| | | | Three (more) M’s for the Aging Power Athlete

Author / Hunter Waldman

5-7 min read

If you have not read the first blog where we covered the first 3 M’s, take a second and go read it so that you have a foundation to build upon. If you recall, this blog serves the Power Athlete who is trying to fight back Father Time. The individual who is training with the fury of a thousand  suns, while also managing a family, full-time career, and trying to stay as durable as possible across their lifespan.

In the previous article we discussed how Metabolism actually doesn’t change between the years of 20-60, but your lifestyle and movement does (you slow down and thus gain weight). We also talked about the most important organ for improving your quality of life and durability: increasing muscle mass. And, finally, we talked about how important the macronutrient protein was (yeah…that little guy) for building and maintaining quality muscle mass. This blog will build upon those M’s, and we will dive into another series of M’s that greatly impact the durability, longevity, and quality of training in the aging Power Athlete.

Mobility – Making the Most of Motion

There are 3 things we lose as we age: Mitochondrial density and function, strength/muscle mass, and range of motion (ROM). Regarding ROM, most of us have grown up believing that a quick 5-minute stretching session following an intense workout is what’s required to avoid “tightening up”. Our workouts (or at least mine in previous years) are usually concluded with a quick grabbing of the ankles for the highly regarded quad stretch and maybe one serious attempt to touch our toes with straight legs before calling it a day. It is no coincidence that ROM is held in such high esteem among the research community.  As a marker of healthy aging, it extends well beyond the simple sit-and-reach test we all performed  in middle-school.

While flexibility is a muscle’s ability to passively move through a ROM, mobility is that muscle’s ability to move through a ROM while under load. Notice the key difference there – passive vs. active. To truly express mobility, flexibility is only one component of the equation. The other variables include tissue quality (e.g., foam rolling or lacrosse balling tissue), joint mobilization (e.g., challenging joints in their different planes rather than a simple static hold), neural input and dynamic stretching, cross bridge-creation, and several other factors. Interestingly, we lose the characteristics  outlined above from the sheer amount of sitting we do all day. I get it, I am sitting down to type up this blog and a good chunk of my job has me sitting to write research papers.

Over time, tissue quality becomes poor, joints become restricted and muscles shorten. While trying to convince you to become a Supple Leopard is beyond the length of this blog (seriously though, go read all of Dr. Kelly Starrett’s work), there is an easy way to keep mobility at the forefront of your goals without dedicating more than 5-10 min a day to it. Personally, I break this down into 4 categories: Tissue quality, joint mobilization, static stretching, and “loaded” mobilization.

Basically, each day and across the whole day, I take a quick break from work/sitting and do 1-3 sets for enough reps to “feel as if I did something” in one of the 4 categories. For instance, if my first break from sitting is at 9am, then I might do 1-min of some tissue quality work which is simply grabbing a lacrosse ball and rolling out my chest or traps against the office wall. Later on (~11am), I may get up and go for a quick 5-min walk and take the steps 2 at a time to get some extra stretch in my hips (join mobilization – hips). Sometimes, it may be simply getting out of my chair and sitting down in a squat for ~1 min, but every day, I always try to hit some loaded mobilization which is essentially moving through your full ROM under load. This could be something as simple as doing a single set of push-ups during a break of mine or grabbing a kettlebell and doing several squats; really anything that forces you to brace your trunk. Even better, if you train that day (and you should be because you are Moving the Dirt every day), then you are winning on the loaded mobilization front, as research has demonstrated that you can increase your mobility simply by lifting weights through a full ROM (1).

Mentality – More Mindful Musculature

At first glance, the connection between mentality and muscle may not make much sense. But, I promise this section is not another “age is just a number” discussion. My goal here is not to motivate you, but to empower you with knowledge that you can use moving forward. As you’ll recall in part 1 of this blog series, a good chunk was spent on the argument for why muscle gain is so important as an aging Power Athlete. I want to expand upon that with some research that highlights the importance of your mentality, aka the mind-muscle connection or attentional focus, in accelerating muscle growth. Yep, you read that correctly. You can maximize your gains simply by concentrating on the muscle being worked and visualizing the contraction (2). Various studies have shown that when an individual turns their focus to the muscle being worked (termed internal focus), they can significantly alter the electromyography of that muscle.

For example, during a bench press, focusing on the “squeeze at the top” or the “stretch as you lower the barbell” can dramatically improve the activity of your pectoralis major and minor, compared to only focusing on the completion of that repetition. This has been found in both men and women, as one recent study showed when women were told to, “squeeze their glutes” or “use their glutes to lift the weight”, they found a greater recruitment of the glutes compared to no verbal input or internal focus (3). Since a$$ moves mass, and greater muscle recruitment will result in greater muscle mass over time, these are key findings to incorporate in your future workouts. To learn more about this topic, I’ll direct the reader to a Power Athlete podcast – Episode 307 by Dr. Larson who breaks this topic down to the marrow.

Mitochondria – More Is More Better

If someone were to ask me where my primary research interests lie, I’d tell them its in the interactions of exercise and various nutrients on the mitochondria. An organelle that everyone remembers from Biology 101 as the “powerhouse of the cell”, its role extends well beyond this. And unfortunately, it’s really the most overlooked aspect of training and aging.

While I could write a dissertation on just this topic, here is what I want you to know about mitochondria. They are dynamic and respond heavily to the stimuli you invoke upon them. In other words, if you are sedentary throughout much of the day, or neglect aerobic training, your mitochondria over time become dysfunctional, which is the is the start of most metabolic diseases. A common question is whether just lifting weights can maintain mitochondria function, and this is what the research shows to date: resistance training can maintain and possibly improve mitochondria health depending on where the person’s baseline is, but it does not come close to impacting the mitochondria like aerobic work. Period.
The pathways that promote mitochondrial health are simply activated to a greater extent by getting into that aerobic pathway more so than what lifting weights will do. Provided that your mitochondria health is what fights off sickness, various cancers, dementia and the list goes on, we should be doing everything we can to maintain and improve our mitochondria as we age.

So where does this leave us?  Well, if you are on a training program like Grindstone, John has programmed a day that incorporates usually some form of Zone 2 training (a zone that has been shown to likely impact the mitochondria the most – think low-intensity continuous movement that allows you to hold a conversation for ~30-45 minutes). However, if you are following a program like Jacked Street or Johnnie Wod that is heavily glycolytic in nature, don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to lose your gains and become a marathon warrior. Simply add 2-3, 10 min walks to your daily schedule (in research these are known as exercise snacks) or better yet, on a recovery day, go for a longer walk or hike with your family. It really is that simple.

A final note from my own research observations – because of the hormone estrogen, women tend to maintain mitochondrial function to a greater extent than men. In fact, across varying levels of aerobic fitness and body fat levels, my lab has shown that even very overweight women can burn an appreciable level of fat which we do not find in the same population of men (4). What is the take-away from this? Well, women should probably be spending more time on resistance-training and doing everything they can to add more muscle mass, provided estrogen is giving some extra protection to their mitochondria. And men, you need to be doing more continuous Zone 2 type aerobic work. I’m not telling men to stop lifting weights, but simply to add more movement to your daily schedule and this is the recipe for keeping those mitochondria healthy across your lifespan.

Meditating On Methodologies

To wrap up this series, we all age, but as a Power Athlete we have a community that trains throughout their lives and doesn’t let age dictate what they can and cannot do. There are hard-charging, Power Athletes of all ages out there cracking the bone and sucking the marrow out of life. Don’t let getting older be an excuse for achieving your training goals, especially if those goals are keeping back Father Time.

Did this article peak your interest on learning more? Head on over to the Power Athlete Academy and sign up for the Power Athlete Methodology course, where you can learn all about the guiding principles that keep Power Athlete at the tip of the spear for Strength and Conditioning. Then, you can put your mettle where your mouth is and sign up for the Block One Test, to become a certified Power Athlete Block One coach.

Related Content:

Podcast: PA Radio Ep 307 – Rachel Larson Talks Mind Over Muscle

Blog: The Aerobic Power Athlete by Ben Skutnik

Education: Power Athlete Academy

Blog: Aerobic System for Football by John Welbourn

Share this article
FacebookTwitterLinkedInShare

SOURCES

1. Morton, S. K., Whitehead, J. R., Brinkert, R. H., & Caine, D. J. (2011). Resistance training vs. static stretching: effects on flexibility and strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(12), 3391-3398.

2. Schoenfeld, Brad J. PhD, CSCS, FNSCA; Contreras, Bret MA, CSCS. Attentional Focus for Maximizing Muscle Development: The Mind-Muscle Connection. Strength and Conditioning Journal 38(1):p 27-29, February 2016.

3. Lewis CL, Sahrmann SA. Muscle activation and movement patterns during prone hip extension exercise in women. J Athl Train 44: 238–248, 2009.

4. Waldman, Hunter S.; Bryant, Andrea R.; Knight, Savanna N.; Killen, Lauren G.; Davis, Brett A.; Robinson, Marcus A.; O'Neal, Eric K.. Assessment of Metabolic Flexibility by Substrate Oxidation Responses and Blood Lactate in Women Expressing Varying Levels of Aerobic Fitness and Body Fat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning July 8, 2022.

AUTHOR

Hunter Waldman

Hunter Waldman is a former DII collegiate linebacker who found his passion in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology during his undergraduate years. After working as a Strength and Conditioning coach/personal trainer for several years, Hunter pursued his doctorate in Exercise Physiology while also serving as a Sweat Scientist for the Gatorade Sport Science Institute (GSSI) in Florida. Hunter is now a Professor of Exercise Science at the University of North Alabama, Researcher, Director of the Exercise Biochemistry Laboratory, and Power Athlete Block-1 Coach. Hunter's research area is in Nutrition and Metabolic Health/Performance, where his lab is attempting to understand how to increase cell stress resiliency via nutrition, supplements, and exercise.

RECOMMENDED READING

Leave a Comment





SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Never miss out on an epic blog post or podcast, drop your email below and we’ll stay in-touch.