T Nation

Gaining Muscle Mass After 40


Most of the information out there that tells beginning lifters how to gain muscle is targeted at people in their teens and twenties.

Most of the information for people 40+ seems to be targeted at experienced lifters. Some of it seems to imply that the best you can do at this point is hold on to whatever you've got.

Can someone recommend a program for people aged 40 and up who want to add muscle? Starting Strength seems to be written with much younger lifters in mind. I want to get stronger and more muscular, but I also want to be able to lift weights into old age.


What’s your starting point?
What are your goals?
What injuries do you have?
What’s your athletic background and build?
What’s your daily activity level (sedentary, active)?
How many cals are you eating a day and what is your macro breakdown?
Are you gaining or losing weight on that amount?


Starting point: Would “raw novice” be clear enough? By the strength standards for men my size, I count as “untrained.” I can bench 2/3 of my weight. I can squat my weight. I can deadlift a little more than my weight. I am 5’8" and 135 lbs.

Goals: Bench press my weight. Dead lift 2x my weight. Squat 1.5x my weight. Gain 15 lbs of muscle.

Injuries: My shoulders are “hypermobile.” I have a small rotator cuff tear in each.

Athletic background: I have never been athletic. I did Crossfit inconsistently for a couple of years, a couple of years ago. I have a classic ectomorph build.

Daily activity level: I run about six miles a week. My job is mostly sedentary. One thing that prompted this quest is a fitness screening I took at work. I did well or very well on every metric (flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, body fat), except grip strength. On that my performance was almost off the charts bad.


Diet: I am eating 2,300 calories a day. The macro breakdown is roughly 30% protein, 40% carbs, 30% fat. My weight is constant. I still have a pretty fast metabolism.


OK, we have enough similarities that I might be able to be helpful.

I started lifting at 36 when I was 6’ and 156lbs. My job is sedentary as well. I come from an endurance athlete background so I had no real muscle to speak of. I did SS for the first 9 months and it worked, but within certain limitations.

What worked: Starting Strength, but ignore everything Rippetoe has to say about nutrition. His programming will work for anyone, but his nutrition info (GOMAD and gain 30lbs in 3 months) is definitely geared towards young men. Also, do arms. And shoulders. Work on creating size by increasing your width (shoulders) and increasing the difference between your width and your waist. Eat protein.

Don’t bulk. Don’t even think of bulking. You can not force-feed muscle at age 40. In fact, stay leaner than ever. You don’t have the luxury of a young persons metabolism anymore. Nor do you have the time to go through endless bulk/cut cycles.

Read EyeDentist’s thread in B,S,L.

Read everything you can by Dan John.

Experiment, but be smart about it. 3 weeks isn’t enough time to determine anything. I’ve been doing high pulls for 5 months and just noticed the first bit of trap development. Which is good, because I was going to drop them in another month. I give everything 6 months.

Work on shoulder stability. Can you do laterals? Deadlifts? Rows? Get a referral for PT from your doc if you don’t feel comfortable programming shoulder stuff on your own.

When you plateau doing SS, bump up your cals by 200 a day and keep going for another month. Don’t mistake short-term lulls for stagnation; progress isn’t linear.

Keep running if it keeps you sane. Add some hill sprints or sandbag carries. Walk around a track holding something unstable overhead, I’ve used my daughter. It’s extra incentive not to drop the weight.

Don’t diet. Don’t get fat so you don’t need to diet. Being sedentary and trying to diet is like being in some kind of death spiral.

Edit: do the things that give you external validation; it feels good. I like numbers so I get DEXA scans and bloodwork twice a year. If banging out 20 sets of curls a week makes the cute girl at the UPS store comment about the way you look in a T-shirt then go for it. It’s your life and your goals.

Value quality of movement. Play frisbee on a beach, try yoga, try kettlebells, hike, but keep moving. Sitting will kill you, sitting is the new smoking.


^^^ Great advice.

Also if you do Starting Strength note that there are modifications that can be made for older lifters, including slightly less frequency (1 day on, 2 days off), alternating between heavy and lighter squat days (Monday 3x5, Thursday 3x5 with 20% less weight), subbing Lat Pulldowns for Power Cleans, and other programming changes. These are detailed in his book Practical Programming.


at age 67, I “seem” to get the best feeling and maybe even muscle growth/retention by using primarily unilateral cpmpound moves coupled with muscle isolation orientated pre-exhaust band sets, or 50-60 fast reps to get the pump going . .

also stay with daily flexibility/moility work and feed your recovery

but I’m retired so I get to structure my time more freely

and I built my own landmine so I always have to do that work standing up . . total body stuff
don’t quit . . .


Thank you very much, everyone! This is all really helpful. I appreciate it.


OP, people in their 70s and 80s can still gain muscle mass, so you’re just a young pup! Good advice given here. I would be really careful benching and overhead pressing with hypermobile shoulders. The Mighty Stu’s current thread http://tnation.T-Nation.com/free_online_forum/sports_body_training_performance_bodybuilding/mighty_stu_yellin_wnbf_pro_updates_n_qa might be a good resource for you. He’s had 2 shoulder surgeries in the past couple years and has been able to train around them.

Also, I would encourage you to start a training log here or in the regular Training Logs section. It’s great for motivation and conversing with like minded people.


Awesomesauce, Dr. Pangloss.


[quote]Xris wrote:
Awesomesauce, Dr. Pangloss. [/quote]

x 2. Thanks, Doc. That was awesome.

I’d just add, to the OP - There are quite a few people here who got a late start at lifting and have done great both in gaining strength and looking more muscular and lean. I think some of those stats about how hard it is to gain muscle as you age are based off of advanced lifters who have already spent years reaching their genetic potential. That first year with it’s Newbie Gains is super exciting.

To Doc’s advice I’d just add -

It it hurts STOP.

You mentioned grip strength. It’s a limiting factor in a lot of novice lifters. Farmer’s carries are really good for that, and for generally just getting stronger. Grab a couple of DBs and take them for a walk. I did that a lot my first year.

Doc mentioned not bulking so much you need to diet down. I agree.


I’m not sold on the “never bulk” comment.

I’ve had good gains doing a bulk over 40. The danger is taking the weight off.

The thing is though… keep your eye on the goal. If your goal is bodybuilding… ok don’t bulk. If your goal is max strength gains and muscle growth, then the game is the same regardless of age. Work out more, eat more, and you gain more muscle. This might not work over 60, but it certainly works in the 40s.

I started doing compound lifts for the first time at age 42 and got my deadlift to 405 in a year, which seems decent. And I’ve certainly experienced “muscle growth.” But I ate a lot, and have a gut, which I had that before I started this.

It really depends on your goals. If I weighed 135, I’d eat a lot and lift heavy.


Buckets of great info above. The only thing I would throw into the mix is to suggest changing one of your stated goals from “gain 15 lbs of muscle” to simply ‘gain muscle’–or better still, to ‘look more muscular.’


Thanks again for this excellent advice. I agree, a training log on here is a great idea. EyeDentist: Yes, I think I hear you, 15 lbs of muscle might be a lot for a person with my genes to gain at my age. Any added muscle would be an improvement.

To bulk or not to bulk: Bulking might not be as risky for me as for some my age (44), since my metabolism still seems to be high.

But I have a question: Is “bulking” different from simply “eating significantly more than you currently do”? It seems like when people refer to bulking, they mean something like doubling their calorie intake. Is there a calorie threshold where “eating more” becomes “bulking”?

Obviously, I have to eat somewhat more if I want to gain mass. But I was planning to see what happened if I added 250-500 calories a day, not 2,200.


[quote]northerndriver wrote:
Obviously, I have to eat somewhat more if I want to gain mass. But I was planning to see what happened if I added 250-500 calories a day, not 2,200.

Start at a surplus of 200-250 cal/d, and titrate to effect.

You would become obscenely fat very quickly if your daily caloric excess was 2000+ cals.