Training For Older Guys: How To Build Muscle In Your 40’s And Beyond

frank zane flickrAs you get older you start to lose muscle mass. You also gain fat more easily as your metabolism slows down (caused partly by this loss of muscle tissue). And on top of this your ability to respond to and recover from exercise becomes compromised.

So if you are an older guy you will have a tougher time building muscle and staying in shape than the younger guys do.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. If you are in your 40’s, 50’s, 60’s – or even older, you can still get tremendous results from your efforts in the gym, provided you realize that you can’t train the same way as you did when you were 20. You need to make some sensible adjustments.

So in this article I’ll tell you exactly how you should train to build muscle size and strength in your 40’s and beyond…

Training For The Older Guy

John goes to the same gym that I currently go to. He is 74 years old and can bench press almost 300lb. He’s also in great shape – lean and muscular. A real inspiration to everyone. Granted he started training when he was in his mid-teens, but he’s still living proof that you can be strong and have a great physique well into your later years.

But as an older guy you will need to train somewhat differently to the younger guys if you want to see good results. You can’t just go to the gym and assault your body with high volume, ultra-intense workouts five days per week. That will soon burn you out, and you will get no-where.

In your late 30’s/early 40’s there isn’t that much difference though. You just need to pay more attention to getting sufficient sleep and make sure your diet is in order and you should gain well. But as you get further into your 40’s, making good gains will start to become more of a challenge; but you can still get excellent results if you do the following…

Reduce Your Training Volume – The older you get the more sensitive you become to volume; that is the total number of reps you do in a workout and in a week. Older people just can’t recover from all the reps, so you need to dial it down a bit.

In fact even younger guys should only use the higher volume programs for 6 – 8 weeks at a time, as after this inflammation tends to accumulate faster than gains. And bear in mind that the more volume you do the more of a calorie surplus you require; so if you are on a calorie deficit you will need to reduce it even further.

However the weight you are using is also a factor, as heavy weights put more of a strain on the central nervous system than lighter weights. So you don’t want to be going below 5 reps very often. But doing multiple sets of 10 reps or more is definitely not a good idea.

Don’t Train To FailureTraining to failure also puts a tremendous strain on the central nervous system and is very difficult to recover from, so even the younger guys should not do it too often. But when you get older your body just can’t cope with that sort of stress. So always stop your sets when you feel the next rep will be a real struggle. Don’t get to the point of failing mid-rep; and don’t do those really slow grinding reps either.

Warm Up Properly – It’s very important to warm up properly in order to prepare your muscles and joints for heavy lifting. If you don’t, your muscles will simply not work as well, so your performance will suffer and you’ll be at a much higher risk of injury as well.

So jump rope or do some squat jumps for a couple of minutes. Do some mobility drills and dynamic stretching. And do two or three lighter sets of each exercise before moving up to your working weight.

Don’t Overdo The High Intensity Cardio – Doing some light cardio 3 to 5 times per week will help you stay fit and healthy, as well as keeping any fat gain to a minimum. It’s also a good idea to run some sprints, or do some other form of high intensity cardio, once per week. But I wouldn’t do it any more often than that, as this again is very demanding and can be difficult to recover from.

Perform All Your Exercises Correctly – Again younger guys can usually get away with some sloppy form, but older guys can’t as it puts you at a much greater risk of injury. If movements are performed in a technically correct manner however the risk of injury is very low, so always make sure you do your exercises properly.

You also need to ensure you use an appropriately full range of motion in order to fully stimulate the target muscles. Partial reps lead to sub-optimal results, as well as muscle imbalances, and again increase the risk of injury.

You do however need to take your own structural limitations into account. For example if you can’t squat to parallel without rounding your lower back, then you shouldn’t do it – yet. Work on improving your hip flexibility (or whatever else might be causing the problem) and gradually increase your range of motion until you can hit parallel.

Eat A Nutritious Diet – As you get older your digestive system becomes less efficient, so older guys are not as good at absorbing nutrients as younger guys. So make sure you eat plenty of high quality protein each day, together with a good balance of other nutrients. And keep the junk food to an absolute minimum.

Meal frequency and timing are not that important, but personally I find The Renegade Diet approach suits me best and gives me the best results.

Take The Right Supplements – Omega 3’s are the most important supplement for older guys as they have such a wide range of health benefits, including being very good for joint health. Ideally you want to be taking about 3g of EPA/DHA per day, in the triglyceride form for maximum bioavailability.

Glucosamine/chondroitin is also extremely beneficial for the joints, although it only seems to work for about half the people who take it.

Vitamin D is essential for those who don’t get out in the sun much. And vitamin C, creatine and BCAA’s (post workout) are also well worth using. Apart from that you may also want to take a good whole food multivitamin or greens supplement once in a while, especially if you don’t eat as many fruits and vegetables as you should.

How To Get Started And Make Progress

If you have never trained before, or you are returning after a long layoff, start off with an abbreviated full body workout routine performed three times per week.

Do two different workouts and alternate these over your three weekly gym sessions.

Workout 1 will be squats, bench press, bent-over rows and (optionally) barbell curls.

Workout 2 will be deadlifts, overhead press, pull-ups and (optionally) parallel bar dips.

After doing warm-up sets as appropriate, do two work sets of 6 – 8 reps of each exercise (8 – 10 reps for barbell curls and parallel bar dips).

Then, after four weeks, drop down to two workouts per week, so each of the above will now only be performed once per week.

To progress, add 5lb (2.5kg) to the bar whenever you achieve the top end of the rep range for both your sets. Continue to do this for as long as you are able to.

At some point however your progress will stall. So when this happens, reduce the weight on the exercise(s) you have stalled on by at least 10% and continue as before. And when you reach the point where you have stalled three times on most of your exercises, it’s probably time to move on to a more intermediate level plan such as an upper/lower body routine.

If you’ve been training for some time however, and are quite experienced, you’ll probably find you’ll make the best gains with an upper/lower routine. But if you prefer to do a more “bodybuilding style” of training, you could do a well-designed three way split such as the push/pull/legs split or the opposing muscle groups split.

You can train three or even four times per week if you wish, as long as you keep your workouts short. But an approach that seems to work particularly well for experienced older guys is to train upper body twice per week and lower body just once per week.

By doing this you are able to restrict your heavy spinal loading exercises to one day per week. And it’s a good idea to do all your heavy pressing movements on one day of the week as well; and do lighter, higher rep presses on your other upper body day.

You’ll also need to introduce some sort of periodization to your training, as linear loading will only work up to a certain point. So make sure you incorporate some sort of variation in training load and rep range over time.

So that’s my guide to training for older guys. Follow the advice here and you’ll be able to build muscle, get strong and stay in great shape well into old age. Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: equilibriumnutricao, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr

17 Replies to “Training For Older Guys: How To Build Muscle In Your 40’s And Beyond”

  1. Dear David
    I’m 66 years old with many years of weight trainning. I’m using your “Ultimate Upper/Lower Body Split Routine for Mass”, four days a week. It’s an excellent routine. But, after your very good article about training for older guys, I’d like to try only two work sets in each exercise, in order to reduce the training volume. I also prefer to do 6-8 reps (rest period at 1 min) for all exercises. I don’t like to do 8-10 reps. I’ like to know what do you think about what I said.
    Thanks.
    Adriano

    • Yes that sounds fine. Two work sets per exercise is probably ideal for someone of your age – especially if you are finding the workouts a bit tiring as they are. And that rep range is good too; though I’d stick to 8 – 10 reps on your curls, as biceps do grow better if you keep the reps a bit higher.

      • Hi David.
        I’ve used your Upper/Lower routine (it’s a great one), but now I inted to use the Push/Pull/Legs. It seems to me more friendly for a older guy because it facilitates better recovery for the body parts (each body part is trained once every 5 days). What do you think about that?
        Thanks
        Adriano

        • Yes the push/pull/legs routine does allow for good recovery, and training each body part once every 5 days with the same movements is a good approach that works well. So yes you should definitely try it and see how you get on. You could then either stick with it permanently or alternate it with the upper/lower split every few months in order to get all the benefits that each program has to offer.

          • Hi David
            A doubt: in your booklet “The 4 best workout routines …” you put 3 X 8-10 for Triceps Pressdowns , 2 X 8-10 for Overhead triceps extensions (page 15), 3 X 8-10 for Barbell curl, and 2 X 8-10 for Dumbell hammer curl (page 16), but in your article “The Push/Pull/Legs split routine for
            massive muscle gains ” you put 2 X 8-10 for Triceps Pressdowns , 2 X 8-10 for Overhead triceps extensions , 2 X 8-10 for Barbell curl, and 2 X 8-10 for Dumbell hammer curl.
            Which plan should I adopt?
            Thanks
            Adriano

          • Thanks for pointing that out Adriano; I thought I had made them both the same. Actually though it doesn’t really matter. Some people will find they do better with a bit more volume, whereas others will get better results with less volume. It depends on how well you can recover. But as you are an older guy my general recommendation would be to do a bit less volume, so it’s probably best to stick with two sets of each.

    • Dear David
      Don’t you think it would be better I use the upper lower split for 3 days a week instead 4 days, in order I have a better recovering. I’m feeling very fatigued.
      Thanks
      Adriano

      • Yes Adriano, you can do that program 3 days per week if you need to, though personally I think 4 days works better. If you are feeling fatigued make sure you are getting enough rest and sleep and that you are eating properly. Also if you have been pushing really hard, ease up a bit. You should not be taking every set to failure as this will soon wear you down.

        • Then, I will continue with the program 4 days per week as you think it works better. But, I’ll use the routine you have presented in your very good article “Ultimate Upper/Lower Body split …” updated on January 06, 2017,
          where you give a program with only four exercises per workout, and that seems better for me.
          Thanks.
          Adriano

    • Plenty of suggestions in the article Roland; but basically if you are just starting out do a brief full body workout three times per week and eat a moderate calorie surplus with plenty of protein. Then after a few weeks you might want to drop it down to twice per week. And later on you can transition to an upper/lower split or sensible body part split such as push/pull/legs if you wish.

  2. Hello David, I really appreciate your article. I am a (fresh) 39 y.o. U.S. Marine Corps Veteran. My reason for bothering you today is to ask what you think of 40+ weekend warriors/semipro football players doing the old 8×8 or 6×6 bodybuilding protocols for hypertrophy for 4 weeks – just to get some more size and then switching over to a weight training protocol more “suited” to men over 40?
    I am going back overseas to one of my previous coaching spots to (hopefully & prayerfully) help my old team win a Championship – or at least, be a bit more competitive. So, I think that I could possibly use the system you prescribed in the article, as it seems to be along the lines of the same protocol for training athletes. What say you, Sir?

    • The 8×8 system is really for people who are more advanced, although you could do 8×8 per body part instead of per exercise. So for instance for upper back you might do bent-over row for 4×8 and pull-ups for 4×8. I would only do this for the big muscle groups though (chest, upper back and legs), and like you say, only for a month.

      6×6 is a good system and great for both size and strength. You can do it either as sets across using about your 8RM weight, or you can ramp up to one top weight set. Just make sure everyone is recovering adequately, and if anyone is having problems cut it back a bit for them.

      And yes, the system described in this article should be ideal for your guys. Best of luck in the Championship.

  3. Hi David!
    You Writing ” experienced older guys can train upper body twice per week, lower body just once per week “. Can you explane this? Do you mean on the whole upper body push and pull muscles twice a week? Or, the first day push and the other upper day pull muscles?
    Two upper body training in the row? Or, one upper body monday, legs wednesday, the other upper body on friday. The monday training be Heavy and the friday training be lighter. Is that right?
    Regards from Sweden
    Stefan

    • You can do it either way, but I prefer push and pull muscles twice per week. Do these Monday and Friday, with legs/lower body on Wednesday. And you can do upper body as heavy/light, or use a similar rep range with different exercises on each day, as in my upper/lower body routine.

  4. Hey David.
    I’m 47 yrs old and used to be in good athletic shape. I have been lifting for about 10 yrs but have never really gotten big. I am now in a calorie def because I need to drop weight as I am 235. Lbs at 5’10”. I do not want to workout everyday as I have family and work. I consider myself an intermediate lifter as I bench 270 lbs at 5 sets of 3, overhead press is 150 lbs same sets and reps and bent over rows is 185 lbs for same reps and sets. I am not squatting due to a major knee issue. I feel I’m strong enough but I haven’t changed and stress issues cause me to have troubles losing body fat. What workout split do you suggest for me

    • Hi Bob. I suggest you do an upper/lower type split (see my article on this), training three days per week. So you would alternate upper/lower/upper etc. You should also increase your reps up into the 5 – 8 rep range for the big lifts; and do 8 – 12 reps on the smaller exercises. You might also want to do a short HIIT session once or twice per week. And you really should try to manage that stress; maybe take up meditation or something.

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