Kent Probst, BS, MEd
Kent Probst is the owner of Long Healthy Life Blog
Introduction to Building Muscle After 50
Building muscle after 50 is a laudable goal for health-conscious people who want to live longer, healthier lives.
If you look around, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see people over 50 who are sedentary, have lost muscle mass and have poor posture. These people are prime candidates for strength training.
Many people believe it’s difficult to build muscle after 50.
The good news: Building muscle after 50 is still possible. Even in senior citizens, muscle responds very well to exercise.
Because of the benefits, strength training is an intervention that may help reduce healthcare costs. Furthermore, it’s inexpensive and safe.
You have to put in the time and effort, but it will be worth it. Especially because of all the benefits.
Benefits of Building Muscle After 50
Increased muscle mass is associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality in people over age 55.
In addition to increased muscle mass, other benefits of strength training include:
- Increased walking speed
- Improved cognitive function
- Better balance
- Improved stair climbing ability
- Improved mood
- Increased bone density
- Improved weight management
- Increased grip strength
The Muscles and Aging
If you’re not doing regular strength training, and you’re over 30, you’re losing muscle mass.
Most people lose 3% to 5% of their muscle mass per decade after age 30.
During the aging process, your muscles atrophy, or shrink. Age-related loss of muscle mass is known as sarcopenia.
A sedentary lifestyle accelerates sarcopenia.
Strength declines 10% to 15% per decade until age 70. After age 70, loss of strength accelerates to 25% to 40% per decade.
Muscle protein synthesis and repair capacity decline with age. Muscular endurance diminishes by 10% per decade.
There’s also a loss of type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers. The fast twitch muscle fibers are responsible for short burst activity.
Some of the sarcopenia that people experience is also due to the loss of type II muscle fibers.
It also becomes more difficult for the heart muscle to pump blood to the body throughout the course of aging.
All of this may sound daunting, but it’s not. Building muscle after 50 is still possible.
Your Health Status Before Starting
If you’re just starting out there are some health screening guidelines you should be aware of before you start a strength training program.
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you have chest pain during rest periods?
- Do you experience loss of balance or dizziness?
- Have you been diagnosed with a heart condition?
- Has a physician said you should exercise under the guidance of a doctor?
- Do you have joint or bone pain that could be worsened by exercise?
- Are you taking prescription drugs for a heart condition or blood pressure?
- Do you know of any reason you shouldn’t exercise?
- Do you have chest pain during exercise?
If you answered “yes” to any of the previous questions, consult a physician before starting an exercise program or taking a fitness assessment.
You’ll want to make sure you’re not at risk for acute myocardial infarction or cardiac sudden death related to exercise.
Most people can exercise safely without first visiting a doctor.
The American College of Sports Medicine states that there are three points to be aware of before beginning an exercise program or increasing the intensity of your current exercise:
- Current activity level
- Signs and symptoms of certain diseases
- Planned intensity level
If you’re not exercising regularly and you have cardiovascular, metabolic or renal disease, or signs or symptoms that suggest you do, you should get medical clearance before commencing exercise.
If you’re currently exercising regularly and you’ve been diagnosed with cardiovascular, metabolic or renal disease, no medical clearance is necessary (under the care of a physician).
Please refer to the flow chart from the American College of Sports Medicine.
How to Build Muscle After 50
If you’re new to strength training, you may want to find a certified personal trainer or an exercise physiologist who can help you.
There’s a lot to learn when it comes to strength training. You want to make sure you’re exercising in the most effective way.
And you don’t want to get injured using incorrect form. It’s easy to make mistakes.
Biomechanics is integral to safe and effective strength training. Make sure your trainer is certified and has experience working with people over 50.
The more education and credentials the personal trainer or exercise physiologist has, the more likely you’ll be in good hands.
What are your goals? Are they realistic? Tell the trainer what your goals are.
Your goals, as well as your health and fitness status, will determine the types of exercises, the number of repetitions, the volume of sets and rest periods in your workouts.
More Tips for Building Muscle After 50
Your body temperature peaks between 4pm and 6pm, and it’s believed to be the reason pliability, speed, and strength peak during this time frame.
Therefore, the optimal time for resistance training is 4pm to 6pm to start maximizing strength and muscle.
A lot of people in the gym are doing workouts that are counterproductive and sub-optimal because they’re performing resistance training and cardiovascular exercise in the same session.
The molecular mechanisms in the muscles involved in strength gains need approximately 3 hours to reset. This is why you should do cardiovascular exercise and resistance training at least 3 hours apart.
Additional research has shown that you need between 6 hours and 24 hours to avoid having cardiovascular exercise interfere with gains in strength and muscle mass.
Something that doesn’t get mentioned much is rest and recovery. Getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night will go a long way toward making progress when building muscle and strength.
Get a Fitness Assessment
You can get a better picture of where to start after you’ve undergone a fitness assessment.
A fitness assessment can be done by a personal trainer at a health club or an exercise physiologist at a human performance lab.
The assessment should evaluate the five components of fitness:
- Cardiovascular endurance
- Muscular endurance
- Muscular strength
- Body composition
Since one of your goals is building muscle, and subsequently strength, assessing your current level of muscular strength can be done at least four ways:
- One Repetition Max Test
- Ten Repetition Max Test
- Hand Grip Test
- Manual Muscle Test
A personal trainer or exercise physiologist can determine what type of muscular strength assessment is the most appropriate for you.
The Resistance Exercises
Whether you use machines, free weights or bands, it’s a good idea to make your strength training functional.
That means that your strength training not only increases muscle and strength, but also translates to improving your activities of daily living.
The best exercises for building muscle are compound exercises, which involve the movement of more than one joint.
Compound exercises stimulate more growth hormone and testosterone than isolation exercises, which only involve the movement of one joint.
Here are some basic exercises to consider for a full body workout:
For safety, use a spotter, or when squatting alone, use a safety rack. Make sure the ankles, knees and hip joints are lined up, toes slightly pointed outward.
If you’re having difficulty keeping your abdominal muscles tight, wear a weight belt, especially as the resistance increases.
As always, keep the abdominal muscles tight throughout the exercise. As the resistance increases, consider using a weight belt.
If you look around the gym, you’re sure to find people not doing full range of motion (ROM).
While there may be some benefits to using partial-ROM, not exploiting full ROM neglects the benefits of full ROM, particularly increased muscle mass.
The stretched position elicited by full ROM is important for increasing muscle mass.
Speaking of stretching, make sure you stretch the muscles after your workout. Stretched muscles contract more forcefully.
Hold each stretch 30 seconds, 3 to 5 times. Your stretches should be pain free.
Frequency of Training
Beginners can train the entire body 2 to 3 times per week.
If you’re at the intermediate level, a total body workout can be done 3 days per week.
Or you can strength train 4 days per week, splitting your workout into upper body and lower body workout.
If you train 4 days per week, train each major muscle group twice per week.
Advanced lifters may want to train 4 to 6 days per week, training each muscle group once or twice per week.
Whichever level of frequency of training you’re at, make sure you’re allowing 48 to 96 hours rest between workouts.
Intensity of Training
The speed of your repetitions should range from 0.5 to 6 seconds.
This includes the concentric contraction (shortening), the isometric contraction (static) and the eccentric contraction (lengthening).
Performing your repetitions significantly faster than 6 seconds doesn’t allow you to get the potential benefits (increased hypertrophy or muscle mass) from the eccentric contraction when done slowly.
The last repetition should be difficult, training to failure only on the last set of each exercise to avoid overtraining.
If you find that you can’t perform all the desired repetitions in a set, rest 15 seconds then do the remaining repetitions.
Since your goal is to increase strength and muscle mass, you should also be paying attention to the rest time between your sets.
While you can get some benefit from resting 60 to 90 seconds or less between sets, resting 2 minutes or more will yield greater increases in muscle mass.
Resting 2 minutes or more allows you to handle a larger load volume.
Duration of Training
The length of your strength training workout will vary depending on how many sets and repetitions you’re doing.
The amount of rest between sets will also affect the duration of your training session.
Your training session will probably last 30 minutes to an hour.
Volume of Training
For beginners, 8 to 10 multi joint exercises, or compound exercises, that target the major muscle groups is a great starting point.
Optimal range of repetitions for hypertrophy, or building muscle mass, is 6 to 12.
10 to 15 repetitions is a good range for people over 50 who are starting out.
For muscular endurance, shoot for 15 to 20 repetitions.
Beginners can start with 2 to 3 sets per exercise. More advanced people can do 4 to 6 sets per exercise.
Progression of Training
Many people try to increase the resistance too quickly.
Increasing the resistance too quickly can lead to injuries, poor lifting form and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Progressive increases in resistance should range from 2% to 10% when you can lift the current workload 1 to 2 repetitions over the desired number on two consecutive training sessions.
Nutrition for Building Muscle After 50
The proper diet, including nutritional supplements, regarding strength training is a topic too comprehensive to cover for this blog post.
A great way to make sure you’re eating correctly and taking the proper nutritional supplements is to consult a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition.
By taking a science-based approach to building muscle after 50, you’re taking the safest and most effective route to getting the benefits of strength training.
Don’t let the effects of aging bring you down. Start building muscle and strength, and improve your quality of life.
Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please note that I’ve linked to these products purely because I recommend them and they are from companies I trust. There is no additional cost to you.
Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy, Second Edition, Brad Schoenfeld, (Human Kinetics Publishers, 2021).
Timing Resistance Training, Amy Ashmore, (Human Kinetics Publishers, 2020).