. Hold for a count, then carefully lower the dumbbell back down. Perform three sets of eight to 12 repetitions per side.

(Strengthen your back even more with these moves.)

Plank

Plank Exercise for strength trainingCourtesy Laura Williams, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-C

Position yourself on a mat with your body straight, your core engaged, your elbows under your shoulders, your hands pointing straight ahead. Fully extend your legs. Support your weight with your forearms and the balls of your feet.

Check your form to make sure your body is forming a straight line from heels to head. Avoid allowing your low back to sag or your hips to point up toward the ceiling. Hold the plank for 20 seconds and complete four sets, allowing 30 seconds of rest between each set.

(Mix things up with these plank variations.)

Mountain climbers

Mountain Climbers Exercise For Strength TrainingCourtesy Laura Williams, M.S.Ed., ACSM EP-C

Mountain climbers offer a quick bout of cardiovascular exercise that also helps work on power and agility.

Start in a full pushup position on your mat, your palms under your shoulders, your legs extended, and your body forming a straight line from heels to head.

From this position, draw one knee toward your chest, planting the ball of your foot on the ground. This is your starting position. From here, you’ll jump your feet back and forth, alternating their position. So if you start with your right foot forward, you’ll jump both feet into the air, extending your right leg and drawing your left leg forward.

As soon as both feet touch the ground, immediately jump back into the air again, switching their positions. Continue alternating positions for 10 seconds. Complete four sets, allowing 30 seconds of rest between each set.

If performing a standard mountain climber starting in a standard pushup position is too difficult, you can perform them on an elevated surface, stepping your feet back and forth, rather than jumping them.

Now that you know about age-related muscle loss, check out these ab exercises.

Sources
  • Jose Rodriguez, NSCA CSCS, a performance coach at Future, an online training app
  • Ageing Research Reviews: "The age-related loss of skeletal muscle mass and function: Measurement and physiology of muscle fibre atrophy and muscle fibre loss in humans"

Laura Williams Bustos, MS, ACSM EP-C
I'm a fitness expert with a master's degree in exercise science and certifications in exercise physiology, yoga, sports nutrition, sports conditioning, behavioral change, and youth fitness. I've written professionally in the field for more than 10 years, with bylines in Men's Journal, VerywellFit, Runner's World, Health, LiveStrong, Onnit, Bodybuilding.com, and Thrillist. I'm also the author of the internationally-published book, Partner Workouts, published by DK Books. In addition to writing about health and fitness, I worked as a professor of exercise science for three years.