Well I think the may thing is that the training methods that work best to maximize muscle growth might also speed up the aging process.
This is something I’ve only recently started paying more attention as I’m getting older and made some realisation through careful analysis of my own progress over the years. More about that later.
One thing I believe is that to maximize growth you also need to maximize mTOR activation. You CAN gain muscle without maximizing it, but it wont be as rapid.
Here’s the thing… I also believe (after talking with a M.D. specialized in the aging process) that mTOR activation can also speed up the aging process by speeding up the cell turnover of many many cells in your body. It can also speed up the development of cancerous cells.
So I do think that once you are past a certain age it is worth asking yourself if continuing to pile on more and more muscle tissue is more important than aging well.
Furthermore it is my belief that we all have our own limit as to how much muscle we can naturally carry. I’m not necessarily referring to the “maximal lean body mass formulas out there”, but to the fact that every body has a set limit to how much overall muscle we can support.
When we have reached that limit we can still continue to improve performance, get leaner, making small gains in overall mass but mostly we can change how we carry the overall muscle we have by emphasizing some muscles more than others.
Here are some thoughts I had on that topic:
There are somethings that I’d rather not say because it’s not what people want to hear. But I’m not a cheerleader; my job is not to sell you sunshine and rainbows but to give you tools to fulfill your own potential.
So even though it will not be pleasant to some here is something I found to be true.
Each of us has a certain genetic limit to the amount of muscle tissue we can carry naturally (without the use of performance-enhancing drugs). I don’t know exactly what determines it (myostatin? Testosterone levels? Genes? Skeletal system?) but I absolutely believe that such a limit exists.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t keep on progressing.
I’ll illustrate what I mean with my own example.
From 1998 to 2002 I trained and competed as an Olympic lifter. I was really strong in the lower body with a front squat of 220kg (485lbs) a back squat of 270kg (595lbs), a Zercher squat from pins (starting 1” below the knees) of 250kg (550lbs) and a pin pull from 1” above the knees of 1000lbs. My upper body strength wasn’t as high, I could barely bench 315 for example. I was built like a traffic cone: huge legs, thick back and traps, small arms and chest… and I was 215-220lbs.
I then switched to more of a powerlifting program, training a lot like the Westside Barbell crew. My arms, especially triceps, delts and chest grew a lot. My bench press went up to 180kg (398lbs)… and I was 215-220.
In 2005-2006 I decided to compete in bodybuilding. My upper body continued to get larger, my legs were downsized (to be honest I was sick of squatting 2-6 times per week!) but were now in balance with my upper body. While I was 190lbs on stage, my “lean but not ripped” weight was … 215-220.
5 years ago I played around with gymnastic training, following the progression explained in “Gymnastic bodies”. I did that for 6 months. My biceps, lats and delts were great. Legs were downsized, chest might have come down a bit… and I was 215.
4 years ago I decided to do Crossfit. Mostly to share an activity with my wife, but eventually it became my full time training for about 4-5 months. My arms and pecs got a bit smaller but the whole body was well balanced and athletic… and I was 215.
Fast forward to this year; at the beginning of the year I started focusing on the Olympic lifts again. My physique once again changed. Traps, legs and abs got thicker… and I was still 215!
Then I had to get in shape for a photoshoot. So I trained like a bodybuilder again for about 5 months and I did less leg training. Arms, chest and shoulders drastically improved. I ended up being 202lbs in the pictures but I was 215 “lean but not ripped” before I started to diet down.
Now I’m training for performance using strength-skill circuits; I also do a small amount of bodybuilding work. I don’t have body parts that stand out now, but everything flows better and is in balance… but I’m still 215!
So basically, my overall muscle mass stayed pretty much the same (maybe a small improvement since I am leaner on average) for the past 10 years or so. And it’s not like I don’t know how to train; I am great at getting results for performance and muscle mass. I pretty much never skip workouts and I always train hard and smart. So the only conclusion I can make is that my body is not designed to carry more muscle than what gives me a fairly lean 215lbs or very lean 200lbs body.
Oh I was bigger at times. I was 225-228 in some pictures for T-nation from about 6 years ago. But to be honest it was a lot of water retention. Lucky for me I tend to retain more water inside the muscles than beneath the skin, so it makes my muscles look bigger and fuller. But I had to eat like crazy, became physically uncomfortable and my body couldn’t sustain that weight for a long time. I also got heavier the few times I tried steroids. But under normal circumstances, regardless of my training style, I seem to be limited to being 215 lean. But the way I train can totally change how that 215 looks.
Trust me, I did try to force growth by eating more, a lot more. I did get “heavier”… up to 235 and even hit 245 at one time but was pretty fat. At 235 I looked thick and solid… looked great with a t-shirt… but not so much without one… when I decided to drop the fat, I would go back down to 215!
So what I realize is that I have three choices:
Continue to be hard-headed, doing everything I can to try to beat my physiology and get bigger… likely getting much fatter and hurting my health and longevity
Take steroids and growth hormone to get past my natural limit; also endangering my health (especially considering my health issues)
Be satisfied with the overall amount of muscle I carry and focus on making small tweaks to change my overall look and put more emphasis on improving performance and well-being.
To me the choice is very simple!
I’m focusing more methods that minimize mTOR activation, improves systemic function, target an improvement in the physical capacities that are lost first as we get older (speed, power, strength). And then add a very small amount of localized hypertrophy work, only on the muscles I want to emphasize to get the type of look I want.
So for most of my workout:
I de-emphasise the eccentric (1/3rd of my lifting is olympic lifts, 1/6th is deadlifts where I drop the bar on every rep. I also do prowler and farmer’s walk)
I keep reps low to minimize reliance on muscle glycogen (which spikes cortisol release) so my sets for most of my workout are 2 or 3 per set.
I focus on fairly heavy BUT not maximal work to avoid creating excessive inflammation and CNS stress. I start my training cycle with 80% on my main movements (for 2-3 reps) and progress really slowly.
I do most of my work as a circuit to improve cardiac output. Again to improve my overall health. Its not an endurance circuit, there is still 60-90 sec between exercises… enough to maintain performance but also to keep my heart rate elevated.
I do jumps and throws to maintain power
I avoid methods maximizing mTOR activation on big movements as I believe that these will really speed up the aging process. I limit these methods to a small amount of isolated work and only for what I want to emphasize.