If you want to know how to build muscle after 40, but you’re not sure what, if anything, you should be doing differently, this page will show you how.
Read a few “building muscle after 40” articles, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that hitting 40 means immediately trading in your barbells and dumbbells for a mobility scooter and walk-in bath.
Does your weight training program need to be radically differently once you turn 40?
The short answer to that question is no, it does not.
The fact you’re old enough to remember the opening theme music from TJ Hooker doesn’t mean that your program should involve nothing more strenuous than shoulder rolls, toe raises, and a few deep breathing exercises.
Can You Build Muscle After 40?
If you’re in your forties, and you’re worried that you’ve left it too late to build muscle, I have some good news.
It’s not like the ability of your muscles to adapt and grow suddenly stops once you hit 40.
In fact, if you’re currently out of shape and unfit, you’ll see relatively rapid gains in muscle mass when you start lifting weights.
For someone who is lean, fit and strong, gaining muscle and losing fat requires a significant chunk of time, effort and sweat.
But if you’re currently fat and weak, you’ll be able to make progress a lot more quickly.
In one study, researchers rounded up a group of overweight and unfit men with an average age of 41, and got them to train with weights three times a week. On top of that, the men also did 30 minutes of cycling or walking in the same workout.
After 14 weeks, the men had lost an average of 16.3 pounds of fat. That’s a little over one pound of fat lost per week. But that’s not all. As well as losing fat, the men had gained almost 10 pounds of lean mass – a reasonable proxy for muscle mass – at the same time.
Blood sugar, triglyceride and insulin levels were down. HDL cholesterol (the so-called “good” cholesterol) went up. VO2max, a measure of cardiovascular fitness, had risen by over 25%.
Of course, the men wouldn’t have continued to make such rapid progress indefinitely. Over time, your results will tend to slow down.
And no two people respond in the same way to an identical program of diet and exercise, so nobody can say for sure exactly how fast you can expect to see results.
But this study does illustrate a very important principle: If you’re in your 40’s, out of shape and unfit, it’s possible to make big changes to your body in a relatively short period of time – 3-4 months in this case – as long as you’re willing to put the work in.
The 10 Golden Rules for Weight Training Over 40
The basic rules for building muscle after 40 are much the same as they were at the age of 30 or even 20.
Although the number of times you’ve travelled around the sun will affect the speed at which you progress, people of different ages respond to training in much the same way.
It’s mainly the size of your results and the speed at which you attain them that varies.
I did say that your weight training program doesn’t need to be radically different once you turn 40. Which is true. You certainly don’t need to change everything you’re doing.
But I do have some suggestions that will make your workouts more effective, leave your joints feeling better, and help you steer clear of injuries.
1. Embrace the Light
If you keep on lifting heavy all the time, you will eventually start to notice little aches and pains in your knees, wrists, elbows and shoulders.
Eventually, those minor niggles will get so bad that they interfere with your training. It will take weeks, maybe even months, before they clear up and you can train properly again.
The solution is very simple. If going heavy on certain exercises causes you pain, just go light instead.
Despite what some people might say, building muscle after 40 can be done using lighter weights and higher reps.
In fact, there’s plenty of research out there to show that lighter weights and higher reps do a surprisingly good job at stimulating muscle growth.
And this isn’t a finding that’s limited to untrained beginners, who tend to grow no matter what they do.
Heavy weights… medium weights… light weights… all can be used successfully for building muscle after 40.
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2. Don’t Stop Moving
Over the age of 40, nagging joint pain and injuries can make building muscle a lot harder than it was at 20 or even 30. The standard approach to dealing with an injury is to rest it. But, with some injuries at least, you’re better off keeping moving.
Specifically, a form of strength training known as eccentric training has been shown to work extremely well for the treatment of tendon pain in both the elbow and Achilles tendon. In some cases, it works better than surgery.
In one study, Swedish scientists studied the effect of heavy eccentric calf training in a group of 15 middle-aged recreational runners . Subjects were told to go ahead with the training even if they experienced pain, and to stop only if the pain became disabling.
All of the runners had been diagnosed with Achilles tendinosis, which refers to a degeneration of the tendon’s collagen in response to chronic overuse. They had been in pain for an average of 18 months.
At the start of the study, the pain was so bad that it kept them from running. But after 12 weeks of daily eccentric training (3 sets of 15 repetitions twice per day), all the runners were back at their pre-injury levels.
A control group of 15 runners with the same diagnosis and duration of symptoms was treated conventionally. In no case was the conventional treatment successful. All patients in the control group ended up having surgery.
In a group of subjects in their late 40’s with tennis elbow, the addition of an eccentric exercise known as the Tyler Twist to a standard physical therapy program led to a “marked improvement” in symptoms .
To quote the researchers directly:
“All outcome measures for chronic lateral epicondylosis were markedly improved with the addition of an eccentric wrist extensor exercise to standard physical therapy, compared with physical therapy without the isolated eccentric exercise. A prescription of 3 sets of 15 repetitions daily for approximately 6 weeks appeared to be an effective treatment in the majority of patients.”
Similar results were seen in a group of men and women suffering from golfer’s elbow, even after all other treatments – physical therapy, cortisone injections and pain killers – had previously failed .
There’s also some intriguing research to show that regular heavy weight training works just as well as eccentric training for the treatment of tendon pain.
The study, carried in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, compared three different treatments – corticosteroid injections, eccentric single-leg squats and heavy slow (6 seconds per rep) resistance training .
Again, the researchers in this study emphasized the fact that pain during exercise was “acceptable” but shouldn’t get worse once the workout was over.
At 12 weeks, all three treatments produced similar results. But it was a different story after six months. Specifically, the eccentric and weight training group maintained their improvements whereas they deteriorated in the corticosteroid group.
NOTE: If you’re injured, the first thing I’d suggest you do is get it checked out by a therapist rather than trying to sort it out yourself. And if what I’m telling you contradicts what they’re saying, take their advice and not mine.
3. Keep Your Joints in The Greenhouse
If your knees and elbows are giving you grief, try wearing some knee and elbow sleeves when you train. These are neoprene wraps that slide on over your knees and elbows (I like the blue ones made by Rehband).
Their main benefit is compression and warmth, both of which go a long way toward making the tendons and ligaments in your knees and elbows a lot happier when you’re lifting.
As powerlifter Gary Gibson notes in Baby, Bathwater, Gear:
“Warm ligaments will perform better under load than cold ones. Warm ligaments are much less likely to get injured than cold ligaments. But here’s some news that may shock you; simply “warming up” gets the muscles warm and leaves the ligaments relatively cool. That’s because muscles have plenty of blood coursing through them and ligaments do not. Knee sleeves trap the warmth generated by the muscles and make it available to the nearby ligaments. Think of the sleeves as providing a greenhouse effect on your joints.”
I’m not saying that sleeves are some kind of universal cure for knee and elbow pain, irrespective of the cause.
But they’re certainly worth a try.
They helped me, and they may very well help you too.
4. Stimulate Don’t Annihilate
Walking out of the gym feeling like you’ve just gone several rounds with Mike Tyson in his prime might leave you thinking that your workout has been an effective one.
But all that effort needs to be part of a structured plan that moves you towards a specific goal. And that plan should include days that are hard and heavy, and days that are lighter and easier.
If you keep on pushing your body to the limit in every workout, several things will happen, none of which you’re going to enjoy.
In the evening you will have that “wired but tired” feeling where you want to go to sleep but you can’t.
At 2 o’clock in the morning, you’ll find yourself staring at the ceiling wondering why you’re still awake.
You’ll get up the next day with your heart pounding, just as tired as you were the night before.
Trivial things that you never even noticed before will start to annoy you.
You’ll feel anxious… moody… irritable.
Worst of all, your results in the gym will dry up.
In fact, you may very well end up getting worse rather than better.
Most athletes divide their training into “seasons” where they work at different levels of intensity depending on their proximity to a competition.
They’re not working at maximum effort all of the time.
Building muscle after 40 doesn’t require pushing yourself to the absolute limit every day. Hard work is a tool used to stimulate a physiological improvement. It’s a means to an end, rather than the end in itself.
5. Stretch What’s Tight
Static stretching has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years, mainly because it doesn’t do a lot of the things it’s supposed to.
Most of the research out there shows that stretching has little effect on muscle soreness, and doesn’t appear to do much for injury prevention either.
However, if you find that certain muscles feel a little “tight” (the hamstrings, hip flexors, quadriceps and gluteals are the usual culprits), or there’s an “asymmetry” in flexibility (i.e. one leg feels substantially tighter than the other) then it’s worth experimenting with some static stretching to see if it makes you feel any better.
If you want a simple prescription for flexibility, aim to stretch any “tight” muscles for a total of 60 seconds per day.
Stretching for 60 seconds has been shown to improve flexibility more quickly than a 30-second or 15-second stretch in a group of subjects aged between 65 and 97, all with “tight” hamstring muscles . What’s more, participants who stretched for 60 seconds remained more flexible for longer than subjects in the other groups.
One stretch lasting 60 seconds or six stretches lasting 10 seconds work equally well when it comes to increasing flexibility . Regardless of the length of a single stretch, the key to improvement seems to be total daily stretch time.
Like most things, flexibility is also influenced by your genes.
There’s a gene called COL5A1, which is linked to your hereditary level of flexibility . One version of the gene means you’re quite flexible, the other means you’re not. Which means that the rate at which your flexibility improves, as well as the point at which it stops improving, are not entirely under your control.
So don’t be too discouraged if you’re not able to do this any time soon.
6. Pick Your Battles
Some people have a bone structure that makes them better suited to certain exercises than others.
You might not be built for deep squats with a heavy barbell across your shoulders, deadlifts from the floor, chin-ups from a straight bar or bench pressing through a full range of motion.
If you’ve got short arms and long legs, for example, you’re going to find it a lot harder to deadlift from the floor without rounding your back compared to someone with long arms and short legs.
But that doesn’t mean you should give up on the deadlift. Just do rack pulls instead, using a starting position that allows you to maintain normal spinal curvature.
If your wrists hurt when you’re doing chin-ups from a straight bar, use a suspension trainer. This allows your wrists to move freely rather than being locked in the same position throughout the movement.
If the bench press hurts your shoulders, use a “shoulder saver” pad, which shaves an inch or so off the bottom of the movement.
Or use dumbbells with your palms turned in and elbows moved closer to your body (this one simple tweak is often enough to get rid of shoulder pain almost instantly).
And don’t worry if you can’t squat “ass-to-ankles” without losing the arch in your lower back. Squatting to parallel, or even slightly above parallel, is good enough.
Building muscle after 40 doesn’t require that you train through a full range of motion, especially if doing so causes you pain.
There are some exercises that will hurt no matter what. If so, don’t be afraid to ditch that exercise and find a similar one that doesn’t. There is no single “must do” exercise that can’t be replaced with something else.
7. Find New Ways to Overload Your Muscles
To build muscle, your focus should always be on improving your workout performance over time. You need to give your muscles a reason to get bigger, or you’ll remain stuck at the same size you are right now.
The way most people do this is to increase the amount of weight they lift in each exercise. Once you’re able to complete a set number of repetitions with a given weight, the weight goes up. But, as you get older, adding weight all the time becomes increasingly difficult.
What’s more, you’ll often find that your joints start to flare up as the weights get heavier.
What’s the solution?
Adding weight to the bar isn’t the only way to overload your muscles. You can do more reps with the same weight, reduce your lifting speed, or employ techniques for extending a set, such as drop sets, static holds or rest-pause training.
All are highly effective ways to increase the amount of work your muscles are exposed to, which in turn will make them bigger and stronger.
8. Maintaining is Gaining
Simply maintaining your strength as you get older is the equivalent to getting stronger. If you can crank out 35 solid push ups at the age of 35, and you’re still able to do the same number of push ups at the age of 45, you’re doing well.
While you might think you haven’t made any progress in a decade, you’d be wrong.
The strength-sapping effect of getting older means that most people will have lost strength over that same period of time. Simply maintaining what you have is a significant achievement.
To give you an idea of how strength changes over time, take a look at the figure below. It comes from the International Powerlifting Federation, who collected data from a group of 1500 male lifters performing the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
As you can see, strength peaks at around 30 years of age, and tends to decline from that point onwards.
Other research paints much the same picture. At the age of 40, Olympic weightlifters are about five percent weaker than they were at age 35 . By the age of 50, strength levels have dipped by another ten percent.
You can certainly gain strength and build muscle as you age, but it does get harder. In many cases, you’re doing well simply to keep what you have.
9. Don’t Fear Cardio
While I was Googling around the other day, I came across an interesting research paper called:
Physiological Differences Between Low Versus High Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophic Responders to Resistance Exercise Training: Current Perspectives and Future Research Directions
Basically, it’s a review of the science looking at why some people build muscle faster than others .
One of the things highlighted in the review as a potential contributor to muscle growth was the capillary density of muscle.
Capillaries are tiny blood vessels, which deliver oxygen, nutrients and hormones to muscle cells, as well as helping clear the metabolites that build up during exercise.
Some of the key findings:
- Men with a higher capillary density gained more muscle compared to individuals with lower capillary densities after six months of weight training.
- Middle-aged to older subjects with low levels of muscle mass possess a significantly lower skeletal muscle capillary content compared to age-matched counterparts with more muscle.
- A reduction in skeletal muscle blood flow may contribute to sarcopenia (age related loss of muscle mass and strength) due to a reduction in nutrient delivery.
In short, an increase in capillary density may well improve your ability to build muscle, possibly via an increase in the quality of your workouts (improved recovery between sets and increased ability to fight fatigue), a faster rate of recovery from one training session to the next, an increase in the supply of nutrients to the muscle, or some combination of the three.
So, how do you boost capillarization?
Lifting weights will help to a degree. But for best results, you’ll need to incorporate some cardio into your lifting schedule.
This isn’t a particularly new or revolutionary idea. Back in the day, many bodybuilders believed that cardio could help rather than hinder muscle growth.
Here’s what Arnold Schwarzenegger had to say on the subject in his Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding:
“Every serious bodybuilder should do a substantial amount of aerobic training. I have always liked to run several miles a day. Some bodybuilders, however, find that running does not suit them and leads to problems with the legs and ankles, so they seek other ways of developing cardiovascular conditioning. Tom Platz, for example, after working his legs to exhaustion in the gym gets on a bicycle and rides for twenty miles. Bill Pearl used to do the same thing. A lot of bodybuilders are developing their aerobic systems using ‘Lifecycles’ and other types of stationary bicycles. The fact is, the better conditioned your heart, lungs, and circulatory system, the more intense training you will be able to do in the gym and the more progress you will make as a bodybuilder.”
10. Take Your Time
Many in their late teens and early twenties will walk straight into the gym, do a few arm circles, and then jump straight into the heavy stuff.
If you’re over 40, this approach will get you injured sooner or later. You have to make the time to warm up properly.
The exact warm up that you do will depend on what your workout looks like. It will also vary from person to person, depending on the environment you’re training in, how strong you are, and so on (I walk you through how I like to do it inside my MX4 training program).
While a good warm-up can reduce the risk of injury and improve your performance, it doesn’t need to last forever.
Foam rolling, dynamic activation drills and various “alignment” exercises can be useful at certain times and for certain individuals. But a lot of people are doing this stuff simply because they’re copying what everyone else is doing, rather than because it’s actually helping their workout.
Building muscle after 40 is not easy. You probably have more “stuff” going on in your life than you did at 21, which can make it more difficult to focus on eating right and training regularly.
The enthusiasm you had for exercise, especially if you haven’t seen the results you were hoping for, may be on the wane.
You might feel that your body can’t handle the kind of punishment you used to dish out in your twenties, and takes longer to recover than it used to.
But none of this matters. With the right type of weight training program, you can still build muscle and get strong well into your forties, fifties, and beyond.
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