Every once in a while, a burly middle-ager makes headlines for a feat of strength, like when 54-year-old Rodney Hahn broke the 24-hour record for pullups (an astonishing 6,737). Or maybe at the gym you spot a wizened gray-haired dude benching well more than your 1RM for five reps without blinking. While both might leave you scratching your head, old-man strength is actually a thing that you may even have to look forward to.
Ah, those wacky hormones
“Like a star that enters its red giant phase and begins to expand, when men enter the ‘autumn’ of their lives, the hormonal activity increases, staging a last surge for reproductive functions before shutting down,” explains Brandon Mentore, a strength and conditioning coach in Philadelphia and founder of TheBodyLogic.com. “This comes with increases in testosterone, cortisol, insulin, and growth hormone that contribute to increases in strength and recovery.”
So that’s what muscle memory is
A hormonal last hurrah isn’t the only reason that some men seem to get stronger with age. It also has to do with neuromuscular control, or the ability for the brain to tell the muscles to work together efficiently. “As you age, neuromuscular control improves up to age about age 55,” says Brandon Roberts, M.S., C.S.C.S., a doctoral student of muscle biology at University of Florida. “At this point, the receptors required to activate muscle also start to decline.” Take Roberts’ example of a son, 20, losing to his 45-year-old father in arm wrestling. “The father has been working out for 20+ years and therefore has developed better control of activating his muscles at various force outputs,” Roberts explains. “The son also works out but has only been exercising for a few years, and his testosterone levels are technically higher, but that doesn’t play a big role in the ability to control muscle.”
A change in priorities
Another contributing factor: Some older guys make it a point to devote their time and money to physical fitness. “As life responsibilities change, sometimes men are able to carve out more time for exercise, so there is simply more time to dedicate to staying fit,” says Derek Ochiai, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine doctor at Nirschl Orthopaedic Center in Arlington, VA. With age also comes confidence for some. “If the attitude is ‘50 is the new 40,’ instead of, ‘I’m 50/I’m old,” that mindset will change how they approach staying fit and working out,” says Ochiai. He also points out that advances in equipment and better knowledge of what constitutes total body fitness make it easier than ever to keep up good exercise habits well into the twilight years.
While you won’t know if you’ll be a geriatric He-Man until you’ve hit a few milestone birthdays, there are some things you can do to set yourself up for success. For one, don’t let that gym membership lapse. “To boost the old-man strength phenomenon, you want to strength train,” Roberts says. “The longer you train, the stronger you get.” But don’t take that to mean you should just home in on your split routine. “Incorporating more cross training and not focusing solely on one body part improves overall fitness,” says Ochiai.