Introduction to building muscle after 40
Building muscle after 40 is harder and that’s why you’ve got to train smarter!
You simply cannot get away with training like you’re 20 anymore and there are several reasons why.
- Your life is busy and more stressful.
- You’ve likely accumulated some aches, pains and mobility restrictions.
- You have less energy and a slower rate of recovery.
To top that off, sarcopenia kicks off at 40. This is the age related loss of skeletal muscle mass, strength and power.
Don’t let any of that concern you.
The main culprit is the way most men and women are approaching strength training after the age of 40. Either doing too little or too much. The wrong exercises in the wrong amounts. Not supporting strength training with other important fitness pillars like mobility and cardio.
Lifestyle habits are important too. Namely, sleep and nutrition. Both must be considered, as they play an integral role in the muscle building process.
As a strength coach, I attract a lot of clients that are 40+ struggling with this exact issue. They come to me feeling like they are fighting a losing battle, but we always turn things around.
Just wait until you hear about one of my current clients.
He’s 49, building muscle and hitting strength PR’s doing half the amount of training volume compared to what he was doing before we met.
Stick around for that and more, as we cover the keys to building muscle after 40. You’ll walk away more confident in your understanding of where you’re going wrong and what to do instead.
You can get in the best shape of your life after 40 and I’ll show you how!
How to build muscle after 40
Train “heavy” and “light”.
There are two primary mechanisms of muscle growth:
1. Mechanical tension
2. Metabolic stress
Mechanical tension occurs when the muscles are strongly tensed and moved through a full range of motion with sufficient time under tension.
This is best achieved with heavier weights and performing low-moderate rep sets (5-8) that take 20-30 seconds to complete.
Metabolic stress occurs when muscles work for extended periods of time, evidenced by the burning sensation.
This is best achieved with lighter weights and performing higher rep sets:
(8-15+) that take 30-60 seconds to complete.
Training across a broad spectrum of rep ranges with a mixture of heavier and lighter loading is therefore the best way to maximize muscle (and strength) gains.
Get the volume right.
Volume is the technical term for reps x sets x load.
You need enough volume to build muscle, but it’s easy to overdo it. Many people fall into the trap of “more is better” and struggle to build muscle as a result.
Doing too much leaves insufficient time and energy to repair and rebuild tissue (muscle, bone etc). You wind up in a state of “recovery debt” and performance stagnates before steadily declining.
If you’re over 40, you have a lower work capacity (ability to do work) and a slower recovery rate compared to your 20 year old self. This must be considered if you want to build muscle successfully.
3 – 4 weight training workouts with 4 compound exercises (and a couple isolations) is more than sufficient. This will ensure you hit each muscle group with enough volume to stimulate muscle adaptations.
Be a stickler for good form.
Form is everything. It keeps your joints safe and it keeps tension firmly on the muscles. If you don’t generate enough muscular tension, you don’t stimulate adaptations.
But remember that good form is a skill and It will only improve if you train with intent. Control the tempo, grip strong, activate your feet, brace and breathe correctly. Contract as hard as possible. The details matter.
There’s a saying “make light weight feel heavy”. Think about that next time you train.
Working on your mobility.
Weight training is just loaded stretching. So it makes sense that if your movement is restricted, you can’t load muscles very effectively.
This is one of the main reasons why older lifters struggle to build muscle.
It’s not because of age…it’s because they’ve stuck to a very limited repertoire of movements and the joints have gradually eliminated ranges of motion not utilized. You know the saying – if you don’t use it you lose it.
Mobility exercises can help to expand your ranges of motion and get your joints moving well. Perform a thorough warm up before you lift and dedicate some time, separate to the weights, to work on your mobility and joint health.
One approach would be a daily short routine (5-10 mins), another would be less frequent, longer routines (20-30 mins 2x week).
Cardio on your days off
Despite the gym bro myth that “cardio kills gains” the truth is that not doing cardio is likely holding you back.
Consider this, weight training is mostly fuelled by the aerobic system. So If you can develop your aerobic fitness, you’ll fatigue less quickly and recover faster.
Let’s put that into an equation. Train harder + recover faster = superior gains.
At minimum, aim for 2 steady state cardio workouts per week for 30-45 minutes. It will pay dividends.
Let’s talk about exercises.
It’s no secret that multi-joint exercises (also called compound exercises) are the best bang for your buck when it comes to building muscle and strength.
It’s also wise to ensure that your training is balanced across the fundamental movement patterns: squat, lunge, hinge, push and pull.
This is important for joint health and muscular balance. Core stability and isolations that target your weak links have a place too, but the movement patterns are your big rocks.
Worst exercises for people building muscle after 40
The worst exercises for people building muscle after 40 are the ones that you cannot perform safely, with good form. This is going to depend on your mobility, competence and injury history.
From my coaching experience, I can tell you that the classic barbell lifts tend to be the most troublesome.
That includes squats, deadlifts and bench presses.
You need quite a high level of technical proficiency and mobility to execute these movements safely.
In addition, the two movement patterns that cause the most issues are the vertical press and the hip hinge – exercises like direct overhead press and deadlifting from the floor. Just something to be aware of.
In the next section, I’ll share some of the more joint friendly alternatives.
Best exercises for people building muscle after 40
The best exercises for you are the ones that you can perform safely, with good form. Simple as that.
From my coaching experience, lifters above 40 tend to have mobility restrictions of the shoulders and hips and oftentimes a sensitive lower back. If that speaks to you, then it’s wise to choose exercises variations that are minimal stress on the joints.
A few favorites include:
Recommended sleep for people building muscle after 40
Sleep plays a critical role in recovery, the regulation of anabolic hormones, metabolic health and more. It’s important to pay attention to both the quality and quantity of your sleep to support muscle building. With regards to quantity, 7-8 hours in the sack is a solid rule of thumb.
As for the quality, best practices include no caffeine beyond 2pm, eating no later than 2 hours before bed, having a consistent bed time and sunlight exposure upon waking.
Recommended nutrition strategies for people building muscle after 40
Muscle-centric nutrition (a term coined by Don Layman Ph.d.) should be focused on protein intake.
Experts typically agree that 1.6g/kg is the minimal intake required and up to 2/kg depending on the person. Reason being, you need to be in a net positive protein balance to build muscle.
You also need to consume adequate calories to achieve energy balance or a slight energy surplus. This is because energy is required to train hard and recover well in addition to building new tissue in the body.
So ‘er’ on the side of more and use outcome-based decision making to inform your nutrition strategy (assess and adjust as you go).
50 year old client case study
6 months ago, a male aged 49 approached me for 1-1 training. Josh had lifted weights since his 20’s and despite continuing to train hard, had lost some muscle mass and strength in recent years.
The first thing I did, as I do with all new clients, is analyze his current strength training routine. I discovered that he was hitting the weights 5 x week and included more than 10 exercises in each session.
This was the first red flag – the volume was WAY TOO HIGH.
After addressing this, other concerns and missing links, Josh started to make progress again. Just recently, Josh hit 100kg on the bench press for 5 reps. This is on par with his PR, set 7 years ago (and he’ll crush that soon too!).
Josh has gotten stronger, gained muscle and eliminated some of the aches and pains that troubled him for so long. Age wasn’t a barrier to making progress.
His approach was!
Tips and warnings
To revisit the intro – building muscle after 40 is harder, so you’ve got to train smarter!
To summarize the key points, strength training should be the bread and butter of your training.
- Train with a mixture of heavier and lighter loading to hit the 2 key mechanisms of muscle growth.
- Get the volume right, not too little and not too much and be a stickler for good form.
- Hit the fundamental movement patterns and choose exercises that you can perform well, so that you’re safe and can hit them hard and heavy.
- Complement your strength training with cardio and mobility, the two missing links for most people. They will both help you to build muscle via the mechanisms discussed.
I must point out that I have not covered the ins and outs of program design. This is a very nuanced and complex topic that is way beyond the scope of this blog.
I built my fitness App PRGRM for exactly this reason. It provides evidence based strength programs built on the principles discussed here. It takes the guesswork away so that you can focus on showing up and getting after it. You’ll be fully guided and supported by me.
If you’re over 40 and would like to know which program to follow, I recommend PRGRM Rebuild (if you’re more experienced) or PRGRM Thrive (if you’re less experienced). You can learn more about them here.
I really hope you enjoyed this read and feel empowered with tips to upgrade your training and build muscle more successfully.
Thank you for reading,