questions about life after weightlifting

At age 23, I started lifting weights. Pretty dedicated, I hit the gym 3 times a week, about 90 minutes a time. As you might expect, my physique changed dramatically over the course of a few years; I gained a fair bit of muscle mass in my upper body. At my best, I was able to bench-press 235 pounds.

By age 30 or so, my life circumstances had changed, and I lost interest.

I am now 44. I do the odd bit of manual labor here and there, but I haven’t done any weightlifting for 14 years or so. I had expected that by now my musculature would have faded away to something like what I had as a scrawny 22YO, but that hasn’t been the case; I’ve retained a surprising amount of mass in my chest, arms and shoulders. Is this normal, or do most folks revert to their pre-weightlifting condition once they completely stop?

On a related note, my elbows are now crunchy when moving under load. Not clear whether this is arthritis that comes with aging, or joint damage from my weight-lifting days. Which got me to wondering (my next question): do professional body builders suffer from joint damage as they get older? My 235-pound bench press is peanuts compared to the 400+ pounds put up by guys like Scharzenegger, and those sorts of guys probably keep at it longer than I did. Is it common for former pro body builders to end up seriously crippled as they approach their golden years?

From what I know a lot of pro bodybuilders and wrestlers end up crippled (and by a lot I mean far more than a random sample of people). However much of that is likely due to drug abuse and pushing their bodies too hard too long. Several of the pro wrestlers and pro bodybuilders I followed in the 90s is now dead or disabled. However, I have no idea how that applies to amateur lifters like yourself who do not engage in extremely strict dieting, many hours a week of lifting and polypharmacy.

I’ve lifted weights in the past and I tend to keep the muscle I build even when I quit lifting (I haven’t lifted weights in years and am still built like a football player). I never got a good explanation other than ‘genetics’. Some people will lose their muscle once they stop lifting weights, others will not. Even among steroid abusers, some will lose most/all the muscle they build and some will keep it after they quit their cycle. But I don’t understand the biology of it.

A couple I’ve known are like you; still fitter looking than most of us. But the majority look like hell - fat and so inflexible that they can barely scratch the backs of their own necks without effort.

As for that related note, I submit the anecdote of Jack Lalanne - who lifted weights and was a bodybuilder from late teens on, long before it a thing that many did, and who The Arnold described as “a monster”, who lived to 96 and was working out regularly the whole way … of course not only weights and not only lifting as heavy as possible. He mixed it up lots.

It’s pretty much guarenteed that you (or anyone) will loose some muscle mass after you stop a resitance training program, but the amount depends both on how effectivly you were training and what your genetics say.

Like a lot of young guys (late teens), I did weight training and really didn’t get any resulting mass increase at all. Mid to late 20’s after stopping lifting, I got a bit bigger naturally. A lot of men are natuarlly scrawny when young, and pack on a bit more mass (and not just fat) a little later. Few retain (or can revert back to) the scrawney body type much past their late 20s, whether they ever lift weights or not. So part of your “retained” mass may just be what you’d have put on naturally anyway. My dad had quite muscular forearms well into his 60’s despite doing absolutley no exercise… while I could do wrist curls everyday for years and still have girl arms. The amount of muscle mass you have is affected by resistance training, but not entirely dependant on it; unless you’re in a malnourished state you’ll still mainatin some muscle whether you train it or not - and genetics play a big part in how much and where.

Also, with a shitty training regimen a person may not really get many results in the first place, and barely notice any difference in their physique after they stop their ineffective training routine. That may give the illusion that they retained most of their increased muscle mass… but in reality they only put on 3 lbs in the first place. A highly effective training program would have produced much more noticable results (say like a pro bodybuilder), and it’s quite certain that you wouldn’t retain much of the 35+ lbs of lean mass you’d built if you just switched to a normal training routine (or none at all). So just like not everyone who spends 8 hrs in the gym will achieve the same gains, not everyone will notice the same losses upon quitting.

Scharzenegger lost a lot of muscle mass following his heart surgery because he’d built a lot up prior - IOW he had a lot to lose; the difference was very noticable (he’s of course since built it back up). If someone who never added much mass dropped a minimal training program, you’d probably not even notice since they’d have added so little extra to begin with.

It’s most likely a mixture of reasons as to why you still have musculature. The manual labour will help, but probably more importantly it’s genetics and diet. To keep your muscle I assume your diet must be reasonably good. If not then you must have the genetics a God.

I think most later injuries and ilnesses to bodybuilders are due to steroid abuse etc. Doing a reasonable amount of bodybuilding and fitness is surely beneficial. After a certain amount of intensity/steroids/over-eating there must come a point at which it is detrimental to you in the long term.

No cites at the ready but I do recall having read that while building muscle mass is pretty hard, keeping is not as difficult (at least until the later 40s to 50s when the baseline becomes loss of muscle mass).

The general rule I recall is that lifting with intensity even just once a week will generally maintain muscle mass - and intensity is not duration and does not require formal exercise, it just means that every so often you lift something heavy, even if that is carrying the six bags of groceries up the stairs all at once instead of making three trips.

Again, that changes sometime between late 40s and 50s and speeding up from there. The baseline then becomes loss of muscle mass without a more significant stimulus to maintain or to build. That tendency is called “sarcopenia.”

A sort of cite to offer.

Untrained older men trained for 12 weeks 3x/w (enough to gain 50% increase in 1 RM and 6-7% mid-thigh muscle mass) then either back to regular activity or once a week lifting. Those who went back to no exercise lost 11% of strength and 5% of mass, and those who lifted just once a week maintained the gained strength and muscle mass.

And this was in those who were roughly 69 to 75 years old. A little bit of heavy lifting can maintain pretty well.

questions about life after weightlifting - Straight Dope Message Board

EXRX on weight training for older adults.

Mark Rippetoe of Starting Strength fame has said (paraphrased): Your choices as an older athlete are working out hurt — because you’re always working around older injuries and courting new ones if you want to make any progress — and so being able to lift heavy shit within the limitations of your orthopedic problems, or not working out, not being able to lift heavy shit because you’re weak, and also having orthopedic issues because you don’t get your increasingly older ass off the couch once in a while.

I turned 40 this year, which <yikes> puts me within hobbling distance of masters-class. Because I train, I have better mobility and strength than the high school kids I coach in my after-school fitness program. Seriously, every single kid I’ve ever taken in has been broken as fuck This is partially because I get all the non-athletes (if they were good at physical stuff, they’re generally on a team instead of in my group) but the handful of kids on teams have had serious weaknesses as well. I’ve had to start with what I would consider rehab exercises just to get them to what should be baseline movement for a normal healthy individual. By the time they graduate, they’re mostly fixed, but disappointingly not even close to my level of fitness. They should be beating my old broken ass regularly, but because they’re starting from below 0, they are just starting to catch up by the time my time with them is ending.

Moral of the story: untrained young people are physically weaker, less mobile, less flexible, and less capable than an older person who trains.

I see it pretty much the same Rippetoe does. You’ve got two choices: 1) Train, be much more healthy long-term, but have a possibility of injury along the way. 2) Let old age and disuse waste your muscles and freeze your joints without putting up any resistance to it (i.e.: get old and fucking die).

In your particular circumstances, I would bet that you’re way weaker than you were when you were training. Most people do retain at least some capability if they did decent training (or worked at physically demanding jobs) and there’s some truth to the popular myth of “muscle memory” that you re-adapt faster than a completely untrained person if you start working out again. Some people think they’re in pretty good shape based on bulk, but in most, if not all cases, the bulk is more fat than muscle. Some body composition changes are not all that visible. There are lots of “skinny fat” people who have significant visceral body fat even though they don’t have particularly high levels of visible subcutaneous fat.

If your elbows are crunchy, it could just as easily be relative disuse as previous damage. Smart training preserves function. Based on studies of the relative safety of various sports, weightlifting is probably the safest thing you could possibly do that even vaguely resembles not sitting on your fat ass stuffing Cheetos into your face. Here’s another source with an overview of various studies on competitive weightlifting, which presupposes a much higher risk of injury compared to recreational activity; spoiler, injury rates are still relatively low even compared to non-contact sports like running.

So no, it’s not particularly common for older lifters to end up crippled. If they do, it’s more likely that they ended up that way due to injury from improper training or overly-ambitious goals than from the years spent doing it. To use a car analogy, if you do perfect maintenance and necessary repairs, you can keep a classic running for decades. Drive like an asshole and get in accidents, even fender benders, and you’re more likely to have to scrap your car even if it’s only a few years old.