Muscle Mass Is About More Than Just Aesthetics

Andres Preschel holding a dumbbell doing exercise

Muscle is the organ of longevity, and you should prioritize either building or maintaining your muscle mass for a longer and better quality of life. Without a doubt it’s easy to get “lost in the sauce,” as they say when you start to make a genuine investment in your health and well-being… but letting your ego get in the way and grinding things out to achieve a certain look or number on the scale is not a longevity mindset. At the very least, it’s important to make an effort to maintain as much as possible while you age. After all, there’s a key difference between lifespan and ACTIVE lifespan.

The Role of Muscle Mass and Strength in Longevity and Healthy Aging

Accordingly, muscle mass index is a notable predictor of longevity in older adults. Muscle mass, independent of fat mass and cardiovascular risk factors, is actually inversely associated with mortality risk in older adults. These findings suggest that anabolic processes that promote muscle bulk may be associated with longer survival. Changes in body composition, rather than adiposity alone, should be considered when counseling older adults on preventative health behaviors.

On this topic, the importance of skeletal muscle strength for healthy ageing cannot be understated. Increasing muscle protein synthesis via exercise or protein-based nutrition maintains a strong, healthy muscle mass, which in turn leads to improved health, independence and functionality. The importance of muscle size and strength for longevity and health in humans puts a new spin on the Darwinian idea of “survival of the fittest,” as it is clear that the strongest and fittest individuals are more likely to live longer and healthier lives.

Ageing Graph

The United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs is deeply concerned with the consequences of an increasing elderly population. They estimate that the percentage of the global population above 65, 85, and 100 years of age will increase by 188, 551 and 1004% respectively by 2050. As a consequence, there is a notable increase in the prevalence of “diseases of ageing,” such as sarcopenia, a syndrome characterized by progressive and generalized loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength with the risk of adverse outcomes such as physical disability, poor quality of life and death. Avoidance of such diseases might not earn you any additional likes on Instagram right now, but it’s a goal that’s a lot more worth striving for.

skeletal muscle strength and cardiorespiratory fitness graph

Moreover, our bodies store carbohydrates as a fuel source called glycogen. Most of this glycogen is found in our muscles (about 400 to 500 grams total.) The more muscle we have, the better we can store carbohydrates. Saturating our muscle mass with glycogen (this is often done by eating too many carbohydrates, and/or not performing enough physical activity) reduces our insulin sensitivity and sets the stage for a number of chronic diseases. Having little muscle means you are at a higher risk for disease. Thus, gaining muscle and maintaining an adequate amount of it as you age will promote a longer lifespan and a better overall quality of life.

muscle cross sectional area graph

Moreover, our bodies store carbohydrates as a fuel source called glycogen. Most of this glycogen is found in our muscles (about 400 to 500 grams total.) The more muscle we have, the better we can store carbohydrates. Saturating our muscle mass with glycogen (this is often done by eating too many carbohydrates, and/or not performing enough physical activity) reduces our insulin sensitivity and sets the stage for a number of chronic diseases. Having little muscle means you are at a higher risk for disease. Thus, gaining muscle and maintaining an adequate amount of it as you age will promote a longer lifespan and a better overall quality of life.

Here are my training recommendations for three different categories of developing strength and muscle:

1. Hypertrophy

This can be achieved by lifting 4-6 times a week, 70-85% of 1RM for 8-12 repetitions. A high volume of 30-40 sets per day is recommended with 30-90 seconds rest in between. You will want to maintain a moderate speed, emphasize eccentric contractions of large prime movers and focus on isolated lifts.

2. Strength

This can be achieved by lifting 2-4 times a week, 70-100% of 1RM for 1-5 repetitions. A lower volume of 15-24 sets per day is recommended with 2-3 minutes of rest in between. You will want to maintain maximum speed and emphasize concentric muscle contractions of prime movers and stabilizers.

3. Power

This can be achieved by lifting 3-5 times a week, 30-100% of 1RM for 1-5 repetitions. You would want to emphasize acceleration so that you can increase neuromuscular efficiency. You are also looking to maximize fiber recruitment. The recommended volume varies based on the type of activity and the rest in between sets can vary between 30 seconds and 7 minutes. The amount of rest depends on if emphasis is on force or velocity. You also want to go for maximum speed and emphasize concentrics, power lifts, Olympic lifts and plyometrics.

Tailoring Your Fitness Approach: Gaining and Maintaining Muscle Mass

Your approach to fitness should also vary based on whether you are looking to gain or maintain muscle mass. If you are looking to gain muscle mass, you should be consuming a caloric surplus of 10-20% or about 500 calories daily. You should be consuming a moderate amount of protein, about 15% of daily caloric intake. Prioritizing carbs and quality fat as opposed to protein is recommended and you should avoid or at least limit fasting.

Maintaining muscle mass requires a different approach. You want to strive for caloric maintenance and higher protein consumption. Two different ways you can measure the amount of recommended protein consumption is to either aim for .75-1 gram a day for each pound that you weigh or 25% of your intake. Not only do you want to aim for a high protein intake, but you should also aim to consume lots of complex carbs with fiber. Intermittent fasting is also recommended, from 14:10 up to 16:8.

In both cases, you want to prioritize whole food and a wide range of amino acids and complete proteins. No protein powders or mass gainers are required, although you could consider creatine supplementation for increased power output and hypertrophy. My first Youtube video from a few months back outlines the top evidence-based strategies for muscle maintenance and is worth checking out!

I hope that I was able to highlight how growing and maintaining muscle mass is more important than just for posing on social media. With careful preparation and hard work in both the gym and the kitchen, you can do what’s best for your body now as well as down the line. If you have any further questions about gaining or maintaining muscle mass, or about how to improve your training routine, feel free to ask below and I’ll be happy to help.

References:

  • Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, 1. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
  • Gerritsen, R. J. S., & Band, G. P. H. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 1. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397
  • Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677–684. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026743
  • Ma, X., Yue, Z.-Q., Gong, Z.-Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N.-Y., Shi, Y.-T., Wei, G.-X., & Li, Y.-F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874
  • Ruth, A. R. (2016). The health benefits of nose breathing. Irish Health Repository. https://www.lenus.ie/bitstream/handle/10147/559021/JAN15Art7.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

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