Muscle Building Over 40: Complete Guide & Training Program

Brad Borland
Written By: Brad Borland
July 21st, 2014
Updated: March 26th, 2021
Tags: Expert Guide
359.9K Reads
Age is truly just a number. This guide by Brad Borland helps you to dial in your gym efforts and build the body you want at any age. Sample training routine is included.
This Guide Teaches You:
  • How to build muscle regardless of your age.
  • About age-specific workout challenges, and how to overcome them.
  • The steps required to improve your post-40 physique.
  • How to modify the major muscle building exercises to reduce wear and tear on the body.
Table of Contents:
  1. 1. Do you qualify as an experienced lifter?
  2. 2. The reality that is lifting past the age of 40
  3. 3. Steps required to improve your physique
  4. 4. How to modify the basic exercises
  5. 5. Sample experienced trainer muscle building program

Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.

Staring down the barrel of 40-plus years of age brings along some feared and often misconstrued visions of hurt joints, bad backs and deflated fitness goals. “It’s time to accept the fact that you’re getting older and can’t do what you’ve always done in the gym,” says the little old man on your shoulder. Give up and let the stresses of life and age keep you from an active fitness plan?

Not so fast. Getting older doesn’t mean you need to cancel your gym membership and relegate your workouts to walking the neighborhood. There’s not only hope for less pain, less fat and more muscle but there is a road to a more well-rounded physique.

If you find yourself at reading this article then you’ve come to the conclusion that you have challenges, need solutions and want more regarding your physique goals. Forty is the new thirty, right? So, let’s define where you stand, what your true motivation is and where to go from here.

Do you qualify?

What is the big deal about forty anyways? Why is it such a negative milestone when it comes to staying lean, training hard and having enough energy in the tank? For you it may be that you’ve trained hard from your teenage years to now and simply find yourself at a crossroads regarding goals, motivation and health. Or, you may just be getting into the iron game as a newbie and are at a bit of a loss concerning getting started.

If you are a part of the “I’ve been at this for years” crowd then you should know it’s more about mileage than years. Training day in and day out for twenty-plus years can take a considerable toll on the body, especially when you are committed to a goal for a sport or other venture.

If you are new to training for whatever reason (fat-loss, gaining muscle or want to increase functionality) most of the advice out there can become a bit daunting. It also seems to be directed at young twenty-somethings chomping at the bit for more mass and superhuman strength. What is a guy in his forties supposed to do? No wonder so many take up running and golf.

Let’s look at a few challenges the average forty-something may encounter when it comes to motivation, training and life.

Seated cable rows

Now that your ego has left the building it is time to set some new targets – it’s time to find a new motivation and set up a new plan of action.

Comparing: Yes, forty is the sweet spot for mass confusion. You don’t think of yourself as old, but you’re not a spring chicken either. However, you may still find yourself comparing you to other younger lifters at your local gym. Besides, it wasn’t too long ago that you could throw up some pretty good numbers on the bench press or go full throttle for two or more hours at a clip.

Let’s be realistic, the old you is still whispering to you that you haven’t lost a single step, and just given the time and dedication, could smash some heads and get at it just like those millennials.

Here’s a trick: stop it! Stop comparing yourself to every young buck that walks in the gym door. Who cares if they can bench more, curl more or perform countless pull-ups and box jumps. Focus on your strengths, shore up weaknesses and form a sound plan that fits you and your goals. Speaking of goals…

Motivation/goals: By the time you’ve spent a decade or so pumping iron it can sometimes be tough to nail down a specific goal to gun for. When you were younger it was all about getting bigger, more muscular and stronger. Now that your ego has left the building it is time to set some new targets – it’s time to find a new motivation and set up a new plan of action.

Your goals, however, need to be specific. No longer can you just throttle-up and go ballistic toward arbitrary visions of bigger and bigger. You must define what you want, how to get there and how long it will take. What motivates you? What is your new vision of the ideal physique? Do you have any weak points or functionality issues that need specific attention?

Metabolism: Of course it’s not big news that your metabolism will potentially slow down a bit as you age. For a sedentary individual, your thirties are when you start to naturally lose muscle mass and subsequently strength. Kids, work pressure and other scheduled life events can make exercising and eating right take a back seat.  Lack of activity, bad eating and stress can wreak havoc on your metabolism without your consent.

It’s not all downhill. Careful pre-planning and scheduling can do wonders regarding making it to the gym, eating a balanced diet and managing stress levels. There are tactics to help you with reinvigorating your metabolism regarding training strategy, nutrition timing and recuperation so don’t fret.

Recovery: Another wonderful perk of getting older is the tricky subject of recovery. When you were younger, it seemed like you could stay up all night, eat crap and still make gains in the gym the next day. The fact is that recovery just doesn’t come that easy any more. With the aforementioned list of stressors, recovery will further be stifled leading you down the road to failed attempts of reaching your goals.

With age and life working against you, there still are things in your tool bag that will help you with recovery. Not only will proper adherence to a sleep schedule provide a much needed recuperative ability, proper nutrition is absolutely paramount. Without a sound eating plan recovery becomes more of a challenge.

Time/balance: A significant player on the subject of recovery, time availability for not only training but for meal preparation and timing can have an impact on progress. In addition, if you are the average American, you are most likely juggling a work/life balance trying to divide your commitment for family, social life, job and yourself.

Again, careful planning will do wonders for not your progress in the gym but also your daily life schedule. Executing a sound eating plan, training on a weekly scheduled basis and getting in the proper rest and recovery are feasible with a little prep on your part.

Dumbbell bench press

The big, basic lifts are the absolute best exercises for packing on muscle, increasing strength and stoking your metabolism. Too many isolation moves will waste your precious time.

The reality of the over forty lifter

Yes, you are not the twenty-something run-and-gun lifter you once were; your strength, muscle mass and recovery have waned a bit, but there is a little secret. You are tougher and more resilient than you think. Of course, accept those “weak spots” but mentally shift your perspective toward improving what you have. Move forward any way you can and build on that discipline.

You still have the ability to pack on some serious muscle, get leaner and build a more balanced physique. Let’s look at a few things you can influence.

Steps to improve

  1. Find your (new) motivation: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What do you want to improve about your physique? Write it down on paper, don’t just think about it. Find what motivates you, write it down and read it every single day. This will affirm your purpose and feed your drive building your confidence little by little.
  2. Realistic evaluation and goal setting: Evaluate where you are currently with your physique goals. Give yourself an honest assessment and, again, write it down, take pictures if you want and set some realistic, specific goals. Define those goals with detail. Lose 20 pounds in 6 months, gain 10 pounds of muscle in 4 months and increase conditioning by completing a certain complex of skill in a determined amount of time are clearly defined.
  3. What you are capable of: Be realistic but firm with yourself about scheduling a time and committing to that on a daily and weekly basis. Do you need to wake up early to get to the gym before work? Do you have time during lunch for a lifting session? Can you brown-bag your lunch for work? Do what you can with what you have but also don’t be too easy on yourself.
  4. Build a solid, realistic plan: Piggybacking off of the above, be sure your plan is one that is comprehensive and doable. A two hour leg blitz is probably not that realistic for most. Burn-out, overtraining and a decreased motivation will most likely creep in and shut down your greatest efforts. Build a program around the basic lifts with moderate volume and some prehab and core work.
  5. Filter out the unnecessary: Single-arm high cable curls will do little for your overall physique. Cut out the little fluff exercises and focus on the big, compound, multi-joint lifts that work numerous muscles in one shot. Bench presses, squats and pulls will do more regarding reshaping your body in less time than countless isolation exercises.
  6. Warming up, stretching and flexibility: Be sure to perform a dynamic warm-up prior to each session. This can include burpees, prisoner squats and push-ups just to name a few. Also, be sure to stretch after every session including important areas such as hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes and lumbar. Increasing your flexibility will have a huge impact on your long term success.
  7. Stay flexible: Here I am talking of staying flexible with your training and diet. Don’t be so strict that you beat yourself up over missing one day of training or screwing up a meal or two. Just get back on track and move forward. Life will happen and you need to be prepared to adjust your training and eating plan to compensate for those challenging times.

The new beginning

Now that you found your new motivation, defined your specific goals and understand what makes an effective training plan it’s time to own your new journey and prepare for action. What good is a perfect plan without executing it?

Remember: you can train hard, lift for strength and do the classic lifts without resorting to the circuit machine area of your gym. If you have some issues with shoulders, knees, hips or other areas there are work-arounds, alternatives and modifications so you can still take advantage of the big lifts.

As stated earlier, the big, basic lifts are the absolute best exercises for packing on muscle mass, increasing strength and stoking your metabolism. Too many isolation moves will waste your precious time, zap your energy and do little moving you toward your goals.

Push ups

The ability to move your own bodyweight is a display of real strength. Pull-ups, push-ups, dips, inverted rows and abdominal moves are all too forgotten in the muscle-building world.

Modifying the basics

Squats: First and foremost form is the initial issue with barbell back squats. Using too much weight is also an ugly truth that so many lifters are guilty of. Back off on the weight, use a full range of motion, perform a higher rep range and build on the weight gradually. If you still have joint or form issues, try adding in some box squats, Bulgarian split squats or front squats.

Bench presses: Again, too much weight seems to be the culprit once again for a lot of trainers after a bigger, stronger chest. Cut the weight down and work on form. Or try using dumbbell presses using either a 45 degree angle in your upper arm to your torso or a neutral grip to alleviate shoulder strain.

Shoulder presses: Another move that can potentially cause shoulder strain, an overhead press has benefits for overall stability which translates to other lifts such as bench presses and rows. If the barbell gives you shoulder pain, try using dumbbell presses, Arnold presses, plate raises and one arm landmine presses.

Deadlifts: The big boy of strength enthusiasts everywhere, the deadlift will give you full-body strength and muscle mass. If traditional deadlifts cause a problem for you or you happen to be a taller lifter try partial deads off blocks or a bench. Have the barbell start at about mid-shin level and perform the upper half of the movement. You can also try trap bar or dumbbell deadlifts as well.

Dips: Dips are a staple for real upper body strength. For triceps be sure to stay upright throughout the movement with your elbows by your side. For chest lean forward and flare your elbows slightly. Go only as far down as comfortable- at least a 90 degree angle in your elbows. If these are difficult for you (maybe you need to work on your strength) try using an assisted pull-up/dip machine that has counterbalanced weight.

Barbell curls: Although touted as the best biceps builder around, barbell curls can put some strain on the lower back and shoulder joints. If this is the case, try some seated dumbbell curls or spider curls. These will take the load off the back and help you stabilize your shoulders resulting in less pain.

Pull-ups: As the absolute best back-builder around the pull-up and all its variations (wide-grip, close-grip, reverse-grip, etc.) is a challenging move for almost every lifter. Of course the most popular alternative is the pulldown machine, but a better one is the inverted row. Still using your bodyweight, the inverted row uses an angle that is a bit easier than the traditional pull-up but still hits your lats extremely effectively.

Bent-over rows: As a bread and butter move for back mass the bent-over row can also become a back-breaker. Not only is the lumbar at risk for injury, form can be a tricky beast to tame. Positioning of the hips, knees, shoulders and spine is a tall order all the while trying to stimulate the lats. If you find it difficult to make the bent-over row work for you take on a few alternatives such as dumbbell rows, T-bar rows and machine rows.

Romanian deadlifts: No exercise stresses the hamstrings quite like the Romanian deadlift. Stretching the hamstrings, glutes and calves to an extent, this move applies a unique load very much unlike any hamstring curl motion. If lower back problems prevent you from loading the bar try the single leg version or the glute/ham curl.

Bodyweight moves: Finally, the ability to move your own bodyweight is a display of real, true strength. Pull-ups, push-ups, dips, inverted rows and abdominal moves are all too forgotten in the muscle-building world. Be sure to plug in a few bodyweight exercises into your program and develop overall body strength and functionality.

Example Experienced Trainer Program

Below is a sample training program for the 40 and over lifter taking into consideration the factors listed above. Try it out training four days per week such as Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with Wednesday and the weekends off or you can perform cardio on those days.

Perform the dynamic warm-up listed prior to each session. Again, this is simply an example program – your personal preferences may differ regarding exercise selection, rep ranges, days of training per week, volume and time constraints.

The warm-up

Perform 1 to 3 rounds of the following prior to each session:

  • Squat jump or box jump – 10 reps
  • Inverted row – 10 reps
  • Reverse lunge – 10 reps each leg
  • Push-ups – 10 reps
  • Hanging leg lifts – 10 reps
Monday and Thursday
Experienced Trainer Workout
Exercise Warm Up Sets Work Sets Rest (Sec)
Incline or flat bench dumbbell press 1 x 12 3-4 x 8-12 60
Feet-elevated push-up   3 x 10-20 30
Inverted row 1 x 12 3 x 10-20 60
One-arm dumbbell row   3-4 x 8-12 30
Front plate raise   3 x 10-12 60
Dumbbell upright row   3 x 10-12 60
Floor crunch   3 x 20 30
Tuesday and Friday
Experienced Trainer Workout
Exercise Warm Up Sets Work Sets Rest (Sec)
Spider curl 1 x 12 3 x 8-12 60
Lying dumbbell extension 1 x 12 3 x 8-12 60
Seated calf raise 1 x 12 3 x 10-12 30
Leg press or Bulgarian split squat 1 x 12 3 x 10-12 60
Single leg Romanian deadlift   3 x 10-12 30
Walking lunge   3 lengths 60
Lying leg raise   3 x 20 30
Posted on: Tue, 11/03/2020 - 08:49

Hi Brad !
I’m 42 years old and train at the morning between 08:30 to 09:00 I have just 30 minutes for training.
I would like burn fat and build muscle
Is this the program ok for mi?
I want meal and supplement plan for fat loss my body wight is 74 and height 171 and my daily calorie is 1870
Tanks Brad.

Posted on: Thu, 11/29/2018 - 14:43

Hey Brad, Great article that covers all the important aspects of the workout. I am 71 and still going at it 3 times a week with a modified 5 x 5 program. You shared some great wisdom in this article and I had to read it one more time! I think age is just a number and you can do it if you want to do it. I started worikng out at 45 and just kept going. Thank you for your input, I will print this article out and put it into my notes! God Bless You, Geneo

Brian Lawyer
Posted on: Tue, 04/24/2018 - 16:14

yep you nailed it in this article. Exactly what I"ve been dealing with as a 38 year old with two kids and degenerative disc in the low back. I was super excited that you had the solution and then came across the following statements, ""Bench presses, squats and pulls will do more regarding reshaping your body in less time than countless isolation exercises...the big, basic lifts are the absolute best exercises for packing on muscle mass, increasing strength and stoking your metabolism. Too many isolation moves will waste your precious time, zap your energy and do little moving you toward your goals." I think around age 30 was when I found the Starting STrength program and that's what kept me going for several more years fighting through all the things you described above (life, stress, time, lack of motivation after a decade at gym) since SS was so simple and measurable. However, the end result was seriously accelerated the degenerative disc in my low back to the point I was 32 and deadlifting 405 and now at 38 can't really lift barbells or dumbells off the floor without pain. So I was surprised squats and compound lifts was your solution for 40+ year olds. Then I went and read the sample program and noted you completely left out back squat, front squat, and deadlifts from floor. So your program seems like it might work for me despite some of the earlier statements. Currently, I'm fighting my way through your tactical physique program. but gonna back off to this above program after a month or so (although my body already feels like a train ran over it from pushing myself pretty hard on tactical physiquie).

Posted on: Mon, 01/22/2018 - 15:51

Hello Brad. My concern is different from other posts. I used to run pro track for 15 yrs. all the work out routines, you name it and I would do it to perfection and make a gym come to a stand still...but that was my job. I retired just before the London Games. I checked out of fitness life and started enjoying a good burger and a beer. Good times right? So came the “ drinking” socially and a cigarette to accompany my beer. Everyone in the group did it so why not.
I am starting so feel different, weak, lack of energy etc... My concern is not so much about the work out, but I believe diet and rest goes hand in hand with exercise. .
I still have a list of vitamins from my running days. But those are loaded for high performance. Do men over 40 need a different vitamins intake.
Thank you ...the 39 years and 350 days Gary

Sudipta pal
Posted on: Mon, 05/29/2017 - 11:08

Thanks Brad for your valuable article. I am 45 yrs old. I am very happy to know that bodybuilding can be done after 45 years. i am starting my training 15 days ago. waiting get the result.

Posted on: Tue, 03/14/2017 - 13:09

Great article. I couldn't agree more with the Bulgarian split squats in lieu of the Barbell squat. I have a bad disc and am 44 and I had to completely overhaul my lower body training over the years. The BSS is my go to move. I used to do a lot of box squats, but ego used to take over and I'd tend to go too heavy and end up having trouble moving the next day from lower back pain.
But I am going to give Brad's workout a go but reduce the volume. I'm a low volume HIT trainer now - after 29 years of training, it's the only method that works consistently for me.

John B
Posted on: Sun, 10/02/2016 - 06:54

I'm over 40 and relatively new to weight training. I used to get problems with my shoulders from doing barbell bench press. I couldn't squat that deep nor could I do Pull Ups.

I've switched barbells for dumb bells - it has a better range of motion. I've also started doing Inverted Rows.

I don't think though this programme should be for just older people. There's too much focus generally on lifting heavy and not lifting with good form - or avoiding injuries.

Posted on: Mon, 07/13/2015 - 16:29

Great article and routine. I would probably go with light barbell squats or goblet squats over the leg press. I would also include a HIIT workout or two each week. I'm 44, and high intensity workouts do wonders for fat loss.

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 07/14/2015 - 09:14

Thanks, Jeaux!

Posted on: Sun, 03/01/2015 - 21:35

I really enjoyed the sample workout. It is challenging, but achievable.

Have you created other similar workouts?

I am 50 and am trying to build my abilities with sprint type exertions. Would you post about High Intensity Interval Training including sample workouts?



Posted on: Tue, 10/28/2014 - 08:37

Hi Brad, I suppose your work out plan may make a difference for someone that has sat in the recliner for 10 years and ate chips and dip for dinner, but come on how much change can that plan really do. I'm 58 and do more volume than your plan offers in the first 20 minutes of my work out. i think your right about staying with basic lifts but just because we're old doesn't mean we can't keep up with the young bucks in the gym. All it takes is better food, more rest and smarter work outs.

Posted on: Wed, 10/22/2014 - 21:56

Excellent as always Brad. Thanks so much. I am starting this next week.
All the best for you and please keep on sharing

Posted on: Fri, 09/12/2014 - 16:53

Good article Brad, for a youngster... I'm 58 and really don't understand the limitations people place on themselves especially the old farts. The human body is an amazing thing. Work it and feed it and it will surprise you. I have had an active life and always felt I was in good shape but after two back surgeries, the last a fusion, I needed to do a serious rehab. At my worst I weighed almost 200lbs, and at 5'8" that's a ton. Ive been working on my rehab since 2012 and now I'm down to 175 and don't look or even feel my age. It did take a total life style change but I wouldn't change a thing. Keep up the work Brad, even through the tough times. I think you know that...

Posted on: Fri, 08/22/2014 - 20:27

Brad I am over 55 closer to 56 in a few months. I never did any serious weight training to speak of but always was able to stay in shape due to the type of work I do and a somewhat good diet. My height is 5'9 and my weight never changes more then 10 pounds. I fine that being lighter gives me more energy when my weight is around the 190 range, I've been as heavy as 210 but felt very sluggish carrying that extra weight around so I will take your advice and do some of your expert training program. thank you and hope to post in a couple of months after training. I would like see more guy's in their 50-60 range posting !!!!!!!

Posted on: Wed, 08/20/2014 - 15:57

I started lifting at 40 yrs. old - was never an athlete. I'm 47 now, have competed twice in figure... so I came a very long way from newbie weight lifter! Not planning to compete anymore, but love training hard and looking as though I could. It is totally possible after age 40 to change your body & your life through lifting. I, too, have to remind myself not to compare myself to others. Fitness is about self-improvement, being your own personal best... I appreciate reading articles like this for over 40's... and look forward to keeping it going & being awesome over 50! :)

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Thu, 08/21/2014 - 08:59

Wow, Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Posted on: Mon, 07/28/2014 - 19:05

Great Article Brad. I have been back into lifting 4 times per week for 4 1/2 years. Started again @ 41. I have received huge results. I notice a lot of articles written advise those over 40 not to go too heavy. On that point only - I disagree. Lifting hasn't changed much for me since I was younger. You want results - lift heavy, lift hard, and progressive overload. It doesn't change no matter how old you get some things never change. And be dedicated. Don' miss your workouts. It all just takes time - that's all.

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 07/29/2014 - 21:49

Thanks, Stuart!

Posted on: Fri, 07/25/2014 - 02:12

Turned forty this year I've noticed I have changed physically and mentally! Done feeling out of shape not caring I went back to the gym. I've noticed my attitude is more up beat and eating healthier. Reading this article and others comments gives me the motivation to stick with it! I thought I was the only one who was feeling like this at age 40. To a healthier and stronger life.

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 07/29/2014 - 21:49

More power to you, Jose!

Posted on: Thu, 07/24/2014 - 20:14

I am 51 been back at gym for a year now most things are the same recovery takes a little longer

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Fri, 07/25/2014 - 09:55

Thanks Mike!

Posted on: Wed, 07/23/2014 - 12:11

Good article - I am a few years across the over - forty threshold and have had a tough time. I am warming up to the idea of more warm - up ( no pun intended) time, more mobility work, and less (just a little ) weight on the bar. Thanks for remebering us old guys ( and gals)

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Wed, 07/23/2014 - 17:02

Hey, thanks for reading. You're right, the older we get the longer we need to oil up the joints!

Posted on: Tue, 07/22/2014 - 17:05

how about a workout for us guys over fifty

Posted on: Thu, 07/24/2014 - 16:36

Stay tuned to M&S - I am sure an over fifty article is well on its way!

Posted on: Tue, 07/22/2014 - 15:01

Great article Brad. I've read several of your posts since I started lifting again. It's been probably almost 30 years since I last trained regularly. I can speak from experience that trying to bring the body back at 48 isn't easy but possible. Your comments on the Deadlift were spot on. I had a case of Sciatica resulting from too much weight on the Deadlift. Luckily, through several yoga stretches and concentrating on my upper body for a couple weeks, whatever happened reversed itself. When I started leg & ab exercises again, I started much more slowly with abs and lower back to properly strengthen them prior to deadlifting again. Again, great article and great reminders for those over 40.

Posted on: Tue, 07/22/2014 - 22:50

Hi Tim,
Spot on! Thanks! Yes, we all need a bit of a reminder of what we can and can't do and how to adjust where necessary. Thanks for the kind words and I would love to hear how you do in the next couple of months.

Brad Ford UK
Posted on: Tue, 07/22/2014 - 09:41

Great article Brad, glad to see the over 40's are not forgotten.
I am 43 and been back in the gym for approx 2 years, I must have been away for about 10 years prior to that. At first it was hard to get motivated and I found myself having more days off than on. I decided to sign up for a year at my gym meaning that I still had to pay if I didn't go, this alone gave me the motivation to attend the gym at least 4 days per week. I upped my protein, cut down on sugar, and drunk water at work instead of coffee. I take Omega3, green tea, creatine and Glutamine daily along with whey protein.
I have made good gains putting on good muscle and am leaner now than how I was in my 30's.
I do mainly compound moves and would rather deadlift than curl a barbell, I still do some isolation especially on my shoulders, I have learnt that you must train your lower body as much as the upper.
I hate cardio and only really use it for warm ups, I tend to do high intensity full body moves twice a week instead of cardio but I know to become even leaner I need to get in some high intensity cardio and have set myself the goal to be down to under 10% body fat by this time next year, this will mean adjusting my diet and cutting down on delicious carbs :)
It can be hard not to compare yourself to the younger guys in the gym, but you need to work at your own pace and remember you could probably be their dad.
Age and experience count for a lot and I now know what works and what doesn’t in the gym.
I certainly reckon I could deadlift more than half the youngsters in my gym...that's assuming they even know what a deadlift is :)

Posted on: Tue, 07/22/2014 - 22:48

Hi Brad,
Thanks for the nice words. I am glad you have found your way to more significant and healthier gains. Smarter is the better way to go over heavier. More power to you and I am glad you enjoyed the article.

Posted on: Tue, 07/25/2017 - 17:31

Hey Brad, anything specific for females over 40? Experienced lifter and former Rep athlete trying to stay motivated and looking for new leaner, stronger, faster lease of life!