The New Rules of Over-40 Lifting

Keep Making Gains Like When You Were Younger

Everything most young coaches tell you about over-40 training is wrong. Here’s why and what to do instead.

Pretend for a second that you’re an aging professional athlete. Your joints are a little achier than those of your younger teammates and your reflexes aren’t as spectacular, but you’ve still got most of your game.

Now tell me, should you, as an aging athlete who wants to continue to play at a high level, or an even higher level, start training harder or easier?

Harder, of course. Or at least a lot smarter. Otherwise, your skills will diminish. You no longer have some of the luxuries of youth, so you can’t take your abilities for granted. There’s no time to slack off.

If that’s the case with older athletes in football, baseball, hockey, MMA, or just about any other sport, why are physique athletes told by almost everyone to take it easier when they get older?

It’s as if 40 is an expiration date tattooed on your fanny when you come tumbling out of the womb and once that date is up, you better give up squats or deadlifts or lifting anything that weighs more than a box of Depends, which contains exactly what you’ll soil if you ignore that advice.

They tell you that you should likewise pay more attention to recovery – maybe once a week do a couple of sets, between which you go to the park and feed the ducks.

I say bollocks to all that. I realize there are some differences between 25 and 40, and probably a lot of differences between 25 and 50, but not as many as you might think, especially if you have at least 10 years’ worth of training experience by the time you hit your “expiration date.”

In most cases, you shouldn’t start to take it easier when you near 40 or 50 or even beyond. In fact, that’s the time you need to kick your training up a notch if you want to stay in the game. There are, however, some hard truths that you’ll need to swallow.

1. Build Up Your Work Capacity

You can’t train hard if merely pulling your pants on makes you wheeze. You need to do cardio or metabolic conditioning or whatever term you feel comfortable with. How do you expect to work hard if your lungs don’t have the sass to carry on?

Moreover, your cellular batteries – the mitochondria – start to wear out, get lazy, take extended vacations in Cabo, or die as you get older. They need a kick in the pants so they get to multiplying, and that’s what intense exercise provides.

Fear not, though, because you don’t have to devote hours and hours to all that tedious, conventional aerobic training stuff where you sit on a stationary bike for an hour as your panini-ed prostate swells up to the size of one of those sand-filled Bulgarian bags.

Instead, at least three times a week, get on the treadmill, rower, or yes, stationary bike for a measly 10 minutes for some HIIT-style training. Focus on all-out efforts of 20 seconds, followed by 60 seconds of “active recovery.”

On a treadmill, that might mean setting the speed at a leisurely 3 miles per hour and then cranking it up as fast as your little stubby legs allow for about 20 seconds, after which you’d drop the level back down to 3 again for a minute or two before you do another round.

You could do the same thing on a stationary bike or rower, or you might prefer short sprints followed by walking-recovery periods.

Alternately, you can crank up the incline on the treadmill to the Himalaya setting, or as high as it goes, and trudge uphill, Sherpa like, for 30 to 60 seconds before zeroing out again.

This type of training has been shown to increase mitochondria. That, coupled with the increase in endurance you’ll experience, will allow you to lift as hard as you need to.

2. Do More Work. Lots More Work

Doing 3 sets of 8 and going home is no longer going to suffice. It may have worked when you were younger and had testosteroned-up tiger blood flowing through your veins, but not so much when you’ve got a 50/50 blend of tiger blood and prune juice squirting through your plaque-riddled vessels.

That’s why damn near every workout should contain an extended set, drop set, or finisher of some kind and if you’re not making an ugly, just-got-burned-by-dragon-fire face at the end of it, you didn’t work hard enough.

Do strip sets on leg press or Smith machine squats. Rep out. Pull a plate. Rep out. Pull a plate. Rep out. Pull a plate. Rep out. Collapse into a fetal position.

Try Paul Carter’s 10-6-10 method on an exercise or two. That’s a 10-second isometric followed immediately (using the same weight) by 6 full-range-of-motion reps done with a 3-5 second eccentric, followed immediately (again with the same weight) by 10 partial range, little grunt reps. Here’s what it looks like:

Or pick a weight that you can do about 10 reps with. Look at the wall clock and note the time. Give yourself 5 minutes to do 50 reps with the same weight, taking little bitty chunks of rest in-between sets to failure. If you actually hit 50, the weight was too light.

Mechanical advantage barbell curls like this work well too:

  • A1. Reverse barbell curls for 6 to 8 reps.
  • A2. Drag curls for as many reps as you can.
  • A3. Standing barbell curls for as many reps as you can.

You get the idea. It sounds counter-intuitive and it smacks of weightlifting heresy, but you’ve got to train harder than when you were younger if you want to stay in the game.

3. Screw Your Achy Joints

Having achy joints is no excuse to let up. Everyone who’s been doing any serious lifting for at least 10 years wakes up in the morning feeling like they spent the previous day trying to ride the back of Bodacious the bucking bull, and was flung clean over the stands into the deep-fried Twinkie concession stand.

Get over it. Sure, you can do your stretching, that hot Yoga where they treat you like a pork dumpling, or whatever rehab exercises fit the situation, but for the most part, you’re always going to hurt.

Your recourse is to simply get smart about it – do exercises that don’t hurt the particular joint; use grips or foot positions that allow you to train with no pain; do a reduced range of motion, or lower the weights with a slower tempo. A good 4-second descent should take the strain off any angried-up tendon.

4. Say Goodbye to Sets Under 5 Reps

This is your one, big, lifting concession to Father Time. You should forget about doing sets for fewer than 5 reps. There’s just no need to use such heavy weight, and the risk of suffering an injury that you can’t work around, like tearing tendons or ligaments that just aren’t as spry as they used to be, is just too great.

No worries, though. You can stay plenty strong by devoting some time to sets of 6 to 8.

5. Lots of Days Off Are a Luxury You Can’t Afford

The conventional thinking is that old bastards need to take more time off sitting at home in an easy chair eating protein-laced porridge until the poor old coots can gather the strength to get up and shuffle-walk to the gym.

It’s true in one way, but false in another. Sure, older guys need to focus on recovery more than younger guys, but they often convince themselves to take off more time than necessary. They end up taking off because the mass of sweaty, training humanity says they’re supposed to, rather than taking time off because they need to. The incessant recovery drumbeat messes with their heads.

But older guys can’t afford to take too much time off, unlike younger guys. If you’re young and you miss a few days, it’s no big deal. Your body is perpetually in the orderly throes of negenthropy, which is the opposite of entropy. The young body grows no matter what, while older guys’ bodies have the propensity to deteriorate.

The old guy must continually fight against that dying of the light, and he can’t fight it by taking off too many days from the gym. Don’t trust how you feel, either. Your mind wants you to take a day off. It wants you to get a nice mani/pedi because anybody whose opinion of you matters at all is already at the gym so they won’t see you getting one.

There’s one thing that should tell you when to legitimately take a day off, and that’s your training log. If it tells you that on Tuesday you failed to exceed, or at the very least, meet the previous workout’s numbers, it’s time to take a day off.

If not, get thee to the gym, just as you have since time immemorial.

6. No More Stupid Bro Splits

You’re not 15 anymore. The traditional bro split where you train one body part each workout (usually 5 workouts a week) isn’t efficient or effective, especially for an adult with a job who actually communicates with real-live women in their non-pixilated form.

Your muscles recover in about two days, so why let them go fallow for a whole week? Besides, what happens if life intervenes and you miss a day or two one week? That mucks up the whole schedule and you might not train the same body part for another 8 to 10 days instead of 7.

You’re much better off doing an upper body/lower body split where you work out 4 days (or even 6 days) a week:

  • Monday: Lower Body
  • Tuesday: Upper Body
  • Wednesday: Off
  • Thursday: Lower Body
  • Friday: Upper Body
  • Saturday: Off
  • Sunday: Off

As Charles Staley pointed out in his The Single Most Effective Workout Split, this upper/lower split does a couple of things:

  1. It makes the best use of time. Since muscles recover in about two days, muscles trained on Monday should be trained again on Wednesday. If you don’t, you’re losing ground.
  2. You get to train muscles more often with fewer workouts. With a bro split, you work out 5 times a week and each muscle gets hit once. With an upper/lower split, you work out 4 times a week and each muscle gets worked twice.

7. Bend the Knee to Volume

Earlier I suggested giving up on sets of less than 5. That doesn’t mean falling forever into the sticky 8 to 10 reps mire.

Everybody’s been stuck on doing 8 reps forever, mostly because ancient, cave-man lifters began a tradition of doing 8. Doing 6 or 7 didn’t feel like it was hard enough and doing 9 to 10 or more was talking-to-an-insurance-salesman tedious. But I say to you, Horatio, there are more beneficial rep schemes in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your weightlifting philosophy.

You can build plenty of size – perhaps even more size than you thought possible – by doing sets of 12, 15, or even 20 reps, especially since you’ve probably ignored higher rep ranges your entire lifting career.

You might incorporate these higher rep schemes into your workout by devoting the first training day (say, for upper body) of the week to sets of 6 to 8, devoting the next training session to sets of 8 to 10, and then the subsequent session to sets of 12 to 15 or more before starting the whole merry-go-round over again.

Are you skeptical of high reps? Try this protocol out a couple of times before you judge:

Pick a weight for just about any exercise that you can do for 20 reps using a one-second concentric (lifting part of the rep) and a two-second eccentric (lowering part of the rep):

  1. Do the first set of 20 reps.
  2. Rest just 30 seconds.
  3. Do the second set of 20 (or as close as you can get to 20).
  4. Rest 30 seconds.
  5. Do a third set of 20 (or as close as you can get).
  6. Stick worked body part in ice to cool the fire.

Researchers Fink, Kikuchi, and Nakazato (2018) found this method worked twice as well in building muscle in yes, experienced lifters, than the usual 8-rep sets. Case in point, higher reps work just fine, thanks, and they’re much more forgiving on the joints.

8. Deload That Spine When You Can

Granted, you need more rest than someone who’s 25, and taking a daily nap might be impractical or a little too old-fogeyish for you, so consider spinal deloading. Doing this for just 20 minutes a day gives your spine a ton of relief, in addition to being restorative in general.

Just find some floor space and lie on your back with your lower legs and calves on an ottoman or chair so that your hips and knees are at a right angle. This takes the load off the discs in your spine and allows it to relax without having to contend with gravity.

Deload Spine

Plus, if you do fall asleep and someone catches you, you can just claim that you were doing a sophisticated spinal rehabilitation/restoration technique that’s beyond their comprehension.

Don’t Be a Smurf

Being young is kind of like a pro sports franchise in Denver – they’ve got an incredible built-in advantage by being a mile above sea level. Visiting players just can’t hang as well. They start to turn blue like Smurfs from lack of oxygen.

To fix that, they have to train harder, work smarter, and dole out their energy and efforts into the right things. That’s exactly what the gray or graying lifter has to do too.

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As a 50 year old (sounds so old when I type it) with lots of years of training, I just don’t buy this. I am not more achy now than when I was 30. In fact, I’d say I’m less so because I train smarter, eat better, don’t skip mobility work, and warm up properly. I’ve never been into body part splits or bodybuilding style training, so I wonder if that’s the cause of joint problems from overuse? Sure, I’ve been banged up from time to time, but that was as true in my 20’s as it is now. Personally, if I felt worse than my similarly-aged colleagues that never trained or lifted when I’ve been at it for decades, I would never have bothered training in the first place.

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I’m 44 and absolutely agree. Ten years ago, I had a lot of low back pain, my shoulders always hurt, and I struggled to get my arms overhead.

I feel much better now.

While my less active friends fall apart, I seem to be catching a second wind, so to speak.

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I absolutely get both your points - I certainly think we can feel better later in life. It probably depends on baseline and injury history.

I still think the spirit of the comment is sound, depending on audience. If my inactive friends wait around for the day they feel great to get into the gym, or judge the wisdom of training based on how they feel after day one, they will never pursue a more active lifestyle.

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We talked briefly in your log about how you found a new love for conditioning and metcon. Do you feel any better physically after making this discovery?

I can’t speak for @antiquity, but think longevity means toying with controlled eccentrics, more focus on rep quality, and conditioning.

In my case, this also comes with the added bonus of feeling better.

Darden’s OG Surge protocol was the first time I followed slow/controlled tempo prescriptions. I followed them, whimpering like a baby during the workouts because they were hard, but feeling as agile as a puma the days afterwards.

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I think you’re right!

Good question - I think I am feeling better. My sleep has certainly improved, which is just a godsend, and I seem to recover better between workouts. I think I’ll be doing even better at a lighter weight, so I’ll keep that updated as we go.

I really haven’t played much with slow eccentrics for any meaningful timeframe, but I know CT talks about using them as a means to improve tendon strength, so I’d imagine you’re really onto something with the longevity thought there.

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I’ll be 45 in a couple of weeks. I played pretty rough in my 20s, and have broken half of the bones and joints in my body; I’ve got screws/plates/rods/anchors all over the place. This is just my n=1, but when I hit 40 I resolved to start training harder. And I’ve just increased my intensity over time, including a lot of lower-rep work in an effort to get stronger. I may have a lot of time left on this earth, but as the reaper slowly closes in, I feel the need to be stronger than ever to fight him off for as long as I can.
“Taking it easy” led my grandfather to not even being able to get himself on and off of the toilet without assistance. After spending years “not wanting to hurt himself,” he became so weak he couldn’t do anything to help himself.
This may not be pertinent to the discussion, but I guess I’m chatty today…



Also seems harder to misgroove a rep with controlled eccentrics.

I happen to be part of a Men’s Club, all different ages. I’ve noticed that, like you, we all hit forks in the road, moments where life can go in drastically different directions.

There are a couple guys in the group from Southern Ohio who played softball into their 70s, tennis into their 80s, and are still walking a few miles a day at 90+.

There are other guys who hit a rough patch, stop moving, and immediately started falling apart.


If you slow down, You go down


I agree with this. Personally, I think Crossfit is great for maintaining the ability to “do things, anything” as you age. You jump, throw, run, lift, and focus on new skills like handstands, rope climbs, and kipping bar work. I’ve been inspired by a few guys in the their mid-50’s that can crank out handstand push ups, then scoot over to the bar and rep out squat cleans, then do burpee box jump overs. I’ve clearly drank the Kool-Aid, but I think transitioning into this type of training once you’ve developed sufficient strength and approached many years of barbell training is beneficial.

Here’s an observation: I’ve seen older guys (let’s say mid-40’s on) that typically fall into 2 categories. They are still strong AF in terms the big power lifts, but bulky, stiff, and, for lack of a better term, not at all spry. Or they focused on endurance, plugging in mile after mile on the road. They are small (they tend to brag about their weight being the same since high school), can go forever at a medium pace, but are weak, stiff, and achy all the time. I think chasing either of these extremes, if your goal is healthy aging and feeling good and capable, is not a great plan.


I agree with what you’re saying here, especially the last sentence. At 45 I feel better than I did in my late 30s. But my current training doesn’t look anything remotely like what I was doing in my 20s and 30s. If it did no amount of good eating, warming up or mobility work would help.

Regularly waking up feeling ruined is no way to go through life, especially as we age. Training and recovery needs to be adjusted so this is a rare occurrence. Continuing to lean into training that leaves joints angry and pissed off is a recipe for bad things down the line.


I think this is all pretty spot on.

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It seems like you’ve done a great job of getting all the good stuff out of Cross Fit, without most of the bad stuff.

Like you’ve gradually built a high General Base Level of strength/conditioning/skills without getting hurt trying to quickly specialize in everything at once.

And you also haven’t dropped a bunch of stuff on your head like the early crossfitters used to.


Ha! Nothing dropped on my head, yet.

I think it has to do with finding a gym that aligns with your approach. Mine is pretty toned down, and attracts people of all different training backgrounds (including none at all). I like the vibe and the “smart” mentality; I can swap out exercises when needed with no push back and only encouragement or suggestions. I also scale weights as needed for that day or movement, and don’t have “peer pressure” to try to snatch weights beyond what I can safely do.

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Agreed. This, to me, is part of the “why” I train, while most others choose to be sedentary. It’s not so I can out-bench press (okay, maybe it is a little), but it’s because the quality of my life is far better. A little bit of muscle soreness is fine, but if my joints constantly hurt and I’m achy and stiff, no thanks.

Some of this approach was inspired by Jim Wendler, who, in his mid-40’s, shifted to Walrus training. He’d put on a vest, jump on the Airdyne, then get off a do push ups, squats, and pull ups. Jump back on the bike, then repeat. This allowed him to stay strong and fit, but not be beat up by excessive barbell work. Personally, I think these foundational movement are superior to bodybuilding-style training, especially as one ages and has already built a good amount of strength.


I guess this is a case of your mileage may vary. I’ll be 50 next year (you’re right that does sound old) and I definitely have more pain to deal with now than I did when I was 30. I also train completely differently with different goals and have other carry over injuries from sports to deal with.

I would say for me I deal with a lot more joint pain now than I did when I was 30, but when I was 30 I had much more muscle soreness. I think this is most likely down to the Bros splits I was doing back then, vs heavier strength work that I am now doing.

This is definitely a factor for me too. Hit mid 40’s and I was one of those

and decided it was time to get strong again. 6 years later and now I am one of those:

I still have a little bit of movement in my so wouldn’t class myself as ‘not spry’ but I am definitely not agile.


You’re certainly not alone on this one! And I hope I don’t jinx myself for saying I deal with less nagging injuries at my current age. But, for me, in my 30’s I used to bench, bench, and then bench some more. Then I’d go play softball tournaments. My shoulders always felt like they were going to fall off. Now, I rarely bench and don’t play softball, and, who woulda guessed, my shoulders feel a lot better.

I feel like I can push just as hard as ever, though, but in a different way. I’m also in better visible shape than I’ve ever been, which is rewarding in a way I claim not to care about.


I don’t even pretend anymore. If the other softball moms don’t think I’m the coolest, what am I even doing this for??

It’s funny, because it’s not just an aches and pains thing for me that has me coming around on this (and @barley1 and I were talking this in my log), I’ve just grown so bored with static barbell training. It was the most fun thing going for me for awhile, but it’s become pretty tedious.

I think in your example above about we’re either big and slow or small and weak, part of it is just hitting that point of diminishing returns where there’s no more realistic progress to be had (at least on a timescale where I’ll still be on earth). That gets boring, so what you’ve found with CrossFit is also just something where you’ve always got something to really attack because they do everything.


I agree with you and @TrainForPain here. I continually claim that strength and performance is my only focus, but, man, looking good sure is a nice side effect. I was most definitely the guy that was super skinny and got teased into his late 30s for being rail thin. To now be the guy that everyone references as the muscle-head of the group is super cool. My wife chuckles at me because I wear tank tops almost every day in the summer now, where before I wouldn’t be caught dead in public in a tank.


Nicely done! I talk as if the moms care, but, in reality, it’s only men that say anything. My wife really rolls her eyes at that.