Can you build muscle?
Can you do it naturally?
What about when you “get older”? Your 30s, 40s and 50s?
I am not sure why we begin to think it’s all over in our 30s and 40s. I have a funny feeling the internet confused you and the fact that I am saying, YES, You CAN build muscle & strength as you “get older”, the internet will now sue me!
I just saw a photo of Sly training hard at my buddy Gunnar Peterson’s gym. Sly is 70! So with Sly being almost twice my age and still looking like a BOSS, we need to understand first and foremost that your attitude is crucial towards your strength and health.
I remember in my mid or late 20s, I was at a local gas station and 1 of the guys who used to see me lifting at the local gym in my early teens ran into me. He told me I used to be like you, all ripped up. Wait till you get to my age. Work, Family. You won’t have the time for that stuff anymore.
This guy was maybe late 30s at the time. I remember thinking to myself, I am NOT like you.
So before we go any further, get it out of your head that age is your limiting factor. Strength is a Choice. If you have excuses running through your head, prepare to punch those excuses in the face. It’s time to make an about face!
In this article, I want to dispel the myths of what happens in your 40s. At the time of this writing, I am 42. I began consistent calisthenics in 7th grade, it was 1988. Lifting weights began in 1989. I’ve had my share of injuries that were spurred through wrestling and incorrect training for combat sports.
Sure, I have “mileage” on my body but that is no excuse. Instead of finding excuses I am finding a way!
Many of the great bodybuilders from the Classical Era of the 50s and early 60s were winning titles and achieving their all time best physiques in their late 30s and early 40s. John Grimek, Bill Pearl, Reg Park and even Golden Era Bodybuilder, Ed Corney (although I am unsure if Corey was natural as he competed in the 70s).
This question popped up during a recent STRONG Life Podcast and I HAD to expand on this topic, giving you sample workouts, tips and of course mistakes I’ve made as I’ve gotten older. For all the “Old Warriors” out there reading, pay attention.
First off, let’s look mostly at the Bodybuilders from the 50s and 60s.
Most of them were from the pre – steroid era, they looked AMAZING AND they were STRONG!
I am blown away and inspired by these Golden Era and PRE Golden Era greats. I consistently open up my old Muscle Builder & Power Magazines, IronMan, Strength & Health, Hard Training from Dr Ken and anything from the 70s and prior. The inspiration just EXPLODES from these magazines and old photos. No posing or faking it. Heavy lifting and hard work.
The 70s were considered The Golden Era of Bodybuilding. Arnold, Franco, Zane, Waller – these men performed high volume training, often 2 x a day training and 5 or 6 days a week, usually Monday – Saturday. These guys ate, trained, slept, ate, trained and spent their time on the beach and of course partying.
The contrast to these high volume guys were the students of Arthur Jones of Nautlius. Casey Viator and the Mentzer bros being the most popular and these men continued competing into the early 80s.
Prior to the 70s, the bodybuilders often trained 3 x week, ala Steeve Reeves style full body workouts. The equipment was basic barbells, dumbbells and of course, calisthenics. The magazines had plenty of ads for ordering your free weights, benches, cable chest expanders, and of course, those “crash weight gain” powders.
Steve Reeves competed in the mid 1940s through 1950. Steve won Mr. America, Mr. World and Mr. Universe titles. I have yet to see such a physique like Steve Reeves. In addition to his 3 x weekly training sessions, Steve was an avid “rancher”. He purchased a farm and had horses on his farm. To say he only trained 3 x week is an understatement. I would assume he was doing “farmer walks” on the regular as he took care of his horses.
Steve Reeves shared many of his workouts with the magazines and he encouraged the 3 x week, full body workout.
The training was focused on the basics but Steve was no slouch with the weights he moved. You can’t add muscle training with weights that don’t challenge you.
The exercises below were often performed for 3 x 8-12 reps but NOT with light weights. I read that Steve squatted 405 for 3 x 12. So when you’re thinking Oh, I’ll squat 3 x 12 with 185 lbs. NO. Steve was STRONG!
Steve Reeves Full Body Training Sample Below:
- Military Press
- Bench Press
- Bent-over Row
- Barbell Curl
- Triceps Extension
- Parallel Squat
- Standing Calf Raise
- Dead lift
- Alternating Dumbbell Military Press
- Parallel Bar Dip
- Alternating Dumbbell Curl
- Triceps Extension Bench Press
- Front Squat
- Seated Calf Raise
- Back Raise
- Hanging Leg-raise
- Upright Row
- Incline Press
- One-arm Dumbbell Row
- Concentration Curl
- Lying Triceps Extension
- Dumbbell Lunge
- Standing Calf Raise
- Dead lift
I found this article interesting on Steve Reeves from Muscle Memory:
Steve has no favorite barbell exercises. He just likes lots of all kinds of exercise and hard work because he knows that only by hard work can one succeed. He has followed many programs during his 5 years of exercising but just before he left for the ‘”Mr. America” contest he was performing the following very strenuous program:
- 3 sets prone presses with wide grip.
- 3 sets of incline presses (a favorite invention of Ed Yarick)
- 2 sets of side presses.
- 2 sets of front raises.
- 2 sets of curl and press 3 sets of chins behind neck.
- 3 sets of Latissimus rowing on 45 degree pulleys. .
- 2 sets of triceps curls on the dorsi bench. .
- 2 sets of bent arm curl behind neck 2 sets of triceps bench curl.
- 6 sets of incline bench curls.
- 4 sets of squats.
- 4 sets of leg curls for leg biceps.
- 4 sets of calf raises on leg press machine.
- 2 sets of good-morning exercise on roman chair.
As I always say, The Basics will never let you down.
During this classical era of Bodybuilding, there were other powerful men like John Grimek and Reg Park. And although Grimek trained at The York Barbell Club & there are stories of why those men were the strongest (Experiments with D-Bol), I still learn from those who were in the Pre Golden Era of Bodybuilding.
Reg Park implemented a 5 x 5 variation into his basic barbell and dumbbell exercises. The first 2 sets would be a warm up and then his last 3, maybe 2 sets would be the heavy weight with longer rest between sets. Once he was able to perform the same weight for 3 x 5 on a big lift, he added weight the next time around.
I implement this style of 5 x 5 system with athletes and it works GREAT. 5 x 5 is a GREAT blend of size and strength. Arnold modeled his training after Reg Park because he felt Reg was built with a different kind of physique compared to others during the classical era. He had a “Rugged Build” as Arnold often said.
Arnold was also inspired by how strong Reg was. It was more than just Reg’s size that inspired Arnold because Arnold didn’t just aspire to look strong, he wanted to demonstrate his strength. Reg would incline DB bench the 150s. Reg would perform calf raises with 800 lbs! I still remember reading about this story in Arnold’s Education of a Bodybuilder. Arnold was inspired with how Reg was a champion Bodybuilder first, then became a movie star and lived in a beautiful home where he would push a button and people would come out to serve him food or cater to him. Seeing this life of a star inspired Arnold to become a star in bodybuilding and then in Hollywood.
Here is a sample Reg Park training regime I found on The Dave Draper Forums:
Back Squats 5×5
Chin-Ups or Pull-Ups 5×5
Dips or Bench Press 5×5
Wrist Work 2×10
Front Squats 5×5
Standing Press 5×5
Deadlifts 3×5 (2 warm-up sets and 1 “stabilizer set”)
Wrist Work 2×10
Week 1: A, B, A
Week 2: B, A, B
Week 3: A, B, etc
Reg Park training routine 3 days per week, circa 1950.
Mon – Wed – Fri
barbell curl 4×6-8
seated press behind the neck 4×6-8
bench press 5×5
barbell rows 4×6-8
barbell squat 5×5
6 x protein drinks (milk/honey/cream)
And, lots of hard work.
So, now that I’ve outlined and shared many sample programs from the greats, let’s see how YOU can apply these methods in your 40s.
I’ve come across a lot of articles that seem like they are preying on you with buzz words such as:
- Low T Levels
- Burn Belly Fat
And then an article is written with such “ground breaking advice” saying things like:
- Sleep more
- Eat Steak
Wow. I am cured. We can now all become savages.
Here’s what I’ve learned regarding training in my 40s…..
Fist off, we likely have 2 categories of men in their 40s reading this article:
1) Men who have been training hard since their teenage years and are working around injuries and joint issues. We are considered old school meatheads because we have been training for 20-30 years by now.
2) Men who haven’t trained since college days and need to “get back into shape”.
I personally fall into category 1 and that’s where I will start with training and lifestyle tips for the old school meathead.
- Stop pretending your 19 or 20 years old. You can’t train like that anymore. That was over half your lifetime ago. The 20 year old in your head is who will lead you to injuries and setbacks.
- Do not try to ferociously attack the big lifts such as squats, benching, power cleans and deadlifts week after week. If you kill those big lifts, they will kill you. Work them hard enough and always leave a rep or 2 in the tank. In a podcast with Big House Joe Kenn, he mentioned how he learned he can only deadlift heavy once every 3 weeks.
- Technique must be perfect. Avoid grinding reps. Instead, make every rep look clean and beautiful. The first and last reps should look the same.
- Implement high rep warm ups the way Matt Wenning does. This is where you can build up your volume of work without the heavy weights.
Here’s a sample upper body warm up:
1A) Band Face Pulls 4 x 15
1B) Flat / Incline DB Bench 4 x 15 – 25
1C) Band Triceps (Vary Angles) 4 x 25
1D) Incline Chest Support Cuban Press (5 lbs is plenty) 4 x 10
Sample Lower Body Warm Up:
1A) Sled Drags 3 x 150 ft
1B) Back Extensions 3 x 15
1C) Bulgarian Split Squat 3 x 10 / 10
1D) KB Squats 3 x 10
More Tips for the old school meathead:
5. Religiously implement The McGill Big 3 along with a daily 10 minute walk.
6. Strength Train 3 x week, preferably on non consecutive days. You can of course implement recreational activities on non lifting days. I have found 3 solid strength sessions a week to be great. If I want to train more, I perform calisthenics, bands, sleds, light KBs and light DBs. So those “other days” satisfy my mind and addiction to training, but those days are just not super intense.
7. During the warmer months engage in outdoor activities. I go mtn biking, surfing, play Tennis, etc.
8. The 5 x 5 method is great for your barbell training but if you’ve got 20+ years of lifting under your belt, you want to implement plenty of high rep bodybuilding work after the barbell lifting. 10 – 20 rep sets feel great on the joints and help add muscle.
9. Not all workouts need to be 1 hr in length. Sometimes I train for 25-30 minutes. If you feel sluggish, don’t worry about the weights and instead, perform a circuit. The circuit often gets the mind and muscle connected. The resting sometimes allows your mind to second guess things. On these days, train light and move the body. You build mental and physical momentum this way.
10. This one is REALLY ground breaking 🙂 Do NOT eat the same as you did in your teens. Unless you are gifted with a fast metabolism which has never slowed down, you’ll want to monitor carbs around your training and activity levels. Don’t fear carbs, just don’t go over board. If you are a busy working man, intermittent fasting can work well for your schedule. Contrary to the internet, breakfast is not a crime. If you’re hungry, eat!
11. As you accumulate training years on your body, certain areas of the body can’t handle motions or exercises. Don’t fear making adjustments. For example, use landmine presses if overhead presses hurt the shoulders. Use the trap bar if straight bar deads beat up your back too much. Use the floor press instead of the full range bench press or use the Sling Shot to give those shoulders a break.
I remember Jim Steel telling me how his friend, a bodybuilder in his 50s, said that once you have 20 years of heavy lifting under your belt, those little injuries start popping up. On the other hand, Matt Wenning has taught us that the high rep warm ups are crucial along with traction based training and less spinal loading.
12. Use specialty bars to lessen joint strain. Swiss Bars and safety squat bars are my preferred bars and I even use them often with younger athletes.
13. Mindset: Think about constant improvement. Don’t use that weak phrase of I’m just maintaining. What is maintenance? It sounds so lazy and weak. Think constant improvement!
14. Find a GREAT Physical Therapist / Chiro who actually lifts himself. Getting some ART and having a highly qualified / experienced PT to keep you on track is golden.
15. Just because someone else does that exercise doesn’t mean it’s good for you. I remember getting fired up watching Louie Simmons rack pulling heavy weights. I knew rack pulls had aggravated my back in the past but I was fired up seeing Louie so I did them and jacked up my back.
I learned that not all exercise agree with my body. Same goes for you. Learn from other yet at the same time trust yourself enough to know which exercises beat you up vs benefit you.
Now let’s get into the 40+ year old who hasn’t been active for a while and you’re ready to invest in your most important asset, YOUR HEALTH!
- Understand first & foremost that if you don’t take care of yourself, then everything else in your life will suffer. Work, Family, Energy, Productivity, Confidence and more. Being stronger & healthier is ALWAYS an advantage!
- Start with the basics:
– Walking 10 minutes daily
– Basic Calisthenics with Perfect technique: Squats, Lunges, Push Ups, Recline Row. My favorite calisthenics book for beginners AND advanced with every progression and regression is Convict Conditioning. – Get a mini band and perform daily band pull aparts and face pulls. 10 – 20 reps a few times a day will keep those shoulders feeling healthy and strong.3. If you lack motivation or feel confused, then go straight to hiring a Coach. Find a Coach that understands how to introduce you slowly back into training. A Coach that has a proven track record for getting results. Pay for 3 months in full so you’re committed. Tell your Coach to eliminate refund policy, etc so you’re ALL IN.
4. Change your environment. Are the people you spend time with not into being healthy, strong and fit? Get new friends! You can find meet up groups with people who need training partners, etc. If your town doesn’t have a group, I want YOU to start the group.
5. Before you start with barbell training, build up your base of strength and fitness. Use bands, dumbbells, sleds, calisthenics and carry any of the following: Kettlebells, Dumbbells, Sandbags / Sandball. Every time you carry an object, it begins with a perfect deadlift.
Everything you pick up / put down, do so with a flat back. Practice perfection.
6. Slow and Steady. If you’re in your 40s, you KNOW, time goes FAST! Don’t rush the process. Enjoy the journey. Slow and steady wins the race here. If you try to get too crazy in your training, it will set you back. The healthier you are, the more consistent you will be.
7. Forget the “rules” that tell you that you must train for an hour or for X number of days per week, etc. I always say, 1 is 100% more than zero. Some of your training sessions might be 15 minutes. You get it in and make it happen. Don’t bail out because you don’t have an hour.
8. Those warm ups are crucial! When you’re younger you can swing your arms around for 5 reps and be ready to go. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it is in your 40s. Even when I am pressed for time, my warm up is thorough. I wrote up a few warm ups above, but I also incorporate some soft tissue work such as smashing my pecs, back, legs and lats. I also do some mobility for the areas getting worked and this takes a few extra minutes but man it’s crucial!
9. Read some old bodybuilding magazines from the 50s through the 70s. They are awesome. They are inspiring. The nutrition is a bit much for us guys in our 40s but the basics and the passion shine through those magazines.
10. There’s nothing wrong with using machines, contrary to the internet. As of this writing, I’ve purchased a Wenning Belt Squat, a Sorinex Hurricane and will likely pick up a lat pulldown machine.
If you do the work, it will work for you! As I’ve accumulates the mileage on my body, certain exercises don’t agree with my body anymore. So when I bench, I usually floor press. When pressing for shoulders, I usually use a landmine.
The bodybuilding machines are great for the warm ups and high rep work. Don’t get duped into the that’s not functional bro, BS. Putting on muscle is a good thing in your 40s. If the machines help add muscle, go ahead and implement the machines.
Training Should Improve Quality of Life, NOT Take Away from It
When my daughter was born I recall giving her a bath around the same time I injured my lower back. I was in pain hunched over the bath tub and I swore to myself that I would NOT allow my training to interfere with my life. I wanted my training to IMPROVE my quality of life, NOT take away from it.
When I train myself and other adults, that is always the goal. To get them to feel more energized and better when they leave the gym compared to when they walked in the gym.
This blog post is going to be a work in progress. As more ideas come to mind, I’ll be adding more tips for us Iron Warriors!
If you enjoyed the article, please share it!
Live The Code 365,