Building Muscle Over 40: Our Top Tips for Getting Stronger
We heavily rely on our muscular system to get through our days—from the obvious, like walking, lifting, and carrying things, to the less obvious, like breathing, digesting, and keeping your heart beating. But many people want to go above and beyond the basics and get visually stronger. And although it may be more difficult than when you were 30, building muscle in your 40s is certainly not impossible—in fact, doing so can even lengthen your life.
We’re not talking about reaching bodybuilder status here, but maintaining or building lean body mass in middle age is one of the best ways to preserve your quality of life, mobility, and physical function once you reach older age. Let’s take a closer look at how muscles impact longevity and the top ways to build muscle mass in your 40s and beyond.
Muscles and Longevity
As early as our 30s, our skeletal muscle strength and mass progressively decrease, with many people losing as much as 5% per decade. This drastic reduction in muscle capacity in older adults leads to a decline in quality of life and independence with an increased risk of frailty, falls, fractures, and mortality.
On the flip side, having adequate muscle as you age is linked to longevity. In research with older Americans, people with greater muscle mass had lower rates of mortality from any cause over a 10- to 16-year period. Those with the lowest muscle mass index (muscle mass relative to height) had a 58% risk of all-cause mortality, while those with the highest muscle mass index had a 41% risk.
Similarly, another study found that low muscle strength was linked to an increased risk of mortality, regardless of muscle mass. In this research, the prevalence of low muscle mass was higher in women (33%) compared to men (11%), suggesting that women may need to pay closer attention to maintaining their strength with age.
How to Build Muscle Over 40
Even if you weren’t a gym-goer in your younger years, it’s never too late to start building muscle—especially if you implement these tips.
1. Strength Training
Of course, you can’t build muscle if you don’t train your muscles—nobody has ever gotten buff sitting on the couch. Resistance or strength training exercises can include squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and rows. You don’t even need to go into a gym to perform strength training—you can use body weight at home for push-ups, squats, lunges, planks, and burpees, resistance bands for exercises like bicep curls, rows, chest presses, and leg lifts, or a stability ball for core work like planks, bridges, and Russian twists.
Purchasing a set of dumbbells or kettlebells for home use is a worthwhile investment that doesn’t take up much space and can allow you to perform goblet squats, shoulder presses, deadlifts, and much more from the comfort of your home.
You’ll want to gradually increase the weights, reps, or resistance to challenge your muscles and encourage growth, and be sure to use proper form and technique to prevent injuries. If you’re unsure, watch tutorials or seek guidance from fitness professionals.
If you’re completely new to working out, don’t hesitate to contact a certified personal trainer for detailed guidance. You can also find plenty of exercise resources on YouTube, fitness apps, and websites that provide detailed workouts for various fitness levels.
2. Prioritize Protein
Protein is essential for muscle repair and growth. Although the RDA is set at 0.8 g/kg, we’ve seen that these recommendations may not be entirely accurate. More recent research suggests that aiming for a protein intake of at least 1.2 to 1.6 g/kg/day would be ideal for achieving optimal health outcomes in adults—essentially doubling the current RDA.
All protein is beneficial, but animal protein is more bioavailable and has fewer carbohydrates than plant-based protein (like beans and legumes). High-protein foods include red meat, pork, chicken, turkey, tofu, protein powder, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, eggs, fish, and seafood.
You should also focus on leucine-rich proteins. According to protein expert Dr. Layman, a leucine-focused diet is recommended to prevent muscle breakdown. If you are unable to consume leucine-rich foods consistently—beef, chicken, turkey, sardines, tuna, pork, and Parmesan cheese—an amino acid beverage or supplement could be beneficial. If preventing muscle breakdown is your goal—whether due to exercise or increasing age—supplemental amino acids offer a rapid delivery system to the muscles.
3. Fuel Your Body
Ensure you are not undereating for your caloric needs—and keep in mind that starting a new (or more intense) exercise program will increase the amount of calories you need per day. It can be challenging to build muscle if your body is in a calorie deficit, so slightly increasing the amount of calories you eat per day (ideally in the form of high-quality protein) can help you put on muscle mass. Keep in mind that calorie surpluses can lead to fat gain if you aren’t eating a balanced diet (i.e., don’t get your extra calories from soda and donuts!).
4. Be Consistent
One day per week at the gym is certainly better than zero—but it’s not going to help you build much muscle. Building muscle takes time, especially as you age. Be consistent with your workouts, schedule regular resistance training sessions, and gradually increase the intensity to challenge your muscles.
5. Mix in Cardio
While intense cardio is not conducive to growing muscles, it is important to mix up your exercise regimen. Adding in light to moderate cardio activities (like walking, jogging, swimming, etc.) can help give your muscles a break and work additional muscles that aren’t commonly used during weightlifting. Moderate cardio sessions can also benefit your overall recovery.
6. Remember to Recover
Along the same lines, you need to prioritize recovery. You actually don’t build muscle in the gym—that is when your muscles are torn down, but sleeping and recovery time is when they grow. Allow your muscles to recover and grow by incorporating rest days into your workout routine. Sleep is also crucial for muscle recovery, so aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. It can be helpful to utilize smart watches or rings to assess your HRV (heart rate variability). If your HRV drops below your average, that’s a sign that your body is not well recovered and you need a rest day.
7. Focus on Flexibility
While flexibility itself doesn't directly cause muscles to grow, it does play a vital role in supporting the factors that contribute to effective workouts, injury prevention, and better recovery.
For example, being more flexible can improve your range of motion, which can lead to better muscle activation when you strength train. This could enhance muscle growth by targeting muscles throughout their entire range.
Plus, better flexibility can aid in muscle recovery and prevent injuries, which are major setbacks to any muscle-building routine. Adding a short stretching routine before and after your workouts is a great place to start, and low-impact activities like yoga and pilates can also help boost your flexibility.
8. Supplement Smart
Lastly, some supplements can aid in muscle growth—but they are not a magic pill that means you don’t have to put in any work!
In addition to protein powder, the two most commonly used—and safest—supplements for muscle growth are BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) and creatine monohydrate.
BCAAs consist of three amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Research has shown that supplementing with BCAAs can boost muscle mass or synthesis. One study with men in their 70s found that taking 6 grams of BCAAs per day led to significant increases in early myofibrillar protein synthesis rates—the major component of the skeletal muscle.
Another study showed that young men taking 5.6 grams of BCAAs after resistance training had a 22 percent increase in muscle protein synthesis compared to a control group.
Creatine is a molecule produced in the body that plays an essential role in energy production. While we naturally produce creatine when we eat animal proteins, supplemental creatine may play a role in supporting muscle mass and strength, recovery, and overall exercise performance.
This is because creatine turns into creatine phosphate in the body, which helps make energy in the form of ATP. Supplemental creatine can boost your body’s ability to replenish energy stores in the muscles and is linked to increases in muscle mass and strength after exercise.
Muscle mass and strength are vital for healthy aging. Not only do we need muscle to perform daily activities and maintain physical function and quality of life, but it also impacts longevity and reduces the risk of many chronic conditions.
But even if your biceps are not Popeye-status at the moment, there’s plenty you can do to boost your muscle mass and improve your health into your 40s and beyond.
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