You’re in your 40s, 50s, 60s or older and you’re feeling it. Maybe you think it’s too late to add muscle and get stronger. In this article, I’m going to show you how to get strong after 40. It might surprise you, but it is a lot easier than you may think. The trick is to not wreck yourself in the process. I’ll tell you how.
Resistance training is a part of a healthy lifestyle
The vast majority of people start a fitness routine with the goal of weight loss. As a result, they avoid resistance training (aka strength training or weight training) because they think they’ll bulk up and gain weight. While lifting weights can cause some temporary weight gain from water retention, putting on muscle mass takes time and effort. If you’re looking for an excuse to not do resistance training, you weren’t going to work hard enough (or consistently enough) to put on any significant muscle mass or get strong after 40.
Bodybuilders are big for three reasons:
- genetic potential,
- tens of thousands of very intense hours in the gym, and
- performance-enhancing drugs.
And most of them start lifting well before they turn 40. Since you’re over 40, you’re currently experiencing sarcopenia, which is a programmed muscle loss of about 1% per year. Resistance training will slow or stop sarcopenia and help you get strong after 40.
Trying to get to a better body composition by only focusing on one side of the equation you’re leaving a lot on the table. Adding muscle mass and losing body fat can be done at the same time. The trick is to lift in a way and eat in a way that allows you to add lean muscle. My objective today is to teach you how to do just that.
Beyond body composition, strength is a core component of fitness. Have you ever struggled to open a jar? The lack of grip strength has cost you your independence. That’s not a cool way to experience aging. But it’s not too late. You can improve your fitness level and get strong after 40.
Don’t skip the warm-up
The secret sauce for most things is not what is there, it is knowing what was missed. Skipping warm-us is a surefire way to derail your efforts to get strong after 40.
A muscle that hasn’t been warmed up is like a dry-rotted rubber band, especially the tendons and ligaments. Warming up provides blood flow, which is critical for a safe workout. I recommend dynamic stretching as a way to warm up.
Dynamic stretching is about moving a muscle through its full range of motion for a few minutes. It can be done with body weight movements, or on an elliptical (with handles) or a rowing machine (aka ERG). This isn’t meant to be a workout in and of itself, but rather a bit of physical activity to get your muscles warm and to get a bit of sweat going.
Leave the static stretching, where you apply weight to lengthen a muscle until after your workout. Static stretching inhibits strength. So, static stretching will hurt your workout rather than help it.
There is one exception to this rule: If you have a tight muscle that is keeping you from using good form, you must address that tightness beforehand. There are two ways to do that 1) static stretching, and 2) self-myofascial release (SMR) or foam rolling. For example, I have very tight calves. So, I will do SMR using a fastpitch softball and then do some static stretches until my calf releases. Note: I’d start SMR with foam rollers and lacrosse balls, and other softer implements as SMR hurts.
Always use good form
Even before I was a personal trainer and gym owner, I frequently had to bite my tongue during my workouts. I would see someone doing certain exercises in a way that I knew would eventually break them. Your body was designed to move in particular ways. But I learned that common sense is not common when it comes to people wanting to lift heavy stuff. Good exercise form has to be learned.
To get stronger in a smart and sustainable way, you need to take the time to learn. Before you add any weight to an exercise, you need to ensure you are using the correct form for the exercise. You’ll have to have the patience (as we’ll dive into later) even if it seems silly bench pressing a 6 ft section of pvc pipe. Those reps are some of the most important ones you’ll ever do because you’re building a strong foundation of muscle memory.
Here are some basic rules for good form:
- Use the full range of motion (ROM) – Partial reps have their place in bodybuilding and strength training, but for 99.9% of the work you do, you’ll want to work through the full range of motion for that exercise.
- Be in full control – Slow and controlled is how we safely build strength and muscle mass. If you’re moving the weight fast, it is either a power move or you’re not using enough weight. Above all, have control of the weight. So many injuries occur when someone isn’t in control and some of them involve people other than the lifter.
- Maintain core strength – Almost every lift you’ll do that doesn’t involve you sitting down will require you to hold your core tight. Many lifters do this well in the starting position, but they lose it during lift. If your core doesn’t have the endurance to hold firm throughout the exercise, lower the weight and work on your core between workouts.
You need patience and persistence to get strong after 40
To get strong after 40, you’re going to have to be patient. Muscle growth will come if you stick with a solid training program. Like weight loss, strength building is not a linear.
At the beginning of your training, as you learn the exercise, your brain builds connections to the muscles. As this connection is practiced, it gets more and more efficient and effective. You’ll likely see marked improvement during this time. This strength increase won’t be coming from more muscle mass (that part happens later).
Once your body has adapted to the exercise, the strength gains come from muscle building that includes adding muscle. This is a slow process, especially after 40. You’ll have to keep pushing and show persistence. Quality work over time gets results.
Depending on your genetics, certain muscles might not respond to strength training as well as others. If that’s the case, you may have to add certain exercises to give those muscles the stimulation they need to grow. But in general, you’ll start a program and push on through.
Optimize results and time with exercise selection and focus
Most beginner training programs use the following essential exercises:
- deadlifts or lunges,
- bench presses,
- barbell rows, and
- overhead presses.
What these exercises have in common is that they are all compound exercises. Compound lifts are movements that involve two or more joints. These are better lifts because they are more functional and efficient. If you want to get strong after 40, you should spend the majority of your workout time doing compound lifts.
Isolation lifts like bicep curls and tricep extensions tend to focus on smaller muscles. I only incorporate isolation lifts when the smaller muscles are lagging in growth and strength relative to the bigger muscles.
It is also important to focus on the work you’re doing. Unlike cardiovascular or metabolic training, you don’t get the same results if you’re distracted. You should remain focused on the muscle as it works. Concentrating on the muscle allows it to fire up more muscle fibers.
It is also important to understand the difference between isometric, concentric, and eccentric training.
- Isometric – This is when you attempt to keep a weight stationary. There are some cases where isometric training is valuable, for example hanging from a bar is great for building excellent grip strength. But you’re going to spend your time moving the weight.
- Concentric – This is when a muscle shortens to move a weight. For example, in a bicep curl, the bicep shortens and that causes the forearm to come closer to the upper arm. As you’re working against gravity and applying more force than the weight, this is the power portion of the movement.
- Eccentric – This is when a muscle lengthens to allow a weight to go with gravity. For example, if you lower your body toward the floor in a push-up. You’re still resisting gravity at some level depending on how slowly you allow the descent to happen. This is where strength is born and therefore is where you need the most focus.
Vary the work between heavy weights and lighter weights
Building muscle is much more nuanced than just lifting heavier and heavier things. It is so easy to get caught up in bragging rights for how much you can bench press or deadlift. But constantly pushing heavy weights week in and week out will not get you the best results and is likely to lead to nagging injuries.
There are several things that can lead to good strength gains, but I want to limit this part to just a few:
- Weight – Strength building does require moving weight. At times, you’re going to want to lift heavy. And other times, you’ll want to work with light weights a higher repetition ranges and/or different tempo.
- Repetitions – The number of repetitions (reps) that you’ll do will depend on the weight you’re using and maybe on the number of sets you’ll be performing. Heavier weights will usually have you in the 3 – 6 repetition range. Moderate weights are in the 6 – 10 range. And lighter weights are higher reps of 10+.
- Tempo – The speed you work also matters. Remember, fast is about power, strength is slow. When you slow down, especially on the eccentric portion of the lift, you create more time under tension and you eliminate momentum. Using a slow tempo is intense training. It allows you to work with a light weight and still work the muscle hard.
Get adequate rest and recovery
Your body does not build lean muscle mass during the workout. In fact, that is when you’re breaking down the muscle. It is the time between workouts when you’re rebuilding the muscle and because you did it with resistance, the muscles will come back stronger. That’s the natural hormesis effect of resistance training. Stimulus plus nutrition plus recovery equals muscle growth.
Recovery time is an individual thing. Some people need more time to recover than others. Recovery also depends on how hard you worked the muscle. In general, you should give a muscle 48 hours to recover before working it again. Make that 72 hours if you have an intense session. That’s why it is important to have the correct training frequency based on how hard you’re working, the workouts you’re doing, and how well you recover.
I recommend beginners start with a full-body workout, comprised of compound exercises every third day (provided you’re not limited on the days you can train). If you only want to train on weekdays, then I’d train twice per week, skipping at least two days between workouts (e.g. Mondays and Thursdays).
If you’re a little more advanced and you are recovering well, you can break your workouts into splits to get more work per muscle and more workouts per week. A standard split is a lower body, push (chest, shoulders, and triceps), and pull (back and biceps). You can rotate through these workouts each day through the week, although I do recommend taking at least one day off per week.
Another part of recovery that is often overlooked by beginners is the rest between sets. After you work a muscle, it needs time to reset. For most of us, a muscle will be ready to give close the same effort after 60 – 120 seconds. For heavier lifts that use bigger muscles like deadlifts and squats, you might need as much as 3 minutes. But don’t be one of those guys standing in the squat rack scrolling through social media. Use your rest to breathe, hydrate, and focus on the next set.
And finally, it is important to recognize that fatigue is one of the main reasons form breaks down. If you aren’t able to do the lift with good form (as noted above), take longer breaks between sets, lower the weight, or move on. Over time, you’ll figure out which of the above is the right choice for you.
Any time we’re working on our fitness, we have the risk of injury. We can do everything right and then there’s a ping, a tweak, or heaven forbid, a tear. We definitely want to put prevention first, which we’ve discussed above. But eventually, our luck runs out and we have an ache or pain we have to address.
It is important to determine two things about pain:
- Is it in the muscle or the joint? In general, if it is muscle pain, rest and recovery will be all that’s needed. If it is tendon pain, you may have a more serious problem that will require medical treatment and/or physical therapy.
- Is it general pain or is it isolated or acute? General pain usually comes from doing the work. Don’t buy into the “no pain, no gain’ rally cry, but realize it is likely you’ll feel pain and burning sensations from time to time during and after a workout. If you hear or feel a pop or experience intense pain during a set, stop. You’ve likely injured yourself.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is a very common general pain in muscles we’ve worked. It typically kicks in 24 – 48 hours after a taxing exercise. This is a signal that you’ve worked a muscle just a little harder than it was prepared for. That is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It is just a physiological response to stress. Drink plenty of water and try to keep the muscle active and the pain will eventually subside.
If you injure yourself, it is important to get medical attention and start physical therapy as soon as possible. The longer you delay, the more mobility and strength gains you risk losing. Look for a physical therapist that focuses on sports medicine or has experience with athletes as I’ve found they understand wanting to get back to training better than those that work with the general public.
And above all, do what the physical therapist tells you to do (and no more). They are giving corrective exercises that are proven to help you recover quickly and completely.
Eat well to get strong after 40
It should come as no surprise to you that having a healthy diet is important for health and weight loss. But it is also important if you want to get strong after 40.
There are three key things to consider:
- Protein intake
Muscles need water to function. If you’re even a little dehydrated, your performance and strength gains will take a hit. Water also helps flush out metabolites that cause DOMS.
Alcohol inhibits muscle recovery. Remember, that’s when the growth and strength gains happen. Alcohol also dehydrates you, so it is a double whammy.
It is also important that you eat enough protein so that your body has the building blocks to build muscle. You should strive to get 0.8 grams of protein per pound (~ 1.6 grams per kg) of body weight to optimize results.
As an aside, many lifters believe you need carbs to gain muscle. If carbs are your primary source of energy, then yes, you need adequate energy in the form of carbs to power through your workouts. But you can build muscle and get stronger while in ketosis just as well.
Assessing overall strength and muscle gain
Many people like to see their numbers go up on certain lifts to know that they are progressing. If you’re continuing to the weight go up on your training routine, then you should have an overall sense that what you’re doing is working. But you may want to know how much stronger you really are.
The standard approach for this is the 1 repetition maximum lift (1 rep max or 1RM). You load the bar and give it a shot. If you get it, you add more weight, and go again. Eventually, you’ll find your 1RM. In competitions, athletes are limited to three tries.
Since many trainers think doing 1RM is not safe (I disagree), there are calculators that allow you to approximate the number based on your 3RM or 10RM. But like most estimates, they can be way off. If you’re using quality form, a 1RM lift is just as safe as any other lift. The problem is most people break form trying to move more weight than they should. Never break form, not even for a 1RM lift (unless there’s a boatload of money to be won).
Resistance training helps you build muscle (even after 40). If you’re interested in knowing how much muscle you’re adding, there are a couple of ways to measure muscle size. The easiest and most cost-effective is to measure your body with a cloth tape measure. Keep in mind that an eighth of an inch is a lot of muscle, especially in the arms and legs.
The more accurate measurement of muscle size, but more costly way is to get a dexascan. A dexascan measures your body in sections and reports back the amount of fat, muscle, bone, and water you have in your body. Comparing your muscle mass to a prior dexascan will show you how much you’ve gained. As an added benefit, a dexascan will show you how much visceral fat you have, which is a strong indicator of cardiovascular disease.
If you’ve read this far, I’m certain you understand the importance of strength training in your fitness routine. With smart, heavy training you can get strong after 40. Initially, there is a lot to learn, which is why I think hiring a strength and fitness coach is a great investment. Learn good form, train hard, eat well, allow proper recovery, and you’ll make it happen.
If you want a proven program to get strong after 40, check out my Strong, Lean, and Energetic Base Program. It is the exact program I used to get into peak physical condition and I guarantee it will work for you as well. And if you’d like some help with it, I’d love to be your health and fitness coach. Learn more at: https://40plusfitnesspodcast.com/pgc.