It may feel inevitable to gain weight and stop working out as you age. This could be due to hormone shifts, fatigue, or injury. But the truth is, your muscles have a mantra: “use it or lose it.” That’s why strength training, particularly for older adults, is so crucial for health. Strength exercises have the power to boost bone density, burn calories, enhance memory, and even prevent conditions like osteoporosis. If your workout routine has taken a backseat lately, here’s why it’s not too late to actually regain muscle mass after age 50.
Why does muscle mass decline with age?
“Muscle mass peaks around age 40. [Then it] begins to decline due to sarcopenia,” explains Pete Rufo, a performance coach at Beast Training Academy in Chicago. “A major contributor to muscle mass decline is lack of exercise and sedentary lifestyles. Our older clients are typically parents, grandparents, or working professionals who have lost time to work out consistently.”
Additionally, Personal Trainer Eythan Henson says that your body’s ability to manage daily physical stress decreases over the years. Combined with lower energy levels and higher risk for sedentary behavior, like sitting all day, muscle atrophy is more likely to occur. But, Monica Lam-Feist, fitness lead at AlgaeCal, personal trainer, and former University of Wisconsin-Madison varsity soccer player, says that it’s possible to regain muscle mass, as well as bone mineral density, even after you reach your fifties.
“Muscle mass declines with age, simply because we are not doing anything to stop it,” notes Lauren Lobert, physical therapist and owner of APEX Physical Therapy. “We lose, on average, ten pounds of lean muscle mass for every decade of adult life. The best way to stop this is to do strength training. Muscle burns more calories than fat [does]. As we lose muscle, our metabolic rate declines. [This] makes it more likely that we will begin to gain fat. This is another reason that strength training is hugely important—and a simple fix.”
Is it possible to regain muscle mass after age 50?
The short answer? Absolutely. “Yes, yes, yes—100 percent yes,” emphasizes Lobert. “A study actually revealed that this can be done in as little as 40 minutes of strength training twice per week. The rate of muscle gain was the same for young adults, middle-aged adults, and older adults.”
Research shows that physical activity can help stave off sarcopenia, similar to the impact of exercise on osteoporosis, adds Lam-Feist. Muscle loss can lead to frailty, which can cause falls or fractures. Frailty is often characterized by nutritional deficiencies, loss of balance and gait, and cognitive impairment. All of this means, says Lam-Feist, that regular workouts play a huge role in maintaining overall good health, stability, and bone density into old age. And that muscle wasting is preventable.
“We lose, on average, ten pounds of lean muscle mass for every decade of adult life.”
“It is 100% possible to regain or to build muscle mass at age 50 or older,” agrees Rufo. “To build muscle mass, there should be a major focus on nutrition and diet. Ensuring that you’re consuming the proper amount of protein is critical to muscle development. Antioxidants are equally important for muscle recovery. For older clients, I recommend less beef for heart health and digestion. But any other protein (fish, poultry, pork, eggs, and beans/lentils) is a great option. As for antioxidants, I’m a huge believer in blueberries, multivitamins (ensure it has A, C, and E), and fish oil or a Glutamine supplement for heart and joint health.”
How can you build muscle mass as you age?
Even though building muscle mass might be harder as you age, it’s not impossible, says Fitness and Nutrition Expert Dan DeFigio. He recommends strength workouts with fewer sets spaced between rest days, and as Rufo points out, eating plenty of protein.
“Strength workouts (ideally lifting weights) should focus on the major multi-joint movements. [These include] squats, deadlifts, rows, chest presses, core work, and overhead press,” continues DeFigio. “It’s fine to add in single-joint moves like bicep curls, triceps, hip abduction/adduction, and tiptoes. But the big multi-joint moves should form the foundation of your strength work. I work with a lot of retirees and baby boomers. My experience has been that they have an easier time maintaining muscle mass with less work performed more often. A 20-something body will build muscle mass with lots of sets performed at medium-high intensity, with four to seven days rest in between ‘body part’ workouts. A 50+ body will generally do better with fewer sets performed every other day.”
Lam-Feist echoes the fact that weight-bearing exercises (walking, running, hiking, dancing, and jumping), as well as resistance training (free weights, weight machines, and resistance bands), have been shown to positively impact muscle and bone health in the elderly. For seniors, Lobert says that you don’t necessarily have to lift really heavy things. However, to gain muscle mass, you do have to lift until fatigue or failure. “This means breaking away from the traditional three sets of ten model. [Instead] think more about doing enough repetitions to get your muscles pretty tired, where you actually need to take a break before being able to do more.”
What would a weekly workout plan look like?
Rufo also warns against overexercising, or overtraining. He views this as a major concern for older clients, due to extra impact and strain placed on joints. Because of this, he focuses on full-body workouts instead of targeting specific muscle groups each day. Here’s how Rufo would build out an ideal weekly workout plan for seniors:
- Monday—Training: four to five sets, six to 12 reps each of pull-ups (as many as possible), bodyweight lunges, box step-ups, bench dips, bodyweight squats (no bar!), followed by stretching and cool-down.
- Wednesday—Training: four to five sets, six to 12 reps each of sit-ups (as many as possible), barbell bench press, lat pulldowns, seated rows, bicep curls, followed by stretching and cool-down.
- Friday—Training: four to five sets, six to 12 reps each of push-ups and pull-ups (as many as possible), lateral dumbbell raises, leg presses, medicine ball twists, followed by stretching and cool down.
- Sunday—Rest/Light Cardio: walk at a casual pace for 30-60 minutes (one to two miles).
What should I eat to build muscle mass?
In terms of what you should eat, Lam-Feist says that sufficient nutrient intake is crucial to avoid muscle loss. Make sure that you’re getting enough protein, anti-inflammatory and nutrient-dense foods, and both calcium and vitamin D, plus supporting vitamins and minerals. Good nutrition may not seem like a key ingredient to rebuilding muscle mass, says Henson. However, it’s especially important for those over 50.
“Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle,” agrees DeFigio. “Often seniors begin eating less as they age. This can diminish their daily nutrient intake. To find your bare-minimum suggested protein intake, take half your body weight in grams (i.e. a 160-pound person should try to eat at least 80 grams of protein per day). The best sources of muscle-building protein are whey, eggs, fish, lean meats, and poultry.”
Finally, maintain variety in your fitness routine. Reach out to experts to figure out a workout plan that meets your needs. “While any fitness is good practice, it is important to make sure [that] you are not put in a box when selecting a workout,” says Henson. “You are your own body type. Seeing a personal trainer to identify a workout that specifically matches you is the best route to take when re-gaining muscle mass.”
“Improving muscle strength is extremely important. Reduced muscle strength is a cause of disability,” concludes Physical Therapist Michael Lau. “Believe it or not, it takes a lot of strength to get up off the toilet and up and down stairs! Furthermore, muscle strength and power are critical components of walking ability and fall prevention, especially in the elderly. Additionally, improving muscle mass directly influences aerobic capacity. [This] is your ability to stand, walk, and move for long periods of time. Movement is medicine, so get moving!”