We generally tend to accrue commitments as we age, getting steadily busier as obligations mount. Work, family and friends seem to take over. For many people, this will peak at some time in their forties: the children haven’t left home yet, your career is at its height, and somehow- somehow!- you need to find the time, energy and enthusiasm for exercise.
In addition to this lack of time and willpower, you may also find that your body cannot handle the amount you used to put it through. Ten sets of heavyweight squats or a dozen sprint laps of the track represent a hard challenge in your twenties. In your forties, going anywhere near this level could lay you out with DOMS and sore joints for days.
It’s not like training in your twenties anymore.
So how can you expect to build muscle and retain your athleticism and physique? Well, luckily, none of the above matters overly.
It’s all about finding the kind of training that suits your physicality and timetable. If you’re hard pressed, running to and fro between meetings and engagements, try HIIT for fifteen minutes per day. If your joints can’t take weightlifting like they used to, try combining swimming and yoga. With a bit of creativity, you will be able to find the perfect routine.
Or, if you’re simply bored and uninspired by doing what you’ve always been doing, or if you’ve simply tapped out, get involved with something new. If you’ve hit every PR you will ever hit in the weights room, get on the punchbag; if you’re bored of endless laps of the pool, get out and try a circuit class. Though it may be intimidating to jump into something new- especially later in life- muscle gain and training progression are all about new stimuli.
Rest and nutrition are also more important than ever. You will not be able to skip sleep like a youngster, and every calorie needs to count, so if you want to build muscle whilst keeping relatively lean, you will need to keep it pretty fine-tuned here.
Either way, whatever your situation, athletic level and experience, and whatever your fears and apprehensions, there will be a way for you to build muscle over forty without too much bother. Read on to find out how.
You Can Still Make Gains After Forty
It’s possible for somebody in their forties to follow the exact same program- training, diet, rest, etc.- as a twenty-year-old and make the same gains. They will build as much muscle mass (probably in the region of 2 pounds, depending on the program specifics.) Strength gains will also be similar between the forty-year-old and the twenty-year-old, in keeping with the hypertrophy gains.
This is because the fundamental tenets of hypertrophy and strength gain remain constant throughout life. Though you may find your gains coming slower if you’re older- or as you age-, the toll on your joints may be a little worse, and the energy required to train harder to come by, the actual mechanics of muscular training do not change.
What Effects Does Ageing Bring?
As you age, your muscles and soft tissue begin to grow more rigid, losing some of the supple elasticity of youth. Of course, this can contribute to an overall loss of strength, and may hamper range of motion, leading to an inability to perform certain exercises fluently. It may also slow down the recovery process, leading to higher incidents of DOMS at lower rates of stimulation, especially when heavy weight training is involved.
The sore joints, aches and pains you get of a morning will likely only get worse, unfortunately.
It’s also common to associate ageing with atrophy (muscle shrinkage or decrease in mass.) There are two reasons for this:
- The first is that many of us give in to what we mentioned in the intro- as you get busier and more tired, you give up on hard training, and you lose muscle mass in the absence of stimulation. The comforts of middle age also kick in, as labour-saving devices are more heavily relied upon, contributing to this.
- Secondly, at around the age of forty, people often start to experience sarcopenia, a broad term for a number of additional factors that are responsible for a great deal of muscle shrinkage and loss in strength and athleticism.
(Note: idleness, point 1, is a great contributor to sarcopenia, point 2, so make sure you get moving pronto.)
This atrophy, and sarcopenia, are easy to negate or even reverse. Simply follow the advice below to make sure that your muscle mass remains at least constant as you hit forty and beyond. Follow it properly, with a well-structured training regime and diet plan, and you will easily be able to build muscle after forty:
- Eat plenty of protein: This should be roughly 1-2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, though amounts may vary person to person. Eggs, fish, poultry and lean red meat are all good sources. Plant proteins like tofu, nuts and quinoa make a good supplementary source. If you’re struggling to get in enough protein, try making use of protein shakes: whey isolate is a good place to start.
- Make use of resistance training: You need to be pushing your muscles against something, making them work in order to preserve or grow them. This can be simple weight training- either compound or isolation free-weights, machine based, or a combination of them all. However, other forms will also work: bodyweight resistance styles like calisthenics and yoga are perfect for muscle preservation, as is full body resistance training of the kind you get during swimming.
- Rest: This is the often overlooked, yet crucial, ingredient for hypertrophy. You don’t build muscle in the gym or in the kitchen: you only stimulate adaptation and give the nourishment needed for hypertrophy. Growth comes during sleep. In addition, losing sleep can alter your hormonal output, decreasing testosterone levels, which will impair your ability to build muscle. Finally, lacking energy will stop you from being able to push yourself as hard as you might need during exercise, and can lead to a distinct lack of motivation. Aim for at least 6-8 hours per night.
What Needs to Change as You Age
Ageing will bring about a change in hormones, no matter how much you sleep- hence most men suffer a decreased libido as they age, women go through the menopause, and both create far less human growth hormone (HGH). In addition to this, our bodies’ ability to break down protein and synthesis it for hypertrophy diminishes. Add this to the stiff joints and soft tissue- aches in your knees, hips, wrists, elbows and shoulders, sore back, tight muscles and so on- and you have a recipe for athletic failure.
Don’t let it be. Accept that you will not be training like a 20-year-old, adjust accordingly, and then push yourself hard in whatever new direction you find. It will be less than your younger self, but far more than anybody who would simply give up. Though efficiency is impaired, hypertrophy is still very much possible beyond forty, and you can maintain strength and muscle mass for as long as you want it.
Heavy lifting may be inaccessible to you as you head into your forties and beyond. It will at least be less accessible than it used to be. Going heavy on any or all lifts may be painful. That’s fine- heavy weight isn’t needed for hypertrophy. For hypertrophy to kick in, you just need to stimulate, hopefully according to progressive overload (doing more today than you did last week, in very simple terms.)
So, go light.
You will be able to build muscle and maintain athleticism very easily this way. High reps with light weights will stimulate hypertrophy just as much as mid-range reps and weights, and a bit more than low-rep, heavy sets.
There are some simple rules to follow as you age in order to bring about the best in hypertrophy whilst adapting to your body’s changing needs. These include:
You will become more susceptible to, and less able to overcome, injury. With this in mind, you should take your workouts a little slower.
Whilst a 25-year-old might be able to stroll into a gym, do a couple of arm rotations and practice sets, then bench their bodyweight, this isn’t you. Take a ten to fifteen minute warm up, bringing your heart rate and core temperature up using cardio, increasing blood flow and decreasing your risk of injury. Mobility work is also essential, so make sure you work every joint through a full range of motion before loading them.
As mentioned above, you will want to favour higher, lighter reps over lower, heavy reps. This will relieve pressure on your joints and ligaments and will help you to build a great deal of muscle.
Your stabiliser muscles may not be able to keep up as well as they used to. A large part of the reason free-weight compound movements are so good is that they use these stabilisers. However, if you’re struggling to control the weights, or are finding your ability to keep them stable as you tire, consider switching to machines for a portion of your workout. A 2:1 split of free weights: machines is a good place to start. Also, make sure your form is on point for every rep- you can’t get away with what you used to.
We mentioned above that sedentary lifestyles are one of the biggest causes of atrophy as the body ages. With this in mind, move as much as is comfortable and practical. Go for daily walks, take the stairs instead of the lift, get up and walk around your office or house every half hour or so.
This will also likely decrease your risk of injury, or at least aid rehabilitation. Very light weight reps will do this as you warm up for each workout. In addition, light reps and eccentric training will help you to recover from a variety of soft tissue injuries, such as tendonitis.
In addition, recovery is key for training in your forties and beyond. Active recovery is the king of all. If your legs are shot from the leg press, don’t sit around waiting for the DOMS to go away. Get out for a slow walk or jog to increase blood and synovial fluid flow, taking vital nutrients to the recovering muscles and loosening tight joints and ligaments.
Take some down time
It’s often thought that a key element to any training program is working hard. There is an element of truth to this, but it’s far more accurate to say that the key element is working appropriately. If somebody is skipping training and not pushing themselves when they finally do make it to the gym, it’s an odds-on bet they are undertraining. However, if you’re pushing yourself hard, making no progress, and feeling run down all the time, you may want to reconsider.
In many people, this fatigue and lack of progress could be down to a lack of rest and/or proper nutrition. Over forty, this will likely be lack of rest. With this in mind, don’t go for broke every session. Pick one or two sessions per week (certainly no more than half your sessions) to really push yourself, and then ease back on the others.
In addition, try setting aside one week every four or five as a rest week. Either abstain from all hard exercise and simply focus on active recovery (mobility drills, light cardio like walking, and so on) or cut down the weight/stimulation and/or number of sets/laps etc. when you’re training. This is a deload: everybody needs them, and they only become more important as we age.
Focus on mobility and flexibility
We’ve touched on this already, but it’s important, so let’s really get into it.
Have you ever wondered why yogis seem to make it to their seventies with the mobility of somebody half their age? Well, you shouldn’t wonder- the answer is obvious. The mobility and flexibility training they put themselves through every session is just about the most important things anybody can do as they age.
Focus on mobility drills and dynamic stretches before a workout, as mentioned above, then go for static stretches. During your static stretching, zone in on whatever muscles or joints feel particularly tight, or areas in which asymmetry is present (one hip joint, one hamstring, one pec may be tighter than the other, and so on.) Ease into it, explore it through the stretch, and make sure it is relaxed and loose- or at least beginning to loosen- before you move on.
This will keep your mobility up, which will both improve overall wellbeing and the physical capabilities you enjoy whilst out living your life and enable greater longevity and efficacy in your training. Ultimately, stretching will be what helps you to remain able to build muscle as you age.
Training over forty is well worth doing. In fact, though it’s beyond the scope of this article to get into it, regular exercise becomes more important the older and more sedentary we become. If you keep up some form of exercise, you will likely retain muscle as everybody else your age suffers debilitating atrophy.
Planning it right, paying attention to your nutrition, and adopting a suitable training plan as outlined above, will enable you to elicit and enjoy hypertrophy as efficiently as ever.