In this post we look at how to get strong after 50, even if you suffer with aches, pains and muscle tightness.
You’ve probably read that maintaining your muscle mass as you age is a critical factor in staying healthy.
Resistance training is widely acknowledged as the most effective way to achieve this.
What if you suffer with aches, pains and restrictions in motion and you’re concerned about making them worse however?
Are you moving in ever decreasing circles?
Few people make it to 50 without having something going on with their bodies.
In fact the more active you’ve been over your life, the more issues you’re likely to suffer with.
This is particularly true if you’ve played sport. And especially true if that was a contact sport.
Previous injuries can leave restrictions in range of movement and muscle weakness that you’ve probably managed to compensate around over the years.
These lingering effects become more noticeable when you exercise however.
You may have found you’re moving in ever decreasing circles. The more exercise you do, the worse you feel. And the worse you feel, the less you can do the next time.
You want to exercise but you don’t want to feel worse for having done it.
So what’s going on?
Understand the problem to find the solution.
Einstein said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.
So let’s spend some time identifying what the issue Is here.
Superficially, you exercise and you feel worse.
Got it. But let’s dig deeper.
What does worse mean? What are its physical manifestations?
I would guess pain and restrictions in range of motion, or muscle tightness.
We know that pain is a symptom and is best thought of as an alarm system. It tells you something is wrong, but it’s not usually specific enough to tell you what.
That leaves us with restrictions in range of motion as an objective measure.
These might be difficult to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but the sensations of muscle tightness are unmistakable.
Your overall motion feels restricted, like you’re moving with the brakes on. You may even be aware of muscle tension at rest.
First order thinking would indicate stretching is the obvious solution. Stretching is very good at reducing tension in the muscular system as numerous studies have shown.
If you’ve tried this approach however you’ll know it doesn’t seem to provide a long term solution. You stretch, feel better, exercise, feel worse.
Let’s keep digging then.
Second order thinking would question why an increase in muscle tension occurs and what purpose this serves.
It’s certainly a deliberate strategy. Your body doesn’t waste energy doing something unless it’s entirely necessary.
Logic suggests it’s trying to prevent you from moving into certain positions because this is precisely what it achieves.
Given the evolutionary goal of prioritising your survival, it’s most likely a safety feature.
Let’s look at an acute example of this effect to illustrate the point I’m about to make.
Have you ever put your back out?
Think about what happens when you lift something that’s too heavy. A load that would cause you to ‘put your back out.’
What’s happened here?
Is there something that has actually gone out of place? Probably not.
In 99% of cases this will be caused by an increase in muscle tension. You may even feel muscles tighten so rapidly that it causes them to spasm
You experience pain and an instant loss of motion. You might not even be able to stand up straight as a result.
The overload of some muscles has caused others to tighten to restrict your mobility.
This will prevent you from moving into positions that are now vulnerable.
This is precisely the effect you experience when you exercise and feel tight afterwards.
Some muscles have been overloaded and others are having to tighten to prevent you from moving into positions that are not adequately controlled.
Does this make sense?
I hope so because looking at muscle tension from this perspective is the key to finding a long term solution.
If overload is the problem then the solution must be:
1) Reduce the load
and / or
2) Get stronger.
Temporarily adjusting your activities to lower the demands on your muscular system might be wise in the short term.
If you run and only get tight after 5 miles, try limiting yourself to 3 miles and see if that helps. You can always increase your mileage again once you get stronger.
Which brings us on to solution 2, which is the key to improvement, getting stronger.
This is where things can get a little confusing.
You’ve noticed of course that attempting to increase your capacity through general activity has the potential to make you feel worse.
Just doing more doesn’t necessarily work.
You may have also found that resistance training, which is the most effective method of increasing the strength of your muscular system, can also leave you feeling worse.
There’s a good reason for this however.
Let me ask you this, will doing a bunch of press ups get your legs stronger?
No right? You understand that strengthening a muscle involves loading it specifically.
Now let me ask you this, how many muscles do you think are involved in a squat?
Over 100. Seriously.
Do you think an exercise like this will target the weak muscles that are likely responsible for your situation?
It’s extremely unlikely.
You have to get more specific with your exercise choices and that means isolating muscles as much as possible.
Only then will you discover what’s weak and in need of attention.
When people tell me they’ve tried resistance training and they felt worse afterwards, it’s usually because they’ve made one of the following mistakes:
They’re not isolating their weaknesses.
The weight was too heavy.
Their technique was poor.
Resistance training will help you feel better if you apply it correctly.