Lifting like a beast won’t get you far. If you want to keep making gains, you’re going to need a better approach.
After 40, your body begins to handle training differently, especially if you’re “old” in training years. I started lifting at age 12. My body has a lot more wear 'n tear than a regular 40-something.
After 40, you just can’t train the same way you used to. You’ll get injured, burn out, or start regressing due to lack of recovery. While you want to keep improving (and you can), it’s even more important to prevent the regression that can come with a beat-up body.
If you’re over 40 (or even in your 30s but feeling beat up), here’s your choice:
A. Keep training like a 20-something, be awesome for five more years, but then gradually find yourself losing what you have because you can’t train hard anymore.
B. Recognize that you’re not 20, make some changes, still progress, and keep training and preventing decay well into your 70s.
Did you choose B? Good. Here are six training rules to apply:
Past a certain age, you need more recovery days to let your body grow optimally. Sure, you CAN train six days a week, but there’s a difference between being able to do your workout and getting the most growth and adaptation from your workout.
We don’t want to accept that because we’re all training-stimulus addicts to some extent. Many lifters need the feeling they get from the workout more than they need to see results. That’s too bad because if you’re over 40, you’ll get worse results (or no results at all) if you don’t give your body time to recover.
And this comes from me – one of the biggest training addicts of all time! I’m the one who made the mistake of training 6-7 days a week for years, despite giving my clients only 4 weekly sessions. I should’ve taken the hint when my athletes progressed much faster than me! But when you’re addicted, you lose your objectivity.
When I got back to squatting 500 pounds at 44 years of age, I only trained every other day (one day on, one day off). I took my squat from 415 to 500 in 7 weeks. I also took my body weight from 215 to 231, the heaviest I’d been in over 10 years.
More importantly, I felt good. Lots of energy, no aches and pains, and plenty of time for other important things in life.
Then I had a relapse. I switched to more aesthetic goals, got back on the “more is better” bandwagon, and trained 6 days a week. I started feeling like crap. My strength started to go down, and even though I got leaner (I was dieting at the same time), I looked emaciated, not better. I went back to training every other day and started to look and feel great again.
- Hormonal Disruption: Decreases in anabolic hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1.
- Gradual Anabolic Resistance: A decrease in the sensitivity of the androgenic receptors that makes you less responsive to testosterone.
- Life: You have more responsibilities now that reduce the time you have, your energy, and your recovery capacity.
- More Strength: You’re stronger than a beginner. Moving bigger weights puts more systemic stress on your body.
An older lifter will progress more on a one-day-on, one-day-off schedule, or using three workouts per week, than he will with 5-7 workouts per week.
Ideally, he’ll accelerate recovery even further with workout nutrition. I use Surge Workout Fuel (on Amazon).
Yes, my program, The Best Workout Plan for Natural Lifters, uses more training days per week. But that system uses an extremely minimal training volume which makes it possible to use a higher frequency. But even with a lower-volume approach, older lifters might still do better on four weekly workouts.
“Sets across” means doing several work sets with the same weight or same level of effort. It’s not so much that an older lifter can’t do as much volume; instead, it’s that he can’t do as much hard training volume as when he was younger.
In Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program, he recommends 3 sets of 5 reps with the same weight, then adding weight at your next workout. When asked at a conference how he’d modify this program for older lifers, Mark answered that he’d only do one top set of 5 reps – the two others being progressively heavier, but not as heavy, as the final set.
That’s a simple modification an over-40 lifter can make to “normal” training – just use a ramping approach. For example, doing 4 sets (across) of 8 reps with 200 pounds, it’d look like this:
- Set 1 – 8 reps at 200 pounds
- Set 2 – 8 reps at 200 pounds
- Set 3 – 8 reps at 200 pounds
- Set 4 – 8 reps at 200 pounds
If you’re ramping to a top set, start conservatively and add some weight from set-to-set until you reach your top weight or effort level for the final set. Like this:
- Set 1 – 8 reps at 155 pounds
- Set 2 – 8 reps at 170 pounds
- Set 3 – 8 reps at 185 pounds
- Set 4 – 8 reps at 200 pounds
On that last set, go as hard as you can. Shoot for an RPE of 9 to 9.5. This means going to the point where you’re fairly certain that you’d have trouble getting one more rep with good form. You might even be able to use more weight for your top set because you’re fresher and better warmed up.
If you’re an older, experienced lifter, you can safely train hard. You just can’t do as much.
This is a rule everyone should follow, but it’s even more important for older lifters. Make the last rep of each exercise your best one. Make it the rep where you’re the most focused, put the most effort into using perfect technique, and really feel the target muscle doing the work.
This will be easily doable on submaximal sets (the sets before your top set) since you won’t be fatigued. On the last rep, though, we tend to use momentum or make slight technical changes to hoist the weight up. Don’t. You should not allow yourself to cheat or lose the feeling of the muscle working just to “get the rep in.”
Hitting a cheat rep increases the risk of injury and may not even give you a better growth stimulus than if you didn’t do the rep at all.
This one might seem illogical. After all, doing partial lifts from pins will allow you to use more weight, so it’s easy to assume they’re more dangerous. But they aren’t.
Most lifting injuries occur at one of two positions: at the sticking point or near the bottom when the target muscles are at their most elongated. Injury most often occurs during the eccentric/lowering portion of the lift (when you’re elongating the muscles fibers while they’re under tension).
Doing a partial lift from pins allows you to avoid those two riskier zones while still lifting heavy and gaining strength. And because the eccentric phase is shorter, the muscles are under tension while being elongated for a shorter period (less intra-rep fatigue), also reducing injury risk.
I’m not telling you to do partial lifts exclusively. But an older lifter who wants to include heavy work should do it from pins and do full-range movements with moderate loads.
“Partial lifts only give partial results!” Not really. I get my greatest size and strength gains from heavy partial work. And science actually agrees, in part.
Researchers have found that a partial squat (knee angle of 90 degrees, which is significantly above parallel) is actually better than a full squat at improving sprint speed and jumping height. (1) Furthermore, the muscle recruitment/activity in the partial squat isn’t really inferior to what you find in a full squat. And since you can use more weight in a partial, you could argue that partials are more effective for strength gains.
Full-range work will be slightly more effective to promote growth because you can elongate the muscle fibers while they’re under load to a greater degree. This causes more muscle damage and can promote more growth, but it’s also harder to recover from.
Now, I’m only recommending partial lifts from pins if you want to do heavy lifting to get stronger. Hypertrophy isn’t the primary goal of partial lifting. It’s a side effect. The work you do to build muscle should include full-range work.
I like to do more reps-per-set for heavy partials due to the shorter range of motion. Do 2-3 more reps on partial lifts compared to full-range movements. Strength work is typically done for sets of 1 to 5 reps. This means 3 to 8 reps from pins.
The correlation between grip strength and healthy aging is well established. More grip strength in aging adults is correlated with lower premature mortality, lower development of disabilities, and shorter hospitalization following injuries and health issues. (2)
Overall, there’s also a good connection between grip strength and higher strength levels. It also makes an older individual more functional and less prone to injury.
This doesn’t mean that increasing grip strength will decrease mortality. Grip strength is only used as a non-dangerous way of assessing strength. What the studies are saying is that OVERALL strength is correlated with healthier aging.
So why am I recommending grip work? Because it could actually have benefits in slowing down the reduction in mental function that can come with age.
There is indeed a positive correlation between grip strength and mental function in older adults. (3) Grip strength is highly neurological. You don’t have that much muscle mass in your hands; the difference in strength levels is more a matter of neurological efficiency.
But how could your grip help improve or prevent the decrease in nervous system function? Because of the homunculus.
It’s a distorted “human figure” where each body part is of a size relative to the amount of information sent to and from the nervous system. Parts of your body that send more info to the brain (and are more innervated) are bigger, while those that send less info (smaller connection with the brain) are smaller.
Your hands have the most important connection with your brain/nervous system. By the way, that’s why the first sign of incoming training burnout is a decrease in grip strength.
Challenging your hands either through high force production (grip work) or complex movements (e.g., playing the guitar) also challenges the nervous system and can help keep it in tip-top shape. Use it or lose it.
For that reason, as you get older, grip work becomes more important. It can prevent mental decline or a drop in nervous system efficiency. Plus, it will help you lift more.
A few years back, a 60-year old bodybuilder came to me because he hadn’t been able to train legs properly for years. There wasn’t a regular leg exercise he could do without knee pain.
So, three times per week, all I had him do was various forms of sled pulling and Prowler pushing for sets lasting around 30-40 seconds. It didn’t take long for him to build lower body mass.
It even got to the point where he wanted to compete again, which he did. Not only did he qualify for the drug-tested National Championships, but he also won the overall against much younger guys.
Despite the fact that sled/Prowler work doesn’t involve any eccentric loading and doesn’t work the muscles through a full range of motion, it still builds muscle with a very low risk of injury.
I started using sled and Prowler work as a tool to build or maintain muscle mass with in-season athletes, when heavy squatting wasn’t the best idea.
I’m not telling older lifters to stop lifting for their lower body. If you don’t have injuries that limit the exercises you can do, you should still include lifting for your legs. But I am recommending you reduce lifting volume in favor of sled or Prowler work.
By combining a small to moderate dose of both, you’ll get the same type of growth as you’d get from a high amount of lifting, all while reducing the risk of injury as well as wear and tear. This will allow you to keep training hard for longer. It’ll also make it easier to recover from your workouts.
Use sets of around 60 meters for building muscle. Three sets of forward pushing and backward dragging twice a week is a great place to start.
- da Silva JJ et al. Muscle Activation Differs Between Partial and Full Back Squat Exercise With External Load Equated. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Jun;31(6):1688-1693. PubMed.
- Bohannon RW. Hand-Grip Dynamometry Predicts Future Outcomes in Aging Adults. J Geriatr Phys Ther. 2008;31(1):3-10. PubMed.
- Kim JH. Effect of grip strength on mental health. J Affect Disord. 2019 Feb 15;245:371-376. PubMed.