by Amber Sayer
Although there are tons of strength training advice and fitness articles related to building muscle for younger people in their athletic prime, and a growing number of resources and research about strength training for seniors, it often seems like middle-aged adults are forgotten.
So, can you build muscle in your 40s and beyond? What are the best exercise and nutrition tips for how to build muscle after age 40?
In this guide, we will discuss if you can build muscle in your 40s, how aging affects muscle mass and strength, the benefits of building muscle after 40 years of age, and the best workouts and diet tips for building muscle in your 40s.
Why Am I Losing Muscle In My 40s?
The unfortunate reality is that we naturally begin to lose muscle mass and strength after the age of 30 or so, in a process known as age-related sarcopenia. In fact, most studies suggest that adults start losing about 3 to 8% of their muscle mass per decade after the age of 30, with an increased rate of muscle loss after the age of 60.
Moreover, decreases in muscular strength are thought to be even faster and more significant, which is then thought to indicate that muscle quality declines significantly as we age, particularly after age 50.
However, according to some research, the rate of muscle loss and muscle strength for middle-aged adults may be even faster than we previously thought, indicating that losing muscle mass and strength after age 40 may be more rapid than just the 1-1.5% per year rate that is often cited.
The study compared the differences in leg muscle strength and muscle mass between two groups of adults, those under age 40 (mean age of 31 years old) and those over age 40 (mean age 54 years old).
The results were shocking: the loss of average isometric leg strength in the group of participants over age 40 was between 16.6% and 27.1% for one angle of knee flexion and a whopping 31.2% to 40.9% in the other angle of knee flexion tested.
This means that over the two-decade age span of the groups, there was a loss of muscle strength in the legs that ranged from 16.6% to 40.9%, which works out to about 9 to 20% per decade.
What this ultimately means is that learning how to build muscle after age 40 is essential for preserving that early and surprisingly rapid rate of muscle and strength loss that occurs between the early 30s and early 50s.
Can You Build Muscle After 40?
The good news is that although the loss of muscle strength and size was once considered an inevitable part of getting older, research has demonstrated that it is indeed possible to build muscle after 40 and increase strength after 40.
In particular, consistent strength training in your 40s and beyond has been shown to not only slow the losses of muscle mass, strength, and bone density and the increase in body fat percentage but also potentially even reverse them.
This means that building muscle in your 40s can be an attainable goal so long as you are committed to implementing the best strategies for how to build muscle after 40 years of age.
Equally exciting is the fact that there is also evidence suggesting that strength training can reduce signs of aging at the cellular level.
How to Build Muscle After 40
The process of building muscle after 40 isn’t inherently all that much different from the steps for how to build muscle for younger adults. However, it takes more of a concerted, consistent, and disciplined effort devoted to all of the steps for how to build muscle over 40 because the changing hormonal levels for men and women start to compromise the ease with which your body is naturally inclined to build muscle rather than store body fat.
Here are some tips for how to build muscle after 40:
#1: Think High Volume
The best way to build muscle after 40 is to do enough training volume both in terms of reps, sets, workouts per week, and number of exercises per week, as well as the weights that you are lifting in a workout.
The general guidelines for building muscle, is to perform three sets per exercise, hitting 8 to 12 reps per set using a weight that corresponds to 70 to 85% of your 1RM (1RM means one-repetition-maximum, it’s the maximum amount of weight a person can possibly lift for one repetition). You should hit near fatigue with maybe one or two reps-in-reserve (RIR) by the end of each set.
#2: Train Consistently
When you are working on how to build muscle in your 40s, one of the most important things you can do is be consistent with your strength training workouts.
You should be doing a minimum of three strength training workouts per week. However, make sure that you are taking at least 24 to 48 hours of rest in between workout sessions, where you target the same muscle groups to allow for adequate recovery.
Depending on your availability to do your weightlifting workouts, full-body workouts may be better than body parts splits when building muscle after 40.
Some research indicates that three full-body strength training workouts per week were more effective at building muscle than body part splits. However, the study group did consist of younger men, so it is not clear whether the same principles would necessarily hold true for how to build muscle after 40.
Interestingly, in the study, the full-body workouts included only one exercise per muscle group, meaning you don’t necessarily have to spend hours in the gym to see good results.
#3 Get Enough Protein
Getting enough protein in your diet is essential for building muscle after 40.
Your body has to have the building blocks (amino acids from the high-protein foods you eat) for muscle tissue to repair and build muscle mass.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes consume at least 1.2–2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, and protein needs to be spread out throughout the day, if possible.
#4 Consider Cutting Back on Cardio
If you are a “hard gainer,” meaning that it is hard for you to build muscle and put on mass, you may need to cut back on cardio. While this is a gross generalization, this is probably the only place where there may be a notable difference in how to build muscle after 40 for women vs men.
Women often experience a more rapid or drastic increase in body fat in their 40s as estrogen levels drop. Maintaining or increasing cardio exercise will be important to optimize your body composition and build muscle.
For men and women, the best cardio to support muscle building in your 40s is incorporating high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts.
This training style is more effective at burning fat, boosting metabolism, building muscle, and increasing the key hormones supporting building muscle, such as growth hormone and testosterone.
#5 Consider Supplements
If you are struggling to maintain muscle mass in your 40s and really want to start building muscle, you may want to consider various supplements to support muscle growth.
Examples of potentially helpful supplements to support muscle growth over 40 include protein powders, BCAAs, creatine, and collagen protein.
Of course, we only refer to safe, legal, FDA-cleared athletic supplements, not anabolic steroids.
You can speak with your doctor about getting your hormonal levels checked and discuss whether supplements for muscle growth or even beginning hormone replacement therapy would be helpful.