Fit Over Fifty: How To Build Muscle At Any Age
This article was written for The Ready State Blog by Dr. Kelly Starrett and his wife Juliet Starrett. It is available for free there, alongside many other similar articles. If you like this kind of content I strongly recommend checking them out.
Muscle mass is a major component of fitness, however you may not realize just how important it is for your health.
- Better stress response
- Better outcomes in acute disease and injury, including cancer
- Likely lower muscle mass exacerbates chronic disease symptoms
- Lower risk of obesity, diabetes, and insulin resistance
But what if you are already in your later years? Sure, there are plenty of strong and old athletes, but they must have began training in their youth. If it’s your first time, trying to gain muscle in your 50s and older must be a pipe dream right? Not so.
You see, though I am only 25, I am more familiar with this problem than you realize.
In 2017 I did one Crossfit workout too many and kicked off 2 years of health issues, specifically HPA-Axis Disregulation and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. My biology became particularly averse to exercise and I began to lose muscle tone.
Now, before anyone goes bashing Crossfit, I was training at an extreme level by anyone’s standards. In trying to compete at the Crossfit games, I logged close to 15 hours a week of Crossfit wods, olympic weightlifting sessions, yoga, and sauna use. Without knowledge of the importance of recovery, professional coaching, or blood work, this was simply not sustainable.
Burning out force me to change my outlook from “how much can I work out?” to “how little can I work out?” The answer? Training methods designed for older populations and longevity turned out to be pretty dang effective for a mid-twenty year old with a chronic condition.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love sport and exercise, and now that I’m healthy I’ll still go on the occasional 3 day bender at the rock climbing gym. However, understanding the power of less is more got my health back, and the methods here are still my normal training routine.
How much do I train these days? Just 15 minutes.
15 minutes? Surely Keenan, you must be joking. I’m not joking, and don’t call me Shirley. What’s more is that I don’t train 15 minutes a day to achieve fitness and health, I train 15 minutes A WEEK.
But how? How could this possibly be? This is blasphemy?!
Well here’s the scoop: based on scientific research, recovery plays a much bigger factor in fitness than many people realize. Training twice a week was found to be equally effective in building strength as training more, and training once a week was found to be 80% as effective.
When you train more than this, you use more resources and therefore your body needs more recovery. Sure, it’s fun, and there are ways to get more time in the gym without hurting yourself, but you really don’t need it in order to improve your strength or fitness.
Using research back techniques, people of all ages can continue to build strength, optimize their fitness, and stay healthy with as little as 15 minutes a week at the gym.
Exercise is a message, recovery allows the response
An easy way to understand how 15 minutes of weekly exercise can yield lifelong results is to understand what exercise actually is.
Exercise does not build muscle. Your biology builds muscle in response to exercise. Basically, exercise is just a message.
When you exercise, what is technically happening is that you are destroying your muscle using stress. No muscle building is occurring as a direct result of the exercise. After exercise is over, inflammation and damage trigger hormonal signals that tell your body to initiate repair.
Over the next days, your body repairs the damage that was caused from your exercise, and then it builds muscle beyond that. In short, it is during recovery that your body actually improves.
From a survival standpoint, your body makes you stronger so you can better handle experiences like your workout in the future.
This can also be understood by knowing what happens if you are stagnant: your body loses muscle mass and atrophies. You also experience accelerated aging and the health issues that accompany that. Even if you eat a perfect diet, if you don’t move your body regularly, your health declines.
This still doesn’t explain why you would only need 15 minutes of exercise to build muscle, but we’re getting there.
An intense exercise session sends a bigger signal. High intensity exercise, such as weightlifting, crossfit, sprinting, etc. elicit superior hormone changes compared to moderate or low intensity bouts.
Once your body has the signal, however, continued exercise just creates more damage and depletes more resources that will need to be replaced. Recovery, instead, becomes the main priority.
Now, this isn’t to say that training more often is always a bad thing. Over-reaching is a common technique used in advanced athletes to break through plateaus and improve faster.
Basically, for 4 to 6 weeks, an athlete will workout “too much,” never quite getting that 48 to 72 hours of recovery between workouts. Typically strength and performance will improve during the first two weeks, then start to plateau, and then begin to decline.
At this point the athlete takes a complete break from training for 2 weeks or more. When they return to training, they are often able to break through old plateaus and keep improving.
The problem is that over-reaching is complex. You are gambling with injury and burnout. Sure, you can make faster gains than you would by recovering between every workout, but if you get injured or damage your health then you’ll lose the race in the long run.
If over-reaching is the “hare” so-to-speak, then the minimum effective dose methods I use are the “tortoise.”
Although the hare is faster, he can get carried away. He may run too fast and injure himself, or get off course. To continue using this as an exercise metaphor, he may “overtrain” and then need a far longer break to recover.
The tortoise, on the other hand, keeps his slow but steady pace. He never gets off course, he never stops making gains, and he never gets injured. He also has plenty of time to recover along the way.
The hare may make much faster gains, until he gets injured. The tortoise will plod along for years though, and end up reaching heights and covering miles the hare could never even dream of.
The efficacy of a program like this is relevant to everyone. In the following sections I will detail what I consider to be the perfect workout to create a weekly exercise stimulus to create strength gains. Then we’ll go deep on how to recover during the rest of your time in order to yield the maximum benefit.
The program I use is adapted from the book “Body By Science: A Research-Based Program For Strength Training, Body Building, And Complete Fitness In 12 Minutes A Week,” by Dr. Doug McGuff and John Little. The program was developed with over 400 references.
The body by science workout consists of 5 exercises: Seated Row, Chest Press, Pulldown, Overhead Press, and Leg Press. These may be cut down to 3 exercises if you need less intensity due to age or health: Chest Press, Seated Row, Leg Press.
As far as results? Vee Ferguson lost over 70lbs of fat over the course of 3 years training 5 exercises once every seven days. This was when Vee was 43 years old. Now a trainer and proponent of the program, Vee is closer to 60 and still, for lack of better words, absolutely jacked.
Each of these exercises is performed slowly, 10 to 20 seconds per rep. For a 10 second push-up for example, you’d spend 5 seconds lowering your body to the ground and 5 seconds raising back up to the plank position.
Sets are performed to failure. You continue to exercise until you cannot perform another rep. Then at that point, you try to perform a final rep anyway. When you cannot move your body or the weight any further, you flex and try to hold position for 10 seconds.
The goal is to spend 90 seconds to 2 minutes on each exercise, so you should pick a weight that allows you to reach failure around 2 minutes. If it takes you longer than 2 minutes, then increase your weight next time. If it takes less than 90 seconds, lower your weight next time.
The reason reps are performed slowly is to activate all your muscle fibers. When you perform fast reps, you will activate your fast twitch muscle fibers until they are exhausted, however you may have slow twitch fibers that are not strong enough to perform another rep, yet have not been fully activated.
The result? Super slow reps have been shown to yield 50% greater muscle gain results in both men and women than regular training. I also personally believe that slow rep training promotes mobility in comparison to explosive fast movements.
By working slowly through your entire range of motion, you have to be strong and mobile. When you go fast, you can cheat by “falling” through parts of your range of motion. Slow work instead requires you to be strong at each individual point of the movement. I have noticed preservation and even improvement of mobility from this style of training, as opposed to tightness and injury.
Of course, I also do significant mobility work using The Ready State’s methods alongside my exercise programs.
My only gripe about the body by science program is that they heavily promote the use of exercise machines, whereas I do not (at all.)
Our bodies are highly complex movement generators. Machines work by isolating that movement. Sure you may gain strength in this highly isolated movement, but you neglect vast components of your biology. Essentially, you create stagnancy.
This is all just to say that I think you should avoid using machines if at all possible. The one, true area where I like machines is if you are injured, and the machine allows you to exercise in a way that does not aggravate your injury. This is rare though, and I’d rather you try finding an alternative free weight movement than a machine.
My personal rendition of the big 5 body by science workout involves free-weights or body weight for each exercise.
- Gymnastic Ring Row or Bent Over Row (Dumbbells or barbell)
- Weighted push-up, or bench press (with barbell)
- Pull-up, assisted pull-up, or cable pull-down. Though technically a machine, pull-down machines are usually not isolated like other machines. They use cables, which allow for varied range of motion. I still prefer pull-ups but pull-down machines aren’t as bad as lever based machines.
- Overhead “strict” press with free weights (barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.)
- Weighted squat (goblet or odd object style squat)
Have a spotter for barbell work
Because these exercises work to total muscle failure, you should always have a spotter any time you are “under” a weight. If you are doing a bench-press with a barbell, or a back squat, for example, you need spotters.
If you get stuck under the weight during the last 10 second hold, it is difficult to dump the weight and get out from under it. I do barbell versions of these exercises occasionally, but mostly I use body weight exercises or hold objects like medicine balls or kettlebells.
If you are new to barbell work, it helps to have a coach to teach you technique. You can learn proper barbell technique from books as well. Dr. Starrett’s Becoming A Supple Leopard is one of the best books I’ve found for learning proper exercise archetypes.
Picking your own exercises
Another way to make your workout is to think in terms of categories rather than moves. You can make your own body by science workout in this manner.
- Row movement
- Chest press movement
- Pull down movement
- Overhead press movement
- Leg exercise
This allows for much greater variety. It also allows for addressing greater fitness by using unstable (but safe) movements. For tracking progress, I suggest doing the same movements every week for 4 to 6 weeks. Then try switching it up.
You can get pretty creative when picking your own exercises. I like to incorporate balance into my training by using medicine balls or bosu balls. An example of a common Body By Science workout I might do these days is as follows.
But I Want To Train More
You certainly can. Everyone has different genetics, and the body by science workout is designed with everyone in mind. You may be able to get greater benefit with more training.
I personally love to rock climb. Rock climbing is basically weightlifting, there’s no way not to break down major muscle in a rock climbing session. When I’m doing the body by science program, I find I can get away with one rock climbing workout a week while still recovering fully.
I suggest the same for you. Don’t train at high intensity more than twice a week unless you are willing to take a 2 week break every 4 to 6 weeks. Beyond these two high intensity sessions, which include crossfit, weightlifting, sprinting, and anything hard, I allow myself two skill workouts a week.
Skill work refers to training to improve a skill but not to improve fitness. For me this is currently Daito Ryu Aiki-Jiu-Jitsu, dance, or rock climbing. Many forms of skill work may count as your “high intensity” workout too.
Rock climbing always feels like a hard workout due to the strength intensive nature of the activity, but I don’t typically feel as beat up from Jiu-jitsu, and I can participate in dance fairly often without burning out.
You can also train more in other activities by reducing the frequency of your body by science style workout. When I want to do more climbing, I do my 5 exercises every 2 weeks instead of every week.
This all depends on your fitness level and genetics as well. Furthermore, the purpose of these extra workouts is not to become stronger and healthier faster. The only reason I train more than once a week is because I am participating in activities I enjoy. They are not required for health or fitness, perse.
In short, the maximum load I can sustain weekly, without having to take over-reaching breaks, is:
2 high intensity workouts: body by science, crossfit, rock-climbing
2 to 3 skill workouts depending on intensity: swimming, dance, jiu-jitsu, running, etc.
Regardless, the workout is only the stimulus. Recovery is where the magic happens. I know workouts are the sexy and fun part of getting fit, but honestly the next section is what this guide is truly about.
Recovery, How To Optimize Muscle Gain From Any Training
Ever hear the phrase: Abs are made in the kitchen? I love this because it reminds people that without diet, you won’t see the full extent of fitness gains you could otherwise expect.
Abs aren’t just made in the kitchen, however. They are also made in your bed while you sleep, on the lacrosse ball when you tissue-mash, and in your stress-reduction habits throughout the day.
This part of the article is for these reasons arguably more important than the last. Sure, you need to have an exercise stimulus to tell your body to get stronger, but beyond that, recovery is how you optimize that improvement.
Sleep For Pete’s Sake!
Of all the things I could promote for recovery, sleep is the numero uno. The only thing that competes with sleep for optimizing your muscle gain results is your diet, but unlike diet, sleep is simple.
Get at least 8 hours every night and sleep at the same times. Go to bed at the same time. Wake up at the same time.
Why is it so important to have stable sleep and wake times? Well, research on shift workers has found that constantly changing sleep times has a significant negative effect on health markers of multiple kinds.
As far as getting 8 hours goes, undersleeping is clearly linked to poor mental function, worse health markers such as blood pressure, and negative hormone trends including those of insulin, human growth hormone and testosterone.
Poor sleep is not good if you want to be fit.
In order to optimize your sleep, try using some of these tips:
Foam roll before bed.
As an educated audience of The Ready State, I’m sure many of you use their service to optimize your mobility. If so, start doing a few tissue-mashing techniques before bed. Like getting a massage, this can optimize your parasympathetic nervous system and turn off fight-or-flight responses.
If you don’t mobilize yet, then definitely start. Buy a lacrosse ball online and watch some of the videos on this site. Mobility work has many benefits that go far beyond improving sleep.
Write down a to do list for the coming day
Research shows that a to-do list, written before bed, improves sleep quality. The more detailed the better; This tactic is one of the most simple, and most effective techniques I’ve found for sleeping better. It is free, easy, and works well for many people.
Stubborn sleeper? Then leave your phone in another room at night too. Device use has been linked to later bed-times and lower quality sleep.
Take a cold shower a few hours before bed
Cold showers can be stimulating but they have positive benefits for the parasympathetic nervous system, which is your rest-and-relax response. Cold showers at least 2 hours before bed can have powerful benefit for sleep quality by improving HRV scores.
If you find that they energize you too much, try taking them even earlier. You can also try alternating between hot and cold water (ending with cold) to elicit a more relaxing effect.
Eat real food, decide how much, & eat enough protein
Eating real food means eating things you could butcher or find in a garden. Avoiding ultraprocessed foods such as packaged goods, candy, cured meats, and other common items in our modern marketplace is the first step.
Plain and simple, we are biologically adapted to eating real and whole foods. We are not adapted to consuming chemical preservatives and ultraprocessed foods.
It is beyond the scope of this article to deep dive, but my suggestion for maximum recovery is to start by going paleo or close to it. The paleo diet restricts evolutionary problematic foods such as grains and dairy.
Caloric deficits and surplus (how much to eat)
As far as how much to eat? That depends on your goals. If you are trying to lose weight, then you should have a caloric deficit on most days. This means consuming less calories than you are burning daily.
Once a week though, have a surplus by eating more than you need. If you restrict calories for extended periods of time, your metabolism will likely lower which makes it easier to put on unwanted weight.
If on the other hand you are lean already and more interested in gaining muscle, then for a time you should eat a consistent caloric surplus. Caloric surplus is not good for health or longevity if done chronically, but it does promote muscle gain when combined with good protein intake and proper exercise.
I recommend sticking to a consistent caloric surplus for a maximum of 3 months. Then it is best to return to a deficit most of the time for the promotion of good health.
Don’t go overboard with your caloric deficit or surplus
Remember, the style of training we’re doing is about being a tortoise, not a hare. Sure, big calorie deficits can elicit faster weight-loss and bigger surpluses are necessary for gaining muscle past our genetic limits, but these are extreme scenarios that come with side effects.
For long term health, just aim to have a mild to moderate caloric deficit most of the time, and during times when you are trying to gain some muscle, have a consistent slight surplus.
I do not believe it is highly beneficial to take protein powders, as long as you eat enough protein over the course of your whole day. How soon after a workout you consume protein does not appear to be deeply important either when it comes to research.
Sure, if you are an expert body builder trying to gain mass, it may help to get more strict, but if you are training for health like we promote here, just make sure you are eating enough protein. I aim to hit a maximum of 200 grams of protein per day (1 gram per pound of body weight.)
Separately from protein, your job is to fuel your body. I like a cyclical ketogenic diet, which relies primarily on fats for fuel, because ketosis has been shown to promote muscle gain.
However, switching over to a ketogenic diet can be a difficult process. If you are not already doing a ketogenic diet, I suggest getting 50% of your calories from carbohydrates that are healthy.
If you focus on getting enough protein and make sure to eat mostly whole, unprocessed food, your other dietary macros will probably sort themselves out.
Diet is highly personalized, but you can’t go wrong with a foundation in real, whole foods, moderate caloric deficit or surplus based on your goals, and adequate protein intake.
Even when only working out for 15 minutes a day, I spend collective hours a day moving.
While I am writing, I get up every 30 minutes and mobilize or do some squats. I also walk my dogs twice a day and go to a nature preserve for several hours once a week.
Muscle mass is a factor in better aging, but this can only go so far. The negative health effects of being stagnant (sitting for long periods, not moving much, etc.) cannot be solved by once-a-day exercise.
Instead, consistent movement and changing posture are the key to beating back stagnation.
Furthermore, consistent movement keeps your lymphatic system active. The lymphatic system is one of the ways your body clears toxins. Unlike the blood in your circulatory system, lymph fluid cannot move on its own but instead relies on muscle contractions and movement you engage in.
Then there’s mobility
Mobilize Every Day
It wouldn’t be The Ready State if I didn’t suggest working on your mobility, and this is a crucial aspect of active recovery as well as long term health.
I strictly follow Dr. Kelly Starrett’s suggestion to mobilize for 15 minutes a day minimum, every day. Fascia, the connective tissue that holds every piece of our body together, also holds tension.
This tension can create muscle imbalances, pain, and promote injury throughout our bodies.
It also restricts blood and lymph flow, and may house the tension of traumatic memories. Basically, tension in your body affects everything from muscle pain to mental health.
If I could pick one health technique for the whole world to adopt right now, it would be 15 minutes of good body maintenance a day. The benefits of working on releasing your body’s tension are inarguable.
So if you aren’t already, start by following 15 minutes of The Ready State mobility work per day, and if you can, do 2 to 3 hour long sessions a week.
If you follow the recovery tips in this guide to the letter, I can guarantee better results from your training no matter what you do. Exercise is the stimulus. Recovery is where the improvement happens.
Muscle mass is a factor in living a good long life, free of disease, injury, and obesity. However many of us have difficulty finding a way to exercise, especially if you are already older and are just beginning your fitness journey.
Not to worry, even if you are over 50 years old and have never touched a barbell, you can build muscle and get these benefits for the rest of your life.
This is because exercise is merely a stimulus, and recovery is when adaptations occur. Many people over-train by doing multiple sessions a week. It’s fun, and it is great for building skill. You can also use more complex techniques like over-reaching to get away with it, but the alternative method is to be the tortoise rather than the hare.
Research shows that muscle gain is equal when training 2 days a week as opposed to training more, and training once a week is 80% as effective as training more.
If you are busy, new to exercise, older, or recovering from burnout, this type of training is far more efficacious than hammering the gym every day.
By focusing on this idea of exercise being a signal, you can get lifelong improvement from a simple 12 to 15 minutes of strength training a week.
Beyond the workout, recovery is when you actually make adaptations. Regardless of your training program, you can improve your results by optimizing sleep, eating whole foods with adequate protein and fuel, and engaging in mobility work as well as consistent movement to prevent injury and also stimulate blood and lymph flow.
CEO or crossfitter, aging athlete or complete beginner, the principles here can let you gain muscle and preserve your health for the rest of your life. Thank you for reading and continue improving your Ready State!
- Written by Keenan Eriksson