If you want to keep building 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 “fit over 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 training 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.
So if you’re in your forties, and you’re worried that you’ve left it too late to get in shape, I have some good news.
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 training 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 a few quick ideas that will make your workouts more effective, leave your joints feeling better, and help you steer clear of injuries.
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, you can and will build muscle using lighter weights and higher reps.
In fact, a number of studies published in the the last five years show that lighter weights and higher reps do a surprisingly good job at stimulating muscle growth.
In one trial, high reps and light weights (3 sets of 30-40 reps) stimulated just as much muscle growth as heavy weights and lower reps (3 sets of 10-12 reps) .
And this isn’t a finding that’s limited to untrained beginners, who tend to grow no matter what they do.
Even in guys with an average of four years training behind them, sets of 20-25 reps work almost as well as sets of 8-12 reps per set for triggering muscle growth .
Heavy weights… medium weights… light weights… all can be used successfully for building muscle after 40.
Don’t Stop Moving
Nagging joint pain and injuries can make building muscle after 40 a lot more difficult 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, it seems that you’re better off keeping moving.
Specifically, a form of resistance exercise 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:
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 strength 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 resistance 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.
Keep Your Joints in The Greenhouse
If your knees and elbows are giving you a bit of gyp, 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:
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.
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.
Hard work is a tool used to stimulate a physiological improvement. It’s a means to an end, rather than the end in itself.
Push yourself to the absolute limit every day, and chances are you’re going to get burned out sooner or later.
Stretch What’s Tight
Static stretching has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years. That’s 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.
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, try the “pussy pad” bench press, 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.
You don’t need to train through a full range of motion to make your muscles grow, 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.
SEE ALSO: THE MUSCLE BUILDING CHEAT SHEET
If you're fed up spending hours in the gym with nothing to show for it, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a "cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” PDF that tells you exactly how to go about building muscle. To download a copy, please click or tap here.
ABOUT CHRISTIAN FINNChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a former personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.