In this article I would like to share some personal thoughts on the best system of training for the mature bodybuilder. By bodybuilder, I mean anyone who is trying to develop muscle and strength, not just those training to enter a contest. This article is targeted at the over 50 male who has had some previous experience with weight training, but he may have experienced a long lay–off or he just wants to try something different from what he’s been doing for years.
To start, let’s agree that the over 50 bodybuilder’s basic concerns are very much the same as bodybuilders of any age – to develop an above average degree of fitness, muscle, and strength. For the over 50, let’s add – to look and act younger than his age.
Here is an outline of notes I’ve taken regarding myself specifically, and the aging bodybuilder in general. I started training pretty regularly in 1963, so these comments are based on 50 years of training experience.
Challenges for the over 50 bodybuilder
#1: Negative factors of aging
Males typically lose ½ pound of muscle per year once they hit their late 30’s or early 40’s.
Fast-twitch muscles decline and testosterone production is reduced as the years go by.
An extended "lay–off" or "years–off", results in excess fat. In addition our metabolisms slow down as we age.
Note: We can counter the above negative effects with targeted supplementation. Muscle Synergy (i), Quadracarn (ii), and 7–Keto Musclean (iii) will help you overcome these factors of aging. For more information, see Supplements at the end of this article.
Training time is often limited because of work and family obligations. However, this may be a good thing. You are less likely to over train by training too often or with too many sets and reps.
Injuries – anyone who has been training for most of their life has accumulated various injuries that interfere with their workout. My personal list includes lower back and elbow injuries for years, which are now pretty much ok. Current issues include arthritic knees, shoulders (including a complete shoulder replacement of my left shoulder) and wrist (which currently is my most limiting), along with varying degrees of tendinitis. But, injuries, like limited time to train can actually be a blessing. You may have to cut way back on the poundages that you use in certain exercises. The reason this is good is that you can really concentrate on developing perfect form and slowly progress for a very long period of time before you hit a plateau.
#2: Positives for the over 50 bodybuilder
Self-Discipline – often improves with age. We’ve had to use it throughout our lives – not only in our workouts, but, perhaps in college, the military, building our own business – in fact; any goal we’ve achieved has had self–discipline as a vital component.
Patience – the older bodybuilder is no longer looking for a quick fix. He knows that anything worth achieving takes time and effort.
Knowledge of how his body works and feels – which exercises he can do and which he must make adjustments to, or avoid.
Realistic expectations – he realizes his strengths, but also his limitations. Goals are essential for the over 50 bodybuilder, but unlike many younger bodybuilders he knows that he is not going to be the next Arnold.
1. Should I train like I used to, or be content with a milder version? Be cautious, but don’t let caution keep you from progressing – for any strength or muscle building routine to be effective it must include some overloading in the form of progression.
2. Can I still do certain exercises? It is more important than ever to focus on the best exercises. These are core exercises for the shoulder girdle, back, and legs. Try the harder exercises: squats, dead lifts, and military presses. Even if you quit doing them years ago, give them another chance. Often, you just need to reduce the weight on the bar and improve your flexibility to start doing these exercises safely and productively. If an exercise is beneficial to a younger athlete, it can be useful to an older one. Don’t build limitation into your routine simply because of your age.
3. Can I really expect any gains at my age? Absolutely, the older body responds to strength training exactly as a younger one, but at a slower pace (this could be good for it helps you avoid injury and overwork). – You must adhere to principles of strength development.
1. Forget the old numbers. Don’t become fixated on how strong you used to be. You’ll lose focus on what you are currently trying to accomplish, and become discouraged. One of the keys to the routines that follow is small, steady strength increases over the long haul. It is important that you set realistic goals based on your current condition. What you used to do is ancient history. It’s how you look and feel today that really matters. Don’t set goals based on your previous best lifts (for some of you that would take you back to your 20’s and 30’s), but do set goals for your current age. For example, at age 55, perform 6 perfect reps in the bench press with 185 lbs. Set new personal records, but base them on where you are now in life.
2. You can set personal age related records every year. There is a formula used in weightlifting called the Malone–Meltzer age coefficients which adjusts for age. At age 55 your coefficient is 1.35. That means that if your goals were 300 (bench press) – 400 (squat) – 500 (deadlift), you would basically be achieving these goals with lifts of 225, 300, and 370. This puts everything into perspective with definitive goals within your reach. (You can Google Malone– Meltzer to find what the coefficient is for your age.)
Here are a couple of sample workout schedules. Program #1 is for the over 50 male who is just starting training or starting back training after a prolonged lay off. Program 2 is for anyone who is looking for an alternative workout that will save time yet build strength and muscle.
a. Acquaint or reacquaint yourself to the basics – perfect your form on the best exercises.
b. Slowly build or rebuild your strength on the basic exercises.
c. Halt and reverse age related muscle loss.
d. Improve body composition – more muscle, less fat.
2. Scheduling. 2 or 3 weight training sessions per week. Alternate workouts A and B with at least one day and preferably two days between each workout – do not overtrain.
3. Warming up and stretching
a. Five to ten minutes of a general body warm–up is very important. You can use an air–dyne or elliptical exerciser to warm–up everything at once. Or just go through the various movements you’ll be using in your workout with little or no weight.
b. Next, stretch between sets and exercises. Flexibility is an A number 1 priority for the older bodybuilder. Your workout should be: Lift, stretch, lift, stretch then leave.
4. Progression. You will want to lift as much as you can right away. Everyone does. But, you have to look at the long term. Start with a weight 70% or less than what you are currently capable of using. Concentrate on training consistency and proper form. We want to progress very slowly over a prolonged period of time. If you add 5 lbs to an exercise every other week for 3 months, you’ll have added more than 30 pounds to each exercise.
a. On the exercises which have a 10–12 rep range, add weight the following workout for exercises where you got 12 good reps on at least two of the sets.
b. For those with a 6–8 rep goal, add weight when you can perform 8 reps in perfect form on one or more of the sets.
5. Keys. Consistency, correct technique and slow, sustained poundage progression. Your weight increases should be as small as possible. If you have micro plates (1.25 lbs or less, by all means use them).
Squat: 3 sets x 10–12 reps
Bench Press: 3x6–8
Barbell Row: 3 x 6–8
DB Shoulder Press: 3 x 10–12
DB Curl: 3 x 10–12
Abs / Calves: One exercise for each, 3 x 15 or 2 x 20 per exercise
Deadlift: 3 x 6–8
Incline DB Press: 3 x 10–12
Pulldown (using chin grip with palms facing you):
3 x 10–12
Barbell Press: 3 x 6–8
Barbell Curl: 3 x 6–8
Abs / Calves: One exercise for each, 3 x 15 or 2 x 20 per exercise
1. Objectives. This workout is for anyone who needs a change from his current program. It is terrific for the 50+ male who has been training regularly, but is at a standstill as far as strength.
a. Many of you will think this program is not enough, but that may be just the reason your progress has stalled – you’ve been doing too much.
b. Most assume higher reps are best for the 50 and older bodybuilding, but this is not necessarily the case. Your goal is to regain or continue to gain as much strength as you can. This means 4–6 sets of 4–6 reps on core exercises.
3. Advantages. You’ll start building (or at the least, regaining) strength and since the workouts are shorter, you’ll have more time for recuperation (and a real life).
4. Time Tested. This routine is based on time tested strength building basics. Give it at least a good three months. Personally, I’ve been using variations of this program for two years and am still making gains (at 65 years of age).
a. Progression: Program #2 embraces a variation on the 5 sets of 5 reps theme similar to what I’ve been following for the past 15 months. Reg Park, one of the strongest and best developed bodybuilders of the pre–steroid era often trained with this method. He recommended that your first set (after a thorough warm–up) be with 60% of your 5–rep max, set #2 with 80% of your 5–rep max, and set 3, 4, and 5 with your 5–rep max. For illustrative purposes let’s say that at age 55 you are capable of 5 reps with 200lbs. Your first set (after warm–ups) would be with 120, set #2 with 160, and sets 3, 4, and 5 with 200. When you can reach 5 reps on each of these final 3 sets you would increase the load by 5lbs on all sets. (Note: you never want to increase the poundage on an exercise by more than 2–3%.)
5. Warming up... and stretching should be the same as Program #1.
Squat: General warm–up, then as many warm–up sets of 5, 3, or
1 as necessary to get to your first set, then 5 x 5
Curl: 5 sets x 5 reps
Close Grip Bench Press (hands just a little closer than shoulder
width apart): 5 x 5
Weighted sit–up or crunch: 2 x 8–12
Auxiliary work for forearms, neck, calves: I personally include
neck work (as I am trying to avoid "old man’s neck") and forearm
After at least 1 day’s rest, go to workout B.
Bench Press: 5 sets x 5 reps
Bent row: 5 x 5
Plank: 2 x 30–60 seconds
(Optional) Alternate chins (palms facing you) and Dips (or pushups):
2–3 sets of max reps
Now, take 2 days off and go to Workout C.
Deadlift: 5 x 5
Shoulder Press: 5 x 5
Front Pulldown: 5 x 5
Hanging Leg Raise or any ab exercise you like: 2 x 8–15
Auxiliary work for forearms, neck, calves
Adjustments I’ve made to continue making progress.
Regardless of how slowly you progress, eventually you’ll find it nearly impossible to continuing getting 5 sets of 5 on each exercise as described above. Here are some modifications I have made that have kept me progressing.
a. I’ve used a 5–4–3–2–1 rep scheme adding 10lbs per set from my 5–rep max.
b. I’ve alternated weeks of 5 sets of 2 with about 10% above my 5–rep max. Example: If I was capable of 200 x 5 for 3 sets, instead of going to 205 the next week, I’d do 5 sets of 2 with 220, and then go to 205 the following week.
c. I’ve also had to modify exercises (due to that darned wrist). I use heavy 1–arm DB incline presses for the bench press, thumbs up curl (with a log bar or dumbells), 1–arm db press for shoulder press (which I love), and for the close grip bench, I’ve been using a set of cable strands for tricep press-outs.
I recommend higher protein and moderate to low carbs for the over 50 bodybuilder who is trying to build muscle and strength while losing some fat. Always include at least 1 UMP protein shake. I mix 1 scoop of UMP vanilla with 1 scoop of Provosyn and drink it at least once per day and often twice.
30 grams of protein per meal is the minimum you should shoot for and 4–6 meals per day. Some current research shows that the older bodybuilder may need more protein than the younger one, so don’t be afraid to go up to 50 grams of protein in a meal.
Unfortunately, as we grow older our metabolism does slow down a little. Therefore we have to watch our caloric intake. I’d estimate 12–13 calories per pound of bodyweight is about right if your goal is to add muscle and strength while tightening up. Keep carbs under 150 grams per day on most days.
Many of BI’s best clients are in the 40–50–and 60 age brackets. I think one of the reasons for this is these guys have been around, tried it all, and settled on what works.
Here is my A list of supplements for the over 50: UMP, Quadracarn, Muscle Synergy or Creatine Select.
Next in importance would be Density or Mass Aminos, Lean Out, and 7–Keto to keep your metabolism cooking.
I hope that this article has given you some new thoughts regarding strength training and muscle building for the over 50 bodybuilder. Please let me know if you have any questions related to the article. I wouldn’t mind including a "mature muscle" question and answer column in each issue if enough of you older readers are interested. Further topics we might pursue are intensity cycling, athletic type movements, bodypart specialization, exercise modification, and more in depth supplement stacks for specific goals.