Older guys often appear to have tremendous power for their age. It’s known as “old man strength.” Is it, however, a genuine phenomenon? Is it true that elderly men preserve their strength? Or possibly become more powerful?
Some believe that stress hormones are to blame for old man strength. People have been known to gain virtually superhuman strength in stressful conditions. Nick Harris of Kansas, for example, managed to lift a car in 2009 to liberate a six-year-old kid trapped beneath it.
The body swings into fight-or-flight mode in these situations, producing chemicals like adrenaline. These hormones increase arousal, attentiveness, and processing speed, preparing the body for action. They also improve skeletal muscle blood flow and neuronal drive. This reaction, when combined, can result in increased muscular strength and power.
Increases in the production of adrenaline-related hormones with age have been suggested as a possible explanation for older men’s seeming capacity to execute incredible feats of strength. There is, however, no experimental evidence that greater production of these hormones improves strength in older persons. In fact, compared to a younger individual, an older adult’s capacity to maintain a regulated powerful muscular contraction is reduced after a “stressor.” Similarly, high levels of the noradrenaline hormone associated with aging are linked to slower processing speed and cognitive function, which has a deleterious impact on fine motor control.
Age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia (from the Greek sarx, “flesh,” and penia, “poor”), also contradicts the concept of old manpower. In other words, as we get older, starting about the age of 40, we gradually lose muscle mass until our muscles are roughly half the size they were when we were 40.
Because muscle cross-sectional area and strength are connected, the loss of strength that comes with aging is matched by the decrease of muscle mass. Hormonal changes associated with aging are also a contributing factor. While adrenaline levels rise with age, chemicals that control muscle mass and strength, such as testosterone and growth hormone, fall.
Is It thus a Mistake to Believe In Old Man Strength?
This isn’t to say that just because you’re elderly doesn’t mean you can’t stay strong or even get stronger. Consider the case of Charles Eugster. The 96-year-old Englishman can do 61 45-degree chin-ups in 45 seconds after starting weight training at the age of 87.
Simply being more active in later life and participating in low-intensity exercise programs or completing ordinary manual activities can improve strength and mobility in the elderly population, allowing them to live a healthy and independent life. Indeed, this is likely what makes your father look stronger while lifting paving slabs, for example, because he is used to it and strength might vary depending on the work.
Lifting weights on a regular basis as you become older improves your strength and muscle mass. In fact, weight training has been proven to raise hormone levels in older individuals to the same level as untrained younger adults. However, these improvements will almost certainly never match those of a younger adult who begins and completes the same exercise at the same time. All other factors being equal, there will almost always be a disparity in strength, power, coordination, and muscle mass.
The media’s portrayals of old men’s tenacity definitely don’t tell the whole story. An older guy who holds a strength record has most likely been exercising since he was a child and has continued to do so as he has gotten older, allowing him to keep his strength and muscle mass at a higher level for longer. He may be a freak of nature if he isn’t.
It goes without saying that most stories of old man strength are undoubtedly overblown. This is why we don’t see elderly individuals competing on an equal basis with younger counterparts in sporting events, and why we have age divisions in sports competitions: records tend to slip with age. Of course, there are exceptions to any rule. Mark Felix, who is 50 years old, is a perfect illustration of this. At the World Strongest Man competition, he is still able to compete with much younger competitors.