As 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 that, your ability to respond to and recover from exercise becomes compromised.
So if you are an older guy, you’ll 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 40s, 50s, 60s – 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 in your 20s. 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 40s 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 nowhere.
In your late 30s and early 40s, there isn’t that much difference, though, especially if you’ve been training regularly up to that point. 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 40s, 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 back 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’ll 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 five or six reps very often. But doing multiple sets of 15 or more is not a good idea either.
Don’t Train to Failure
Training 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 even your hardest sets when you feel the next rep will be a real struggle. Never 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 start off with a few minutes on the elliptical or the treadmill. Or jump rope or do some squat jumps instead if you prefer. Then, do some mobility drills and dynamic stretching. And do two or three warm-up sets of each exercise before moving up to your working weight.
Don’t Overdo the High-Intensity Cardio
Doing some light to moderate cardio 3–5 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 or twice 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 (although it’s not recommended), 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 can 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 aren’t able to absorb nutrients as well as younger guys. So make sure you eat a good, nutritious diet, consisting of plenty of high quality protein (0.8–1.0g per pound of body weight per day), a good amount of complex carbohydrates (depending on how lean you are), some healthy fats, and lots of fruit and vegetables. And keep the junk food to an absolute minimum.
Meal frequency and timing are not that important, but you may find it advantageous to incorporate some form of intermittent fasting into your routine, both for the health benefits, and to facilitate optimal fat burning.
Take the Right Supplements
Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are the most important supplement for older guys, as they have such a wide range of health benefits, including being very good for heart, brain and joint health. They also improve muscle function, and help speed up recovery after training. Ideally, you want to be taking 2.5–3g of EPA/DHA per day, in the triglyceride form for maximum bioavailability.
Glucosamine and chondroitin are also extremely beneficial for the joints, although they only seem to work for about half the people who take them. But if you have sore or achy joints, it’s well worth giving them a try.
Prebiotic Fiber Supplement (such as ZinoBiotic) to help promote a healthy gut microbiome and proper intestinal function, as maintaining good gut health is particularly important as you get older.
Vitamin D is essential, especially in the winter, or if you don’t get out in the sun much. And vitamin C and creatine are also well worth using. Apart from that, you may want to take some whey protein, particularly post-workout, and it’s also a good idea to take a good quality, all-natural multivitamin or greens supplement, 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 row 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 for each exercise (8–10 reps for barbell curls and parallel bar dips).
Start off with weights that you can easily handle, and progress by adding 10lb (5kg) to your squat and deadlift, and 5lb (2.5kg) to your other exercises, each time you do them. Continue to do this for as long as you are able to.
At some point, however, your progress will stall. So when that happens, reduce the weight on the exercise(s) you have stalled on by at least 15%, and then build back up again as before. But 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 program, 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 fairly short. But an approach that seems to work particularly well for experienced older guys is to train the 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.
So, a great example of an upper/lower/upper split for older guys might look something like this:
- Bench Press 2 x 6–8
- One-Arm Dumbbell Row 2 x 6–8
- Overhead Press 2 x 6–8
- Barbell Curls 2 x 8–10
- Dumbbell Hammer Curls 2 x 10–12
- Squats 2 x 6–8
- Romanian Deadlifts 2 x 10–12
- Leg Press 2 x 10–12
- Leg curl 2 x 8–10
- Calf Raise 2 x 8–10
- Incline Dumbbell Press 2 x 8–10
- Pull-Ups 2 x 8–10
- Lateral Raise 2 x 10–12
- Machine Rear Delts 2 x 10–12
- Triceps Pressdowns 2 x 8–10
You can use this same basic template indefinitely if you wish. Just vary the rep ranges a little, and/or change some of the exercises occasionally, and you’ll be able to make good, consistent progress for a very long time.
So that’s my guide to training for older guys. Follow the advice given 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: Protein99, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons