Building muscle mass after 50 is definitely possible. Here are some ways to get there fast and avoid the pitfalls.
First off, if you’re asking how to build mass, I’m assuming you’re talking about adding a serious amount of muscle — above and beyond simply getting stronger and more toned. That’s a notch above the typical workout program. You’re talking about adding noticeable amounts of mass to your frame.
Cool. I hear you. I’ve been training since I was 12. I’m in my early 60s now. Today, I have more muscle mass than I did at any other age in my life. And I don’t use steroids. Never have, never will.
There’s a secret to how. It’s super simple and you don’t need to read a fat book or watch a dozen DVDs to learn it. I’ll show you how here and now. I’m not saying you can transform yourself into one of those steroid freaks in the muscle mags. But science has proven you can build some muscle, and this is the way to do it.
First off, let’s check-off some basics:
- Don’t overtrain or push your physical limits
- Do give your body adequate time to rest and recover
- Eat right: quality protein like chicken and tuna, quality carbs like fruits and vegetables
- Check with your doctor if you have current health issues
Then let’s get down to the nitty gritty:
- How to workout: Higher Reps/Lighter Weights
- What supplements to consider using: Creatine & Whey
How to Workout
Start fresh. Try to clear your thinking on all the stuff you’ve heard before. For example, the ego-driven notion that pushing around super heavyweight is the way to grow muscle. It’s not. How much weight you use really does not matter – except that it is enough to bring you to failure in 8-12 reps.
Nor does it matter how you create the resistance. Free weights – great. Machines – great. Body weight – great. Resistance Bands – great. It’s all good. You’re muscles only feel the tension, they don’t care how you made it.
Recent study after study has shown definitively that lifting lighter weights in the 8 – 12 rep range is superior to trying to push heavy weight – if your aim is to build muscle tissue. This has proven especially true for older adults.
It’s becoming the consensus opinion among experts (lots of links below to studies and articles). And it’s pushing aside the old school belief that only heavier and heavier weights can build muscle.
I Know This Works
I know it from personal experience. I’ve been training for nearly 5 decades now. Up till my mid-50’s, I focused on pushing the heaviest weights I could possibly handle. Heavier meant progress. Failing to progressively add weight felt like failure. Lighter weights were for aerobics people, not real lifters.
Here’s me back in those days. I include this video as proof that I really was an adherent of the hardcore, old school way of training. Heavy. Alone in the basement. (I messed up the math at the time I selfied this vid. It’s a total of 610 pounds x 2 reps.)
So… I found out the hard way that aging joints cannot recover from the extreme punishment that heavyweights can bring as quickly or as thoroughly as they did when we were younger. My shoulders ached and started making knuckle-cracking sounds when I moved.
Fast forward to today, in my early 60’s I have more muscle mass than I did at any other age. And no pain. It’s because I stopped lifting for my ego and started lifting smart.
I’ve been at the ‘new way’ now for more than 6 years. It’s more fun training this way and it takes less time. You do feel soreness as a result, but not the pain of getting pounded by heavyweights.
We Are Going to Pump You Up
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).
UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA, Birmingham:
As reported by the New York Times: Dr. (Marcas) Bamman says you should push your muscles until they are exhausted.”
In this study, volunteers used the 8-12 rep range to failure and achieved measurable success. The resistance levels were set so that they could barely complete a set in the 8-12 range. Going to failure was the key driver in causing muscle growth.
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 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 to 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.
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 a 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, like 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 a few supplements that have been generally proven effective and safe to use:
- Whey Protein
- BCAAs (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.
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 a 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 you 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 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.
See my post Building Muscle After 60 for more on how you can build muscle regardless of your age: 40, 50, 60 and up.
This post details a Simple Workout you can do at home with diagrams on how to. It’s a 4 day per week plan. You could add a 5th day and double down on one particular body area if you are gung-ho.
Also, see Lifting Light Weight vs. Heavy Weights for more details on the benefits of lighter weight/higher reps.
There are more How-To articles on this site under the menu category Workout Guides.
You can build muscle mass, even past 50 — or 60 — in a natural way. The right workout method, good nutrition and proper rest will generate results. It will work.