Fitness Over 50 – Exercises To Build Muscle as You Get Older


The older you are, the more important it is for you to do weight training. Doesn’t seem right, does it? The ads for gyms and weight training products show buff young people showing off their svelte bodies or rippling muscles. Yet, although appearance is still important, older people really need to maintain their strength. There are millions of people, some as young as their 60s, whose activities are limited because they are too weak to take care of themselves.

The average person starts losing muscle mass somewhere about age 25, so it’s not too early to start working on maintaining, or increasing, yours. You won’t get bulging muscles from doing some moderate weight training. Bodybuilders work really hard to get those rippling muscles-and sometimes add a little chemical help.

Speaking of chemical help, don’t count on supplements to build muscle. You have to work out. You need some iron, in the form of barbells, dumbbells, or weight machines, although some people start with rubber bands. Body weight exercises, or calisthenics, can be good, but the main thing is to ask your muscles to do more than they are used to.

The advice to use light weights and high repetitions if you’re older is not accurate. If you choose a dumbbell that’s no heavier than your steam iron and you can do 30 reps of a biceps curl, it’s too light. The rule-of-thumb is under 6 reps for maximum strength, 8-12 for building muscle and some strength, and over 15 for muscular endurance. Yes, you do want to build muscle. Remember that most of your arm that isn’t muscle is fat. And you can’t get strong without sufficient muscle.

It used to be thought that you couldn’t build muscle after 50. This was because research was conducted using weights that were too light. Then there was a study where men in their 60s were asked to do exercises with challenging resistance, and they ended up stronger than they ever were. A subsequent study was done in a nursing home, and people in their 80s and 90s were able to increase strength, muscle, and functional capacity.

You can join a gym, but you don’t have to. You can work out at home, or check out the local YMCA or parks and recreation department. Use machines, body weight, free weights (dumbbells and barbells), or some of each. You can get by with as little as 20 minutes twice a week, or work out several times a week. Make sure you work every muscle group during that week. It’s important to learn to do the exercises correctly.

Start out with light weights until you learn the exercises. Then work up to a weight that tires your muscles after 10 or 12 repetitions. You can do some of your exercises at different reps, but don’t go so light that you don’t challenge your muscles or so heavy that you can’t maintain good technique. Weight training can make you feel really good about yourself, but be sure you get adequate rest and don’t overdo. The program you choose depends on your level of fitness, time schedule, and level of enthusiasm. Talk to your doctor before beginning to see if there are exercises you should avoid.


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  1. I’ve recovered from a debilitating MVA and cervical surgery but have flexibility limitations in my neck and head. I want and need to build strength and muscle tone after many years of recovery. I’m now medication free and deal with pain through meditation and relaxation techniques. I would like advice on the best home-based exercise routine to accomplish my goals. I’m a senior female.

    • shapefit

      Hi Kate – I highly recommend contacting your doctor and ask them about specific exercises that will be okay to use with your current condition. Some great exercises to include in your home-based workout can include pushups, crunches, squats and lunges but the main concern is whether these movements will be okay for you to use with your prior issues. It’s always better to be on the safe side so run this by your physician to get clearance before starting any type of exercise program.

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