Building strength and muscle mass rests on a foundation of putting in the necessary work in the gym by lifting weights, getting adequate calories to fuel your regimen, and getting adequate rest for recovery. This foundation is actually very straightforward.
But human beings, being the imperfect souls that they are, also have a tendency to over simplify or over complicate any situation we get ourselves into. When I first started lifting weights, at 12 years old, almost everyone I ran into told me to “eat as much as possible, focus on doing the big lifts correctly (squats, deadlifts, and bench press), and don’t do anything else.” This is actually great advice for a teenager who is first stepping into the gym because it kept me from wasting time on things I’ve seen many other teenagers do like loading as much weight as they could on the leg press machine only to move it two inches during each repetition.
But what if you aren’t a teenager with a rocket fueled metabolism and you want to put on muscle mass? Being older definitely adds some variables to the equation that create a few more obstacles. It means that you probably have a greater potential for injury, a slower metabolism, and less hormones to work with. But this doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. There are many men who’ve been able to build solid muscle mass well into their 50s and beyond. The secret in doing so is in understanding your body as it ages, and that most of the typical advice on building strength and muscle mass out there right now applies to men under the age of 25. For those of us in our 30s and beyond, we need to think deeper and strategize with what we have. This means that building strength and muscle at our age can often be counter-intuitive to everything we were taught in our younger years. So here are five counterintuitive ways that older men can build strength and muscle.
Don’t follow the traditional Bulking-Cutting model
To put on muscle mass, you definitely need to eat. There is no way around that. But the traditional bulking-cutting phases of any bodybuilding cycle pose significant problems for men over the age of 25 who are not taking large doses of steroids. Understanding this begins by understanding that some things happen to your body as you get older:
- Your insulin sensitivity decreases (1)
- Your levels of testosterone production decrease (2)
- Your production of aromatase increases (3)
So what the hell does this mean? Basically, this is a hormonal cascade that makes the idea of bulking and cutting counterproductive for anyone over age 30 who is not taking steroids.
Insulin is a hormone that is responsible for regulating glucose metabolism in your body. When you eat, this causes a rise in blood sugar. Insulin is released from the pancreas and it signals to cells in your muscles and liver to begin taking in glucose in order to bring your blood sugar back down to baseline levels. But as you get older, the receptor sites on your muscle and liver cells begin to wear out a bit and they become slower to respond to insulin signaling. In return, extra glucose is diverted to your fat cells.
What this means is that excess calories from a bulk are far more likely to fill out your fat stores than they are to build actual muscle mass, but this is not where the damage ends. Excess calories and higher fat storage can lead to up regulation of aromatase (4), which is an enzyme that converts testosterone into estrogen. This, in turn, leads to lower testosterone levels, making the likelihood muscle gains even lower.
But again, there is more damage to be done. This is because, inevitably, most men who want to pack on muscle mass are, at some point, going to want to cut. This is especially true if they see their midsections have grown because of a bulk. As they decrease their calories in an effort to get in shape, this leads to an up regulation of sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). This is a protein that binds tightly to testosterone, dihydrotestosterone, and estrogens. When a hormone is bound like this, it is not readily available for use, and high levels of SHBG cause levels of free testosterone to plummet.
Because of this hormone cascade, and other factors, most men over 30 who go through a bulking and cutting cycle find themselves with even less muscle mass than they started with.
Rather than bulking or cutting, aim for a nutrient dense diet at baseline calories. On days when you have intense workouts or greater activity levels eat up to 500 more calories than your baseline levels, and on lighter days eat less. Just understand that if you overload calories over a period of time or try to cut down by diving into a cutting regimen, it is likely to be counterproductive.
This is pretty straightforward, but we do provide strong guidelines for how to do this in our Warrior Fitness course.
Don’t Lift Too Heavy
You need to challenge yourself if you want to build muscle mass and strength. You want to train intensely. But above all, you want to be able to train consistently. You can’t do that if you have an injury. One of the biggest reasons why older men stop training is because they sustain an injury that keeps them out of the gym and many times this happens because they tried to lift a weight they could not handle.
It’s been a long held myth that to build muscle, you need to lift heavy weights, but science has actually disproven this fallacy. A 2015 study done on trained men between the ages of 18 and 35 showed that they gained similar amounts of muscle whether they were training with heavy weight and low repetitions or light weight and high repetitions as long as they were training to muscular failure with the lighter weight (5).
Essentially, unless you are training to become a competitive powerlifter or for another strength dominant performance sport, there is no real benefit to approaching your single repetition max on any exercise. There is, however a whole lot of risk of injury and having your fitness goals go completely out of the window. So focus on training with high intensity, but check your ego at the door and stick with weights that you can manage for at least 8-12 repetitions, but also do not be afraid to go even lighter with 20-30 repetitions for complete muscular failure.
Do HIIT Training and Moderate Steady State Cardio
One of the biggest myths in fitness is “if you want to build muscle, then don’t do cardio.” Yes it is true that if you begin doing hours of cardio everyday you will inevitably eat into your muscle mass, but not doing cardio at all is a mistake. As mentioned earlier, high levels of fat storage can increase your uptake of aromatase and this can cause problems by converting your testosterone into estrogen. Cardio will aid in reducing your fat mass and increasing blood flow, both of which are essential components of adding muscle mass.
But the big benefit of including both HITT and steady state cardio into your regimen is that both help to increase your levels of free testosterone, which can significantly increase your muscle mass (6).
High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT is becoming increasingly popular and with good cause. It is characterized by short but intense periods of exercise followed by a brief period of rest. This includes modalities such as wind sprints and tabata circuits. These sessions can last anywhere from 4 to 20 minutes, and one of the big benefits is that these workouts take little time and can be done anywhere. They are also highly beneficial for fat burning and most studies show that HIIT is more effective at fat burning than long periods of steady state cardio.
But let’s not write off steady state cardio completely. Steady state cardio will still help you to improve blood flow and it allows for a faster recovery time than HIIT, which should not be done more than 2-3 times per week. Additionally, if you are not in great shape at the moment, you may not be able to perform HIIT at the required intensity to get the results you want. Steady cardio provides you with a way of easing yourself into your cardio regimen while building up your cardiovascular ability.
As with anything, moderation is key, and I recommend including 2 HIIT sessions per week into your regimen along with 1 to 2 steady state sessions per week. Not sure how to do this? We provide completely free training programs that include both HIIT and steady state cardio in our private Facebook group to those who sign up for our free newsletter HERE.
Do Yoga or Martial Arts
Ok, don’t pull my man card for recommending Yoga. Honestly though, you can’t really talk unless you’ve been through a yoga class. Whenever I’ve gone to class with my girlfriend, I’ve found myself completely wiped out by the end.
Beside the perceived exertion, Yoga has definite benefits for muscle mass by allowing you to stretch deep into the muscle fibers. This helps to increase blood flow to these fibers which is essential for recovery and muscle building. Increasing your mobility will also help with strength gains by allowing for proper positioning on lifts. There’s also some evidence to suggest that Yoga could help to increase testosterone in men by reducing the impact of stress on the body (7).
If yoga isn’t your game, you can also achieve this with a good martial arts or grappling practice while getting more lethal, or you can check out Kelly Starrett’s book Becoming the Supple Leopard and build your own mobility practice.
This may seem like the most counterintuitive piece of advice in this whole piece as far as building muscle mass, but hear it out. Fasting, or eating within a restricted window of time, has been shown to increase levels of growth hormone in men (8) and it has been shown to burn fat in men far more effectively than a normal diet while maintaining muscle mass and testosterone levels (9).
This means that if you are looking to build muscle without adding on copious amounts of fat, intermittent fasting is a highly effective potential strategy.
I have personally been an avid intermittent faster since my mid 30s, and though I was skeptical at the beginning, the practice allowed me to build and maintain muscle so effectively that I used it for my diet protocol in the last bodybuilding competition I competed in with great effect.
I personally keep a 12-16 hour fasting window depending on the day. The fast begins at 10PM in the evening, and then I break my fast normally between noon and 2PM at least two hours after I’ve done my training for the day. I will then eat two big meals that normally consist of meat or eggs, vegetables, and if I’ve trained really hard that day, white rice.
It keeps me lean, muscular, and I find it way more convenient than the 5 to 8 meals a day I used to consume to build muscle.
Building muscle as a teenager was pretty straight forward: eat, lift, and let your crazy hormone production do the rest. But as we get older, things get a little bit more complicated and this can lead to some very counterintuitive strategy for building muscle when you hit your late 20s and early 30s. As always, don’t take anything I say as the golden word. Do your own research and experiment on yourself to see what works and what doesn’t. If you have any questions for me, please send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you want free workouts each day, combined with my own nutrition advice, sign up for our Warrior Soul Fitness Academy newsletter HERE.