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Muscle mass decreases with age. Here’s how to avoid this.

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In our third decade, we start to lose mass in skeletal muscles, and in our 40s the process accelerates: we can lose up to 10 to 20 percent. Climbers may notice this less because the decline is greater in the lower body than in the upper body. But it still happens. Most muscles lost are fast twitches, so power will decrease first. But there is good news: endurance persists. Read on to bypass nature.

Muscle protein breakdown vs. Muscle protein synthesis

Muscle is constantly broken down (muscle protein breakdown; MPB) and rebuilt (muscle protein synthesis; MPS). Muscle loss occurs when the balance tips toward breakdown. How is muscle protein built? It is generally accepted that you need a lot of protein, especially animal protein. In fact, our bodies can synthesize most amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – from smaller components found in most foods. We need to get certain amino acids – essential amino acids (EAAs) – from food. Animal-based EAAs best suit our needs, but you can also mix and match plants. Then, genetic instructions are followed to build specific types of muscle proteins (e.g., fast and slow twitch fibers).

When you work your muscles, they burn fuel to contract, much like a car burns gasoline. Both processes also produce pollutants. Damage to muscle cells stimulates built-in repair programs that build and strengthen muscles. The problem is that you need to have amino acids on hand for accumulation, but if you consume too many, they get stored as fat (see “Eat to build muscle”).

In active individuals like climbers, what changes with age is the ability to build muscle after consuming protein. In what physiologists call anabolic resistance, our muscle cells are less able to extract the building blocks of proteins from the blood and use them. No one really knows why, but it seems to be due to the deterioration of our muscle stem cells as we age. Meanwhile, if you don’t use your muscles, MPS decreases so much that this decline alone explains the age-related loss.

To maintain muscle mass, we must maximize MPS and minimize MPB.

Eat to build muscle

The muscle loss part of the equation accelerates around age 50. Before that, your muscle cells are still pretty good at using EAAs. Recent findings suggest that individuals <50 should be eating 0.7–0.8 grams of protein per kilo of body weight per day, while the >50 people should aim for 1 to 1.3 grams. That translates to 60 grams of protein for a 150-pound man in his 40s, and the same if you’re a 115-pound 60-year-old like me. (See “Tips.”)

Also Read: You Can Become Stronger Than Ever in Your 40s, 50s, and 60s. here’s how

An easily digestible protein such as whey, found in many protein powders, can further boost MPS. The most important EAA for boosting MPS is leucine. Leucine is the initiator of a chain of events that results in protein synthesis. However, the stronger this signal, the greater the chances of stimulating cancer cells. Research has shown that high protein intake – more than 10% of daily calories from meat and dairy, but not plants – earlier in life (around age 50 and younger) leads to a large increase in cancers and diabetes later.

Move to build muscle

Moderate to severe exercise will increase both MPB and MPS. Eating a protein-rich meal after training will increase MPS but decrease MPB. In young (20 years) and older (50 years) athletes, exercise followed by 20 grams of good quality protein increased MPS compared to exercise without protein intake afterwards. More good news: Resistance exercises (weight training or climbing) can improve the MPS response to protein consumption for days after training. Translation: You probably don’t need to eat this protein right away.

Also read: Climb stronger while being weaker… and flexible


  • Dissolve 5 grams of leucine powder in your water bottle and sip during your workout (try LiveLong, Infinite Labs or Evogen)
  • Eat 20 grams of protein after training. Protein powders make this easier, but other options include:
    • Chicken or turkey sandwich or wrap with 4 oz. meat (4 to 6 slices)
    • Canned tuna (½ cup)
    • Tofu (½ cup)
    • Almonds or almond butter (5 oz)
    • 3 eggs
  • A simple 3-4 day climbing or climbing-specific workout will maximize the benefits of MPS.

Also read: Are you having trouble maintaining your muscle mass? Here’s what you need to know about supplemental strength training.


  • EAA: essential amino acid
  • MPB: breakdown of muscle proteins
  • MPS: muscle protein synthesis

Beth Bennett has been climbing for over 40 years, completing numerous FAs and FFAs in the 1970s; in the mid-1980s, she received her doctorate in genetics. She has a long-standing interest in nutritional biochemistry.

This training article first appeared in Rock and ice.

Gn En gealth

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