Rodney Hahn may be 58 years old, but it’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re reading this, he could destroy you in pull-ups. In 2015, Hahn smashed a Guiness World Record for the number of pull-ups completed in 24 hours by doing 5,337 of them. His record was broken shortly after that, but he reclaimed it in 2016 with 6,844 pull-ups in a day, and now, having been beaten again, he’s planning on going for 8,000 in a single day in the near future.
If you’re thinking that 58 is kind of old to be setting records like this, perhaps you’ve never heard of a little something called ‘Old Man Strength.’ Urban Dictionary defines Old Man Strength as “the uncanny ability of older men to lift copious amounts of lumber, heavy furniture and beat their sons in arm wrestling,” which is a pretty accurate definition. Oftentimes it seems like older men — who one might figure would be well on their way to old-guy-status — possess impressive, almost inhuman strength.
Outside of Hahn, there are many prominent examples of Old Man Strength. Take Mark Felix, who, despite being 52 years old, regularly places high during the World’s Strongest Man competitions. Then there’s Ron Gellis, who still competes in the CrossFit Games at age 70 along with Jacinto Bonilla, who is competing at age 78. Then there was Mighty Atom Jr., a 93-year-old strongman who pulled a car with his teeth on America’s Got Talent back in 2014.
To find an example of Old Man Strength, though, you may not have to venture outside of your own family, as many of us have at least one example of someone near to us who is entering, or well into, their 60s, yet we still know they can kick our ass. Maybe they’re a retired auto mechanic or construction worker, or have spent a lifetime performing some other kind of relentless manual labor. Whatever the cause, they have strength well beyond what one might think.
“I think there is something to it,” says Hahn, referring to the idea of Old Man Strength. Hahn, who holds a sports medicine degree and also manages to be a personal trainer in between his marathon pull-up sessions, explains that with Old Man Strength, “the muscles become denser due to repeated work over many years and it’s a tougher kind of strength.” He further explains that through “repetitive honing of the muscle fibers,” pathways are built, and strengthened, over decades of doing the same thing. And because these guys have been building these pathways pretty much their entire lives, they’re naturally going to be more honed, and the connective tissue will be denser and stronger.
Brandon M. Roberts, from the Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham agrees, explaining that this isn’t some magical ability. Instead, he argues, older men often can continue to get stronger well into their 50s due to an increase in neuromuscular control (which refers to the ability of the brain and muscles to work together to efficiently perform a task). Because these older men have been doing these tasks for decades, their bodies have learned to do them more efficiently than a younger guy who may simply think they’re stronger than their fifty-something dad.
When asking him if he feels stronger now than he did during his 20s and 30s, Hahn explains that he now feels he possesses a “different kind of strength.” A powerlifter back in his 20s, he can’t quite bench what he used to, but his endurance is well beyond what it was then. As a personal trainer, he often sees himself and some of his older Navy buddies able to beat the young competition in endurance tests for this very reason.
A major reason for this change in ability is the difference between fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers, Hahn explains. Slow-twitch fibers, which give one endurance, can get better and more honed with age (to a point), but the fast-twitch fibers are more reliant upon testosterone, so they fade as testosterone levels decrease. So while Hahn is better and stronger in the pull-up arena than he’s ever been, he’s a bit slower than the days when he was a sprinter and long-jumper. In addition, he feels that circulation also plays a factor, as it’s not as strong in older men. As an example, he cites baseball great Nolan Ryan, who still could pitch as good as ever when he retired at age 46, but it was his legs that were having problems.
Of course, all of this is finite. Eventually, even the strongest of old men will see their strength fade. While typical aging issues like arthritis, muscle deterioration and circulation catch up with them, Hahn explains that that connective tissue — “the thing that made us who we are” — will eventually become so stiff that they’ll be unable to do what they used to be able to do. So the very thing that kept them young will rob them of a good deal of their mobility. Even exercising will become more hazardous, as decreased blood flow will make recovery much harder.
Roberts says that you’ll typically see a decline in one’s 50s, but Hahn says that he’s seen some keep it going into their 80s, citing the legendary Jack LaLanne as an example. LaLanne, known as the “Godfather of Fitness,” is the namesake for the jumping jack, and was still performing his signature exercises well into his 90s: During an interview for his 95th birthday, Lalanne joked, “I can’t afford to die, it’d wreck my image.” And while he did die about a year later, it’s easy to see how his dedication to fitness — and his finely honed Old Man Strength — kept him going for a very long time.
Hahn feels the same way, citing his Old Man Strength as what’s keeping him young and competitive. He’s aware that, in time, his age will catch up to him, but he says that he’s “having a lot of fun” in the meantime — and plans to put off feeling old as long as possible.