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. Avatar

    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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    I am a 52 year old male who over the last year started heavy weight training. I want to develop my leg strength with exercises like squats and really develop my upper body since I was previously concentrating on cycling. I have been putting in 5 to 6 days a week of weights mixed in with some cardio. My question is how much muscle would someone of my age be expected to put on in a year with that level of training?

    • shapefit

      Hi Neil – At your age, it would be great if you can gain a solid 3-5 pounds of lean muscle per year. It all depends on your current testosterone levels along with your diet and overall calories. You might want to ask your doctor about taking a blood test panel to check your testosterone (free and total) to see where your current levels are at. If they come in at the lower end of the range (below 300 ng/dL) then you might want to look into testosterone replacement therapy if your goal is to increase lean muscle mass.

      • Avatar

        Thanks for your reply of which I shall follow up. Hoping to get some advice. I am a type 1 diabetic who has been working hard at leaning up from being a bit blobby 5 years ago. I do loads of heavy weight sessions, cardio and core work. The problem is as much as I’ve lost fat everywhere else I am struggling around my navel area big time with a 34 inch circumference. I’m 52 yrs old 5 foot 8 with a 40 inch chest and fairly broad. 73 kilos. Can anyone tell me how to lose this inner tube around my waist for good? I want to have the best power to weight ratio without losing muscle. Look forward to your suggestions given my insulin dependence.

        • shapefit

          Neil – Toning up your midsection really comes down to your diet and cardio plan. You need to burn off body fat in order to lean down and decrease your stomach. For men, the abs are the last place fat wants to come off so it can be a bit difficult. Since your a diabetic, the best thing to do is consult with your physician about the best diet that will work for you. It’s important to choose the right foods with your condition to both be safe and optimize your physique. Best of luck!

          • Avatar

            So when you say “optimal physique”, does that mean us guys over 50 may have to settle for something that’s a little less ripped, shredded, and six-packed as we had hoped?

          • shapefit

            Hi Alec – Since everyone’s physique is different, it really comes down to attaining the best gains and results for your own body.

        • Avatar

          Try intermittent fasting. I’m 51 and started in OK shape – 5′ 10″ and 175 – but carrying too much fat. With IF I’ve lost 18 lbs so far while adding a little muscle.

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    I’m a personal trainer in my 50s. I have over 20 years of experience in the health and fitness industry. I applaud your article. This is the same information I’ve been telling people my entire career. Strength training is one of the most important things you can do to build muscle and maintain your strength as you age and it’s never to late to start. Thanks for sharing.

    • ShapeFit

      Hi Scott – Sure, you can gain muscle without eating meat. You can get quality protein by eating beans, tofu and even quinoa. One of the easiest ways to get enough protein is to use a protein supplement (powder, bar or shake). Hemp protein powder is an excellent source if you’re looking for a vegan source.

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