Everyone, of all ages, needs strength training. In fact, women over the age of 50 need it even more than younger women. Why? Men and women lose muscle mass with age, and women have less to start with. Without strength-training, significant loss of muscle mass is almost guaranteed. In fact, physically inactive men and women can lose as much as 80% of the muscle mass they have at age 20 by age 80. That’s a frightening statistic!
Yet it’s clear that working your muscles against resistance helps preserve skeletal muscle and maintain strength. But you might wonder whether women over the age of 50 get as many benefits from strength training as men? There was some speculation in the past that women, particularly those over the age of 50, might not make as many gains in muscle as men in response to strength training. However, Study from UNSW in Sydney dispels this notion.
Women and Strength-Training Gains
For the study, the researchers scoured the literature for studies that compared strength gains in men and women over 50 who trained their muscles against resistance. In total, they analyzed 30 high-quality studies. Their findings? Although men achieved greater overall muscle gains, in terms of relative muscle gains, based on body size, men and women had similar degrees of muscle hypertrophy.
So, when you take into account body size, women who train gain as much muscle as men. As one of the researchers, Dr. Hagstrom, pointed out, “We found no sex differences in changes in relative muscle size or upper body strength in older adults.”
In terms of muscle strength, the results were similar. Men made greater absolute gains in strength overall while relative strength gains were comparable. Women did have an edge in terms of building lower body strength in the study. Women over 50 saw greater gains in relative lower body strength compared to the men in the study.
The conclusion? Men and women over 50 both benefit from strength training to similar degrees and can improve their relative muscle size and strength in a comparable manner. Older men don’t have an edge in terms of relative muscle or strength gains. Both genders can benefit and should take advantage of the health and fitness perks that resistance training offers.
Gaining Muscle After Age 50
Although men and women don’t differ in their ability to build muscle and strength relative to their size, it’s more challenging to increase strength and hypertrophy muscles after 50 due to hormonal changes. Women experience a drop in estrogen and progesterone and men may experience a decline in testosterone. Plus, growth hormone levels drop with age and the stress hormone cortisol rises. All of these factors make it harder to build muscle size.
Low-grade inflammation increases with age too and that’s another factor that makes building muscle harder. Men and women over the age of 60 are more likely to have anabolic resistance, reduced muscle protein synthesis in response to stimuli like strength training and protein that cause muscle to grow. So, even if you lift hard and consume enough protein, anabolic resistance makes it harder for your muscles to grow. Scientists believe that low-grade inflammation may be a driver of anabolic resistance.
Are there ways to overcome anabolic resistance? Consuming more dietary protein throughout the day may offer some benefits. Since inflammation is a factor, long-chain omega-3s, like those in fish oil, may help by countering low-grade inflammation.
In fact, some studies show taking long-chain omega-3s as a supplement boosts muscle protein synthesis in older people. One way omega-3 fatty acids do this is to boost the fluidity of cell membranes, so they respond better to signals to grow. Plus, research shows omega-3s activate the mTOR pathway that turns on muscle protein synthesis. That’s the kind of stimulation your muscles need to grow.
Other Benefits of Strength Training After 50
Strength training is for more than building muscle strength and size. High-intensity strength training also helps build and maintain bone mass and prevent falls and frailty. Plus, strength training improves insulin sensitivity, how cells respond to insulin. When you have better insulin sensitivity, it reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity. Strength training also improves flexibility and balance, especially if you do resistance exercises on unstable surfaces, like a BOSU ball. It’s a prescription for better health as you age.
The Bottom Line
Men and women over 50 both can build strength and muscle size, and when you consider body size, the gains are similar. However, hormonal changes can make building muscle in both sexes a bit harder. There’s some evidence that active and sedentary people over the age of 60 need more protein to prevent loss of muscle mass and sarcopenia.
If you’re physically active and lifting weights, it’s even more important that you get a source of protein at every meal and after a workout. It doesn’t have to be meat or dairy, plants contain protein too. Plus, plants contain antioxidants that help counter “inflammaging,” the age-related rise in inflammation. So, vary the type of protein you consume but make sure you’re feeding your body enough nutrient-dense foods to support muscle growth.
- Matthew D. Jones, Michael A. Wewege, Daniel A. Hackett, Justin W. L. Keogh, Amanda D. Hagstrom. Sex Differences in Adaptations in Muscle Strength and Size Following Resistance Training in Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 2020; DOI: 10.1007/s40279-020-01388-4.
- Haran PH, Rivas DA, Fielding RA. Role and potential mechanisms of anabolic resistance in sarcopenia. J Cachexia Sarcopenia Muscle. 2012;3(3):157-162. doi:10.1007/s13539-012-0068-4.
- Dupont, J., Dedeyne, L., Dalle, S. et al. The role of omega-3 in the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia. Aging Clin Exp Res 31, 825–836 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40520-019-01146-1.
- Robinson SM, Reginster JY, Rizzoli R et al (2018) Does nutrition play a role in the prevention and management of sarcopenia? Clin Nutr 37:1121–1132.
- Baylis D, Bartlett DB, Patel HP, Roberts HC. Understanding how we age: insights into inflammaging. Longev Healthspan. 2013 May 2;2(1):8. doi: 10.1186/2046-2395-2-8. PMID: 24472098; PMCID: PMC3922951.
- com. “Can You Regain Muscle Mass After Age 50?”
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