What you do in the gym isn't all that matters. To build muscle, you also need to rest and eat right.
You've gotten the memo about the importance of strength training. No less an authority than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends "muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days of the week."
But what does that mean? Is two the right number of workouts? Or would more be better? Is more even possible considering how sore you can get after lifting weights?
The guidelines for walking, running, and other types of cardio exercise are specific: Most people should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. But for strength training, it seems like you’re supposed to figure it out on your own. No need—we asked the experts for you.
How Much Rest Do You Need?
Let’s start with the most important part: For muscle-strengthening activities to work, they should give your body a stimulus to get stronger and not just make you tired or sore. There are lots of ways to do it, but this is what studies have shown work best for men and women 65 and older, according to a 2015 review in Sports Medicine:
- Do total-body workouts, with at least one exercise for each of your major upper- and lower-body muscle groups.
- Do two to three sets per exercise.
- Complete seven to nine repetitions per set, using weights that you could lift 10 or 11 times if you kept lifting until your muscles were completely fatigued. (Not sure if you’re using weights that are too heavy or light? Check out this guide to find your Goldilocks weight.)
Challenging? You bet. That's why the sweet spot for seniors is two good strength workouts per week, says Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario and director of the university's Physical Activity Centre of Excellence, a research and training facility for older adults.
The problem, Phillips says, isn't your muscles, which typically recover from a workout in 48 to 72 hours. It's all the stuff around them. "Connective tissue takes quite a bit longer to regenerate and repair," Phillips says. "Cartilage, once gone, is gone. Tendons and ligaments-well, we know they lose certain properties with age."
It's something that he's now experiencing firsthand in his early 50s. "What limits my workouts these days are my joints," he says. But, as Phillips has shown in his studies, there's more to productive workouts than taking enough time to recover. Your diet plays a major role too.
How to Eat for Strength
Your entire body uses protein for important functions, and the majority of protein-about 40% in healthy adults-goes to your muscles. But it doesn't just park there: It's in constant flux as your body breaks down protein to use it and builds it back up.
For younger adults, the goal is to keep the two processes in balance or to achieve a net gain, since there’s no downside to having a little more muscle tissue. But at some point, usually in middle age, the balance shifts toward breakdown, and we lose about 1 percent or more of our muscle tissue each year. An illness or accident can cause an even steeper decline.
That's where protein and strength training work their magic, both separately and together. Protein alone can increase both muscle size and strength, as Phillips and his colleagues showed in a recent study of men in their early 70s. And strength training accelerates muscle breakdown, followed by a ramped-up rebuilding period that can last for several days. That's when protein-rich meals can make the most difference.
Younger adults can achieve the maximum muscle-building effect with about 20 grams of protein within an hour or two of a challenging strength workout. That's a little more than you'd get in three eggs and a little less than a hamburger or a serving of grilled salmon.
"But older exercisers need more protein post-workout," Phillips says. You need as much as 0.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight to fully activate the muscle-building process. That's 28 grams for someone who weighs 140 pounds, and 40 grams for a 200-pounder.
Protein quality also matters more for older adults. “We’re seeing more and more evidence that to regenerate muscle protein, leucine is key,” Phillips says. Leucine is one of the 20 amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. It’s typically most abundant in animal foods like meat, eggs, and dairy, and to a lesser degree in legumes like soy, beans, lentils, and peas.
If you can't whip up a meal so soon after a workout or enjoy some cottage cheese or Greek yogurt, Phillips notes that whey protein supplements can be a convenient alternative. They've been used extensively in research, including his own, with good results for older exercisers. As always, talk to your doctor about all your medications before starting any supplements.
But the most important part of the process is what you do before that post-workout meal. Give your body a challenge in the weight room, jumpstart the recovery process with a protein-rich meal, and then do it again in three or four days. You'll feel yourself getting stronger.