David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.
Training for the Older Guy
As you get older, you start to lose muscle mass. In fact, from age 30, you can lose 3 – 5% of your muscle tissue per decade. You also gain fat more easily as your metabolism slows down (which is caused partly by this loss of muscle). On top of that, your ability to respond to and recover from exercise becomes compromised as well.
So if you are an older guy, you will find it harder to build muscle and stay 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 excellent results from your training. You just need to realize that you can’t train in quite 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 explain how you should train to build muscle size and strength in your 40s and beyond.
How Older Guys Should Train
A few years ago, I trained at the same gym as a guy called John. He was 74 years old at the time and could bench press almost 300 lb. He was also in great shape—lean and muscular—a real inspiration to everyone. Granted, he did start training when he was in his mid-teens, but he was still living proof that you can be strong and have a great physique well into your later years.
But as an older guy, you do need to take a somewhat different approach to your training than the younger guys if you want to see good results. You can’t hammer your body with high volume, ultra-intense workouts five days per week, or you will just burn out and 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 make sure you are getting sufficient sleep, that your diet is in order, and you should be able to 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
As you get older, you get more sensitive to volume; that is the total number of reps you do in a workout and in a week. Older people just can’t recover as well from all the reps, so you need to reduce it a bit.
In fact, even younger guys should only do the higher volume programs for around six to eight weeks at a time, as after this, inflammation tends to accumulate faster than gains. And the more volume you do, the more of a calorie surplus you’ll require as well. So if you are trying to reduce body fat with a calorie deficit, you’ll need to reduce it even further still.
The weight you are using is also a factor, however, as heavy weights put more of a strain on the central nervous system than lighter weights. So you don’t want to go below five 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 huge strain on the central nervous system and is very difficult to recover from, so even younger guys should not do it too often. But when you get older, your body just can’t cope with that sort of stress. And it’s not necessary anyway. So stop most of your sets when you still have at least a couple of reps left in you, and even your hardest sets should be stopped 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
You need to warm up properly in order to prepare your muscles and joints for heavy lifting. If you don’t, your muscles will just not work as well as they could, so your performance will suffer, and you’ll be at a much higher risk of sustaining an injury as well.
So start off with a few minutes on 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
If you do some light to moderate cardio three to five times per week, that will help you stay fit and healthy, and it will also keep 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 difficult to recover from.
Perform All Your Exercises Correctly
Although younger guys can often get away with some sloppy form (though it's not a good idea), older guys just can’t as it puts you at a much greater risk of injury. If you perform your movements in a technically correct manner, however, your risk of injury will be very low, so always make sure you do your exercises properly.
You also need to make sure you are using an appropriately full range of motion in order to fully stimulate the target muscles. If you do partial reps, that will lead to sub-optimal results, as well as muscle imbalances, and again can increase your risk of injury.
You do need to take your own structural limitations into account, however. For example, if you can’t squat to parallel without rounding your lower back, then you are not ready to do that yet. You will first need to work on improving your hip flexibility (or whatever else might be causing the problem), and you can then gradually increase your range of motion until you are able to hit the parallel position.
Eat a Nutritious Diet
The older you get, the less efficient your digestive system becomes, so older guys aren't able to absorb nutrients as well as younger guys. It's therefore especially important to eat a good diet consisting of plenty of high-quality protein, as well as some complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and lots of fruit and vegetables. And keep your consumption of processed, refined and sugary foods to a minimum.
Maintaining good gut health is especially important as you get older, so it's a good idea to take a prebiotic fiber supplement, and perhaps some glutamine to help with repair of the intestinal lining.
Take the Right Supplements
Omega-3 fatty acids 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. For best results, you want to be taking about 2.5 – 3 g 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.
Vitamin D is essential, especially if you don’t get out in the sun much. And vitamin C, creatine and branched-chain amino acids are also well worth using. Apart from that, you may want to take some whey protein as a post-workout shake, and it’s also a good idea to take a good whole food 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, it's best to start off with an abbreviated full-body routine and perform this three times per week.
Do two different workouts and alternate these over your three weekly gym sessions.
- Workout 1 will consist of squats, bench press, bent-over rows and (optionally) barbell curls.
- Workout 2 will consist of deadlifts, overhead press, pull-ups and (optionally) parallel bar dips.
Do some warm-up sets, as required, for each exercise, and then do two work sets of 6 – 8 reps for each exercise (8 – 10 reps for barbell curls and parallel bar dips).
Then, after a couple of months, you could drop down to two workouts per week if you wish. So now, each of the above workouts will only be performed once per week.
To progress, add 10 lb to your squat and deadlift, and 5 lb to your other exercises, whenever you achieve the top end of the rep range for both your sets. Continue to do this for as long as you are able to.
At some point, however, your progress will stall. So when this happens, reduce the weight on the exercise(s) you have stalled on by about 15% and build back up again as before. And 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.
An example of a great 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
- Squats 2 x 6 – 8
- Romanian Deadlifts 1 x 12 – 15
- Leg Press 2 x 10 – 12
- 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
- Lying Triceps Extension 2 x 8 – 10
You can use this same basic template for as long as you wish. Just vary the rep ranges and/or change 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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on March 23, 2020:
Glad to be of help, Kari. Best of luck.
Kari on March 22, 2020:
Thanks for Your answer David! I´ll definitely try Your advice, this might the best training program for older guys!
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on March 16, 2020:
Yes, periodizing volume on a weekly basis is a good idea. You could even take it a bit higher than 3 sets if you wish, and then bring it back down, as you are showing.
Kari on March 10, 2020:
What do think about weekly periodization for big compounds, e.g.
week 1 Bench Press 2 x 6 - 8
week 2 Bench Press 3 x 6 - 8
week 3 Bench Press 3 x 6 - 8 and
week 4 Bench Press 2 x 6 - 8?
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 18, 2020:
Good suggestions for the elder people. Elders should not be discouraged with their age. A nutritious diet coupled with no to junk food is the trick that elderly can go for.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on June 28, 2019:
You are welcome Ranjan; best of luck,
Ranjan SenGupta on June 28, 2019:
Right! Thanks a lot for all the guidance David!!
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on June 22, 2019:
Lunges are great, leg curls are good, but leg extensions are not very effective and they do a lot of damage to the knees, so I would avoid them really. Leg presses are also very good, as long as you make sure you are properly positioned, so you don't strain the lower back.
Ranjan SenGupta on June 21, 2019:
I am experiencing knee pain after every squat session. Could be due to an earleir injury at the region. I am doing lunges, lying leg curls and leg extensions instead along with calf raises and leg press. Am I going the right way?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on May 30, 2019:
Normally traps would grow ok with this routine, but everyone is different, and if you think yours are a weak area, you could do some shrugs at the end of Monday's workout. As for the neck, most people do not train this directly, but it is a good idea, and you could do this at the end of Friday's workout if you wish.
Ranjan on May 29, 2019:
Its me again. I am still following this routine. While I am progressing well, but I kind of feel that my neck and trap area is not gaining in the same proportion as my chest and shoulders are. Do you think I should throw in any additional exercise(s) ? Or should I be patient and continue with the same routine?
Thanks in advance!
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on May 20, 2019:
Glad you are doing well with that routine Ranjan. The incline DB press is for chest. I used to use a 30 deg. incline, but now I prefer 45 deg. as you feel it more on the upper chest. Lying Triceps Extensions can be done with either a barbell, EZ bar or single dumbbell. Try them all and see which you prefer. Or alternate them every 3 - 4 months if you wish.
Ranjan on May 19, 2019:
I am 43 year old male from India. I etarted following the upper/lower/upper split you suggested and already getting good gains. So thanks! One quick question though: the incline dumbell pressed is meant for shoulder or chest? Will be adjusting the bench height accordingly. Also, do you recommend the lying tricep extension with a barbell or a single heavy dumbell? Thank you.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on February 03, 2019:
You are welcome Jasmin. Glad you found it useful.
Jasmin(Croatia) on February 03, 2019:
Best training advice I ever found in last 20 years!!! Just pure compound movement,3-4 sets,every 4-5 days...eat,rest and grow! Thanks David !!!
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on January 01, 2019:
Training every body part three times per week is fine for beginners, but will soon become too taxing. Going a little heavier on your big lifts is better for strength. And two sets is usually enough for older guys, though you can try three later on. Or do phases of two alternated with phases of three.
Larry Chmiel on December 31, 2018:
I am 75 years old but no coach potato. I just recently carried 152 bags of 50 pound concrete mix from the side of my garage to inside the yard. I then mixed the concrete for 4 foot deep deck foundations. Much of the advice for senior weight training is an exercise for each muscle group at 3 sets of 10-12 reps three times a week. Why don't you recommend this approach? Thank You.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on October 03, 2018:
Well, I know some guys in their 70's who are still strong and muscular, so it can be done. You just need to remember your body can't cope with as much stress as it could when you were younger. So, although you do need some big compound exercises, you don't want to be doing too many big barbell lifts. Get most of your volume in with the smaller lifts. And don't ever train to failure. Eat plenty of protein and get enough sleep. You'll probably need to experiment a bit with volumes (and vary this over time), but you can certainly still get in great shape at your age.
Lonnie Richardson on October 01, 2018:
Worked out for years I got away for a few years. Starting back, Im not putting on any bulk. Fore arms are wasting muscle. Whats the best way to bulk up in your late 60 's