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