Here’s your go-to game plan for getting stronger through the years.
No, it’s not all in your head. Building muscle gets harder after age 50.
Even keeping the muscle you already have becomes more difficult as you add candles to your cake. Research published in the Muscle, Ligaments and Tendons Journal shows that, after age 50, muscle mass decreases by roughly 15 percent per decade. But the decline begins as early as 40. Yikes.
While that loss is a natural part of life, it’s not necessarily a healthy part, says D.R. Ebner, a physical therapist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Whether you are training for a marathon, trying to lose fat, or working to improve your overall health, maintaining and building muscle matters.
Fortunately, with the right strategies, you can maintain and (yes!) build muscle no matter your age. Here’s your six-step plan for staying strong, active, and independent for life.
1. Lift Heavier Weights
It’s not news that strength training builds muscle. But a lot of people are lifting lighter weights than they should for maximum growth, says kinesiologist Ryan Campbell, a training specialist at Anytime Fitness in southern Wisconsin.
He recommends choosing weights that allow you to perform three to five sets of eight to 16 repetitions at a slow, controlled pace—and with proper form. Aim for 30 to 90 seconds of rest between sets.
2. Prioritize Multi-Joint Movements
When it comes to exercises that build the most muscle, bigger is better. Ebner explains that the bulk of your resistance routine should consist of compound, multi-joint movements such as squats, deadlifts, pushes, pulls, and carries.
While smaller isolation movements such as biceps curls should still be part of your routine, these targeted movements generally work fewer and smaller muscles, so you’re less likely to see and feel the results.
3. Make Recovery a Priority
Remember, you build muscle between workouts, not during. To ensure that you’re recovering from each strength session, Campbell recommends alternating training days on a three- or four-day-per-week schedule.
“This allows plenty of time to recover between bouts of working out,” he says, “while still having enough exercise stimulus to develop muscle.”
On recovery days, focus on mobility work and low-intensity cardio, both of which promote further recovery. Make sure you get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night as well.
4. Pump Up Your Protein Intake
“Nutrition plays a large role in muscular development,” Campbell says. “If the training and recovery is there, but not enough nutrients, the body cannot develop muscle mass.”
You’re probably not getting enough protein. A new study, presented at the ASPEN 2018 Nutrition Science & Practice Conference, found that about 38 percent of men and women between the ages of 51 and 60 did not meet the current recommended daily allowance of protein, which plays a huge role in muscle growth.
“Protein intake can vary per person, but between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body mass is a good place to start,” Campbell says. What this means: Someone who weighs 150 pounds should aim for roughly 120 grams of protein per day.
“Good sources of protein include eggs, all types of meat, including beef, pork, poultry, and fish, and dairy products like cottage cheese, yogurt, and milk,” says Liz Weinandy, R.D., M.P.H., a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Plant-based proteins like soy foods, nuts, and seeds are also good options,”
“Aim to have a good or decent source of protein at each meal,” Weinandy adds. This keeps your muscle cells supplied with a steady stream of amino acids, which your muscles are constantly tapping into to build themselves.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that getting your protein over the course of four meals is ideal for stimulating muscle growth. Check out these simple ways to sneak more protein into your diet.
5. Don’t Fear Carbs
High-protein doesn’t have to mean low-carb. “It is also important to make sure there are adequate carbohydrates in the body by the time you’re working out, as this is the primary fuel for anaerobic work such as weight lifting,” Campbell says.
Carbohydrate needs, however, vary widely from person to person, so it’s important to listen to your body during and after your workouts. If you are feeling overly fatigued or run down, try increasing carb consumption before your next workout.
6. Embrace Healthy Fats
Probably the least respected nutrient when it comes to exercise and building muscle is fat, but it is incredibly important to endocrinal, or hormonal, health, Campbell says.
These hormones are in charge of telling your muscle cells to break down or build up. Prioritize sources that are rich in unsaturated fatty acids, such as salmon, eggs, nuts, and avocado.
Bonus: Many of these foods also provide a protein punch.
Note: Please consult your physician before beginning a physical activity program to make sure it’s safe for you.