Muscle Growth at Middle Age
by T Nation | 03/09/18
What’s your best tip for the experienced over-40 lifter?ADVERTISING
Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
If you want to continue progressing, do your best to stay healthy and injury-free.
The human body has a great capacity to adapt, but it still has limitations. And if you’re in your 40’s, 50’s or 60’s and have been lifting for 20-plus years, you likely have some wear and tear across your body. You likely built plenty of scar tissue and you’ve also become less efficient at producing collagen which makes it harder to heal. Your body can’t withstand the same type of stress that it could when you were younger and less experienced.
While there are some powerlifters who continue to be decent in their 40’s and even some in their 50’s and 60’s, they rarely keep progressing. And truth be told, except for those relying on performance-enhancing drugs, you’ll pretty much never see strength athletes perform at a high level past 40. On the other hand, you’ll see plenty of broken-down former elite lifters who all but stopped training because they’re too limited in what they can do.
Staying injury-free comes down to mindset. And that’s the number one thing that needs to change as you get older. While it’s hard to do, you should tone down the competitive spirit and stop trying to be the strongest in the gym.
Even stop being in competition with your former self. Listen, I bench pressed 445 pounds in my thirties, snatched 315 in my late twenties, squatted and deadlifted 600 and front squatted 475. Decent weights for someone who was always pretty much 210-220 pounds.
Nowadays I can’t come close to these numbers, and if I tried it would destroy my shoulders. I simply can’t use super heavy weights anymore. Yet my physique is as good, if not better, than it was back then. I’m leaner now and I’m bringing my weight back up while staying lean. I do that by focusing on other variables to increase training stress.
You have four main “tuning buttons” that you can play with when you want to stimulate muscle growth. They can’t all be high at the same time. But if you set them right you can stimulate muscle gain many different ways. Those buttons are:
- Load (amount of weight)
- Intensity (how hard you push yourself on each set)
- Volume (how much work you do in a session)
- Frequency (how many times you hit each muscle in a week)
I’ve gotten my best gains in recent years by increasing intensity and frequency while load and volume are kept much lower than in the past.
At the moment I train a lot like my program for natural lifters. I hit every muscle 3 days a week. I only do one work set per exercise (after 1-3 warm-up sets) which I take to failure, and most of the time using rest/pause, drop sets, post-failure iso-holds, etc. I also use a lot more isolation and machine work.
I use lower stress exercises because they allow me to push the intensity up as much as possible without risk. As you get older the two things that can “do you in” are very heavy weights and very high volume. Both can increase the risk of injury and might lead to recovery problems. No recovery, no growth.
This switch in mindset can be hard to do for those who always loved lifting heavy and being the strongest in the gym. Some can’t transition. But as you get older you should put your efforts into “looking better” rather than in being the strongest or biggest.
And your nutrition should reflect that too. Eat to be healthy and lean, no more eating crap or ginormous amounts of food. This will stress your body, create systemic inflammation and cause health issues like high blood pressure and elevated blood triglycerides. – Christian Thibaudeau
Charles Staley – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Maintaining is gaining.
If you’re over 40, and you’re an experienced lifter, you’re likely at or nearly at the peak of your genetic potential. As much as we don’t want to admit it, you’re not likely to keep making progress through your 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and beyond. Which pretty much sucks. Unless of course, you’re willing to modify your perspective.
Take a look in the mirror and ask yourself, “If I looked exactly like this in 10 or 20 years, would I be happy?” I’m guessing you’d say yes.
If you’re in your 40’s or older, the majority of your peers are physically declining, some more rapidly than others. If you’re maintaining on the other hand, you’re doing much better than most of your peers. And look, if you know someone your age who’s improving, it probably means they were in horrible shape until very recently when they decided to do something about it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m 58 and I haven’t given up when it comes to making further improvement. I’m open to the idea, but I’m also willing to be realistic about my prospects. I’m still pushing as hard as ever to break my PR’s, but I’m not dejected when it doesn’t happen.
Being successful and happy as an older lifter is about maintaining perspective. There’s a quote that goes something like, “Growing old is the price you pay for having lived a long life.” Beats the alternative, right? – Charles Staley
TC Luoma – T Nation Editor
Hire a couple of Cub Scouts.
Good Lord, you’re over 40. It’s time to hire some Cub Scouts to hold up your stretched out, drawstring-got-lost sweatpants as you attempt to do your quarter-rep, wobbly-kneed squats so they don’t fall down around your ankles and expose your graying underwear and God help us anything else that might be graying.
At your age, it’s likely you’ve got dementia and probably horrible, debilitating arthritis, so who can blame you if your pants fall down when you to attempt to squat, you poor, pathetic old codger.
At least that’s the kind of advice I feel like giving out when someone talks about “over-40” training. Look, other than paying attention to your mobility and your endocrine and nutritional status, I don’t think there’s anything the over-40 guys needs to do that much differently other than getting rid of outdated training fashions like Magic Johnson-era Gold’s Gym short shorts or T-shirts that boast about their participation in the 1997 Woonsocket, Rhode Island 5K.
Of course, if you started training in your 30’s then “over-40” training might mean something, but if you’ve been training for at least 10 or 15 years by the time you hit 40, it’s just another in a long line of meaningless, arbitrary “milestones” that are based on civilization’s obsession with round numbers.
Over-40 training advice needs to be added to the seemingly endless list of “one-size-fits-all advice” like needing to sleep 8 hours a night, drink, I don’t know, 16 gallons of water a day, or ejaculate 3.62 times a week for maximal health.
Listen, if you start believing you’re over the hill at 40 or 40-plus and that your body has suddenly gotten all snow flakey, then that will become the truth. Instead, rage, rage against this supposed dying of the light and don’t bother making any great changes to your training. – TC Luoma
Bret Contreras – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Listen to your body.
As a 41 year old who’s still making gains and setting PRs, I recommend you still squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press, just don’t go crazy with volume or frequency.
Some days you’ll need to opt out of these, and other days you may want to use lighter weight and just go for feel. Maintaining strength is easy, but you won’t build it if your body is all jacked up, so don’t ignore your body’s feedback.
You’ll find that you can’t do certain lifts regularly. I’ve had to take time off of all of my favorite exercises in the past year due to nagging issues, including weighted chin-ups, weighted dips, military press, bench press, back and front squats, conventional and sumo deadlifts, and hip thrusts.
When my body feels off, I train around the issues by using exercises that are easier on my body. My alternatives include supinated and neutral grip pulldowns, neutral grip dumbbell pressing from different angles, weighted push-ups, Bulgarian split squats, weighted 45 degree hypers, Nordic ham curls and glute ham raises, eccentric accentuated goblet squats and stiff leg deadlifts, leg presses with high/wide foot placement, and even Smith machine hip thrusts.
Pick a couple of heavy lifts per month to focus on, and then maintain all the other lifts. I no longer go for PRs on most single-joint exercises like lateral raises, rear delt raises, tricep extensions, curls, leg extensions, leg curls, shrugs, seated hip abductions, pec deck, and straight-arm pulldowns. I do all of these, but I employ different set/rep schemes and tempos so I’m not even tempted to try to set any records. I save my mental energy for the big lifts and strive to feel the burn and get a pump with the smaller lifts.
Do more pause reps and eccentric accentuated work. If you love certain machines and they feel right, do them. Variety is good. Hammer Strength and other machines are great. Use everything you can to help you achieve your goals. – Bret Contreras
Chris Shugart – T Nation CCO
Build your toolbox.
A lifter in his 20’s often feels ten feet tall and bulletproof. After around 40 though, he realizes that he’s only 5′ 10″ and mildly flame retardant. Training and nutrition mistakes in the past might begin to catch up with him.
This is mostly about mindset. Example: “For legs, you ONLY need to squat with a bar on your back!” Heck, I may have said that myself 20 years ago.
Today I realize that there are many ways to hit those muscles and that movement pattern – dozens of different squat variations that work great and allow me to “work around” beat-up knees and various old injuries. Luckily, I’d filled my exercise toolbox with squat alternatives and variations.
Don’t be the guy who uses the word “only” a lot when it comes to training topics. His toolbox is sparse and his go-to tools will get rusty.
The same thing goes for nutrition. There’s a common misfire in the young lifter’s brain: he thinks he can always eat the same way and get optimal results. In reality, he may be just “getting away with it” temporarily. As your body ages and your life changes, so should your diet. At 45 you’re not eating for a 25 year-old’s physiology anymore. There’s a word for guys who try to do that: chubby.
Maybe it’s stress, maybe it’s all those extra responsibilities interfering with your workouts, or maybe it’s just a body that’s getting older and slowly accumulating minor problems. Don’t visualize 25 year-old you when you plan your nutrition. Your life is a bit different now. That usually means you’re going to have to tighten things up, diet-wise.
Same for supplements. Maybe you didn’t need that “edge” before, but you sure do now. And a funny thing happens after the age of 40 or so: You start to think about the length and quality of your life, not just about how big or strong you are.
Maybe all you cared about before was a “pre-workout” to frazzle your brain for leg day. Now you’re thinking about not contracting some preventable disease by age 55. If I had to choose only a few supplements for long-term health, I’d go for Indigo-3G®, Flameout®, and Superfood. Those go into my nutrition toolbox first.
Fill your toolbox with different training and diet strategies. When your favorite tool doesn’t work anymore (or the damn thing goes missing), you’ll have plenty of other options. Under 40? Ditch the dogma and start filling that toolbox now. T Nation is your free hardware store. – Chris Shugart
Chris Colucci – T Nation Forum Director
Recalibrate your goals.
Let’s say you started lifting in 1986 and, from day one, you’ve always looked forward to benching four plates while being built like Arnold at a lean 230 pounds. Now it’s 30-plus years later and you still hit the gym five days a week, but your bench PR is 235 while you’re sporting a love-handled dad bod weighing 170. It’s time to realize you’re running down a dream that never will come to you.
“Aiming high” is one thing. Being truly unrealistic by hoping to achieve the unachievable is something else. You’d be much better served by objectively recognizing where you are; recognizing what you have a legitimate chance of reaching with smart, hard work, and setting up an intelligent, coordinated plan to get there.
Does that mean to give up on having significant goals? No. Does it mean you should ignore goals entirely and switch to maintenance mode until you’re in the dirt? Hell no. But Father Time can be a real mother, and certain things simply aren’t in the cards past a certain point.
Bulking up and adding serious size is a particular issue because fat gain often comes easier with older lifters on a calorie surplus. And decades of lifting have likely taken a toll on at least one major joint in your body and impacted performance, making heavier lifting potentially problematic overall.
That definitely doesn’t mean every lifter over 40 is decrepit and delicate. Tons of competitive masters powerlifters, bodybuilders, Olympic lifters, and CrossFit athletes prove otherwise.
What it means is that, if you’re a gray-haired lifter who’s been in the gym for years already, you’re simply not going to make gigantic leaps in size or strength from here on out. Ignoring that fact will lead you towards circular non-progress or injury.
To paraphrase a band whose record you bought back in high school… you can’t always get what you want, but if you try to adjust your sights toward realistic and achievable goals, you just might find you get what you need. – Chris Colucci
Michael Warren – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Recover harder and smarter.
Recovery for the aging lifter plays such an important role, yet it’s often neglected. For my clients and myself, incorporating these methods has had noticeable benefits both in and out of the gym.
There are many recovery strategies that can be very beneficial: Active Release Technique (ART), myofascial release, articular pumping, muscle activation technique (MAT), proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) or another variation or combination. There are contrast methods, salt baths, or even – believe it or not – tanning beds that can also improve your circadian rhythm and increase vitamin D production.
But sleep is the most important. It’s absolutely vital in recovery. Here are my sleep strategies:
- Lights out – Around 1-2 hours before bedtime, turn out the lights and just use candle light.
- Turn off electronics – An hour before bedtime turn off your phone, TV, computer, etc. Exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the eye to parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or wide-awake. One study found that exposure to unnatural light cycles may have real consequences for our health, including increased risk for depression.
- Be thankful – Right before you go to bed, jot down three things you’re thankful for. Having positive thoughts before bed decreases stress levels even more. This is really powerful.
- Supplement right – My recommendation for awesome sleep:
Amit Sapir – IFBB Pro, World Record Holder Powerlifter
There are a handful of things to be aware of.
Recovery, mobility, flexibility
These deserve more and more attention as you age. At 20 you can perhaps slack in this area, but at 40 not so much.
Just add 10-15 minutes of leg swings and hip circles, followed by mobility with a band; anything to open up the shoulders, like band pull-aparts, overhead figure eights, overhead squats pulling the band apart, dislocates, etc. Before your workout use a dowel to warm up the movement you’re going to do. Start with half movements, working your way up to full range movements in about 20 reps. This will allow your muscles and joints to adapt to the movement.
Before workouts use dynamic stretching and after workouts use static stretching. Go 15-20 seconds per stretch and repeat 2-3 times.
Give your body ample time between the really hard exercises. As you get older you need to be more calculated with your total volume (both per session and per week) and time between demanding exercises. At 40 you most likely won’t be able to deadlift three times per week, so choose your battles.
If you want to make progress, less than 8 hours sleep will hurt your recovery. Lack of sleep lowers testosterone and GH levels and increases cortisol production, which is a terrible combination for training.
Think good fats, enough protein, intelligent carb timing, and supplements. These are important factors for everyone, but as we get older they can hurt or improve your training a great deal. A few staples for me are: Alpha Male® and Rez-V™ to help balance hormone ratios and elevate test levels, Flameout® and Curcumin three times per day. These are foundational for recovery and overall health.
And for workout nutrition (which becomes even more crucial as we age since the capacity for volume and ability to recover is already on the decline) Plazma™ is the most essential nutritional component of my diet and all of my clients’. Try to eat 4-6 meals per day to help keep your metabolism working well, stabilize blood sugar, and aid the digestive system.
I hate to say it, but at this age you need to think about your heart, blood pressure and general well being. I don’t need to tell you that I like lifting heavy and could pass on the cardio, but 30 minutes of cardio three times per week of will do wonders for everything listed here. Sorry, sex doesn’t count. Get out there and hike, take stairs, ski, powerwalk, swim – whatever you like that elevates your heart rate and makes you sweat. – Amit Sapir
Nick Tumminello – Strength Coach and Author
Use care with previous injuries.
You don’t just want to work towards your goal; you want to do so in a way that allows you to keep training, which means taking steps to reduce the risk of an exercise related injury.
Injury risk is usually increased in those with a previous injury. Most strength and conditioning professionals already know this, and clients and athletes will often tell trainers or coaches about previous injuries and return to training after rehabilitation as well. Here’s some additional advice:
- Progress the load you lift and the volume carefully around injured areas.
- Be especially careful with movements and positions that were involved in the previous injury. For example, a person who injured his knee coming down from a jump in basketball should be extra careful on single-leg jumping exercises.
- Don’t neglect injured areas; building strength around an injured joint is important. Specific training of injured areas has been shown to help prevent future injuries. – Nick Tumminello
Lee Boyce – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Stop trying to train the way you did when you were 20. I’m only 30, and this advice is solid for even 30 year olds.
At age 21, I hired a coach to help me with size and strength. And he would really push me to the limits of my work capacity. Many compound sets, trisets, and plenty of volume for size. Then lots of heavy eccentrics and tempo reps, and big compound lifts for strength. It was all good training.
Ten years later I’m still training hard but things have changed. Getting older means more responsibility, usually more work, and just plain having more mileage on your muscles, joints, and connective tissue. I put in the work, but wouldn’t dream of touching the workouts I did ten years ago.
Recovery isn’t something that happens in the blink of an eye like it does with a teenage or early-twenties body. Compiling age, stress, and the odd injury, you have a much greater need to take recovery more seriously and to train just as hard but smarter for your age and mileage. And if I’m feeling this at 30, I can imagine it’ll be even more apparent at 40.
Being big and strong is great, but it’s worth nothing if it has a shelf life and an early expiration date. – Lee Boyce
Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder
Get smarter with your training and diet.
Dang it. I’m that guy. But now’s not the time to throw in the towel and settle. I amassed 27 IFBB pro competitions heading into my 40’s with only a single thing missing – a pro win. Now nearly 43 years old, I won four contests in the last two years. Perseverance paid off, but it took training smarter too. The same goes for diet.
Plazma™ is my trump card in terms of beating father time on the recovery front. Aging impacts your metabolism, so you need to give more thought to what and when you consume calories. Staying in the single digit body fat percentile means consuming the preponderance of carbs around the training window.
As much as Plazma provides the fuel required to withstand brutal workouts, you’ll be well served to cut back on marathon workout sessions. Opt instead for more frequent training sessions, but shorter in duration.
Lately I’m seeing good progress with workouts lasting 60 minutes. The big difference involves moving as much weight via volume and short rest periods – density training. It invariably requires lifting lighter weight, but the total pounds moved in an hour are greater. Intensity is still high and failure is reached, but not with a handful of max-weight reps. The limited rest periods (think 15-30 seconds) ushers in the growth with less weight. Your joints and achy back will thank you.
For example, try doing occluded extensions alternated with heels-elevated goblet squats for 3 rounds, then remove the wraps and rest 3 minutes. Repeat a second or even third time, alternating exercises until you’ve done each one 3 times. Small weight, nasty pump and maximal results from minimal weight. – Mark Dugdale
Christian Bosse – Olympic Coach
Optimize your training every session and use appropriate stimuli.
Use new technology to your advantage. There are different and affordable devices that can measure the movement velocity of exercises, also known as velocity-based training (VBT) and can accurately predict what your training maximum for the day is and prescribe training intensities from the individual daily training maximum.
Get familiar with RPE (rate of perceived exertion) based training. Instead of training on fixed percentages or with RM (repetition maximum) loads, you can use the RPE based training to adjust to daily fluctuations on how fresh you feel on a given day.
Use wellness data to track your recovery and training load. This includes acute training load and chronic training load. Tracking perceived recovery and especially acute and chronic training load can give you insights into your training readiness and you can make informed decisions on how intense you should train. – Christian Bosse
Paul Carter – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach
I’m writing a book on this right now!
The main thing to understand for the over 40 lifter is battling something called anabolic resistance. That is, your body doesn’t respond the same way to stimulus for growth as efficiently as it does in your teens and twenties.
Probably the most important factor for experienced lifters over 40 is to consistently combat inflammation, and know that you’ll have to eat more protein to even retain muscle the way you did in your younger years.
Hormones play the biggest role in muscle growth when all things are equal in training and nutrition. And hormones in your 20’s are far more efficient for building muscle than they will be in your 40’s.
Since the hormonal response to training and amino acids are reduced in your 40’s (for example it requires more leucine to stimulate muscle protein synthesis in your 40’s than your 20’s), it’s imperative to identify the roadblocks that come with aging, and break them down.
To start, chronic low-grade inflammation is a key component in reducing insulin sensitivity. Seeing how it’s kind of important for insulin to work efficiently to transport nutrients into the cells for repair and recovery, then reducing inflammation should be paramount for the over 40 lifter to stay as “anabolic” as possible.
To reduce chronic inflammation and increase muscle protein synthesis as much as possible. Here’s how.
- Take a high quality fish oil daily. It fights inflammation and improves muscle protein synthesis.
- Use intermittent fasting. Do it a few days a week for at least 16 hours a day.
- Try grounding. That is, walking outside barefoot. I know, it sounds like the biggest pile of hippy dog manure ever, but it’s actually proven valuable, and is possibly the easiest way to get some natural therapy on a number of fronts. It’s even been shown to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness.
- Bump protein up to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight on training day and the day after, with an emphasis on increasing leucine, then reducing protein during fasting periods.
- Take measures to increase muscle protein synthesis as much as possible.
Fighting off Father Time is hard. It’s harder when you’re still using the same training, nutrition, and recovery protocols that you used in your 20s. – Paul Carter
Related: Keep Kicking Ass After 40
Related: 9 Ways to Live Longer and Look Better Naked
- Volpi, E, et al. “Exogenous amino acids stimulate net muscle protein synthesis in the elderly.” Journal of Clinical Investigation, vol. 101, no. 9, Jan. 1998, pp. 2000–2007., doi:10.1172/jci939.
- Maroon, Joseph Charles, and Jeffrey W. Bost. “ω-3 Fatty acids (Fish oil) as an anti-Inflammatory: an alternative to nonsteroidal anti-Inflammatory drugs for discogenic pain.” Surgical Neurology, vol. 65, no. 4, 2006, pp. 326–331., doi:10.1016/j.surneu.2005.10.023.
- Lavin, Desiree N., et al. “Fasting Induces an Anti-Inflammatory Effect on the Neuroimmune System Which a High-Fat Diet Prevents.” Obesity, vol. 19, no. 8, 2011, pp. 1586–1594., doi:10.1038/oby.2011.73.
- Oschman, James, et al. “The effects of grounding (Earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.” Journal of Inflammation Research, 2015, p. 83., doi:10.2147/jir.s69656.
- Smith, Gordon I., et al. “Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperinsulinaemia–hyperaminoacidaemia in healthy young and middle-Aged men and women.” Clinical Science, vol. 121, no. 6, Jan. 2011, pp. 267–278., doi:10.1042/cs20100597.