Realistic Gains After 40

How much muscle can an advanced, natural lifter gain in middle age? Here are the facts.

Progress After 40 for Advanced Lifters
How much muscle can a natural, advanced lifter build in his 40s? Well, I'd love to tell you that an advanced lifter in his 40s can keep building tons of muscle... in part because I'm over 40 too. But it'd be a lie.

It's not even an age thing (although that plays a role), but a matter of training experience and adaptation. To me, "advanced lifter" means at least 15 years of hard training. That means you've gained quite a few pounds of muscle already.

The human body has a limited capacity to build and keep muscle naturally. This is largely dependent on our genetics. The ACTN3 genotype, myostatin levels, body structure, and many more factors come into play.

We don't fully understand all the factors yet, but the fact is that the average human male can add 30-40 pounds of muscle above what his normal adult weight would be over the course of his training career. Of course, using anabolics will bypass many of the limiting factors that prevent a natural from growing to Mr. Olympia size.

I'm also talking about pure muscle weight. With those 30-40 pounds you'd likely add some extra pounds in the form of glycogen, water, and collagen. Not to mention that you could add some fat and still look great. You might add 50-60 pounds of scale weight over your career, but only 30-40 pounds of that weight would be muscle.

The closer you are to reaching those 30-40 pounds, the slower and harder your gains will be.

So let's take a 40-year old man who's at a normal adult weight who would be around 175 pounds without lifting. And let's say, after 15 years of training, he's now 210 pounds with a similar or better body fat percentage.

By lifting for all those years, he added around 30-35 pounds of muscle to his frame. Realistically, he can now hope to add 5-10 pounds of muscle at most.

If a second 40-year-old man gained only 10 pounds over the course of his training career (because he hasn't been training hard and smart consistently), he has the potential to gain more muscle than the first guy if he trains the right way.

Why is the more dedicated and experienced lifter going to have a harder time building a lot of new muscle? First because of adaptation. His body is well adapted to lifting. It's very hard at that point for training to represent a stress. If the training is no longer a stress, the body won't change because extra muscle isn't needed to do the work.

If you want to increase the training stress you need to:
  1. Lift more weight or...
  2. Do more volume or...
  3. Push your sets harder

But there's the catch-22. All three of these things can jack up cortisol and might stop progression. Furthermore, you can't always push them up. There will be a point where it's hard to add 5 pounds per 6-8 weeks on a lift. And if you already train to failure or close to it, there isn't much room to increase there either.

And adding volume – especially in older lifters – is one of the best ways to halt progress. It's also not very practical for the real world. A normal human being with a job and family can't spend 2-3 hours in the gym every day. An advanced lifter needs an extremely high training stress to keep progressing, but doing just that might actually do more harm than good.

Also, as you get older your physiology changes, and not for the best when it comes to building muscle:
  1. Testosterone levels tend to decrease.
  2. Growth hormone and IGF-1 can decrease.
  3. Stem cells decrease due to a lower IGF-1 level. Stem cells are required to repair muscle damage. Fewer stem cells means that you don't repair and build muscle as easily.
  4. Your body likely has more chronic systemic inflammation. This can significantly decrease your capacity to build muscle (among other things) in part because it reduces insulin sensitivity.
  5. You lose nerve cells and have atrophy in others. This will decrease strength. And if strength goes down, it can be harder to maintain, much less add, more muscle tissue. The muscle tissue is adapted to a certain level of loading. If your nerves no longer allow you to produce as much force, the lower level of muscle tension produced when training might not be enough to fully stimulate growth.
  6. Finally, as you're getting older, life tends to take over. If you have a full-time job and a family, you have a lot more stress. That can also impact your capacity to progress.

Now The Good News
Don't stop trying to improve because it's possible to surprise yourself and achieve more than you thought. I got into my best shape at 41 and I'm still able to improve a bit.

Here are a few guidelines that tend to help older lifters keep making progress:

1. Don't always train hard.
I know this sounds counterintuitive, but periods of maintenance training can help re-sensitize your body to training. Call it "strategic deconditioning" if you want.

For 3-5 weeks, do the minimum necessary to avoid losing muscle. If you're a dedicated lifter, that's going to be much less than you think. Do less volume, don't push your sets hard (stop 2-3 reps short of failure), and focus on technique rather than load.

I like three full-body workouts per week using 3-4 lifts per session at that time. After that period, push hard for 6-8 weeks, ramping up the demands of your workout every two weeks or so.

I actually discovered this strategy when I started doing more seminars. I spent a period of four weeks training 2-3 times a week and not having the energy to push super hard. But when I got back to serious training, I surpassed my previous best.

2. Use a specialization approach.
This is something I began using with high-level bodybuilders to blast through a growth plateau.

When you're advanced you need a serious stimulus to force the body to adapt. But at the same time, if you increase overall training stress you won't be able to recover. Specialization is a great way to achieve that strong stimulus without excessively overloading your body.

Select one or two muscle groups (or one big lift) to focus on. Train them three days a week and the rest of the body once a week at maintenance level (either by doing everything in one workout or splitting it in two). Then, every four weeks, place your focus on different muscles or a new lift.

3. Focus on creating the look you want.
There's a phenomenon I call "muscle migration." When you've achieved an overall muscle mass close to your limit, you can still create an aesthetic evolution of your body by changing WHERE you're holding that muscle.

  1. If I train like an Olympic lifter or athlete, my hamstrings, traps, mid-back, and glutes improve, but I lose some size in the chest and arms.
  2. If I train more like a bodybuilder, my chest and arms improve and my quads get better, but I lose some size in the glutes and hams.
  3. If I train like a bro, my chest, arms, and shoulders improve, but I lose overall lower body mass.

In all three scenarios, my weight stays at about 215, yet the visual affect is different.

When you're approaching the most muscle mass you can carry, focus on developing the muscles that'll give you the look you want. Purposefully place muscles that aren't required to get "that look" on the backburner. This is a lot like specialization but without rotating every four weeks.

4. Get lean.
Everybody looks better when they're leaner. If you can't gain a ton of muscle anymore, you can still improve your look by getting ripped.

I talked about how I reached my best look at 41. I was actually smaller than earlier in my life, but because I was much leaner the overall look was better. Even if you don't gain muscle, you'll still look awesome if you get down to a true 8 percent body fat.

5. Reduce inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity.
When you're older, these two are in large part responsible for preventing you from building muscle and getting leaner. Your lifestyle and diet will play a big role.

It'd be nice if we could all continue building muscle until the day we stop training. Sadly, that's not the case. But even when muscle growth is harder to achieve, you can still find ways to improve.