QUESTION: “Dear Dr Neal, I just want to thank you for your podcast. I have been listening to it for the last four years. Please, promise me you will never stop. I am 32 years old and I have been working out consistently (6 times a week) for the last 10 years. I like doing cardio and callisthenic workouts. I have noticed that my strength is not as good as it used to be. So, my question is: “Do you know when muscular strength starts to decrease? Do you think that when we experience this reduced strength, we should rest more often? Best wishes.”
DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question, and thank you so much for your kind words and for being a long-time listener. I’m thrilled that you find the show so helpful.
The timing of your question is so perfect because earlier this week, I read a two-part post from Kate Galliet titled, “You Can’t Have All the Fitness All the Time” (those were episodes 1243 and 1244). In those episodes, we talked about how we have to prioritize our fitness goals.
So, let’s talk about how it relates your question specifically.
When Do We Start To Experience Decreased Muscular Strength?
First, you asked whether there is a specific time in our lives when we start to see decreases in our muscular strength.
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Unfortunately, yes, we do see this starting to occur in our late 20s. So, when men and women start to reach the ages of 27, 28, and 29 years, our muscles begin to atrophy. This means that our muscle cells start to get smaller and smaller.
If our muscles are getting smaller then that means our muscular strength will suffer as well.
What’s even more unfortunate is that, as we age, our muscles continue to atrophy, or shrink in size. Now this all sounds pretty dire, but the good news is that we can slow this process down.
We can’t reverse this process completely, but again, we can slow it down.
Prioritizing Muscular Strength
You mentioned that you are exercising about 6 days a week. The focus of these workouts has been performing cardiovascular activities.
What I would recommend (and probably Kate Galliet as well based on her posts from earlier this week) is to refocus some of your attention away from cardio and toward strength training specifically.
So, instead of performing cardio 6 days a week, maybe perform cardio 4 days a week and dedicate the other 2 days to strength training.
You may be asking, “Just 2 days of strength training a week?? Is that enough??” No, but it’s a good starting point. You don’t want to dedicate too much time to strength training if you’re new to it.
In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine provides specific recommendations for those that are new to strength training and for building larger muscles.
Before I get to those recommendations, you may also be asking, “But if I cut back on my cardio, won’t my cardiovascular endurance suffer?” Yes.
But, as Kate Galliet explained earlier this week, this is very normal. As Kate said:
“We can’t have all the fitness all the time.”
Instead, we have to prioritize our workouts and be okay with the fact that some of our other fitness goals may take a back seat to our new goals.
So, in your case, this may mean that, for right now, you may have to be okay with making your cardiovascular fitness less of a priority.
Strength Training Recommendations
Ok, back to the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations.
For those that are new to strength training, they recommend that you dedicate only 2 days per week to start. Be sure to skip a day in between strength training sessions.
So if your first strength training workout is on a Monday, then your next strength training workout shouldn’t be until Wednesday at the earliest.
Now, what specific exercises should you do?
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, we need to start by focusing on all the big muscle groups. That means we want to perform 1 to 2 sets of exercises for the shoulders, chest, arms, back, and legs.
For someone that wants to build strength, it is recommended that you aim to use heavy weights and only lift them 3-5 times for each set. I need to mention that this recommendation isn’t great for someone that may be new to strength training. This is because lifting heavy weights without experience is a sure-fire way to get injured.
Instead, I would recommend that you start by lifting lighter weights 8-12 times until you get used to the movements.
I know that, because of the pandemic, it may not be a great idea to hire a personal trainer at the moment, but organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, and the National Academy of Sports Medicine post some wonderful instructional videos online.
Here are some of their strength training videos:
1. Exercise is Medicine™-Strength-Aerobic Exercise by ACSM
2. Avoid Strength Training Plateaus by ACE
3. Low Impact Bodyweight Exercises to Do at Home by NASM
* Editor's Note: The American Council on Exercise has a great article on Tips for Exercising at Home With YouTube, on videos to avoid and videos to watch.
These videos can show you how to perform these exercises using proper form. Once you start getting used to performing exercises for the major muscle groups correctly and performing 8-12 repetitions of each, you can then think about adding more weight to make the lifts heavier.
But you don’t want to add too much weight too quickly.
A good general rule of thumb when it comes to upper body exercises, like chest, shoulders and upper back exercises is to add no more than 5 lbs., or about 2.5 kg, at a time.
Let’s say you’re performing a chest exercise like a bench press. You find that you can lift 135 lbs., or about 61.5 kg, 8 times with no problem. This means, you are probably ready to add some weight to make the lift heavier. To be safe, it would be best to only increase the weight of the bench press by 5 lbs. or 2.5 kg total. So, the next time you attempt the lift, it should weigh no more than 140 lbs. or about 64 kg. If this new weight can be lifted another 8 times without any problem, then you can add another 5 lbs. or 2.5 kg and so on.
When it comes to adding weight to lower body exercises, like squats for example, we can be a little more lenient. That’s because the legs contain larger muscles and are used to handling heavier weights. The rule of thumb here is to add no more than 20 lbs., or about 9 kg, at a time.
Muscular Strength: The Bottom Line
So, here are the main takeaways. Yes, our muscles do begin to decrease in size as we get older. This usually starts in our late 20s and continues as we age.
But we can slow this process down by lifting weights. If we really want to build strength, then we need to think about eventually lifting heavy weights – weights that we can only lift 3-5 times.
I know that lifting weights may decrease the amount of time you spend performing cardio, but if getting stronger is one of your goals, then I think it’s worth it.