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Older Trainers Get More Bang for Buck


Pays to be young. Right? Researchers from Norway say, NOT SO FAST! They found that men and women in their 60s and 70s have as much or more to gain from high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as those in their 20s. Rather than age, improvements were found to be inversely associated with baseline training status.

“In fact, the VO2max improvements in the two oldest cohorts in our study corresponds to a VO2max decline that is commonly observed with ~10 years of aging. Thus, a training intervention of relatively short duration may yield important benefits, and the magnitude of the beneficial effects appears not to be reduced up to 80 years of age.” Oyvind Storen et al, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, January 2017

The gap between the trained and untrained person grows with each passing year.
This photo, taken by Pat Berrett, shows me at 60.
The 75-year-old lifelong exerciser has the neuromuscular function of the untrained person at 20.

Let’s look at the encouraging news from Norway for older trainers. Especially those who have been spending a little too much time in their easy chair.


Interestingly, the researchers proved themselves to be wrong.

Maximum oxygen consumption (VO2max), one of the strongest predictors of cardiovascular health and mortality, typically declines about 1% per year until old age when the decline may accelerate. One reason for the decline is a reduction in physical activity with age. Sedentary living.

Aerobic training intensity had been argued to be a key factor for VO2max improvement.  HIIT is documented to improve the cardiovascular system and be an excellent strategy for healthy aging. Although training induced improvements have been reported in specific age groups, it is unclear what happens from decade to decade.

“To our knowledge, no previous study has systematically investigated the training response to HIIT in age groups ranging from 20 to above 70 years of age,” the Norwegian exercise scientists wrote. They set out to fill the gap, predicting that all age groups would see significant improvements in VO2max, “but that improvements would be significantly smaller with advancing age.”

The Study

Lead researcher Oyvind Storen, Telemark University College, Department of Sport and Outdoor Life Studies, Bo, Norway, colleagues from various universities in Norway, and senior researcher Eivind Wang from the University of Utah recruited a total of 94 healthy male (72) and female (22) volunteers with ages ranging from 20 to 83 to participate in the study. Participants were selected to represent the norm in the population and typically meant that they engaged in weekly activities with low to moderate intensity for 2 hours a week or less. They were divided into six age groups: 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60-69, and 70+ years.

After testing for baseline VO2max and heart rate max, supervised training was done three times a week for 8 weeks. After a 10 minute warm up, participants did four 4-minute intervals with a targeted intensity of 90-95% of maximum heart rate, with 3 minute recovery periods between work intervals. The targeted intensity had to be met in every training session. Compliance was an amazing 92% across all age groups.


All age groups improved in VO2max, with an overall average increase of 11.6%. No significant differences were observed between age groups.

Improvement varied from 9% to 13%, with the 60-69 group recording the most improvement and the 30-39 group the least. Women edged men by a small margin.

In contrast to age, the percentage improvement in aerobic capacity was dependent on the participants’ initial training status. “Subjects that were more sedentary had the greatest VO2max training response,” the researchers wrote.

Interestingly, heart rate max didn’t change significantly within age groups, but the two oldest groups exhibited a “tendency” to increase HRmax, while younger groups showed a training induced decrease. As expected, the results confirmed a HRmax decline of 6% per decade. “It is noteworthy that the decline in VO2max per decade was higher (8.5%) in our study,” Storen et al wrote. “This is in line with previous observations that have showed up to a twofold decline in VO2max compared with HRmax.” This indicates that different mechanisms are at work in the two measures of cardiovascular fitness.

Another comforting result was that there were no adverse incidents due to the training regimen. “Interestingly, the magnitude of the VO2max improvements in our study is also in accordance with studies that have used an identical HIIT protocol on a wide range of patients with a variety of medical conditions,” the researchers observed. “Some of the studies involve patients with coronary artery disease, peripheral arterial disease, heart failure, chronic stroke, schizophrenia, and substance use disorder.”

Some of the results have been spectacular. For example, a study with heart failure patients reported a VO2max improvement of 46% after a 12 week HIIT intervention. Extremely poor training status no doubt helped to make the large improvement possible.

Training status is a key factor in predicting HIIT results.


Storen et al stated their bottom line as follows:

Against our hypothesis, the current study revealed similar improvements in VO2max in participants from 20 to 70+ years of age, and implies that the training response to short term HIIT is not affected up to moderate age in individuals with a VO2max representative for what is typically observed in the population. In contrast, our results showed that the magnitude of VO2max improvement was affected by the initial training status.  Our results advocate that HIIT can be used as an effective strategy to improve VO2max in the aging population, and given the close association between VO2max and physical health, this may be beneficial for the quality of life of the individual and serve as a cost-effective socioeconomic enterprise for public health.

You can read the abstract of the study online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27501361

Practical Considerations

To their credit, Storen and colleagues acknowledge that the 4 x 4 HIIT protocol is “fairly strenuous” and that a supervisor to offer encouragement and see that intensity is maintained is a key factor. They are also stress that the intervals are not carried out with maximum training intensity. “The targeted 90-95% of HRmax intensity typically means that the individuals are able to continue another 1-2 minutes after the termination of the 4 minute intervals,” they write. “Of course, a certain lactate build up is inevitable,” they continue, “making it necessary with at least three minutes active recovery periods between the intervals to ensure sufficient lactate removal.”

They also point out that the protocol can be carried out on many modalities, including whole body activities such as cross country skiing or rowing. “Thus, the tailored training regime for the individual should be based on both what is feasible and motivating, as long as large muscle groups are involved in the training.”

Probably all true, but for all but the most determined and hardy few the 4 x 4 protocol is hard to keep doing for any length of time, especially without a supervisor to offer encouragement.

My knowledgeable friend and lifetime trainer Professor Richard Winett wrote recently:

“There is one thing I never 'got' with the 4 x 4. If you are not a top athlete, how do you maintain a 90% HR max for 4 minutes? How do you not within a couple of minutes get to 100%. And, then, how do you do 3 more of these intervals? It is interesting that there is some evidence for a 1 x 4, but rarely ever used.”

To support his assertion, Winett offers a study (also from Norway) in which he participated comparing a single sprint and 4 intervals of the same duration: http://www.cbass.com/SingleSprint.htm

The results suggest that short duration, but intense training can yield favorable benefits.

The controlling factor--what works over the long run--may be how much effort you are willing to exert regularly.

March 1, 2018

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