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Build Muscle and Get Stronger After Age 40

Something all of us have to face sooner or later is aging. Past a certain point, our hormones start to change, our bodies become more sensitive to various stressors: physical, emotional, dietary, lifestyle etc. The key to continuing to make progress and in our training and overall health is to be very proactive and pay more attention to the fine details in training, diet and lifestyle. Life, when you strip away the details, is all about adaptation to an ever-changing landscape, both around us and within.

Being just over 50 myself, one thing I’ve noticed is that although my strength is pretty much the same, my recovery isn’t quite as good as it once was. Not only do I need to pay more attention to cycling heavy and light days with sometimes more rest days, I really need to listen to my body more than ever. Injuries take longer to heal and so does the nervous system.

We Become More Sensitive

This may sound like a generalization, but I really think its true for the most part. Lets face it, many of us can’t eat like we used to, or even what we used to. Lots of fast food garbage that we used to eat after the bar, late nite, just doesn’t agree with us anymore for whatever reason. Maybe certain foods now cause us digestive issues, or additives in those foods that once didn’t, now cause issues. We sure can’t drink like we used to, being out till last call and training the next day or having football practice first thing in the morning.

Weight-lifting-for-older-athlete
One thing we need to do now more than ever, is clean up our diet. Remove any processed food, and anything with additives you can’t pronounce. Start shopping and eating local with fresh grain-fed, hormone-free meats, and produce. Don’t eat anything that your great-grandparents wouldn’t have recognized as food.

Stay away from artificial sweeteners and MSG based additives like “autolyzed yeast extract” etc, as these are proven excitotoxins and are not good for your nervous system. Learn to cook and prepare your own food. Its ok to have the occasional cheat meal, but even that doesn’t have to be crap.

I would look into carb cycling. (summary: on training days eat 2-2.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight and on off days 5. to 1 grams per pound) Also make most of your diet proteins, vegetables and fruit. Find a diet that you like and can stick to. For me, I eat a lot of fish and mostly plants, so I eat the so-called Mediterranean Diet (lots of fish, leafy greens, vegetables, whole grains, eggs, some cheeses and olive oil). Since moving to this diet from a paleo diet, my blood triglycerides and lipids have gone down considerably, right into the middle of normal range.

If you are having a hard time losing bodyfat, I would look into intermittent fasting. Read Martin Berkhan’s excellent “Lean Gains” website for more on this.

Get Your Hormones Checked

This is something I’ve been going through myself with low thyroid issues. As with our food supply, there are so many chemicals which we are exposed to on a daily basis which are major hormone disruptors. The BPA in plastic is one. This stuff exposes us to xenoestrogens – literally synthetic estrogens which you can imagine are absolute hell for our testosterone levels and fertility.

If you are over 40, it definitely would not hurt to get a blood panel to check your hormone levels. If so, you want to check your total and free testosterone, estradiol (one of the two components of estrogen), thyroid (both T4 and T3) levels, prolactin, sex-hormone binding globlulin (SHBG), Luetenizing hormone (LH) and follicule secreting hormone (FSH). Look up the symptoms of low levels of these hormones and if you have a bunch of them, addressing this will be more important than choosing your exercise routine!

The best supplements for optimizing your hormones (for males) are in order of importance: vitamin D3, zinc, vitamin B6, selenium and add to those magnesium and vitamin C. There is absolutely no evidence for tribulus, maca or any of these OTC supplements sold in health food shops. There is however some promising research on certain adaptogenic herbs for treating low thryoid (and maybe testosterone too!), namely ashwagandha and Coleus Forskohlii (forskolin).

What Are Our Priorities?

When we get older we lose mobility more than strength at a certain age. I would define “mobility” itself as having two halves: flexibility and conditioning. If we make half of our training focus on strength and the other half on mobility, this could well be the design for our lives for the years ahead.

You should look at including static stretching as well as dynamic mobility into your daily routine in any event and some more extensive mobility work beyond that with some conditioning the same day 3 times a week at least. For conditioning the most intensive and efficient ways to get that done is by pushing a “prowler” sled, sprinting up hills, running up stairs, skipping, running sprints etc. Myself I really need a lot of stretching so I skip rope and hit up yoga 3x a week.

How Should We Train?

I don’t think that this part should really have to change. The same principles apply. 80% of your benefits should come from compound movements and 20% from assistance and isolation stuff. One approach might be to use what Jim Wendler in 5/3/1 for Powerlifting referred to as the “grey pubes template“.

This approach would take the four main exercises: bench, squat, deadlift, and overhead press and do them (with accessories) over a two week period, with only two workouts a week. Week one is bench on Monday (with accessories) and squat on Wednesdays (with accessories). Then week two is press on Monday (with accessories) and Deadlift on Wednesday (with accessories). Its basically a minimalist upper-lower split.

On Thursdays of every week, there is a whole day devoted to mobility, stretching and conditioning. I would do something like 3 days of stretching and cardio on top of the two strength days.

So, this could look like:

Week One

Monday

  • Bench press 3×5 with 80-85% 1RM (followed by 3×12 with 55% 1RM)
  • Seated dumbbell press 5×10
  • Kroc Rows 5×10
  • Preacher curls 3×15
  • 20 mins cardio

Tuesday

  • 1 hour Yoga (or static/dynamic mobility)
  • 15-20 mins cardio

Thursday

  • Back or front squat 3×5 with 80-85% 1RM (followed by 3×12 with 55% 1RM)
  • Barbell step-up or Bulgarian squat 5×10
  • Stiff-leg deadlift 5×10
  • Calf raise 3×15
  • 20 mins cardio

Friday and Saturday

  • 1 hour Yoga (or static/dynamic mobility)
  • 15-20 mins cardio

Week Two

Monday

  • Overhead press 3×5 with 80-85% 1RM (followed by 3×12 with 55% 1RM)
  • Pullups or chins, weighted 5×10
  • Incline press 5×10
  • Barbell curls 3×15

Tuesday

  • 1 hour Yoga (or static/dynamic mobility)
  • 15-20 mins cardio

Thursday

  • Deadlift 3×5 with 80-85% 1RM (followed by partials 3×8 with 55% 1RM)
  • Back or Front Squat 5×10
  • Leg curls 5×10
  • Standing calf raises 3×15

Friday and Saturday

  • 1 hour Yoga (or static/dynamic mobility)
  • 15-20 mins cardio

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