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Building Muscle When Youre Older

As you age, building muscle becomes much harder for a variety of reasons. These range from ageing related biological and physiological changes to your body, environmental changes such as the amount of activities and shifting priorities (work, family, friends) to mental changes to motivation, desire and willpower. However, it’s important to know that building muscle when you’re 40, 50, 60 or even older is still possible. In fact, studies have shown that the rate at which you can build muscle (muscle protein synthesis) can be just as high in your 70s and 80s as they were were in your 20s and 30s. If you’re keen to gain some more muscle mass as an older individual, then you need to understand the changes that happens as you age and how to tweak your training to account for those changes.

Fitness, Muscles & Ageing - What Happens?

Studies performed in human muscle show that the ageing process doesn’t really begin in skeletal muscle till the fourth decade of your life. That is, your muscles don’t really start changing its structure and capacity to grow till you’re about 30 and older. Of course, the level of changes will be different depending on a wide variety of genetic and lifestyle factors. Here’s a quick summary of what happens to your fitness and muscles as you age:

  • Strength tends to decline slowly till about age 40. After 40, strength levels decline faster, before slowing down again around 60 onwards. Strength losses in women tend to be higher than men. Loss of strength is more related to disuse rather than age
  • As you age, muscle mitochondrial dysfunction occurs. That is, your ability to generate energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is reduced. This results in naturally reduced physical activity levels.
  • Your ability to gain strength and lean muscle as you age will be the same proportionally as when you were younger. However in absolute values, younger individuals will be able to gain more. This is due to the lower initial starting strength and lean muscle mass of older individuals.
  • Fatigue rates are increased as you age.
  • Maximum heart rate and degree of blood flow around the body both decrease.
  • Lung volumes and capacities will both decline as you age, which is due to the loss in elasticity of these tissues.
  • As you age, the amount of oxygen you require to perform exercise increases.
  • Functioning of the central nervous system and cognition declines with age. As such, speed and focus tend to decrease, which can affect exercise and training performance.
  • Body composition will also change quite dramatically as we age with an infiltration of fat and connective tissue along with a general decrease in muscle mass and size.

Dangers of Inactivity

As you can see from the above list, your body is going to go through a variety of physiological changes that will affect your training and capacity to exercise. Couple that with a busy work, family and social life and you’ll find that exercise ranks very low on your list of priorities. However, the more inactive you are, the more dangers you’re at risk of, including:

  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Falls and Fractures
  • Hypertension
  • High Fat Levels
  • Cognitive Decline

While you may think diet reigns supreme in terms of health, the older you are, the more important maintaining muscle mass and strength is. In fact, the loss of both of these, also known as sarcopaenia is a major risk factor for morbidity or death. It’s not all doom and gloom though. No matter how old you are, you have the chance to train and get results to help you lead a safer, more healthful life.

How to Build Muscle As You Age

The main principles of how to build muscle and improve fitness aren’t really all that different between different ages. The more you train, the more variety you have in your training program, the longer you train and the progression of your training are all going to be factors in ensuring you’re still building muscle regardless of how old you are. Here the 5 easy steps to get you started onto making some gains and building lean muscle mass:

Light weight1. Do Weights - But Go Lighter

Regardless of your age, contracting your muscles is what stimulates protein synthesis or muscle building. This is especially true when you are contracting your muscles against resistance or with weight. While lifting heavy can definitely be good for building muscle, it tends to be extremely unsustainable. Don’t feel as though you need to compete with younger trainers. If you are using a lighter weight, but lifting effectively (slow and controlled), you can still experience excellent gains thanks to improved time under tension. By all means, go heavier if you can, but focus more on maintaining a good contraction on the muscle.


2. Get Some Cardio In

Although higher muscle mass and body mass correlates can be protective of falls risk, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing some cardio as well. Aerobic exercise helps to improve a variety of metabolic functions including blood glucose control and more importantly mitochondrial functions. In fact, aerobic exercise is an excellent training tool to boost mitochondrial biogenesis – the increase in energy generating capacity of cells. Not only will doing cardio help with improving many markers of health, it will also naturally boost energy levels as well. More energy to train equals more gains down the track.

Rest3. Rest is Best

The older you are, the less time people seem to have, until a certain point where you’re either close to retirement or the kids are finally all grown up and left the coop. If you’re tackling a full day at work, spending time with family and trying to exercise, one of the things that tends to come up short is rest time, especially sleep. As exercise and training becomes more taxing on your body as you age, you’re going to need a decent amount of rest time in order to help maximise gains. Younger individuals, even with decreased sleep can often still make gains, but the older you are, the greater a lack of sleep and rest will affect you. This can manifest itself through increased injury risk, to lack of progression in muscle growth to a general rise in irritability. Stress along with lack of rest and sleep can raise cortisol levels, also known as your stress hormones. Rises in cortisol levels have been shown to decrease testosterone levels, which as you know is a powerful muscle building hormone. So rest well after each training session and have a week off every 6-8 weeks of training to maintain growth.

Protein4. The Importance of Protein

Generally speaking, as you age, the greater your protein requirements become. Physiologically, your body becomes anabolic resistant, which is when protein ingested no longer has the same level of desired effect on protein synthesis. This is due to the downgrade of digestive processes and also muscle uptake processes. All that means is that the same amount of protein consumed at 20 is vastly different in effectiveness from that of a 50 year old. While it’s not required or advisable for you to go overboard with the protein intake, increasing your protein intake throughout the day can help consolidate your effort in the gym and help you build muscle faster. In addition, by making it a larger percentage of your daily caloric intake, you reduce the chances of gaining fat over muscle. You should be aiming for 1.5g-2g of protein/kg of bodyweight. Obviously, the more you are training, the more you’ll require.

Gym Goals5. Be Realistic

One of the most important aspects of setting any goal is to be realistic. This is even truer when it comes to building muscle as an older individual. As you age, your natural recovery processes and degree of movement is no longer going to be what it used to. Its ability to handle impact and weight will also generally be reduced. As such, you need to set realistic expectations when training. “No pain no gain”, “ass to the grass” or “go heavy or go home” mantras are pretty much worthless when you’re tackling muscle building later in life. If the exercise is hurting or you don’t have the ability to squat low, then don’t. There are many exercises which can be used to build muscle, so don’t be discouraged if one doesn’t work for you. Rather, you should focus on two things: form and variety. Of course, you need to increase the amount of weight you do lift in order to experience continuous gains, but that doesn’t mean you need to use up all the weights in the gym.

Building Muscle When Older

It’s never too late to start exercising and building muscle. While you may have to adjust your expectations somewhat of the training you’re able to do and the results you’re able to achieve, you can definitely still build significant levels of lean muscle mass. By doing so, not only will you look and feel better, you’ll be ensuring a longer, healthier life in the long run.

1. Eibich P, Buchmann N, Kroh M, Wagner GG, Steinhagen-Thiessen E, Demuth I, Norman K. ‘Exercise at Different Ages and Appendicular Lean Mass and Strength in Later Life: Results From the Berlin Aging Study II.’ J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2015 Oct 5.
2. Van Pelt RE, Jones PP, Davy KP, Desouza CA, Tanaka H, Davy BM, Seals DR. 'Regular exercise and the age-related decline in resting metabolic rate in women.' J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1997 Oct;82(10):3208-12.
3. Koopman R, van Loon LJ. 'Aging, exercise, and muscle protein metabolism.' J Appl Physiol (1985). 2009 Jun;106(6):2040-8.
4. Yarasheski KE. 'Exercise, aging, and muscle protein metabolism.' J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2003 Oct;58(10):M918-22.
5. Pollock RD, Carter S, Velloso CP, Duggal NA, Lord JM, Lazarus NR, Harridge SD. 'An investigation into the relationship between age and physiological function in highly active older adults.' J Physiol. 2015 Feb 1;593(3):657-80
6. ‘Exercise & The Physiology of Ageing’ [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 February 2016].
7. Bherer L, Erickson KI, Liu-Ambrose T. 'A review of the effects of physical activity and exercise on cognitive and brain functions in older adults.' J Aging Res. 2013;2013:657508.
8. Deutz NE et al. 'Protein intake and exercise for optimal muscle function with aging: recommendations from the ESPEN Expert Group.' Clin Nutr. 2014 Dec;33(6):929-36. 
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