Building muscle after 50 is something many people are skeptical about. And often, that skepticism acts as a barrier to getting started on a strength training program.
But building muscle mass and strength is definitely possible after 50. And, it is one of the most important things we can do to gain and maintain our highest possible level of pain-free function as we get older.
The over-50 personal training clients I work with consistently show increases in skeletal muscle mass, as measured on an InBody 570 body scanning device.
Here are some results:
- Jeff, age 51 – added 1.9 pounds of muscle in 29 days
- Cindy, age 69 – added 1.7 pounds of muscle in 31 days
- Michael, age 79 – added 2.4 pounds of muscle in 60 days
But to build muscle after 50, there are a couple complicating factors that we need to account for.
Once you get over 50, you start feeling the effects of age-related wear and tear on your body. Injuries from the past are coming back to haunt you with chronic aches and pains. Also, safety is of much greater importance, because new injuries are much harder to recover from.
So you have to make adjustments to your strength training program to reflect these changes.
This post will go over how to overcome the challenges we face in building muscle over 50 so we can stay healthy, strong and fit.
Related content on building muscle after 50:
Is Building Muscle After 50 Really Something You Can Realistically Achieve?
How older muscles change
As we get older, our muscles atrophy (shrink) as a natural part of the aging process known as sarcopenia. In fact, after age 30, you begin to lose as much as 3% to 5% per decade. (health.harvard.edu)
This is an evolutionary survival mechanism – muscle tissue is very metabolically expensive, so to preserve our energy when we’re elderly, our body sheds some of it, on the premise that we won’t be chasing antelopes and water buffaloes anymore to feed the tribe, but leave that to the young hunters.
But of course now we all want to live a full life throughout our later years, and we don’t want the engines of our body, our muscles, to lose any horsepower along the way. So strength training is essential for us to counteract this evolutionary process.
Why you should prioritize building muscle after 50
For us older folks, strength training is less about appearance and more about health and function. Building and maintaining a high level of muscular strength makes all physical activity easier, and allows us to enjoy our highest possible level of pain-free function.
This brings the freedom to say YES to those bucket list items that create lasting memories, whether it’s a family trip to Machu Picchu, trying paddle-boarding for the first time, or even just being able to join in the backyard volleyball game at a family reunion.
In addition to helping you function better to live a fuller life, the health benefits of strength training, especially for people over 50, are far-reaching.
Here are just a few –
- Improves glucose metabolism, which is important for combating diabetes;
- Increases resting metabolic rate, which is basically the amount of calories you burn at rest. Muscles are your calorie burning engines, and the bigger and stronger they are, the more calories they need, even when you’re resting, which leaves less calories left over to be stored as fat.
- Reduces pain and discomfort from arthritis;
- Improves bone mineral density, important for those at risk for osteoporosis;
- Has a beneficial effect on self-esteem;
- And here’s an exciting one for use older folks: strength training has even been shown in studies to improve executive cognitive function in seniors, such as improved task performance, enhanced selective attention and conflict resolution. Cognitive impairment and dementia are obviously big health care issues for seniors, and strength training once or twice a week has been shown to combat cognitive decline. (jamanetwork.com)
In fact, properly performed strength training is the closest thing we have to a real-life Fountain of Youth.
But let’s be honest, we’re not kids anymore, and there are some physical challenges we have to account for once we’re over 50. Let’s take a look at those differences now, and go through the adjustments we need to make to our strength training program to overcome them.
The challenges of building muscle after 50
Once you get over 50, you start feeling the effects of age-related wear and tear on your body. Injuries from the past are coming back to haunt you with chronic aches and pains, and new injuries are much harder to recover from.
If you’re experienced with strength training, exercises you might have loved in your 20’s now might cause too much pain to perform with any meaningful resistance. So you have to make a couple of adjustments to your strength training program to reflect these changes.
First, determine a comfortable stretch position for every exercise. If it’s difficult or painful to get into a machine or reach the stretch position during the exercise, you’re going too far.
Second, always work in a pain-free range of motion. This may change from time to time, so don’t be afraid to change the way you’ve been doing an exercise if it starts to hurt. Strength training is supposed to help you, not hurt you.
Another difference is that safety is of greater importance, and that influences decisions on exercise selection and choice of equipment. When you’re young, you may be willing to accept the risk associated with dangerous exercises, but when you’re older not so much because as I mentioned injuries are so much harder to recover from.
Here are some criteria to guide your exercise selections:
- Make sure you can exit the exercise safely at any time.
- On any exercise where you will be under the weight, make sure there is some barrier to catch the weight to prevent you from getting stuck under it. (Don’t be the next guy in a YouTube video getting trapped under the weight while bench pressing).
- The more complex an exercise is to perform, the more dangerous and less intense it will be. For example, power cleans or Olympic lifts.
- If you have back problems, it’s a good idea to always have your chest or back supported during an exercise. For example, seated dumbbell curls would be preferable to standing barbell curls.
- If you want your shoulders to stay healthy, don’t put anything behind your neck. This includes barbell squats and behind the neck pulldowns or shoulder presses.
You’ll also need to account for your need for extra recovery.
How often should a 50 year old lift weights?
Most of us over 50 can’t recover from intense exercise (or just about anything else) as well as we did in our 20’s. So marathon workouts lasting a couple hours performed 5 days a week aren’t going to cut it anymore.
Once we’re over 50 we need to strength train much more infrequently to allow our bodies time to first recover the energy used up in the workout, and then overcompensate with a buildup of new muscle tissue so that we actually get stronger from our training.
Recovery time between strength training workouts is when your body actually produces the increase in muscular strength that was stimulated by the workout. And now that we’re older, we need more time to recover than we did in our 20’s to allow those changes to take place.
When you finish an intense workout, you don’t feel the same as you did before you started – you feel very fatigued. The reason is you used up a lot of energy resources within your body to complete the workout – in effect you have dug an energy hole.
The first thing your body has to do is fill in that hole, that is, compensate for the exhaustive effects of the workout.
Only once that’s completed can your body over-compensate in the form of bigger, stronger muscles – pile some extra muscle on top of where that hole used to be.
And this process doesn’t take a few hours when you’re over 50, it takes a few days. If you work out again before the whole process is complete, you won’t get any strength building benefit from your last workout.
So I recommend people over 50 strength train no more than twice a week, with at least 2 recovery days in between workouts.
Now let’s dive in and figure out exactly how to implement these necessary adjustments to create a strength training program you can start right now that will be ideal for building muscle after 50.
How to build muscle after 50
The physiological process of muscular hypertrophy over 50 is the same as any other age, and for both men and women.
Here are the principles of productive strength training you need to keep in mind when designing your strength training workouts:
Intensity – to build muscle after 50, you need to put in a maximum effort on every set, every exercise. Intensity means the percentage of maximum muscular effort being exerted, and the closer you can get to 100% (while following the rules for safety mentioned above), the better your results will be.
Duration – when you work out with a high level of intensity, your workouts must necessarily be brief – under 45 minutes for a full-body workout. You can’t go all-out for long periods of time (just like nobody can sprint for a mile), and going all out is what builds muscle.
Progression – progressive overload is a requirement for continued strength gains. Every workout, strive to do more reps, more weight, or both, than you did last time. It is best to record every workout to make sure you are progressing regularly.
Recovery – to recover, and ultimately build muscle, full recovery between workouts is essential. This includes adequate rest days between workouts (as mentioned above), getting enough sleep, and eating enough protein to support muscle growth.
How much protein should you eat per meal, and how often?
Recent research indicates that protein needs for older adults who engage in strength training are higher than previously thought – about 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight per day.
For example, I weigh 170 pounds, so to determine my daily protein needs I would convert my weight to kilograms (170 divided by 2.2), which is 77.27 kg, and multiply that by 1.6, which equals 123.62, which I round up to 124 grams of protein needed per day.
Foods high in protein include meats, poultry, fish, dairy products (the low-fat kind are healthier), and eggs.
The best exercises for older people
Whether you’re male or female, once you’re over 50, you want to not only strength train the large, superficial muscles of the body, which are readily visible, but also the smaller deep muscles of the body, which serve to hold us together and protect us from injury. So a good strength training workout for someone over 50 will include exercises for both.
The workouts should also be full-body workouts. I recommend a total of 8 exercises; 5 for the superficial muscles, and 3 for the deep muscles.
Before starting the actual workout, I recommend you spend a few minutes warming up. This will increase your internal temperature a little and prepare your body for the workout, like warming up a car before driving on a cold day.
Just be sure not to turn your warm-up into a workout of its own – you want to do just enough so that you feel you won’t injure yourself, and save your strength for the actual workout.
Sample workout routine for gym training:
Here is a full-body gym workout example from my own workout plan (by the way I’m 63):
- Leg Press – 9-12 reps
- Calf raise on leg press machine – 9-12 reps
- Chest Press – 7-10 reps
- Chin up – max reps
- Back Extension Machine – 9-12 reps
- Rear Deltoid Raise Machine – 7-10 reps
- Neck Flexion On Machine – 9-12 reps
- Wrist Roller – 1-3 reps
Sample routine for home training:
And here’s a full-body home gym workout example – a workout I designed for one of my Platinum Coaching clients, age 61 with a history of low back problems:
- Ball Squat – 9-12 reps
- Calf raise of fitness step – 9-12 reps
- Low Incline Dumbbell Press – 7-10 reps
- 1 Arm Dumbbell Row – 7-10 reps
- Ab Crunch On Mat – 9-12 reps
- Side-lying Shoulder External Rotation – 9-12 reps
- Abdominal Bracing With Marching – 1-3 minutes
- Shoulder “T’s” Prone On Bench – 9-12 reps
One set of each exercise is performed with a maximum effort, while maintaining strict form. When the high number on the rep range is met or exceeded, the weight is raised for the next workout by 1-5 pounds.
Remember, more is not better when it comes to strength training. You want to work as hard as you can on each set, which means your workouts will have to be brief. The above routines are ideal for building muscle mass over 50, while giving you plenty of time outside the gym every week to actually enjoy life!
Staying fit as you age
Strength training should be the foundation of an overall fitness plan.
There are 4 components of Physical Fitness: muscular strength, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and body composition. Of the 4, muscular strength is the one that holds primary importance.
Strength is called upon more often in life than cardiovascular endurance or flexibility, and plays a central role in body composition. And a properly performed strength training program will positively affect cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and body composition, but endurance training, stretching, or dieting do not improve muscular strength.
So strength training gives you the biggest “bang for your buck”, and done properly requires very little time – under 45 minutes a couple times a week.
Now I’m not saying you should only do strength training and then be sedentary the rest of the time. I’m a big believer in the idea that we rust out faster than we wear out.
So I recommend being active, engaging in low to moderate intensity leisure activities or exercise on your non-strength training days. Things like walking, biking, tennis, hiking, swimming, etc.
Just remember you only have one gas tank, so if you’re doing higher intensity activities like entering road races you’ll need to allow some extra recovery days between those activities and your strength training.
Can you build muscle after 50 years old?
Yes! You can build muscle at any age. But building muscle after 50 requires some adjustments to account for age-related changes.
Summary: Guidelines for building muscle after 50 with safe, sustainable, time-efficient strength training
- Building muscle and strength after 50 makes all physical activity easier, and allows you to enjoy your highest possible level of pain-free function throughout your later years.
- While strength training, always work in a pain-free range of motion. Don’t over-stretch. Strength training is supposed to help you, not hurt you.
- Safety is now super important – make sure you can exit the exercise safely at any time without getting stuck under anything or having anything fall on you.
- If you have back problems, it’s a good idea to always have your chest or back supported during an exercise.
- Don’t put anything behind your neck. This includes barbell squats and behind the neck pulldowns or shoulder presses.
- If an exercise looks dangerous – it probably is.
- Once you’re over 50 you need more recovery, so you need to to strength train much more infrequently. Strength train no more than twice a week, with at least 2 recovery days in between workouts.
- To build muscle after 50, you need to put in a maximum effort on every set, every exercise (while following the rules for safety mentioned above).
- If you’re putting in a maximum effort, your workouts should be under 45 minutes for a full-body workout.
- Every workout, strive to do more reps, more weight, or both, than you did last time.
- To build muscle after 50, you need about 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight per day.
- Strength train the large, superficial muscles of the body, and also the smaller deep muscles of the body, which serve to hold us together and protect us from injury.
- I recommend a total of 8 exercises; 5 for the superficial muscles, and 3 for the deep muscles.
- Before starting the actual workout, spend a few minutes warming up.
- Engaging in low to moderate intensity leisure activities or exercise on your non-strength training days.
Building muscle after 50 through proper strength training is the best investment you can make in yourself to keep you strong, active, and living fully for a long, long time. Get started now applying the principles and techniques outline here, and enjoy your later years to the fullest!