Building muscle after 60 is definitely possible, in fact it’s a health imperative as you age. There is a ‘secret,’ which I’ll divulge in just a minute. But you can build muscle, starting at any age. And you don’t need to labor under super heavy weights to do it.
First some background perspective: I turned 63 early in 2019. Yet today, I have more muscle than I did in my 20’s and I’m continuing to improve. That’s partly because I slacked off on training in my 20’s, but also because I train much differently than I did in my 30s, 40s and 50s.
I learned the secret out of necessity. It turns out that this secret is pretty straightforward and has been validated time and again by research, which I’ll share with you here.
I’ve been an avid weight trainer all my life. Up until my mid-50’s, I lifted like I always had before — mostly for the sake of my ego. And with increasingly heavier weights.
My goals were always to lift more pounds than I had before. It’s called Progressive Resistance in the iron world. That was how I measured myself and proved to myself that I was not yet old.
In the back of my male mind, I knew that couldn’t last forever. But when does logic trump testosterone? Rarely, without some special push.
That push came to me in the form of arthritis in my shoulders. Too many years of heavy bench pressing took their toll. I could continue, but it would be painful. I was bench pressing 610 pounds for a couple reps on my leverage machine at the time.
I was devastated. Officially old and washed up. Now what? Strictly cardio? Thank goodness for Google. After some searching, I shifted my outlook to using lighter weights with higher reps, which is not an entirely new concept and I did not invent it.
In addition, I moved to a method where you take each set that you do to ‘failure.’ Meaning, you can’t perform another clean repetition. No cheating allowed.
In my ego-driven days, cheating on movements was normal. The point was to move the weight and to keep adding weight. Form didn’t matter so much. When you’re young, your body can handle that kind of abuse. But as we age, soft tissues like tendons, ligaments and cartilage just can’t take that kind of pounding.
Today, the trend in strength training leans toward a lot of complexity. Functional training. Multiple movements. Blending in cardio, yoga, cross-fit and TV-show style stunts like flipping tractor tires and jumping up and down off big boxes.
Personally, I think they’re all nuts. Especially when it comes to a training program for people over 40… 50… 60 and up. Click here for more on what today’s Guru’s get wrong.
Building muscle does not require Insanity, Confusion or Bootcamps
The real formula has never really changed. It goes like this: Muscle fibers grow in response to controlled damage that we do to them through specific exercises. It’s a biomechanical process.
The muscle fibers tear on a microscopic level. This damage is repaired while we sleep using the good nutrition and protein we’ve put in our bodies as fuel. It is not about pain. Forget the old saying, “no pain, no gain.” Think NO PAIN EVER.
Exercise + Good Nutrition + Rest & Recovery = Muscle Growth.
If you’re working hard enough, you will feel a bit sore. Think of that soreness as the “Pump.” That’s a good feeling. That’s your body sending blood into the muscle fibers with healing nutrients. The Pump is good. Pain is bad.
We create that muscle “micro-damage” by targeting specific muscles with various types of resistance exercises. These can be done with weights or with resistance bands or even with bodyweight movements.
Our muscles don’t think. They just respond to resistance and don’t have the capacity to know or care where it comes from.
How do you train?
Do 8 – 12 reps per set
The ideal amount of resistance is one that you can finish 8 to 12 clean repetitions with before reaching “failure.” By “clean” I mean no cheating. No swinging the weights around or using body english. “Failure” means you can’t do the next rep in a clean way.
You might start off with an amount of resistance that you are able to do 12 clean reps. The next set, you might get another 12 or drop to 10. And so on until your last set. If you don’t get at least 8 reps, it’s not a big deal. The only important thing in this method is the feeling in your muscle.
Do 3 – 5 sets per exercise
Decrease the number of reps as necessary to finish the final sets. Rest as briefly as possible in between sets. If you’re first starting out, this time will slowly decrease as you get in better shape.
You’ll increase the resistance when/if 12 reps are too easy on that first set. Otherwise, don’t get hung up on the amount of weight or the numbers.
30 – 40 seconds rest between sets is ideal. Take a little more when switching to a new exercise.
The 8 – 12 Rep Range has been proven to work. Dr. Marcas Bamman, Director for Exercise Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was recently quoted in the New York Times saying that men and women in their 60s and 70s who began a weight training program developed muscles that were as large and strong as those of your average 40-year-old.
“Our lab and others have shown repeatedly that older muscles will grow and strengthen,” he told the Times.
In their studies, volunteers used weights calibrated so that the lifters could barely complete a set of eight to 12 repetitions before the target muscles grew tired and had to rest. (That’s what I refer to as ‘failure’)
Dr. Bamman says you should push your muscles in this manner until they are exhausted because this is what triggers the biomechanical processes that lead to larger, stronger muscle fibers.
The prestigious Mayo Clinic also reinforces that using the 12 Rep range has been proven to build muscle.
“Choose a weight or resistance level heavy enough to tire your muscles after about 12 to 15 repetitions. When you can easily do more repetitions of a certain exercise, gradually increase the weight or resistance.
Research shows that a single set of 12 repetitions with the proper weight can build muscle efficiently in most people and can be as effective as three sets of the same exercise.”
The Key is to Stay Focused Mentally
Your main focus is not on increasing the amount of weight you use. It is on taking the target muscle to “failure” in each set. You can adjust the number of reps and the amount of resistance as you work through your sets. You are not focusing on numbers. You are focusing on the feeling in your muscle.
You want to get into a mental groove called the Mind Muscle Connection. Feel the pump. The amount of weight and the number of sets are just tools to get you to the pump.
It’s almost a form of meditation when you really get into it. And it is critical to your success in building muscle.
In 2019 there is exciting news about the Mind Muscle Connection:
Researchers have tackled the subject and proven that the Mind Muscle Connection results in more muscle growth! Men’s Health has a review in their March, 2019 edition. An excerpt follows:
“Research published in the European Journal of Sport Science tracked the results of two groups of men who trained with weights three times a week for eight weeks. Both groups did the same exercises—the barbell curl and leg extension—but with one key difference: Subjects in the first group were told to “squeeze the muscle” during each rep, while subjects in group two were told simply to “get the weight up.”
The results were striking. Subjects who were told to “squeeze the muscle”—an internal focus of attention—there was a 12 percent increase in the size of the biceps.
That was almost double the gains seen in the group who were told to “get the weight up,” where the average increase in biceps size was just 7 percent. It was a different story with the quads, where there was no significant difference in muscle growth between the two groups.
The researchers think this might have been down to the fact that untrained individuals have a hard time establishing a “mind-muscle connection” in the quads compared to the biceps. In fact, several subjects said that they found it much easier to focus on their biceps than their quads.”
If you click the “Research” link, it will take you to a synopsis of a study from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. It concludes with the bold, clear statement that:
“The findings lend support to the use of a mind-muscle connection to enhance muscle hypertrophy.”
In other words, keep a hyperfocus on how the muscle you are working feels as you execute the rep and you will see greater muscle building results.
We Are Going to Pump You Up
If you successfully maintain a Mind Muscle Connection, you will likely induce some soreness in those target muscles. That soreness is the legendary “Pump,” as blood rushes into the target muscles bringing healing nutrients and flushing out waste. The Pump is a great feeling. Soreness is good. Pain is bad.
Our egos tend to tell us that more weight equals more strength equals more muscle. Wrong. Unless you’re trying out for the Olympic team, forget about your weight totals.
Muscle grows in response to tension placed on it that does microscopic damage to the tissues. With proper rest and nutrition, the fibers are repaired a little stronger and thicker than before.
Hypertrophy is the process. You feel it as that “pump” while you’re working the muscle and perhaps after or even the next day
This process causes microscopic damage to the targeted muscle fibers so that as they repair, and with proper rest and good nutrition, they grow just a bit larger each day.
To those points above there is typically general agreement.
Succeed by Failing
Where I diverge a bit from others is that I believe in focusing each workout on a specific muscle group with enough sets in order to take it to “failure” rather than mixing up various muscle groups on each workout day. You still work the entire body but over a week’s time. You focus each workout day on one area at a time.
Failure occurs when you cannot complete another clean rep without cheating. Don’t cheat on any rep.
If you’re focusing on biceps, for example, I would stay on biceps until you’ve reached failure. In my case, this equates to 5 sets each of 3 separate exercises. Typically I’ll do bicep barbell curls x 5, bicep dumbbell hammer curls x 5 and bicep rope curls on a machine x 5.
On that same workout day, I’ll also do triceps right after biceps in a similar way. Then, I’ll add some work on forearms and wrists. And that’s it. All arms and done. On to the next body area in the next workout.
In a nutshell the formula goes like this:
- 8 – 12 reps to failure in every set
- 30 – 40 seconds rest between sets
- High volume of work: 3 – 5 sets per exercise, 3 or more exercises per target muscle group
- Focus on one muscle group/area per workout
- Muscle exhaustion is the goal — feel the pump
Lighter Does Not Mean Light
At the same time, we’re not talking about aerobicizing here. When I say “lighter weights, higher reps” I don’t mean waving a tiny dumbbell around for 100 reps.
It does mean finding the right level of resistance to cause your muscle to fail between 8 – 12 reps. In this case, failure is a good thing. It means you can’t do another clean rep without cheating because you’re taking the target muscle to exhaustion. You take a brief rest and do it again. This is how we cause hypertrophy.
Add resistance whenever 12 reps become too easy on that first set. It’s that simple, numbers wise.
Your focus is on the feeling, not the numbers.
Want More Proof?
Below is a sampling of studies and articles on this subject. They range from the academic to traditionally hardcore bodybuilding publications. All share in the conclusion that lighter weights & higher reps to failure is the best way to build muscle.
Remember: Lighter Weight does not mean Light Weight. It means a level of resistance that causes your muscles to fail in the 8 – 12 rep range (some say 12 – 15 reps, but it’s essentially the same idea).
MUSCLE & FITNESS: 5 Advantages to Lifting Light: This article points out that lifting lighter gives you comparable results and also offers a number of advantages over heavy.
FLEX online: Flex tackles the debate on which is best and declares that: “… the majority of your workouts should utilize light-to-moderate weight for moderate-to-high reps… in the 8-15 range for best results.”
McMASTER UNIVERSITY, Hamilton, Ontario: This study found that low-load/high-volume workouts were more effective in creating “acute muscle anabolism” than high-load/low-volume work. In other words, lighter weight with higher reps beats heavy weight with low reps.
Again, this study found that going to failure was the key driver for muscular growth.
SCIENCE DAILY 2016: An article on McMaster University’s latest study in 2016: Pumping iron: “Lighter weights just as effective as heavier weights.” This article asserts that this latest study contradicts the decades-old, old-school view that the only way to get big was to go heavy.
MAYO CLINIC: The prestigious Clinic says that you should use a resistance level heavy enough to tire out your muscles in the 12-15 rep range. They say that a single set of 12 reps could be just as effective in building muscle as three sets using heavier weight.
They also note that you don’t need to “spend hours a day lifting” to benefit. Just two or three 20-30 minute sessions a week can produce noticeable results.
Of course, if you’re really working to build serious mass, you’re probably going to want to amp that schedule up a bit. Personally, I prefer 4 days a week with between 45-60 minutes per workout. But, it is true it does not require endless hours in the gym.
As with anything else, quality beats quantity.
The Fountain of Youth
A report published by Dr. Len Kravitz of the University of New Mexico demonstrates how resistance training can actually reverse aging at the genetic level.
In that study, all of the older adult subjects (mean age 68) performed supervised resistance training exercises on two non-consecutive days of the week for 26 weeks. The group included both people who did not exercise at all and those who regularly did some form of exercise.
They did 12 different exercises that addressed the entire body:
- Chest Press
- Leg Press
- Leg Extension
- Leg Flexion
- Shoulder Press
- Lat Pulldown
- Seated Row
- Calf Raise
- Abdominal Crunch
- Back Extension
- Biceps Curl
- Triceps Extension
Lighter Weights, Higher Reps
They also used a method similar to the one we promote here at BoomerMuscle. Lighter weight with higher reps with 3 sets per exercise (we say 3 – 5 sets). We encourage finding the ideal amount of resistance that takes you to muscle failure after 8 – 12 repetitions. By failure, we don’t mean passing out; simply getting to a point where another rep done without cheating isn’t possible.
In the genetic study, subjects began by doing just one of each exercise at 50%of their one-rep maximum resistance. They gradually increased to 3 sets at 80% of their one-rep max.
Supplements to consider
Some people will recommend a wide variety of supplements. Amino Acids, herbal Testosterone Boosters and more. The supplement industry is not heavily regulated. There are lots of wild claims out there.
To my knowledge there are only three supplements that have been generally proven effective and safe to use:
- Whey Protein
- BCAA (Branched Chain Amino Acids)
I use and recommend GNC’s AMP 189 creatine. I use it in tablet form. I trust GNC because this is a long established brand and a publicly traded company with a lot on the line. That means they have to protect their brand against damage. I tend to trust what their label says for those reasons. Plus, I’ve had great results from the product.
Wikipedia notes that: “Extensive research has shown that oral creatine supplementation at a rate of five to 20 grams per day appears to be very safe and largely devoid of adverse side-effects, …” The article also says that creative appears to be effective at helping to increase muscle mass.
These links will take you to additional articles by the Mayo Clinic and WebMd on creatine. But, be careful if you have kidney issues. People with higher than normal muscle mass will already have higher than normal numbers on a Creatinine test. That is the waste product of Creatine and higher numbers are considered a marker for kidney disease. Taking Creatine could cause those numbers to spike higher. It’s something to be aware of. Use caution in considering this or any other supplement product.
I use Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard. It is good tasting and I believe effective. It has thousands of highly positive reviews on both GNC and Amazon. And Bodybuilding.com rates it #1, as well. My experience with the product has been positive.You can check a nicely organized list of the benefits of whey compiled by the Mayo Clinic here.
The links above will take you to Amazon. If you decide to make a purchase, they will give me credit. But it does not in any way affect the price you would pay. You can also find these items at you local GNC or health food store.
BCAA – Branched Chain Amino Acids
I use and recommend Optimum Nutrition’s BCAA capsules. There is also a powder to mix as a drink. It’s personal preference. The supplement claims that it helps muscles recover from workouts, and I do believe I can feel the difference. Since we’re getting older, we can use all the help we can get with recovery. Recovery is, after all, just as important as the workout itself and good nutrition. Recovery is when our muscles grow.
- Easy to swallow capsules
- Supports muscle building and exercise recovery
- Recommended: First thing in the morning and/or during the 30 minutes just before or immediately after training. Simply take 2 capsules with your favorite beverage
Here is a study from the National Institutes of Health on BCAA and recovery. As with any and all supplements, check with your doctor over any concerns, especially if you have conditions like high blood pressure or kidney-related issues.
The links above will take you to Amazon. If you decide to make a purchase, they will give me credit. But it does not in any way affect the price you would pay. You can also find these items at your local GNC or health food store.
What about Vitamin T?
I have in the past used testosterone supplementation under a doctor’s review and prescription. It definitely is a boost, but it’s not without potential drawbacks. Especially if you have current health conditions, you would definitely want to have your blood tested and receive the medication from a competent legal resource.
Here is an article by the Harvard Medical School on testosterone therapy that gives a sober perspective on pros and cons. And here is another more ballsy piece by the aptly-titled Testosterone Nation, which gives a more gung-ho perspective on the idea of supplementing testosterone.
Whatever you decide to do when it comes to testosterone, I would advise moderation and caution. Your overall health is the most valuable thing you have, so don’t overdo anything. And please steer clear of any illegal substances like steroids. Not worth it!
So what are you waiting for?
If you’re not already working out, it’s time to get started. No excuses. You don’t need expensive gear or a gym membership to get going. There are lots of “how to” articles on this site under the menu category “Workout Guides.” Check them out, they’re free.
A Sample Workout
For a sample workout program, see this post. It can be done at home or in a gym. With simple equipment or the full complement of gear. Again, the only important thing is getting that feeling in your muscles. What gear you use doesn’t matter so much.
All the latest Guru garbage doesn’t matter either. I tend to focus on a specific muscle group each day. I do isolation exercises. I don’t get overly concerned with whole-body movements. And those are all mortal sins in the fitness world today.
My way is straightforward and simple. Doesn’t require watching 12 DVDs or hiring a trainer.
You can do it.
It’s old school. Like us.
Check out the BoomerMuscle Facebook page. You’ll find a steady flow of great articles I share from around the world on working out, nutrition and more. It’s all unique stuff not duplicated on the Boomer website.
Click here to get my 5 Keys to Feeling Stronger – Right Away – for free here. No sales pitch or hassle. You’ll get a brief video on the 5 Keys plus a downloadable PDF guide on the studies noted above plus a summary cheat-sheet on the 5 Keys.
Here's the best proof I have...
I live this method for building muscle. I recently turned 63 and have as much muscle today as I had in my youth, if not more.
Lighter weights and higher reps really works. And it doesn't kill your joints with painful stress the way progressive resistance eventually will.