The Reality of Genetic Limitations
What's more important: continuing to pile on muscle or aging well? That's the question dedicated lifters need to ask themselves as they get older. It's the question I had to answer too.
We all have a genetic limit as to how much muscle we can naturally carry. It's not pleasant to hear, but it's true. Sure, there are genetic outliers whose natural limitations will be a lot higher than ours. They can build more muscle mass and strength than the average person. But all of us – even those outliers – are limited. Maybe it's myostatin, testosterone levels, genes, or skeletal frame, but the limit exists.
Now, that doesn't mean you can't keep progressing in other ways. Once you've gotten close to that limit, you can still continue to improve performance, get leaner, or make smaller gains in overall mass. But mostly, you can change WHERE you carry the muscle you have by emphasizing some areas more than others.
18 Years of Muscle
The way your physique looks can dramatically change based upon how you work out, but even then it'll remain within its natural limits. I'll illustrate what I mean with my own example.
1998 to 2002
I trained and competed as an Olympic lifter. My lower body was really strong with a front squat of 220 kg (485 pounds), a back squat of 270 kg (595 pounds), a Zercher squat from pins – starting 1 inch below the knees – of 250 kg (550 pounds) and a pin pull from 1 inch above the knees of 1000 pounds. My upper body strength wasn't as high. I could barely bench 315. I was built like a traffic cone: huge legs, thick back and traps, small arms and chest. I was 215-220 pounds.
I then switched to more of a powerlifting program, training a lot like the Westside Barbell crew. My arms, especially triceps, delts, and chest, grew a lot. My bench press went up to 398 pounds. I was 215-220.
I decided to compete in bodybuilding. My upper body continued to get larger, my legs were downsized but became more balanced with my upper body. (I was also sick of squatting 2-6 times per week.) While I was 190 pounds on stage, my "lean but not ripped" weight was 215-220.
I played around with gymnastic training and followed a program for 6 months. My biceps, lats, and delts were great. Legs were downsized, chest might have come down a bit, but I was 215. Don't let the barbell in the photo fool you, that was during my bodyweight and gymnastic training days.
Four years ago I did CrossFit, mostly to share an activity with my wife, but eventually it became my full time training for about 4-5 months. My arms and pecs got a bit smaller but my whole body was well balanced and athletic. I was 215. (Are you starting to see a pattern?)
Earlier in 2016
Fast forward to this year. At the beginning of the year I started focusing on the Olympic lifts again. My training was a hybrid of strength and olympic lifting work, almost no bodybuilding work. My physique once again changed. Traps, legs, and abs got thicker. I was still 215.
Later in 2016
Then I had to get in shape for a photoshoot. So I trained like a bodybuilder again for about 5 months and I did less leg training. Arms, chest, and shoulders drastically improved. I ended up being 202 pounds in the pictures but I was 215 "lean but not ripped" before I started to diet down.
I'm training for performance using strength-skill circuits. I also do a small amount of bodybuilding work. I don't have body parts that stand out now, but everything is proportionate. And I'm still 215.
So basically, my overall muscle mass stayed pretty much the same (maybe a small improvement since I'm leaner on average) for the past 10 years or so. And it's not like I don't know how to train. I pretty much never skip workouts and I always train hard and smart.
So the only conclusion I can make is that my body isn't designed to carry more muscle than what gives me a fairly lean 215 pound body, or a very lean 200 pound body.
Oh I've been bigger at times. I've gotten up to around 225-228. To get there I had to eat like crazy and become physically uncomfortable with my body. But that weight was caused by a lot of water retention. Luckily I tend to retain more water inside the muscles than beneath the skin, which will make muscles look bigger and fuller. But it's not a weight I can sustain for long.
I also got heavier the few times I tried steroids. But under normal circumstances, regardless of my training style, I seem to be limited to being 215 lean. And as you've seen, the way I train can totally change how that 215 looks. The way YOU train can change the way you look too.
Trust me, I did try to force growth by eating more... a lot more. I did get "heavier" – up to 235 and even hit 245 at one time but was pretty fat. At 235 I looked thick and solid. A great look with a T-shirt, but not so much without one. Then when I'd decided to drop the fat, I went right back down to 215.
The Muscle Migration Theory
Each body has the potential to carry X amount of muscle. My theory is that when we reach that point, the only way to keep building in certain places is to lose an equivalent amount elsewhere. I call this the "muscle migration phenomenon."
With this in mind, I have three choices
- Continue to do everything I can to try to beat my physiology and get bigger overall... but likely get fatter and hurt my health and longevity without actually building more muscle.
- Take large doses of steroids and growth hormone to get past my natural limit, also endangering my health (especially considering my preexisting health issues).
- Be satisfied with the overall amount of muscle I carry and focus on making small tweaks to my overall look by putting more emphasis on performance and well-being.
The choice is simple. Performance can be continually increased; muscle mass can't. You can keep improving your performance even when you've hit your potential for muscle mass. How? By improving your neural efficiency, lifting technique, and "migrating" muscle to more important regions at the expense of less useful ones.
Here's What I Do, Specifically
- De-emphasise the eccentric – lots of Olympic lifts, deadlifts where I drop the bar on every rep, and Prowler pushing and farmer's walks. These techniques keep inflammation to a minimium.
- Keep reps low (2 or 3 per set) to minimize reliance on muscle glycogen, which spikes cortisol release.
- Focus on fairly heavy, but not maximal work, to avoid creating excessive inflammation and CNS stress. I start my training cycle with 80% on my main movements (for 2-3 reps) and progress really slowly. I do plenty of sets – 8 sets of 3 exercises done as a circuit.
- Do most of my work as a circuit to improve cardiac output, again to focus on my overall health. It's not an endurance circuit; there's 60-90 seconds between exercises. That's enough to maintain performance but short enough to keep my heart rate elevated.
- Jumps and throws to maintain or improve power.
Is this the way to get hyuuuge? No. But aging well, improving physical performance, maintaining overall muscle mass, getting leaner, and looking better is more important than being the biggest in the gym.
Aging Well Under the Iron
I'm reminded of two master Olympic lifters I trained with. At the time one was 69 and his partner was 67. Both were 170 pounds, lean, muscular and healthy. Both trained twice a day. The 69 year-old trained on the Olympic lifts in the morning and did strength work in the afternoon. His friend did Olympic lifting in the morning and sprinting in the afternoon.
The 69 year-old lifter was a world champ in his age group. He clean and jerked 125kg (275 pounds), snatched 92.5kg (203.5 pounds) and full squatted 140kg (308 pounds) for 6 reps. His partner power cleaned 100kg (225 pounds) for 5 reps. By the way, the 67 year-old guy is now 81 and still competes!
Another guy I got to know was a circus performer. He did bodyweight work all his life, no bodybuilding work. He would do strength lifts for low reps. Every week he'd bench press 405 pounds well into his 60s.
One of my clients competed in Firefit events until he was 64. He actually established personal bests in that sport (and in the deadlift) at 63. I trained him exclusively for performance. He was around 175 pounds on 5'8" with good muscle bellies and lots of vascularity.
Nothing slows down aging better than maintaining or improving your body's capacity to perform without causing systemic inflammation and excessive cortisol elevation.
But this isn't for everybody. Your quest to be the biggest guy in the room has to take a backseat. But I'll take that any day of the week if it can guarantee that I'll be a very lean 185 at 60-plus years of age, can power clean 275 pounds, power snatch 205 pounds, squat 405, and deadlift 500 or more.
So maybe you'll never look like a pro bodybuilder. Don't be bummed about it. Evaluate what you want and be objective about your capacity to achieve it. Every time I tried to go against my nature I ended up paying the price. Had I stayed honest with myself there's no doubt that I would've had fewer injuries. I'd be healtheir today as a result, and I'd look better than I do now.
The good news? There's still plenty of time for me to win the 2037 Mr. Retirement Home contest!