Most men getting up there in years can recall, when prompted, being in “the best shape of their life.”
They might reference a specific summer, or a photograph, or a bench press number. Fitness has long maintained this strange, hazy connection with nostalgia, a glory days cocktail of contentment and can’t-be-bothered-ness. As we get older and slower and duties pile up, it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that one’s physical prime is firmly in his past.
One supreme casualty of this natural progression is two words that filter through the minds of almost every young man with a gym membership: get big. Men commonly play out the back nine of their exercising lives on bikes, yoga mats … or couches. But how often do you hear about 40-and-uppers starting a strength-training program for the first time? How many men are actively trying to earn back their physique from 20 years before?
You don’t, and when you do, you think Good luck. Or Jeez, be careful. But we’re here to tell you to drown out that noise. We went ahead and spoke to a variety of professional trainers and powerlifters, all of them in the 35-60ish demographic, and they’re in unanimous agreement. It’s definitely tougher for old guys, but it is possible to reclaim a jacked physique, or build one that never really developed. Below, find their (and our) crucial tenets for how to achieve it.
An ideal routine
There are a couple different options, but the core principles remain the same. If you want to get big, no matter your age, you need to develop a dynamic strength-training plan and faithfully stick to it each week. One method is a split routine that uses compound movements to target major muscle groups. Robert Herbst, a 61-year-old, 19-time world champion powerlifter, says, “Focus on squats, bench press and deadlifts. Train at least four days a week and split up the body parts to allow recuperation. They should periodically cycle from high to low reps while adding weight and then go back.” Over the course of a month, that might mean: one week of low weight, the next with medium weight, the next with high weight, then back down to low. The circuit continues from there. Take note of Herbst’s commitment to legs; leg day isn’t fun, but it increases testosterone levels and actually makes it easier to build muscle everywhere else in the body.
Meanwhile, Matt Phelps, the founder of resistance training program Metabolic, endorses sessions with less volume, but more targets. He says, “Each session should have an upper-body push, upper body pull, hip hinge, lower body accessory movement, and a core exercise. Keep rest periods low between non-competing muscle groups in order to maximize cardiovascular conditioning, and simultaneously burn fat.” This method is a bit more new age-y, and incorporates elements that have made HIIT training and bodyweight exercises popular and accessible for guys looking to trim fat while simultaneously building muscle.
Know your testosterone
Testosterone levels in most men decrease by about one percent each year after the age of 30. And while we generally reference that falloff when discussing things like weakened libido, erectile dysfunction or impotence, lower numbers of testosterone also make it objectively harder to put on or maintain muscle. Basically, muscle fibers strengthen when testosterone binds to androgen receptors. As men lose testosterone, though, muscles weaken, and estrogen swoops in to create fat. Because lower testosterone is also accompanied by fatigue, it can feel impossible to break the vicious cycle.
But strength-training can help. Anthony Balduzzi, founder of The Fit Father Project, says “As we age, testosterone levels will drop considerably, but compound (multi-joint) movements can help combat that fall.” Before beginning those movements, try to lose some of the weight you’ve accrued from simply becoming a middle-aged man. This might mean adding some aerobic routines (jogging, jump roping, longer rep-centric lifts) into your weeks. It will jumpstart your muscle gain, trust us. Oh, and, unless you have abnormally low levels of testosterone stay away from testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). It has helped people get in better shape, but it comes with a number of risks, including heart problems and negative effects on the prostate.
Diet is king
And supplementation is the crown prince. Bulking will not happen, period, if you’re not putting the right stuff (or the right amount) on your plate. Balduzzi says, “For bulking, we need to eat at a caloric surplus. But we want the right calories so we put on muscle instead of fat. Focus on lean proteins (chicken, fish), complex carbohydrates (brown rice, quinoa), healthy fats (extra virgin olive oil, avocado), and veggies (broccoli, asparagus). And look into supplements like creatine monohydrate, Vitamin D, magnesium, and fish oil, which will all help your body run smoothly, maximize your workouts and promote restful recovery.”
Of course, protein is really important, too. Powerlifter Robert Herbst recommends that aging guys, “support the work they’re doing in the gym by eating at least 1g of protein for every 2lbs of body weight.” That protein can be procured from some of the meats listed above, or by a protein powder. I’m personally a huge fan of Dymatize, which tastes great and to this point has not given me a single digestive issue.
Take your rest days
“Don’t do more than four or less than three.” That’s certified fitness trainer and founder of Anabolic Bodies, Eddie Johnson, and he’s right. Three days of strength training is a good baseline to make sure you stay dedicated and see gains, but four days has to be your limit. When you’re 19 and mowing lawns for a summer, you can head to the gym for five to seven days a week. At any age above 35, though, your body absolutely needs those rest days. They allow your muscles to repair, give you a much-needed breather (which will result in better workouts later in the week), and let you focus on other aspects of your fitness.
Surfer/aging fit guy Laird Hamilton recommends eating more on rest days, getting a walk in (rest days don’t mean an excuse to sit on the couch all day) focusing on breathing and getting some tissue work in. Sleep is also extremely important. As your rate of recovery is slowing down, and only getting slower (plus, you’re more susceptible to injury), make sure you get lots of sleep. We’re huge proponents of spending big when it comes to sleep. You spend half your life in bed. Get a good one.
Cut back on drinking
This publication isn’t going to tell you to quit drinking. That advice would fly in the face of the 15,000 articles we write each year. However, you’ve got to be mindful of what and how much you drink. Obviously, the big culprit when trying to build sustainable, cut muscle is beer intake. The microbrew industry has already adapted to shifting opinions on those sugary, highly-caloric IPAs we all started guzzling in the first half of the decade.
You can now choose from a variety of tasty light beers like Harpoon Rec League or Ballast Point Lager. Try to limit ciders, cocktails with soda, and anything with a huge piece of fruit in it. You will get a brutal hangover, and you will miss your next workout. For what it’s worth, The Rock seems obsessed with tequila. This is probably a marketing long-con, but he’s pretty jacked and he happens to be 47 years old, so we’re all for it.
It’s not going to happen overnight
Bulking never does! It takes years to build defined mass on one’s frame, no matter how old you are. Once you master your base routine (no easy task) you have to figure out ways to “shock” your body, and introduce varying levels of weight, or it’s going to prove very difficult to see consistent gains. It’s also notably more difficult to invest that much emotional energy into your body when you’re neither a college sophomore or starring in the next Avengers spin-off.
We recommend gamifying the process. Keep notes on the weights you’ve put up, the amount of pull-ups you can do. Get a buddy involved. Celebrate minor victories and let them fuel your future efforts. When you’re in the gym, focus on “Time under tension” (TUT), or the amount of seconds that your muscles are under strain. Try to perfect the move, and consider, while you’re lifting, exactly what the move is, how it feels. This is called mind-muscle connection, and will help you understand the exact mechanics of what you’re doing, while perfecting your form. Obviously, A) your body is slowing down and B) there are grocery store runs, business trips and little league games you can’t miss. It’s a lot. But with a little thought, and a whole lot of dedication, it can be absolutely be done.