Muscle Building Over 40: Complete Guide & Training Program

Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.

Staring down the barrel of 40-plus years of age brings along some feared and often misconstrued visions of hurt joints, bad backs and deflated fitness goals. “It’s time to accept the fact that you’re getting older and can’t do what you’ve always done in the gym,” says the little old man on your shoulder. Give up and let the stresses of life and age keep you from an active fitness plan?

Not so fast. Getting older doesn’t mean you need to cancel your gym membership and relegate your workouts to walking the neighborhood. There’s not only hope for less pain, less fat and more muscle but there is a road to a more well-rounded physique.

If you find yourself at reading this article then you’ve come to the conclusion that you have challenges, need solutions and want more regarding your physique goals. Forty is the new thirty, right? So, let’s define where you stand, what your true motivation is and where to go from here.

Do you qualify?

What is the big deal about forty anyways? Why is it such a negative milestone when it comes to staying lean, training hard and having enough energy in the tank? For you it may be that you’ve trained hard from your teenage years to now and simply find yourself at a crossroads regarding goals, motivation and health. Or, you may just be getting into the iron game as a newbie and are at a bit of a loss concerning getting started.

If you are a part of the “I’ve been at this for years” crowd then you should know it’s more about mileage than years. Training day in and day out for twenty-plus years can take a considerable toll on the body, especially when you are committed to a goal for a sport or other venture.

If you are new to training for whatever reason (fat-loss, gaining muscle or want to increase functionality) most of the advice out there can become a bit daunting. It also seems to be directed at young twenty-somethings chomping at the bit for more mass and superhuman strength. What is a guy in his forties supposed to do? No wonder so many take up running and golf.

Let’s look at a few challenges the average forty-something may encounter when it comes to motivation, training and life.

Now that your ego has left the building it is time to set some new targets – it’s time to find a new motivation and set up a new plan of action.

Comparing: Yes, forty is the sweet spot for mass confusion. You don’t think of yourself as old, but you’re not a spring chicken either. However, you may still find yourself comparing you to other younger lifters at your local gym. Besides, it wasn’t too long ago that you could throw up some pretty good numbers on the bench press or go full throttle for two or more hours at a clip.

Let’s be realistic, the old you is still whispering to you that you haven’t lost a single step, and just given the time and dedication, could smash some heads and get at it just like those millennials.

Here’s a trick: stop it! Stop comparing yourself to every young buck that walks in the gym door. Who cares if they can bench more, curl more or perform countless pull-ups and box jumps. Focus on your strengths, shore up weaknesses and form a sound plan that fits you and your goals. Speaking of goals…

Motivation/goals: By the time you’ve spent a decade or so pumping iron it can sometimes be tough to nail down a specific goal to gun for. When you were younger it was all about getting bigger, more muscular and stronger. Now that your ego has left the building it is time to set some new targets – it’s time to find a new motivation and set up a new plan of action.

Your goals, however, need to be specific. No longer can you just throttle-up and go ballistic toward arbitrary visions of bigger and bigger. You must define what you want, how to get there and how long it will take. What motivates you? What is your new vision of the ideal physique? Do you have any weak points or functionality issues that need specific attention?

Metabolism: Of course it’s not big news that your metabolism will potentially slow down a bit as you age. For a sedentary individual, your thirties are when you start to naturally lose muscle mass and subsequently strength. Kids, work pressure and other scheduled life events can make exercising and eating right take a back seat.  Lack of activity, bad eating and stress can wreak havoc on your metabolism without your consent.

It’s not all downhill. Careful pre-planning and scheduling can do wonders regarding making it to the gym, eating a balanced diet and managing stress levels. There are tactics to help you with reinvigorating your metabolism regarding training strategy, nutrition timing and recuperation so don’t fret.

Recovery: Another wonderful perk of getting older is the tricky subject of recovery. When you were younger, it seemed like you could stay up all night, eat crap and still make gains in the gym the next day. The fact is that recovery just doesn’t come that easy any more. With the aforementioned list of stressors, recovery will further be stifled leading you down the road to failed attempts of reaching your goals.

With age and life working against you, there still are things in your tool bag that will help you with recovery. Not only will proper adherence to a sleep schedule provide a much needed recuperative ability, proper nutrition is absolutely paramount. Without a sound eating plan recovery becomes more of a challenge.

Time/balance: A significant player on the subject of recovery, time availability for not only training but for meal preparation and timing can have an impact on progress. In addition, if you are the average American, you are most likely juggling a work/life balance trying to divide your commitment for family, social life, job and yourself.

Again, careful planning will do wonders for not your progress in the gym but also your daily life schedule. Executing a sound eating plan, training on a weekly scheduled basis and getting in the proper rest and recovery are feasible with a little prep on your part.

The big, basic lifts are the absolute best exercises for packing on muscle, increasing strength and stoking your metabolism. Too many isolation moves will waste your precious time.

The reality of the over forty lifter

Yes, you are not the twenty-something run-and-gun lifter you once were; your strength, muscle mass and recovery have waned a bit, but there is a little secret. You are tougher and more resilient than you think. Of course, accept those “weak spots” but mentally shift your perspective toward improving what you have. Move forward any way you can and build on that discipline.

You still have the ability to pack on some serious muscle, get leaner and build a more balanced physique. Let’s look at a few things you can influence.

Steps to improve

  1. Find your (new) motivation: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What do you want to improve about your physique? Write it down on paper, don’t just think about it. Find what motivates you, write it down and read it every single day. This will affirm your purpose and feed your drive building your confidence little by little.
  2. Realistic evaluation and goal setting: Evaluate where you are currently with your physique goals. Give yourself an honest assessment and, again, write it down, take pictures if you want and set some realistic, specific goals. Define those goals with detail. Lose 20 pounds in 6 months, gain 10 pounds of muscle in 4 months and increase conditioning by completing a certain complex of skill in a determined amount of time are clearly defined.
  3. What you are capable of: Be realistic but firm with yourself about scheduling a time and committing to that on a daily and weekly basis. Do you need to wake up early to get to the gym before work? Do you have time during lunch for a lifting session? Can you brown-bag your lunch for work? Do what you can with what you have but also don’t be too easy on yourself.
  4. Build a solid, realistic plan: Piggybacking off of the above, be sure your plan is one that is comprehensive and doable. A two hour leg blitz is probably not that realistic for most. Burn-out, overtraining and a decreased motivation will most likely creep in and shut down your greatest efforts. Build a program around the basic lifts with moderate volume and some prehab and core work.
  5. Filter out the unnecessary: Single-arm high cable curls will do little for your overall physique. Cut out the little fluff exercises and focus on the big, compound, multi-joint lifts that work numerous muscles in one shot. Bench presses, squats and pulls will do more regarding reshaping your body in less time than countless isolation exercises.
  6. Warming up, stretching and flexibility: Be sure to perform a dynamic warm-up prior to each session. This can include burpees, prisoner squats and push-ups just to name a few. Also, be sure to stretch after every session including important areas such as hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes and lumbar. Increasing your flexibility will have a huge impact on your long term success.
  7. Stay flexible: Here I am talking of staying flexible with your training and diet. Don’t be so strict that you beat yourself up over missing one day of training or screwing up a meal or two. Just get back on track and move forward. Life will happen and you need to be prepared to adjust your training and eating plan to compensate for those challenging times.

The new beginning

Now that you found your new motivation, defined your specific goals and understand what makes an effective training plan it’s time to own your new journey and prepare for action. What good is a perfect plan without executing it?

Remember: you can train hard, lift for strength and do the classic lifts without resorting to the circuit machine area of your gym. If you have some issues with shoulders, knees, hips or other areas there are work-arounds, alternatives and modifications so you can still take advantage of the big lifts.

As stated earlier, the big, basic lifts are the absolute best exercises for packing on muscle mass, increasing strength and stoking your metabolism. Too many isolation moves will waste your precious time, zap your energy and do little moving you toward your goals.

The ability to move your own bodyweight is a display of real strength. Pull-ups, push-ups, dips, inverted rows and abdominal moves are all too forgotten in the muscle-building world.

Modifying the basics

Squats: First and foremost form is the initial issue with barbell back squats. Using too much weight is also an ugly truth that so many lifters are guilty of. Back off on the weight, use a full range of motion, perform a higher rep range and build on the weight gradually. If you still have joint or form issues, try adding in some box squats, Bulgarian split squats or front squats.

Bench presses: Again, too much weight seems to be the culprit once again for a lot of trainers after a bigger, stronger chest. Cut the weight down and work on form. Or try using dumbbell presses using either a 45 degree angle in your upper arm to your torso or a neutral grip to alleviate shoulder strain.

Shoulder presses: Another move that can potentially cause shoulder strain, an overhead press has benefits for overall stability which translates to other lifts such as bench presses and rows. If the barbell gives you shoulder pain, try using dumbbell presses, Arnold presses, plate raises and one arm landmine presses.

Deadlifts: The big boy of strength enthusiasts everywhere, the deadlift will give you full-body strength and muscle mass. If traditional deadlifts cause a problem for you or you happen to be a taller lifter try partial deads off blocks or a bench. Have the barbell start at about mid-shin level and perform the upper half of the movement. You can also try trap bar or dumbbell deadlifts as well.

Dips: Dips are a staple for real upper body strength. For triceps be sure to stay upright throughout the movement with your elbows by your side. For chest lean forward and flare your elbows slightly. Go only as far down as comfortable- at least a 90 degree angle in your elbows. If these are difficult for you (maybe you need to work on your strength) try using an assisted pull-up/dip machine that has counterbalanced weight.

Barbell curls: Although touted as the best biceps builder around, barbell curls can put some strain on the lower back and shoulder joints. If this is the case, try some seated dumbbell curls or spider curls. These will take the load off the back and help you stabilize your shoulders resulting in less pain.

Pull-ups: As the absolute best back-builder around the pull-up and all its variations (wide-grip, close-grip, reverse-grip, etc.) is a challenging move for almost every lifter. Of course the most popular alternative is the pulldown machine, but a better one is the inverted row. Still using your bodyweight, the inverted row uses an angle that is a bit easier than the traditional pull-up but still hits your lats extremely effectively.

Bent-over rows: As a bread and butter move for back mass the bent-over row can also become a back-breaker. Not only is the lumbar at risk for injury, form can be a tricky beast to tame. Positioning of the hips, knees, shoulders and spine is a tall order all the while trying to stimulate the lats. If you find it difficult to make the bent-over row work for you take on a few alternatives such as dumbbell rows, T-bar rows and machine rows.

Romanian deadlifts: No exercise stresses the hamstrings quite like the Romanian deadlift. Stretching the hamstrings, glutes and calves to an extent, this move applies a unique load very much unlike any hamstring curl motion. If lower back problems prevent you from loading the bar try the single leg version or the glute/ham curl.

Bodyweight moves: Finally, the ability to move your own bodyweight is a display of real, true strength. Pull-ups, push-ups, dips, inverted rows and abdominal moves are all too forgotten in the muscle-building world. Be sure to plug in a few bodyweight exercises into your program and develop overall body strength and functionality.

Example Experienced Trainer Program

Below is a sample training program for the 40 and over lifter taking into consideration the factors listed above. Try it out training four days per week such as Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with Wednesday and the weekends off or you can perform cardio on those days.

Perform the dynamic warm-up listed prior to each session. Again, this is simply an example program – your personal preferences may differ regarding exercise selection, rep ranges, days of training per week, volume and time constraints.

The warm-up

Perform 1 to 3 rounds of the following prior to each session:

  • Squat jump or box jump – 10 reps
  • Inverted row – 10 reps
  • Reverse lunge – 10 reps each leg
  • Push-ups – 10 reps
  • Hanging leg lifts – 10 reps

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