Training for Longevity: Age Like The Dark Knight

By on August 17, 2022

What? You thought I’d run out of excuses to talk about Batman…?

In The Dark Knight Returns, we meet an aged and grizzled Bruce Wayne. 55 years old, he has hung up his cowl following the death of Jason Todd.

Of course, Bruce is called back into action. It wouldn’t be much of a story, otherwise! And, despite his advanced years, he is still very capable of kicking ass and taking names.

Battle Ropes

The question is: is this possible? Can you really train as hard in your 50s as you did in your 20s? I’m 35 right now, and the Father of two children, and it’s definitely getting tougher.

See also: Prep Time Workout: Batman Training 2022

But, with that said, I have no intention of slowing down. And, in fact, my performance has improved over my younger self in a number of key areas.

So, let’s take a look at some of the best strategies for aging like a total Badass. Like Bruce Wayne!

Why You Get Weaker When You Get Older

First, let’s examine why this is an issue in the first place. What makes you get weaker as you get older?

Well, in terms of our evolution, something called “The Evolutionary Shadow” is at play. In short: once we get past a certain age, most of us will already have passed on our genes. In other words, only the genes that helped us to survive up to that point get passed on.

Med Ball Slams

After that, natural selection no longer has any say over what happens to our bodies. And thus, we start to deteriorate.

There are lots of things that go wrong naturally here. The first and most substantial is a loss in muscle mass called sarcopenia (reference). We actually observe even greater strength loss (dynapenia) than the sarcopenia alone would seem to explain, however. This may be due to changes to the tendons, neural drive, and single fibre-specific tension.

Then there are mitochondrial dysfunctions which leave us with less energy, insulin resistance, and loss of bone mass. The latter occurs as a result of bone resorption beginning to outpace bone formation. This is most pronounced after the age of 50 and especially in menopausal women (reference).

See also: The Testosterone Advantage – How to Tap Into the Effects of Testosterone in the Brain

Testosterone also falls and is partly responsible for the drop in muscle mass (reference).

And, of course, there is the cumulative effect of wear and tear. The longer we’re alive, the more injuries we’re likely to pick up. Seeing as regeneration also slows down as we get older, this is a double-edged sword.

DNA

Our DNA, too, begins to deteriorate as we get older. Telomeres are located at the end of chromosomes and act as a buffer. Each time our cells replicate, the telomeres are shortened. Eventually, once they’re gone, the DNA begins to be degraded. This not only causes some of the physical signs of aging but also increases our risk of disease.

See also: Genes and Polymorphisms That Predict High Performance

Even fluid intelligence – the ability to think quickly and creatively – decreases as we get older. While more recent studies suggest we can peak as late as 40 in some rare cases (this was previously thought to be 20 for everyone), it’s still a downward trend after that (reference).  

A 50-year old Batman is looking increasingly unlikely.

Lifestyle and Aging

But what’s important here, is that we unravel the natural, unavoidable results of aging on our biology versus the impact of lifestyle.

Furthermore, we should look for interventions that might permit us to combat the natural, biological changes that cause us to slow down.

Staying Sharp as You Age

For example, it was long thought that brain plasticity also peaked at a young age (study). Brain plasticity is the malleability of the brain and it’s ability to grow new neurons, form new connections, and change in response to training and other stimuli.

This pertains to education but also the learning of both cognitive AND physical skills. Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Learning

Well, it turns out that substantial plasticity is possible at any age. But, like anything, we need to keep using it to maintain that flexibility. Novel experiences trigger a cascade of brain derived neurotrophic factor, dopamine, and nerve growth factor among other chemicals and these, largely, are what drive plasticity.

The issue comes when we stop learning. And this happens to a large extent as we age and stop having novel experiences. This happens on a HUGE scale for most of us.

See also: Neuroplasticity – An In-Depth Guide to How it Works and How to Transform Your Brain

Why Our Brains Slow Down

As a baby, we are flooded with novel experiences and stimuli. EVERYTHING is new. We don’t know which was is up or that sounds come from specific directions. We then learn to walk and talk and it’s crazy.

But even as children we continue learning a wide range of subjects in school while also learning about social interactions. As young adults we might continue our education, learn to drive, move to different parts of the country, meet new people, and try out different jobs. In middle age, even, we might buy our first home, move home, raise children. But the novel experiences are slowing down.

Brain Plasticity

Eventually, we stop meeting new people. We settle down in one part of the world. We stick with a single job. We no longer challenge our world-views. Eventually we fall into routines that involve very little learning whatsoever.

So, is it any surprise that we start to find learning new things more difficult?

And this can get even worse as we get very old and perhaps stop socialising as much, or going outside. As our senses suffer and we start taking in less information.

I actually have a theory that this is why older individuals actually seem to need less sleep, overall.

Liam Ellis on the Rings

(Check out Liam’s videography over at PERCEPTION MEDIA – Video Production Salisbury)

LEARNING in the context of the brain doesn’t mean sitting and reading about different subjects. It means flooding the senses with novel stimuli and attempting to find meaning and adapt. It means challenging the body and mind.

This is why something as simple as playing new computer games could conceivably slow the deterioration of the brain. But, even better, would be something that involves the entire body and senses.

Like exercise! Especially where you continue challenging yourself in new and interesting ways. This has been shown to greatly increase BDNF and thus plasticity.

Clapping Push Up

So, learn to juggle, take up a new martial art, work on your sprint mechanics, pick up jump rope skills, box, learn some cool kicks, or try and break a PR on your chosen lifts. You’ll stay light, sharp, and smart.

Staying Strong

Similar lifestyle effects are responsible for many of the aches and pains we associate with aging.

The biggest issue? A lack of using the body and the use of repetitive movements or positions.

The classic example, of course, is sitting. If you sit for long periods of time, you shorten your hip flexors, weaken your glutes, round your back, impair normal breathing, and fail to challenge the heart in any meaningful way. Many studies show us that extended periods of regular sitting literally shorten our lifespans.

It’s not the sitting that is the issue here, though. The poison, as ever, is in the dosage. Sitting is fine as long as it’s not all you’re doing.

Romanian Rhythm Squat

And the same can actually go for your training.

How often do we see IT band pain in runners? Tennis elbow in tennis players? Hamstring injuries in footballers? Back, knee, or shoulder injuries in powerlifters?

When I prescribe extremely high repetitions of push ups and other simple bodyweight exercises, people ask me if this will wear out their joints.

But joints don’t “wear out.” They, fortunately, do not have a set number of uses before they go caput. The issue is balance.

Kickthrough

This is why extreme specialisation can be an issue. The more you focus on a specific, linear, type of movement, the more you lose in other areas. And the more you might start picking up imbalances. Even something as

The bigger problems arise when we then try and protect these injuries by moving less. We develop compensatory movement patterns that lead to a loss of strength and mobility in certain areas. And, by finding ways to move around the pain, we essentially send the signal to our bodies that we don’t need to heal that area.

See also: Training Through Injury (The Smart Way)

Those injuries become a part of our personality and we simply accept that we have “bad knees” while moving in such a way as to support this reality. It only worsens as we get older, until we need a knee replacement or a stick to walk.

Instead, then, we should keep training and keep moving in a wide variety of ways, without specializing too much in any one area. The greater the variety of exercises and the range of vectors, the more limber we will remain.

And by gently moving problem areas without pain, we can keep blood flowing to those regions and give the body incentive to heal.

See also: F O R T I F Y | A Bulletproofing Workout

The Best Type of Training for Longevity

Strength training has been universally shown to aid with aging. One of the best ways it does this is by improving bone density and slowing the loss of muscle. This combats two of the most common issues we have seen facing an older Batman.

That said, any exercise that involves high impact can also be effective at strengthening the bones. Studies show, for example, that sprinting actually builds bone-density moreso than jogging (study). Hitting a heavy bag can do something similar for your upper body. Of course, though, it’s important to avoid extremely high impact that could lead to more injury.

See also: How to Train for Stronger Bones – Wolverine Training Part One

Sleep becomes extremely important here, then, and there is actually a direct link between sleep and bone density (study).

I recommend resistance training and some light plyometric work to prevent some of the deterioration associated with older age.

Strength Training

This also helps to encourage hypertrophy – and there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that this occurs, even in the elderly.

Youthful Energy

As well as focussing on max strength, though, we should also focus on endurance training. Some people have suggested that HIIT is, in some ways, a “fountain of youth” owing to its ability to enhance mitochondrial function. Mitochondria being the “energy factories of the cells,” with their dwindling number being largely responsible for the difference between children and the elderly in terms of energy.

HIIT for aging

In terms of strength, perfect technique can in many ways help us to overcome reductions in strength. A martial arts grandmaster is going to be able to deliver a pretty powerful punch, even in their advanced years. And, in this regard, age is an advantage: it gives you more time to learn and to perfect your movement. Spend your time wisely now, then, and you might be able to move more impressively as you age.

See also: Batman Training: Injury Prevention and Recovery – Part 1

This could be at least partly due to what we refer to as “old-man strength.”

The good news is that neuromuscular control actually continues to improve until the age of 55. This makes it possible to become very strong up until mid-fifties. After this point, the receptors used to activate muscle will decline, too. We also start to see more activation of antagonist muscles, resulting in less efficient movement (study). But this doesn’t happen overnight, and if you have already developed superior motor control, that will stick around for some time.

Tendon Strength

Another area to focus on is tendon strength. Studies have been a little mixed on the extent to which tendons deteriorate as we age, but more recent ultrasound studies allow for in-vivo observation and suggest an increase in pliability. This is a bad thing: in this context, pliability means the tendon has lost stiffness and elasticity. The muscle is now pulling on a rope with more “slack” in order move the bone, resulting less power output and lower speed.

See also: Tendon Training for Injury Prevention and Explosive Power

This can lead to injuries such as slips and falls, as older individuals struggle to catch their balance quickly. It can also lead directly to injury, as the tendons become more prone to tears.

The good news is that tendons can be trained, even in older-age, resulting in better power output and significantly reduced injury-risk (study).

Paul Clutterbuck Demonstrating an “ATG Pull Down”

(Check out Paul’s gym at 1st4Fitness – Bicester’s Premier Fitness & Nutrition Centre.)

Regular strength training will result in some improvements in tendon stiffness. However, I want to go a little further with this.

In my own articles, I have advocated for training using very large rep ranges and shorter range of motion. The objective is to increase blood supply to the tendons, thereby enabling hypertrophy and recovery. This is important, seeing as the tendons have less blood supply than the muscles, typically. This is also why muscle growth can occur as soon as eight days following the start of a training program, whereas tendons take around 2 months to begin changing (study).

ATG Pull Down

Training with “pump sets” will not only increase tendon strength and recovery in the short, acute term; it might also help to fortify them against future challenges by increasing blood supply permanently through vascularization.

Short and Long Range Movements and the ATG System

Interestingly, this is also something prescribed by the ATG Group (Ben Patrick and his team). They use what they call “short range movements” to strengthen tendons, ready for further training. They then utilize “long range” movements that involve huge ROMs under load – effectively weighted stretching. This lets them load the tendons with more tension than the muscle alone can provide: adding the force of gravity into the mix. This is also how they create their “freak athletes.”

KB Swing

It’s something that Keegan Smith recommends a lot on his channel. I think it’s an amazing system and I highly recommend checking it out. In fact, for those feeling a bit “old and achey,” following an ATG program or using Knee Ability Zero might just be one of the best things you can do.

I’m in no way affiliated: I’m just a fan.

This may be even more important as we age. After all, it’s thought that one of the reasons that tendons weaken might be because the muscle – now weaker – exerts less tension on the tendon.

I’m not recommending that someone in their 70s starts performing super deep squats. But I AM suggesting that a large range of motion, when training, could be a useful protocol to keep the tendons strong.

And, if you wanted to age like Batman, then it could be an extremely powerful tool in your arsenal.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

4 Comments

  1. Bob Shattuck says:

    Thanks, but what about 65 . . . yeah, I am very aware of age related slowing in all areas–but try having a “mild’ stroke–that’ll mess with ya . . .I enjoy all your work. Thanks for the read.

  2. Lynn Materne says:

    Thanks, Adam, very helpful content on a very pertinent topic. Like your clear explanations on muscle/fascial biology as we age & how to improve what we’ve still got!

  3. Callumjohnash says:

    Great article! Lots of useful information presented in an interesting and unique way. Keep up the great work!

  4. Anding says:

    53 years old but fitter and stronger than ever, and doing things I could never do before. It’s about working hard, eating properly and getting the right coaching.

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