The unfortunate reality is that with age comes muscle loss. We tend to focus on muscle loss in the core and lower body, which plays a bigger role in balance. Broken hips, for example, are a relatively common and completely devastating injury among older adults. But this doesnât mean that maintaining a strong upper body isnât important. Upper body strengthâor overall strengthâis essential to avoid injury, maintain health and independence, and carry out countless daily tasks.
Health markers such as insulin sensitivity, fat mass, diabetes risk, bone density, and heart health can all be tied to muscle mass. Beyond that, a lack of upper body strength and mobility can impact your ability to hang curtains, put dishes away, eat, carry bags, and tuck yourself into bed every night.
After age 35, you start losing muscle mass at rate of one to two percent per yearâso you have to make a concerted effort to maintain it. When you hit 60, that number can increase to three percent. Sarcopenia is the medical term used to describe this gradual loss of muscle.
Just how impactful this loss can be on your life will depend on how much muscle mass you have to begin with, as well as whether youâre exercising or living an active life.
When muscle cells shrink, this leads to reductions not only in strength and mass, but also in the speed at which your motor neurons fire messages from your brain to your muscles. In other words, youâre losing functionality in a number of areas, ranging from reaction time to strength.
Older individuals are at a greater risk because in order to maintain those connections, you have to use your muscles, and health conditions like arthritis or low energy can lead to atrophy.
7 Upper Body Muscle Groups
What muscles build upper body strength?
Your upper body is made up of several muscle groups that all work together so you can perform every single daily task. The muscle groups that control what you do with your arms and shoulders are:
- Deltoids: These move your entire arm at the shoulder joint. Your deltoid has three heads: the posterior (back), medial, and anterior (front). These muscles allow you to move your arms above your head; reach backward, forward, and to the side; as well as steer your car.
- Biceps: The bicep is everybodyâs favorite muscle. Youâve likely been flexing it since you were two years old! This muscle located on the top of your arm, beneath the shoulder, is responsible for bending your arm up so you can brush your teeth, lift your grandchildren, and eat your meals.
- Triceps: On the bottom part of your arm, beneath the bicep, is the muscle responsible for arm extension. Itâs called the triceps and itâs used every day for pushing up windows, helping you stand up from your seat, and bearing some load when youâre holding something above your head.
- Pectorals: These muscles in your chest help your arms move in different directions. They help you push the lawnmower, pick something up, or squeeze out a good hug
- Trapezius: This muscle is located in the upper back and helps you shrug and carry shopping bags.
- Rhomboids: Located below the trapezius in your mid-back, these muscles allow you to pull your shoulder blades back and forth.
- Latissimus Dorsi (lat): These are your big back muscles that look like wings. They are responsible for almost any kind of movement involving your back. A common movement that really shows of lat function is pulling down a window. Basically, your lat pulls your arm down.
Now, simply using these muscles in daily life is not enough. Every sedentary person puts food in their mouths, closes the windows, and takes care of daily tasks. The key to strengthening and maintaining the upper body muscles well into your senior years lies in resistance exercise.
Resistance Exercises to Build and Maintain Upper Body Strength and Muscle Mass
When you go to the doctor, they usually make a point of recommending at least 20 to 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity per day. But resistance exercise is just as importantâand perhaps more importantâas cardio. Muscle mass and strength, as weâve noted, play a crucial role in your daily life, overall health, and disease risk.
So, how often should you work out? Make a habit of strengthening your upper body with exercise at least two or three times per week for 30 to 45 minutes per session. Hitting the entire body is recommended to see the best improvements in size and strength
Here are some exercises targeting muscle groups to build a strong upper body:
A chest press is designed to predominantly work the pectorals, but it can also stimulate the triceps and a portion of the anterior deltoid. You can perform a chest press through a push-up, or by using resistance bands, free weights, or a chest-press machine at the gym.
To perform this movement, you will want to keep your chest up and pull your shoulders down and back (also known as retracting the scapula), holding them in that position throughout.
Keeping your core tight and elbows slightly tucked, push the bands, weights, or floor away from you while maintaining the stress on your chest muscles. To get a good squeeze, think about touching the insides of your elbows together.
Just before the arms are fully extended, hold the position for a second, and then slowly come back down.
Perform one to three sets. For focus on strength and power, perform four to 10 repetitions. For muscle growth, go for about eight to 12 repetitions.
Strength and power should keep a tempo of three seconds up, hold for a second at the top, and then take three more seconds to bring them back down in a controlled manner (3-1-3).
For growth, the tempo should be 1-1-3. Wait 30 to 90 seconds between sets.
A shoulder press is designed to hit the various heads of the deltoids, and like the chest press, itâs a great exercise for overall strength and power.
To perform an overhead press, stand up tall with a tight core, shoulders pulled back and down, and your chest up. Feet should be about shoulder-width apart.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand (or the handles of the resistance band youâre standing on) at shoulder height, with your palms facing forward and elbows pointing to the side (like youâve been told to âput your hands upâ).
Slowly push the weights towards the ceiling until your arms are almost fully extended, then hold them there for a second before slowly bringing them back down.
Throughout the movement, keep your back straight, abs tight, and shoulders back and down. Use the same set, rep, and tempo schemes as the chest press.
Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and grab a band (that youâre standing on), a couple of dumbbells, or a barbell. Keep your back straight and abs and butt tight, with your shoulders pulled back and down.
With your arms fully extended and palms facing away from you, start bending your elbows out to the sides to lift the band (or dumbbells or barbell) straight up to your chest. Hold there for a second and return slowly, following the chest press set, rep, and tempo scheme.
With the same straight back, tight core, and retracted scapula, hold a dumbbell (or resistance band that youâre standing on) with your palms out.
Keeping your chest up, bend your elbow to lift up the weight. Without moving your shoulder, bring the weight up as far as possible, then hold for a second before slowly returning to it the staring position.
Keep rep ranges a little higher here, between eight and 12, and follow the same tempo, set, and rest scheme as the other movements.
These movements can help you get started at home, before moving on to more complex ones.
The Importance of Working with a Professional to Build Upper Body Strength
Performing movements safely and properly is essential to building strength and muscle mass, regardless of your age. But it can be especially important for seniors, who are more susceptible to falls and bone fractures.
To get started, itâs highly recommended to work with a personal trainer or physical therapist that can identify any potential mobility issues and recommend appropriate movements, loads, and intensity.
Once youâve worked with a professional and been given the green light to continue independently, keep up with your workout routines on your own. Check back in with a trainer or therapist to provide new stimuli and get routines that continue to encourage progression.
How Diet Contributes to Muscle Growth
Exercise is important for muscle strength and growth, but eliciting that response requires proper nutrition. Eating adequate protein, healthy fats, and nutrient-dense foods can provide the energy to exercise and encourage tissue growth through recovery.
Aiming to eat about 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight can help keep things moving in the right direction, and including a protein shake every day may help you reach those targets.
Healthy fats from nuts, olive oil, seeds, avocado, and fish can make up about 20% to 30% of your daily calories, while making some space for sweet potatoes, oats, and fruit can fill your nutrient intake. Also eat as many greens and colorful veggies as possible!
Building muscle will require you to eat a few extra calories each day, but donât worry about putting on additional fat mass. Those calories will lead to muscle gain, a faster metabolism, and, if everything is working right, an improvement in body composition.
You can get an idea of how many calories to eat here.
Build a Strong Upper Body to Improve Quality of Life
Building a strong upper body as you get older is critical in maintaining health and functionality. When you fight back against sarcopenia, you give yourself a better chance at independence, a lower risk for disease, and an improved overall quality of life!
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