I've been involved in resistance training for 27 years and have recently seen a new phenomenon emerge: using nutrition, supplementation, and training to increase longevity.
Not just living better as you age by maintaining (or improving) strength and staying functional, but actually slowing down the aging process by acting on the hormones and enzymes responsible for cellular aging.
Can it be done? It can, to some extent. That's the good news.
The bad news? The things that tend to have the greatest positive impact on longevity also go against one of our most cherished goals: getting huge.
You need to be realistic about getting huge and living a long life. They don't complement one another. But there is a way to increase longevity while working toward being muscular, strong, and overall awesome.
The nutritional strategies you'd use to build a lot of muscle also promote faster cellular aging. And, not surprisingly, those that favor longevity also make it harder to build muscle.
There are two key enzymes when it comes to aging: AMPK and mTOR. So let's consider AMPK first. Research shows it can potentially increase lifespan (1)(2). Here's what it does:
- Increases autophagy, which allows you to clear unnecessary products that can increase metabolic stress (cellular recycling)
- Reduces oxidative stress
- Increases cellular resistance to stress
- Reduces systemic inflammation by inhibiting key factors in inflammation
It can also indirectly increase longevity by promoting fat loss and energy metabolism. Lowering body mass is a proven way to expend lifespan by reducing the burden on several of the body's systems, chiefly the cardiovascular system.
Now let's consider mTOR. It plays a key role in muscle building by increasing protein synthesis to promote the growth of muscle cells.
However, it can also promote the development speed of other cells, shortening their lifespan. Excessive mTOR activation can thus negatively impact longevity. This is actually very well established in scientific literature, even though the complete mechanisms aren't fully understood.
What's clear is that excessive mTOR activation is linked to faster cellular aging, and its inhibition leads to an increase in lifespan (3). So mTOR and AMPK tend to be antagonists, and AMPK can even inhibit mTOR.
Maximizing mTOR, insulin, and IGF-1 are required if you want to grow muscle (as fast as possible), and AMPK can reduce that muscle growth. But sadly, the same mTOR, insulin, and IGF-1 can speed up cellular aging while AMPK can slow it down.
This paradox clearly indicates that maximizing muscle mass and extending lifespan are two opposite goals, physiologically speaking.
The greatest modulator of mTOR, insulin, IGF-1, and AMPK is nutrition. The two main factors are your calorie and carb intake, though protein (amino acids) can also play a role.
Ingesting a lot of carbs will raise IGF-1, insulin, and mTOR activation. This helps promote muscle growth, but isn't so great for longevity. That's why intermittent fasting and low-carb can be useful for longevity, but aren't well suited for maximizing muscle growth.
A caloric surplus also increases mTOR and decreases AMPK (which are essentially energy sensors; an energy abundance raises mTOR and a shortage raises AMPK). Therefore, a caloric deficit raises AMPK but lowers mTOR, IGF-1, and insulin.
To make it simple, higher carb eating and/or a caloric surplus will both favor muscle growth, but they can reduce longevity. A lower carb intake and a caloric deficit can increase longevity, but it'll make it harder to build muscle.
Some amino acids (from protein) can also increase mTOR, insulin, and IGF-1. But the impact isn't as large as the first two factors. But consuming an astronomical amount of protein can also be detrimental for anti-aging purposes.
Resistance training increases mTOR and can also increase IGF-1 if the type of training you do increases lactate inside a muscle. But energy systems training (endurance work) increases AMPK.
In fact, the combo of resistance and endurance training can lead to a lower mTOR response from the resistance training by having the AMPK released through endurance training. Remember, AMPK inhibits mTOR.
Important note: You can't completely inhibit mTOR, no should you try. Plus, mTOR activation from training tends to be local, not systemic, and has less of a negative impact on aging.
The heavier your body is, the greater the demand is on the "support system" of your body, most notably the cardiovascular system.
When it comes to the cardiovascular system, it doesn't matter if the extra mass is muscle or fat. In fact, as pointed out in the article, The Reason Bodybuilders Die Early, muscle actually requires more blood flow than fat, and thus increases the demands on the cardiovascular system to a greater extent.
But I have a theory about cardiovascular health and muscle mass: In a natural body, your cardiovascular system is a limiting factor in how much muscle you can gain. The body will not allow itself to build muscle tissue that it can't support properly.
So it seems like a lot of bodybuilders have heart issues because the steroids have allowed them to bypass that limiting factor. They end up with way too much muscle mass for their CV capacity.
That's one of the reasons you should focus on cardiovascular health and function. Being larger puts a greater strain your cardiovascular system and will have a negative impact on longevity.
Improving cardiovascular function can allow you to better support a more muscular physique and will allow you to carry more muscle as you get older. Keep reading to see how to make the most of both muscle and aging.
I get it. So far, the truth is kinda glum. It sounds like if your goal is longevity, you have to kiss your dreams of muscle goodbye. Not necessarily.
Here are some key points to keep in mind. We'll take a closer look at the most important ones for those who want to take a deep dive.
- Get lean and stay lean. Being lean, in itself, can help you live longer. It also makes you look more muscular and gives you a bit more room to carry muscle without burdening the cardiovascular system.
- Get in great cardiovascular shape. The more effective your cardiovascular system is, the more muscle you can safely carry.
- Shift your mindset. Focus on improving your body's capacities instead of your muscle mass: strength, work capacity, endurance, resilience, mobility, etc. If you train to improve all your body's functions, and your nutrition is in order, you'll end up looking muscular in an athletic way.
- Don't force-feed your way toward more gains. If you're an experienced lifter who's already gained 30, 40, or 50-pounds of muscle, there isn't much more gaining left to do. Bulking will not help you bypass your natural growth limit. It will just get you fatter and speed up cellular aging.
- Walk more. The biggest anti-aging and health benefits start at 10,000 to 12,000 steps per day. It's an easy way to get leaner, healthier, and live longer.
- Make long loaded carries an important part of your workout. It's a combination of energy system work and resistance training. It brings up the muscle mass and cardiovascular system simultaneously. For longevity, longer carries with light-to-moderate weights is where it's at.
- Increase the pace of your lifting workouts. Yes, longer rest intervals might promote a tad more growth by allowing you to use more weight. But a denser, faster-paced workout keeps your heart rate elevated throughout, which is a great stimulus for your VO2 max and overall cardiovascular health while still providing a good growth stimulus.
- Include conditioning/metabolic work. I like to finish every workout with a short metabolic bout. It can be kettlebell or clubbell swings, hitting a heavy bag, doing battle ropes, Assault Bike, or rowing ergometer work. Don't drive yourself into the ground, but challenge yourself for 3-5 minutes.
- Change your definition of jacked. Going for the bodybuilder or superheavy powerlifter body might not be the smartest idea for living as long as possible. But if you look like a 180-pound mixed martial artist, that's still freaking jacked. Most people look better that way. To quote Joe DeFranco from a podcast we did together: "How many 280-pound, 70-year olds do you see walking around?"
I'm not using the word "warrior" lightly. It's not to make my approach look hardcore or a marketing ploy. It actually illustrates what you need to do.
In ancient times, they didn't discriminate for age on the battlefield. Young or old, once the battle started, they were all the same. A Viking would not hesitate to chop your head off just because you were out of breath due to old age.
If you were battle-ready, you'd be able to:
- Walk all the way to the battlefield carrying your equipment, and not be so tired that you're an easy target when the fighting started. And if you won, you had to be able to walk all the way back with it, too.
- Be capable of bouts of sprinting, jumping, and changes of direction, still carrying 20-pounds or more of equipment.
- Swing and hack a sword, axe, or mace at your opponents. And do it repeatedly for the duration of the battle.
- Have the mobility to strike opponents that might not be directly in front of you.
If you couldn't do that, you'd die. Old age wouldn't give you a free pass. The warriors knew that and prepared accordingly. Plus, during times of peace, they still had to do a lot of physical labor to have enough food to feed the village.
The warrior didn't worry about having the biggest biceps, but he did worry about being strong enough to wield his weapons, and having enough endurance to function intensely for long periods of time.
He was pretty much like a mixed martial artist, but with weapons. That's what you need to become if you want to live longer while staying jacked.
Here are some quick recommendations before I give you an idea of what I'm doing.
- Lift one day on, one day off (or 3 days a week). (See the EOD program.)
- Walk 10,000 to 12,000 steps per day.
- Include lighter, longer loaded carries once a week on an off day. It could be hiking with a backpack, walking with a weight vest, carrying a light sandbag for 30-45 minutes, or doing farmer's walks with 20-pound dumbbells or kettlebells for a mile.
- Increase the pace of your workouts and keep your heart rate elevated during the whole session. Circuits are great for this.
- Use a whole-body approach for workouts.
- Include steady-state cardio. Start your workouts with some brisk walking. Imagine that you're going up to the battlefield (carry a sledgehammer or clubbell if it makes you feel better) and end your workout with the same thing (going back home after the battle). I even walk on the treadmill during my rest intervals. I have no actual inactive rest in my workouts.
- Focus on lifting fairly heavy. I like to stay in the 3 to 6 range for compound movements and 6-8 for isolation work. As you get older, the nervous system becomes less efficient at recruiting muscle fibers and it's one of the causes of age-related muscle loss. If you keep lifting heavy, you maintain neurological efficiency.
- Dominate every rep. You're training for performance, every rep, especially on compound exercises. They should be technically solid with no grinding. That obviously means not going to failure. It doesn't mean going easy; it just means trying to kill the weight on every rep (like a warrior swinging at an opponent) and not allowing slow grinding.
Section 1: Start the workout with mobility work for around 5 minutes. Focus on problematic areas and don't overdo it.
Section 2: Do 10 minutes of steady-state cardio. Try to gradually increase the intensity over time.
Section 3: Pick three multi-joint exercises covering the whole-body: one upper-body push, one lower-body and one upper-body pull movement. Do them for 3-6 quality reps, as a circuit (no rest between exercise). This is the core of the workout and I recommend 5 sets of the circuit.
Bonus: Stay active during the rest between circuits. I like to walk on the treadmill, gradually increasing the intensity over time.
Section 4: Pick three isolation exercises for muscles you want to emphasize and do them as a circuit for 6-8 reps each. I also recommend staying active during the rest period. Do 3 sets of this circuit.
Section 5: Do a bout of intense conditioning work lasting 3-5 minutes. It can be a single exercise like kettlebell swings or a combo of one exercise and an ab movement or conditioning circuit. I like kettlebell swing work, or heavier loaded carries for three sets of one minute with around 30-60 seconds of rest in-between.
Honestly, you can let your imagination run wild here. You can do anything that allows you to keep your heart rate high and have labored breathing (indicating working at a high percentage of your VO2 max): heavy bag work, battle ropes, resistance bike, you name it.
Section 6: Finish with 10 minutes of steady-state cardio, trying to increase the intensity over time.
This approach will keep your heart rate elevated for over 45 minutes and provide a stimulus for your muscles, nervous system, max VO2, cardiovascular system, and anaerobic capacity.
Pretty soon you'll have to change your name to something like Bjorn, Conan, or Spartacus.
The key when it comes to nutrition that favors longevity is to avoid large caloric excesses. A caloric deficit is ideal for anti-aging purposes, and so is keeping carbs low.
However, since our goal is also to build muscle, we can't stay in a caloric deficit all the time. I favor a calorie-cycling approach. In the scope of the plan, I'd use a "slight" surplus on the lifting workout days (200-300 calories) and a slight to moderate deficit on the non-lifting days (300-500 calories).
I also recommend decreasing carbohydrates. If all you were interested in was anti-aging, then a low-carb diet or even an intermittent fasting approach would be best. But if your goal also includes building muscle and getting stronger, you should still keep some carbs in there, certainly around your workouts to favor performance and recovery.
I like Plazma™ for that purpose because it doesn't spike insulin pre/intra-workout. I like a more traditional carb source post workout. The rest of the day should be lower in carbs.
As for the off days, that's where you can go really low carb, although you certainly could keep 100-120 grams of carbs throughout the day. If you want to go the intermittent fasting route (which is beneficial for anti-aging, if done properly) you can do it on the non-lifting days.
My goal is NOT to get you to ingest 10,000 pills a day, but there are quite a few supplements that have a positive impact on longevity.
Look for anything that reduces inflammation, like curcumin, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids. Consider supplements that improve insulin sensitivity, which lead to a reduction of insulin production. The more sensitive you are, the less insulin is needed to do the job.
For longevity, look for products that help reduce fat deposition in the blood vessels, like omega-3 fatty acids, serrapeptase, and nattokinase. For anti-aging, consider supplements that increase AMPK, like resveratrol, cyanidin 3-glucoside, omega-3 fatty acids, curcumin, etc.
To combat infection, go for supplements that boost the immune system, like vitamin D3, vitamin C, and zinc.
Personally, I like to target all these areas, ideally using supplements that have a positive impact on more than one category.
Here's an example of a kick-ass longevity stack:
- Flameout® which reduces inflammation, gives you a better lipid profile, increases AMPK, and improves insulin sensitivity.
- Micellar Curcumin™ which reduces inflammation and increases AMPK.
- Rez-V™ for increased AMPK.
- Indigo-3G® for improved insulin sensitivity and increased AMPK.
- i-Well™ for a boosted immune system.
- A serrapeptase/nattokinase product to help break down blood clots and lipid deposits.
At what age should you make the switch from trying to be the biggest and strongest, to trying to be an eternal warrior?
Honestly, anyone who's gained 20 pounds of muscle or so already could transition, even if they're in their early 30s. The sooner you start focusing on your health, function, and longevity, the better the results will be. But certainly, when you turn 40 you should think about changing your mindset and applying the info provided here.
As you get in better and better shape through this type of training, you can start adding fun stuff like sprinting, jumping, and throwing, which all have a positive impact on aging well.
You can have a lot of fun with it and you can look absolutely awesome. In fact, most end up looking better by focusing on performing better and being lean than they do when trying to be as big as possible.
- Salminen A et al. AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) controls the aging process via an integrated signaling network. Ageing Res Rev. 2012 Apr;11(2):230-41. PubMed.
- Stancu AL. AMPK activation can delay aging. Discoveries (Craiova). 2015 Dec 31;3(4):e53. PubMed.
- Papadopoli D et al. mTOR as a central regulator of lifespan and aging. F1000Res. 2019;8:F1000 Faculty Rev-998. PMC.