Muscles, tendons and ligaments as you get older

Having worked out for over 40 years, I have thoughts on muscles, tendons and ligaments.  Mind you I am not a medical doctor nor studied any form of medicine.  This is just my opinion based on personal experience, reading and observations of young and older lifters in a gym.

Also note that when I talk about muscles I mean skeletal muscles, those that provide body and limb movement since there are other types of muscles that control breathing, digestion and cardiovascular functions for example.

 First a little primer….

Tendons and ligaments are similar in their composition.  They consist of densely packed collagen fibers.

Ligaments connect bones to each other.  This is so they can help stabilize the joints and provide structure to the skeletal frame.

Tendons connect bones to muscles.  Muscles are supported and covered by fascia which is a strong sheath like connective tissue.  Tendons actually connect from bone to the fascia of the muscle.


 Muscles and aging…

In my much younger days, I was extremely strong. Today I could not even begin to touch the weight I lifted back then when using the free bar. I used to just think it was because my muscles were just weaker due to age.  But I have since started to think differently.

With the continued evolution of machines to work body parts I have gravitated towards them more and more as I get older.  I noticed that my strength is still pretty good on these machines compared to when I was younger and started wondering why.

The only difference I could come up with is that with free weights, your tendons and ligaments play a far greater role in balance than with machines where you have a guided path and if need be, depending on machine, with your hands you can add an extra layer of balance and support.

I notice in the gym, older guys always pulling tendons and ligaments when still going heavy with dumb bells or Olympic bar but rarely do I see them doing the same with machines although they were using a considerable weight.  The same happens to me as well.

You always see tendon and ligament tears but it is extremely rare to have a muscle tear.

So I started thinking, the muscle is a large mass that when continually exercised, maintains much of its mass.  With a constant weight load, it can stay as strong as ever or pretty close to it even with age.

The weak link…

The weak link in my opinion is tendons and ligaments.  Other than arthritic conditions, this is another reason why joints just seem to ache as you get older.

I view tendons and ligaments like rubber bands.  There is only so much stretching that it can endure over a lifetime.  What happens when you pull a rubber band too many times or too far? It snaps!

rubber bands

The same is true if you don’t use a rubber band at all, it gets stiff and cracked and when you go to use it, it snaps in your hand. Not exercising the muscles keeps the tendons and ligaments from engaging and thus a ligament or tendon is just like an unused rubber band, when pulled or stretched it will finally tear or pull.

Is there prevention?

So is there a way to circumvent tendon and ligament tears?

In my opinion, yes!

I have always been a true believer that if you don’t use it you lose it!  While most of my joint pain is attributed to tendons and ligaments, I have learned how to alleviate the problem.

One way is stretching.  It is important as we get older to stay limber and do not let your muscles and associated tendons and ligaments atrophy.   Even if you don’t exercise, it does not hurt to stretch your body every morning when you wake up in order to get going.  I will not get into the details of stretching since that can take up an entire blog post but the link below can give you a good idea:

Stretching Exercises…

The joints that hurt the most are my knees.  They are very stiff from so much abuse during my Olympic lifting days.   I was trying to compensate for that stiffness by making my squats shallower and shallower as the years went by. To the point where I barely was hitting above parallel in the squat.

Last month I decided to try something different.  I have always believed the best way to train a muscle is to take it through its entire range of motion.  I obviously was not getting this done with my squats.

So I increased the amount of time I stretched.  I also made sure that the stretching for my legs involved full range of motion.  Then I cut my weights way back in order to be able to perform the lift but with full range of motion meaning I was dipping below parallel.  In fact I was almost in a rock bottom squat position.

I started just using the bar and sets of 10 reps.  I did several sets of this with very little rest in between until I felt totally limber.  I then gradually increased my weight.  I first added a ten pound plate on each side, and then replaced it with 25’s, then 35’s, then finally 45 pound plates.  The entire time I did each set very slow, deliberate, and with full range of motion.

I never experienced any pain.  What I had essentially done is get my tendons and ligaments to start experiencing a full range of motion.  Just like a rubber band that if you don’t continually stretch to its upper limit, it will snap the first time you have to do it.

By doing squats above parallel, my tendons and ligaments were getting weaker since they were not going through that range of motion. By cutting the weights way back, I was able to go full range of motion and actually got a better work out for my legs and did it without knee pain.

I am now going to try this in other body part workouts such as shoulders.

Stretch and perform full range of motion lifts with less weights to be…..Fit Forlife!


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