Don’t buy into the bullshit. You can look and feel great at any age.
You don’t have to be in your 20s to be muscular, lean, and strong. In fact, play your cards right and you can show the “kids” how the fitness game really works.
- Your muscle doesn’t have to wither away as you age.
- You don’t have to remove “six-pack” from your bucket list.
- Your metabolism doesn’t have to implode
- Your hormones don’t have to slump.
If you’re willing to put in the work, you can become a shining paragon of health and vitality that time just can’t extinguish.
It’s not hard or complicated either. One part know-how, one part persistence, and one part patience, and voila, you’re there.
You see, less changes with age than you probably think.
The fundamentals of good dieting and effective training remain. Your body’s machinery still operates on the same instructions and still responds to the same stimuli. Take good care of it and it’ll serve you faithfully until your wheels finally stand still.
In this article, I want to share with you a handful of strategies for maximizing your fitness at every age.
As you’ll see, the major difference between your younger and older years isn’t what you can do but how much. Older bodies love use but struggle with abuse.
So, let’s get started.
- Training in Your 20s and 30s
- Training in Your 40s and 50s
- Training in Your 60s and Beyond
- The Bottom Line
Table of Contents
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These are the years where you can push your body the hardest and demand the most of it. There’s no doubt about it.
But don’t mistake youth for invulnerability.
The last thing you want to do is leave your younger years hampered by injuries, overtraining, and metabolic slowdown. The older you get, the harder it is to come back from such setbacks.
Your goals during this period should be simple:
Learn how to train properly.
The average 20-something weightlifter is an overzealous sack of injuries waiting to happen.
Trust me–those wobbly-kneed half squats, bowed-back deadlifts, and behind-the-neck shoulder exploders will come to haunt him one day, even if only through joint pains and muscle imbalances.
Don’t make these mistakes. Shove your ego back into the box, take the time to learn proper form and execution early on, and don’t stray far from these boundaries.
Yes, this way makes it take longer to progress in your lifts, but everything you gain will stick. How much weight is on the bar doesn’t matter if you eventually slip a disc, tear a knee tendon, or grind up your shoulders.
Build the muscle you need to look the way you want.
There are limits as how much muscle you can build naturally, but most people become happy with their overall size before reaching their genetic potential for total muscle gain.
In my experience, the “sweet spot” for men is about 40 to 60 pounds of muscle gained and about half of that for women. This plus a low body fat percentage (sub-10% for men and sub-20% for women) takes them from “normal” to “fitness model,” but stops short of “bodybuilder.”
Ideally you’d gain this muscle in your 20s and 30s because it’s a bit easier physiologically but, more importantly, logistically.
You have more time for workouts in this phase of your life. You can get plenty of deep, uninterrupted sleep every night of the week. You only have to think of yourself in your cooking.
The truth is every aspect of getting fit is easier when you’re younger. Take advantage of this.
Learn how to get and stay lean.
For many people first getting into weightlifting, it’s all about adding mass. Body fat percentage be damned. They’ll take anything over scrawny.
As time goes on, though, the focus usually changes. The more muscle someone gains, the more he or she wants to get lean and see what they’re really working with.
If you can, and for the same reasons given in the previous point, do this in your younger years. It’s just physically and logistically easier.
I think it’s also advantageous to establish a lean body weight set point during these years. It will serve you well in your 40s and beyond when your diet and training are more likely to get bumped and jostled by life.
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Many people think reaching their middle years is like face planting into a pool of quicksand.
You know, you’re on your way out and the more you struggle, the faster you’re pulled into the ground.
This is nonsense.
First, let’s look at a study conducted by scientists at the University of Oklahoma. Here’s how it went: 24 men aged 18 to 22 and 25 men aged 35 to 50 followed the same weightlifting routine for 8 weeks.
Subjects were DEXA scanned before and after the program and researchers found, surprisingly, that both groups had made nearly identical strength and muscle gains. In fact, the middle-aged men built slightly more muscle, but the difference was too small to be statistically significant.
So, the first takeaway of this section is this:
If you’re middle-aged, you can still build plenty of muscle of strength. And even if you’re brand new to weightlifting.
That said, there are two key differences between college-aged and middle-aged bodies.
Research shows that 1) as you get older, your muscles become more susceptible to training-induced damage; and 2) repairing this damage takes longer than it did when you were younger.
These aren’t deadly sinkholes that prevent progress, though. They’re just speed bumps that necessitate slowing down and rolling over. That is, it just means that you may have to make some adjustments to your training protocols and take extra measures to ensure adequate muscle recovery.
I’ve worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of middle-aged people, and here’s what I’ve found:
Don’t worry–your metabolism is fine.
I thought we’d start with some good news: your metabolism isn’t going to be a problem.
And that means that no, your body isn’t programmed to be forever fat. Yes, you can get lean “at your age.” Yes, you can eat foods you like every day. And plenty of them.
You see, research shows that the average adult’s metabolism slows by about 1 to 3% per decade. The primary reason for this is muscle loss so if you maintain your muscle, you maintain your metabolism. If you add muscle, you increase it.
Why, then, do so many people gain weight as they age, if not physiological decline?
For most people, the answer is very simple: lifestyle changes. They were active in college and ate accordingly and now have reduced activity levels but not food intake. The result, of course, is weight gain.
So, unless you’ve lost significant amounts of muscle from things like starvation dieting or excessive cardio, your metabolism is working more or less as well as it did when you were in your 20s.
And even if you have made those mistakes, you can correct them with proper diet and training.
Your hormones are probably fine too.
It was once believed that the hormonal decline associated with ageing was inevitable. We now know this isn’t true.
Research shows that lifestyle factors are equally, if not more, causative as ageing itself. For example, here’s a short list of the biggest lifestyle factors that can depress testosterone levels:
- Weight gain
- Stopping exercise
- Chronic illness
- Use of medications
- Sleeping too little
- Moderate alcohol consumption
These are all under your control. Your hormone health truly is in your hands.
You’ll also be happy to know that you don’t need stellar hormone levels to get into great shape. The natural variance in people’s anabolic hormone levels just doesn’t influence muscle building and fat loss nearly as much as pill and PDF pushers want you to believe.
If you’re willing to work hard, you can have a below-average hormone profile and far-above-average physique.
Be a stickler for form (and especially if you’re new to weighlifting).
The older you get, the less shenanigans you can get away with in your lifting.
Lumbar rounding in your deadlifts…knee bowing in your squats…elbow flaring in your bench pressing…it all increases the risk of injury at any age but gets more and more dangerous as the years go by. So much so that I would say people doing these things will eventually get hurt if they’re also loading the bar heavy.
This is why I put a lot of emphasis on learning proper form as the first goal in weightlifting. If that means you have to cut your weights in half, so be it. Half-reps aren’t real lifts anyway.
This is also why I’m not willing to sacrifice form to hit PRs and chest bump with my buddies. I’m willing to give lifts everything I’ve got but if I’m going for a big pull and feel my lumbar rounding, I drop the weight. If I’m squatting big and my spine angle goes too flat, I sit the weight down on the spotter bars.
I’m not a competitive powerlifter. I like lifting heavy and being strong but I like staying healthy and injury-free more. I recommend you do the same.
Pay more attention to weekly volume and intensity.
The current obsession with “hardcore” training is becoming damn near masochistic.
According to the hordes of Instagram and YouTube muppets, if you’re not training every muscle group at least twice per week with a huge amount of both heavy- and light-weight training, you’re not even trying.
This is misguided.
How frequently you train a muscle group is less important than total weekly volume (number of sets) and intensity (loads lifted in terms of % of 1RM).
That is, you could train a muscle group 2, 3, or even 4 times per week with poor programming and make less progress than once per week with good programming.
Furthermore, when people are hitting muscle groups several times per week, do you think they tend to overtrain or undertrain?
Overtrain, of course, and that’s exactly what you want to avoid as you get older. Thus, you need to keep a closer eye on what you’re putting your body through every week.
The first thing you should know is that as intensity increases (as weights get heavier), volume must decrease (you must keep total reps lower).
If you wanted to do 20-rep sets of squats with a light weight, let’s say 40 to 50% of your 1RM, you could easily do a couple hundred reps per week and be fine. Increase the weight to 85% of your 1RM though, and a couple hundred reps in a week will put you in a wheelchair.
Thus, here’s what I recommend:
- Shoot for doing at least 50 to 60 heavy reps per major muscle group per 5 to 7 days.
Heavy reps have you lifting 80%+ of your 1RM (5 to 7 rep range or heavier).
- Include no more than 30 additional reps per major muscle group per 5 to 7 days.
If you want to include some higher-rep training in your workouts, that’s fine, but save it for after your heavy lifting.
A simple way to do this is “reverse pyramid training,” which entails warming up and doing your heaviest sets first followed by progressively lighter sets.
Frequency is up to you. You can do all your work in a once-a-week setup like this:
Or you could split the work up into a twice-per-week like this:
And so forth.
I prefer the once-a-week setup for a number of reasons outlined here.
Take at least one day off the weights each week. Two is better.
Don’t underestimate how taxing heavy weightlifting is on your body.
Even the young’uns can’t do it every day, week after week, without eventually running their bodies into the ground.
Try to train hard seven days per week and physical fatigue will start accumulating. Your sleep will deteriorate. Your workouts will suffer. You’ll continue feeling worse and worse until you dial it back and give your body more time to rest.
That’s why a big part of proper recovery is taking time off the weights every week. And resisting the urge to replace it with some other form of intense physical exercise or activity.
Personally I take two to three days off weightlifting per week. I also do no intense exercise whatsoever one to two days per week (walking and light bike riding is the most I’ll do).
This much-needed rest is hugely important. If I try to push the envelope, and trust me I have, it catches up to me within a few weeks.
And, depending on your goals, that may mean you have to eat less than you like on your rest days. That’s part of the game.
Don’t fall into the trap of using exercise as a way to eat more and more food. It’s a one-way street to overtraining, not to mention life and psychological imbalances (forcing yourself to do several hours of exercise every day just so you can gorge on food is a terrible use of time and great source of anxiety).
Rest or deload more frequently.
Pulling, squatting, and pushing heavy loads puts a lot of strain on your muscles, joints, ligaments, and nervous system.
Even when you’re properly managing your volume and intensity and taking a couple days off each week, your body eventually needs a bigger break. And the older you are, the sooner that time comes.
Specifically, what I’ve found is while guys and gals in their 20s can go anywhere from 12 to 15 weeks before needing additional recovery time, people in their 40s and 50s may need to dial it back every 6 to 10 weeks.
There are many factors that determine how long you will be able to go–age, training programming and history, genetics, sleep hygiene, diet, etc.–but it’s pretty easy to discover for yourself.
As you continue to train, you’ll start noticing symptoms of slight overtraining: worse sleep, lower energy levels, various aches, less interest in training, etc.
Many people mistake these symptoms as mental obstacles to push through and try to fight fire with fire. It doesn’t go well. I’ve spoken with people that had been doing this for many months and were now exhibiting signs of chronic fatigue syndrome.
When you sense the fog of overtraining creeping in around you, get out of the gym for a week and it’ll dissipate.
Specifically, you can take a few additional days off or you can “deload,” which is a reduction in training intensity to give your body a break from the heavy pounding. When I deload, I do 3 workouts for the week and here’s how they look:
3 x Military Press @ 8 to 10 reps with 50% of 1RM
3 x Incline Bench Press @ same
3 x Close-Grip Bench Press @ same
2 x Dips with bodyweight to failure
3 x Deadlift @ 8 to 10 reps with 50% of 1RM
3 x Barbell Row @ same
3 x One-Arm Dumbbell Row @ same
2 x Pullups with bodyweight to failure
3 x Squat @ 8 to 10 reps with 50% of 1RM
3 x Front Squat @ same
3 x Leg Press @ same
2 x Pistol Squat with bodyweight to failure
These workouts aren’t particularly hard, which is the point. They shouldn’t gas you or result in much, if any, soreness.
What changes as you move into your “golden years”? Not much.
You can still be strong and lift heavyweights. You can still rock a lean physique. Your metabolism can still burn hot and your hormones can still keep you feeling young.
The only decline you may notice compared to your 40s is in your body’s ability to recovery from your workouts. You can use the strategies given above to adjust for this and you should be fine.
You may also benefit from a “linear periodization” workout structure that reduces the amount of overall strain the weightlifting places on your body.
Here’s a simple 6-week setup that you would repeat:
All exercises performed in the 10 to 12 rep range with ~70% of your 1RM
All exercises performed in the 8 to 10 rep range with ~75% of your 1RM
All exercises performed in the 6 to 8 rep range with ~80% of your 1RM
All exercises performed in the 4 to 6 rep range with ~85 of your 1RM
All exercises performed in the 4 to 6 rep range with ~85 of your 1RM
I’ve used this exact setup with scores of men and women in their 60s and it works extremely well. It’s enjoyable, it allows for regular progress, and it allows for plenty of recovery.
Fitness truly is a lifelong journey that doesn’t end until you breathe your last breath.
In an ideal world, you’d use your 20s and 30s to build your ideal physique and then enjoy maintaining it for the rest of your life.
If you’re starting later in your life, don’t despair. By making some simple adjustments and taking some simple precautions, you can still do just about everything you could a couple decades ago and you can still reach the same end goals and enjoy the same endgame.
What’s your take on fitness as you age? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Penev, P. D. (2007). Association between sleep and morning testosterone levels in older men. Sleep, 30(4), 427–432. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/30.4.427
- Sato, K., Iemitsu, M., Matsutani, K., Kurihara, T., Hamaoka, T., & Fujita, S. (2014). Resistance training restores muscle sex steroid hormone steroidogenesis in older men. FASEB Journal, 28(4), 1891–1897. https://doi.org/10.1096/fj.13-245480
- Field, A. E., Colditz, G. A., Willett, W. C., Longcope, C., & McKinlay, J. B. (1994). The relation of smoking, age, relative weight, and dietary intake to serum adrenal steroids, sex hormones, and sex hormone-binding globulin in middle-aged men. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 79(5), 1310–1316. https://doi.org/10.1210/jcem.79.5.7962322
- Piers, L. S., Soares, M. J., Mccormack, L. M., & O’Dea, K. (1998). Is there evidence for an age-related reduction in metabolic rate? Journal of Applied Physiology, 85(6), 2196–2204. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.19220.127.116.116
- Roberts, S. B., & Dallal, G. E. (2005). Energy requirements and aging. Public Health Nutrition, 8(7a), 1028–1036. https://doi.org/10.1079/phn2005794
- Fell, J., & Williams, A. D. (2008). The effect of aging on skeletal-muscle recovery from exercise: Possible implications for aging athletes. In Journal of Aging and Physical Activity (Vol. 16, Issue 1, pp. 97–115). Human Kinetics Publishers Inc. https://doi.org/10.1123/japa.16.1.97
- Kerksick, C. M., Wilborn, C. D., Campbell, B. I., Roberts, M. D., Rasmussen, C. J., Greenwood, M., & Kreider, R. B. (2009). Early-phase adaptations to a split-body, linear periodization resistance training program in college-aged and middle-aged men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(3), 962–971. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a00baf
- Travison, T. G., Araujo, A. B., Kupelian, V., O’Donnell, A. B., & McKinlay, J. B. (2007). The relative contributions of aging, health, and lifestyle factors to serum testosterone decline in men. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 92(2), 549–555. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2006-1859
- Lemmer, J. T., Ivey, F. M., Ryan, A. S., Martel, G. F., Hurlbut, D. E., Metter, J. E., Fozard, J. L., Fleg, J. L., & Hurley, B. F. (2001). Effect of strength training on resting metabolic rate and physical activity: Age and gender comparisons. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(4), 532–541. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005768-200104000-00005
- Mekary, R. A., Grøntved, A., Despres, J. P., De Moura, L. P., Asgarzadeh, M., Willett, W. C., Rimm, E. B., Giovannucci, E., & Hu, F. B. (2015). Weight training, aerobic physical activities, and long-term waist circumference change in men. Obesity, 23(2), 461–467. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.20949
- Melov, S., Tamopolsky, M. A., Bechman, K., Felkey, K., & Hubbard, A. (2007). Resistance exercise reverses aging in human skeletal muscle. PLoS ONE, 2(5). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000465