Atrophy and the over 40’s

Ok – so your in your 40’s and caught sight of yourself in a mirror and thought wow I look like a sack of spuds – how the hell did that happen? Maybe your next thoughts are to exercise furiously to regain that body and vigor of your youth – well just hang on for a moment.

My experience and reading about exercise over 25 years tells me that getting and maintaining fitness in your 40’s is just not the same as it is in your teens or early twenties. A very important fact is that if you are over 40 and decide to do something about your fitness you need to be very aware of something that appears to overlooked by most – that of muscle atrophy.

Atrophy is when through lack of use a muscle begins to lose mass and weaken. Atrophy is pretty insidious it creeps up on you until one day you call upon certain muscles into action and then find they are not capable anymore. The result of atrophy when you start a new exercise is nearly always the same, you get an injury. Now when you were younger injuries just seemed to clear up really quick but in your 40’s you will find the healing process can be a lot longer, weeks and months depending on what damage you have done. So what the best way to proceed?

  1. You need to know what muscles are used when carrying out any particular exercise
  2. Start with low weight and low repetitions
  3. Concentrate on correct form – the way you carry out the exercise

Knowing which muscles you will call upon to complete any specific exercise – as a start I would recommend  –  Strength Training Anatomy by Frederic Delavier. If you are serious about getting fit and avoiding crippling injury you need to focus on this information. When you know what muscles you will be using then you can test them by targeting with specific exercises. By following this slow and progressive approach you will often discover major deficiencies in particular muscles. Once safely identified you can then focus on strengthening these weaker muscles before progressing onto complex exercises that call upon many individual muscles and groups.

Whenever you start a new exercise no matter it it is body weight like pull-ups, dips or push-ups or machine or free weights start with low number of repetitions and or low weight. You need to focus completely on the way the exercise is using your muscles. Be tuned to any pull or strain while carrying out an exercise and listen to your body communicating with you. The day following a new exercise is education day. How do you feel? Any strain or pain will focus you on muscles that are weak and will will need specific attention to strengthen.

To carry out an exercise correctly you need to concentrate on something called form. If you want to know what bad form looks like pop over to YouTube and type in “Gym fails”. Good form means that you can carry out each repetition of an exercise in a completely controlled manner. Imagine a robot doing the exercise – smooth and mechanical. The only time your form should waver is on the final repetitions in the final set of your exercise were your muscles are tired and you are approaching exhaustion.

So to summarise, remember by the time you reach your 40’s muscle atrophy has probably occurred and this can drastically affect your performance and be a a pathway to injury. Analyse any new exercise to determine what muscles you will be using and then test each with a low weight/repetition targeted exercise. Always complete exercises in a smooth controlled manner. Don’t be tempted to ‘see what I can do’, OK for 20 year old’s a trip to A & E for you.