Middle Age Muscle: Let's Get Real

How to Keep Building Muscle After 40

How much muscle can a natural lifter gain in middle age? Here are the facts, how to keep the progress going, and a few reality checks.

How much muscle can a natural, advanced lifter build after 40? I’d love to tell you they can keep building tons of muscle, but it’d be a lie. Here are the hurtful facts about muscle gain and aging. But don’t panic! I’ll also provide five tips to make the best of it and keep some gains coming.

Why Do Experienced Lifters Stop Growing?

It’s not just an age thing but also a matter of training experience and adaptation. “Advanced lifter” means at least 15 years of hard training. That means you’ve gained quite a few pounds of muscle already. The human body has a limited capacity to build and keep muscle naturally. This is largely dependent on our genetics. The ACTN3 genotype, myostatin levels, body structure, and other factors come into play.

The average human male can add 30-40 pounds of muscle above his normal adult weight during his training career. (Of course, using anabolics will bypass many of the limiting factors.)

I’m also talking about pure muscle weight. With those 30-40 pounds, you’d likely add some extra pounds in the form of glycogen, water, and collagen. You could even add some fat and still look great. You might add 50 pounds of scale weight over your career, but only 30 pounds would be muscle. The closer you are to reaching those 30 pounds, the slower and harder your gains will be.

So let’s take a 40-year-old man who would be around 175 pounds without lifting. And let’s say, after 15 years of training, he’s now 210 with a similar body fat percentage. He added around 30-35 pounds of muscle to his frame by lifting for all those years. Realistically, he can now hope to add 5-10 pounds of muscle.

If a second 40-year-old man gained only 10 pounds throughout his training career (because he hasn’t been training hard and smart consistently), he has the potential to gain more muscle than the first guy – if he trains the right way.

Why will the more dedicated and experienced lifter have a harder time building a lot of new muscle? First, because of adaptation. His body is well-adapted to lifting. It’s very hard at that point for training to represent a stress. If the training is no longer a stress, the body won’t change because extra muscle isn’t needed to do the work.

If you want to increase the training stress you need to:

  • Lift more weight
  • Do more volume
  • Push your sets harder

But there’s the catch-22. All three of these things can jack up cortisol and might stop progression. Furthermore, you can’t always push them up. There’ll be a point where it’s hard to add 5 pounds per 6-8 weeks on a lift. And if you already train to failure or close to it, there isn’t much room to increase there either.

Adding volume – especially in older lifters – is one of the best ways to halt progress. It’s also not very practical. A normal person with responsibilities can’t spend 2-3 hours in the gym. An advanced lifter needs extremely high training stress to keep progressing, but doing just that might actually do more harm than good.

Also, as you get older, your physiology changes:

  • Testosterone levels tend to decrease.
  • Growth hormone and IGF-1 can decrease.
  • Stem cells decrease due to a lower IGF-1 level. Stem cells are required to repair muscle damage. Fewer stem cells means that you don’t repair and build muscle as easily.
  • Your body likely has more chronic systemic inflammation. This can significantly decrease your capacity to build muscle (among other things) in part because it reduces insulin sensitivity.
  • You lose nerve cells and have atrophy in others. This decreases strength. If strength goes down, it’s harder to maintain, much less add more muscle.
  • The muscle tissue is adapted to a certain level of loading. If your nerves no longer allow you to produce as much force, the lower level of muscle tension produced when training might not be enough to fully stimulate growth.
  • Life tends to take over. If you have a full-time job and a family, you have a lot more stress, impacting your capacity to progress.

The Five Tips for Over-40 Lifters

Don’t stop trying to improve. It’s possible to surprise yourself and achieve more than you thought. I got into my best shape after 40, and I’m still able to improve a bit. Here are a few guidelines:

1. Don’t Always Train Hard

It sounds counterintuitive, but periods of maintenance lifting can help re-sensitize your body to training. Call it “strategic deconditioning.”

Do the minimum necessary for 3-5 weeks to avoid losing muscle. If you’re a dedicated lifter, that will be much less than you think. Do less volume, don’t push your sets hard (stop 2-3 reps short of failure), and focus on technique rather than load.

I like three full-body workouts weekly, using 3-4 lifts per session. After that period, push hard for 6-8 weeks, ramping up the demands of your workout every two weeks.

I discovered this strategy when I started doing more seminars. I spent four weeks training 2-3 times a week and not having the energy to push super hard. But when I returned to serious training, I surpassed my previous best.

2. Use A Specialization Approach

I began using this with high-level bodybuilders to blast through growth plateaus. You need a serious stimulus to force the body to adapt when you’re advanced. But at the same time, if you increase overall training stress, you won’t be able to recover. Specialization is a great way to achieve that strong stimulus without excessively overloading your body.

Select one or two muscle groups (or one big lift) to focus on. Train them three days a week. Train the rest of the body once a week at maintenance level, either by doing everything in one workout or splitting it in two. Then, every four weeks, focus on different muscles or a new lift.

3. Reduce Inflammation and Improve Insulin Sensitivity

These two issues prevent you from building muscle and getting leaner when you’re older. Your lifestyle and diet will play a big role.

Flameout and Micellar Curcumin are awesome for low-grade systemic inflammation.

Indigo-3G is the best supplement out there to improve insulin sensitivity.

4. Focus On Creating the Look You Want

There’s a phenomenon I call “muscle migration.” When you’ve achieved an overall muscle mass close to your limit, you can still create an aesthetic evolution of your body by changing WHERE you’re holding that muscle.

  • If I train like an Olympic lifter or athlete, my hamstrings, traps, mid-back, and glutes improve, but I lose some size in the chest and arms.
  • If I train more like a bodybuilder, my chest and arms improve, and my quads get better, but I lose some size in the glutes and hams.
  • If I train like a bro, my chest, arms, and shoulders improve, but I lose overall lower body mass.

My weight stays at about 215 in all three scenarios, yet the visual effect is different.

When you’re approaching the most muscle mass you can carry, focus on developing the muscles that’ll give you the look you want. Purposefully place muscles that aren’t required to get that “look” on the back burner. This is a lot like specialization but without rotating every four weeks.

5. Get Lean!

Everybody looks better when they’re leaner. If you can’t gain a ton of muscle anymore, you can still improve your look by getting ripped.

I reached my best look after age 40. I was actually smaller than earlier in my life, but the overall look was better because I was much leaner. Even if you don’t gain muscle, you’ll still look awesome if you get down to a true 8 percent body fat.

Final Thought

It’d be nice if we could all continue building muscle until the day we stop training. Sadly, that’s not the case. But even when muscle growth is harder to achieve, you can still find ways to improve.



This is a really good article.

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Thanks for some training articles for those over 45. See too many personal trainers say age is in the mind and to push through. Funny how most are in their late 20’s! Nice to see an intelligent way to train as you age. This site has become my go to for training information.


Great tips, thank you.

But it sounds like the issue being addressed is more along the lines of lifting age, or gaining muscle naturally after achieving close to max possible gains following years of training, not general age restrictions. I would think “lifting age” is more important than calendar age for training tip and recommendation purposes.

I need some serious help from you guys I now have arthritis in my hips to the point even walking is becoming more painful my physio said I need replacement I am nearly 51and train at home have done since covid. My legs need to get a bit of size even if my bf was low.

Thank you

Appreciate this coach. Also enjoyed your recent podcast with Dave on Table Talk.

As someone coming up on 43 pretty quick, I appreciate these articles. They’re always good to help ground expectations, which tend to float between feeling like there are a lot of gains left and those days have passed. Reminders to stay optimistic, but also realistic, along with some practical tips are awesome to read.

I also really enjoyed your podcast with Dave! I think it was mentioned briefly during the podcast that the way people want information now has shifted from articles to video, but I for one, still much rather read the information. It’s also a lot easier to save and refer back to.

Thank you!

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I enjoyed this article when first written, and also am pleased to see it again now.

My views are influenced by my personal experiences. So my question is about the effect of Covid and mandatory gym closures. During Covid, I used my home gym which let me do the basics (bench, trap bar, kettlebells, etc.), though less motivated than usual. When gyms cautiously reopened, one could not go there as often as one liked, and was forced into 1-2 hours of gym lifting per week (when one could get that). My question is what effect this reduced training volume over months had on potential limits - whether it allowed some reset, whether these prolonged resets affect limits.

Continuous semi-intelligent training for many years allows one to substantially progress to their natural limit. My shoulders are big, so I did not originally do a designated shoulder day or too many specific exercises for many years. I thought I was close to muscle capacity, and was surprised by substantial further gains after Covid once I started doing a lot more overhead work, trap bar deadlifts, more weighted pull-ups and shrugs and loaded carries. Was this from previously neglecting the traps (although I did the usual basics) or is there something to “the pause that refreshes”? How did Covid affect lifters once they started anew?

This is a good article but also kinda depressing because I’m 60 and been trying fairly hard for almost a year.

It does make the assumption that the individual is with “healthy” parameter. This is a completely different article.

lets see some current pics!

I am 60 and there are no contests in my future! I am more interested in good muscle tone, 15% body fat, good mobility, and learning to surf. I have arthritis in my neck, hip and lower back. I highly recommend an Ortho that knows sports, mine treat the MLB baseball teams during Spring Training. You cannot get around having a good Ortho that will keep you in the gym and I hate to admit it but Celebrex helps!

I moved to the Best Damn Workout and it made a huge difference. First, only doing 4 exercises for 3 sets is consistently doable. Second, the working set concept using the different techniques helps build muscle. Third, working out 6 days a week helps with mobility and keeping moving.

Finally, make logical exercise choices and work around. For example, no more back squats for me with neck arthritis. Squat machines, front squats, DBs, Step Ups all let me work legs without beating up my neck. Yours will be specific to you. Hope this helps.


No. I don’t share pics. I’m shy.

Talking to Thib

Good article. Any way you could show a sample workout as a guide.

Im new here but this article jumped out at me. I am over 40 now and a female but my main question here is I was under the assumption that men that had power lifted in their life or are power lifters can be the strongest of their lives in their 40s to early 50s. The reason i ask is my brother who is 4 years younger than I, started power lifting at 14 with a group of people (married couple in their 30’s, a man 51, and a few others) all clean power lifters that competed in clean Powerlifting Meets only. By the time my brother was allowed to lift enough weight to go to a meet they were very protective of his growth plates and not hindering his growth with too much weight but by the time he was 17 he was competing in a few meets that we were able to go to. And of course he did good for his class and age. The strangest thing though and what they explained to me was the fact that the man that was 51 years old competed in the over 50 class deadlifted over 800 pounds and one that meet. He was the main one that worked with my brother. Including in the Open men’s competition the 30-year-old husband was also 6 ft 7 and huge and he won for the Open men’s powerlifting for his Squat and deadlift. The conversation I got into after that meet with all of them was the fact that they were telling me that men have the most strength they can be the strongest of their life in their 40s and 50s early 50s that’s why they break the classes up at over 50 which are still some excruciatingly strong men. Am I wrong in my assumptions from all these years ago? I know this article is not necessarily about how strong you are or how much you can lift but it is about adding muscle so I thought it was a rough fit for the question. I hope someone can answer me or at least leave me in the direction of where I need to be asking this question. Thank you in advance if anyone answers.

My own personal experience was that I hit some PRs in my early 50s (I’m 55 now), for OHP and bench in particular. I lost overall work capacity, not only in how much I can do in any one workout, but also in how often I can train in a month, but the only thing causing drop-off in strength has been injuries. And as you get older, your injuries become chronic injuries, so more and more of your lifts are affected.
I suspect this answer might be different for elite athletes, who I would think are more likely to reach their strength peaks in their mid-to-late 30s.

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