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How to Start Training if You’re Over 40

          How to Start Training if You’re Over 40

Time to start building muscle, strength, mobility, and cardiovascular health. The gym is for everyone, including bodybuilders aiming for 5% body fat on stage and powerlifters looking to bench press 500 kilos. The gym is also for individuals with a few gray hairs, some laugh lines, and general aches and pains from over two decades of "adulting" - a term used by today's youth to describe life.

If you're in the 40 or above age bracket on doctors' records, right before the doctor says, "You really need more exercise," you should approach the gym with some guidelines in mind. Not to be a buzzkill, but you can't train like a 20-year-old because your recovery process isn't the same.

That doesn't mean Gen-Xers at the gym (Gym-Xers?) is as fragile as the splinter-filled seesaws that used to be on the playground. You're not limited to lightweight machine-based training or water aerobics, but you need to follow some guidelines to achieve results with less pain. Here's what you need to know about getting fit when you have accumulated some mileage.

Training Guide for Individuals Over 40

Why Age Matters

The years catch up with everyone and bring about changes. Whether it's Jennifer Gray transitioning from an "it girl" to "who's that girl?" or Green Day moving from a punk rock revolution to Broadway musicals, the most important thing is acknowledging and accepting that everyone eventually grows up. Just as you can expect your favorite '80s movie to be remade into a weak version, you can expect your body to adapt to the passing years, whether you want it or not.

As you age, wear and tear will eventually affect you, whether it's from lifting weights, playing tennis, engaging in manual labor, or performing daily activities. If you want to continue participating in these activities in the long run, it's crucial to approach them with a plan in mind.

However, this isn't a death sentence, proverbial or literal. It means that if you want to start weight training and engage in other forms of exercise, you need to take a well-thought-out approach that accommodates your current body's capabilities.

In particular, research shows that muscular recovery takes longer for older individuals. Therefore, your weekly weight training plan should allow for slightly longer recovery periods between sessions. Additionally, an older body doesn't respond to volume or intensity the same way a younger body does, so you need to establish a carefully calculated approach to sets, repetitions, and weight.

Furthermore, if you enter the gym with any pre-existing injuries or conditions (which, of course, should have been addressed during a comprehensive medical check-up before starting a training routine), those issues will directly impact the exercises you can or cannot (and should or should not) do. You might have your heart set on benching 315, but if you've been living with a torn rotator cuff since college, that lift might not be feasible.

Training for Beginners Over 40

There are many successful competitive bodybuilders, powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and CrossFit athletes in their 40s, 50s, and beyond. This indicates that you can and should participate in weight training at any age. However, unless your goal is to compete in a specific strength sport, you'll be better off taking a broader approach to planning your training program.

Remember the early '90s when a new sport called "mixed martial arts" emerged? It showcased what happened when a kickboxer fought a wrestler or a karate practitioner faced off against a taekwondo expert.

What became evident over time and through sequential MMA events was that hyper-focusing on a single training style limited overall development. Today's top mixed martial artists aren't masters of a single fighting style - they excel in various forms of combat.

To begin training as a mature lifter safely and effectively, you should adopt a well-rounded mindset. Train like a mixed martial artist. Specifically, don't come into the training world expecting to train "like a powerlifter," "like a bodybuilder," or through any other narrow lens unless you intend to compete in a specific strength sport. Chances are you're here to get in shape. Here's how you can achieve it.

Choose the Right Exercises

In general, when selecting exercises, forget anything you've heard about "must-do" movements. The powerlifting big three - back squat, bench press, and conventional deadlift - are often promoted as the ultimate way to build size and strength. While there's nothing inherently wrong with these exercises, they aren't significantly more effective than front squats, overhead presses, or trap bar deadlifts. Again, if you're not aiming to be a competitive powerlifter, you're not limited to training like one.

Opt for a variety of multi-joint and single-joint exercises that effectively target your entire body without neglecting or overemphasizing any specific area. Include different equipment such as barbells, dumbbells, cable pulleys, machines, resistance bands, kettlebells, and any other useful tools you find in the gym. This will help reduce the risk of overuse injuries compared to performing the same five exercises for months.

Most importantly, don't force your body into exercises that don't align with your pre-existing joint issues. For example, if you have long legs, you might find sumo deadlifts more comfortable than a closer, conventional stance, despite what internet memes may suggest.

Sets and Reps

A popular old-school mentality used to recommend throwing everything plus the kitchen sink into a training session. The goal was to completely break down the muscle fibers and create deep fatigue that would later be filled with new muscle tissue. However, a moderate workload can stimulate muscle and strength gains more efficiently than a super-high volume plan that exhausts every muscle group with multiple exercises for six sets of each movement.

The specific exercises will play a role in determining the appropriate volume for each movement. For example, you wouldn't typically perform deadlifts for sets of 20 reps because cardiovascular conditioning and low back fatigue would become the limiting factors before other target muscles.

In general, starting with six to ten sets of five to twelve reps per body part per week is effective. Ideally, this should be divided into multiple exercises across multiple training sessions throughout the week. Larger body parts like your back and legs may require a higher workload. Smaller body parts like biceps or abdominals can be adequately trained with a lower amount of direct training.

For example, you might perform five sets of lat pulldowns and three sets of cable curls on Monday, followed by five sets of rows and three sets of dumbbell curls on Thursday. Alternatively, you could train "back and biceps" one day per week and do three to four sets of deadlifts, rows, and chin-ups, followed by three sets of preacher curls and hammer curls.

As a general rule, strength-focused lifts that allow you to lift heavier weights are effective when trained with three to five sets of four to six reps. Exercises that are not suitable for heavy loading, such as many single-joint movements, can be more efficiently trained with four sets of eight to twelve reps.

How Heavy, How Hard?

Due to a significantly reduced ability to recover, don't turn the intensity up to the maximum in any given training session. You want to make it through your workout and leave the gym feeling accomplished, not beaten down.

Avoid taking too many sets to muscular failure, if any. Pushing to failure too often can potentially compromise your technique and increase the risk of injury. It also increases overall recovery needs while providing little to no additional stimulus for building size or strength.

Furthermore, the weight used for each set should allow you to reach your target rep range with proper form. Struggling to complete a set is fine, but compromising your form and cheating the movement to squeeze out a few extra reps is a high-risk/low-reward idea.

How Many Days per Week?

Many people spend 40 to 50 hours per week working, not to mention daily commutes, time with family, and other commitments. Finding time to exercise is one of the biggest hurdles you'll need to overcome before even touching a weight.

Instead of trying to squeeze five or more workouts into an already packed schedule, consider starting with three weight training sessions per week. When properly programmed and supplemented with some non-gym activity, this can be a highly effective approach.

Rather than training just one or two body parts per day, which would require at least five training days to target your entire body, consider following an upper/lower split, a push/pull/legs plan, or a full-body training routine to achieve more efficient training within the framework of three sessions per week.

On non-lifting days, you can incorporate short conditioning workouts or some form of cardio training to complement your gym sessions. By staying active throughout the week, you'll burn extra calories and improve your cardiovascular health. Incorporating just three hours (total) of cardio exercise per week as part of a comprehensive program has been associated with a reduced risk of mortality.

Combine that with research indicating that weight training for a minimum of 60 minutes per week is also linked to a reduced mortality risk, and it's clear why doctors keep emphasizing the importance of exercise. If you're active on more days than not, you're on the right track in terms of health, physique, and performance.

Nutrition and Recovery Tips

If going to the gym was all it took to get into great shape, well, it would be much easier for everyone to get into great shape. However, training is only one piece of the puzzle. Just like Ferris had Sloane and Cameron, your training needs support from good nutrition habits and recovery techniques.


Once you've decided to start training, you've also committed to supporting that training with a goal-focused nutrition plan. They go hand in hand; otherwise, you'll end up wasting time and energy because you won't be able to capitalize on the fat-burning, muscle-building training stimulus.

Whether your goal is to lose body fat or pack on more lean muscle, it's important to pay attention to your protein intake (the essential building block for muscles), monitor your overall calorie intake, and adjust on a weekly or biweekly basis based on the results.

There are countless specific nutrition plans available, with varying levels of effectiveness. If you can adhere to a few guidelines, you'll be on the right track:

  • Drink as few calories as possible: This includes fruit juice, soda, high-sugar coffee drinks, and alcohol. Liquid calories can add up quickly and sabotage your weight loss efforts.
  • Drink more water: It may seem obvious, but staying hydrated can improve everything from blood pressure to in-gym performance. Aim to drink a half-gallon jug of water every day.
  • Include high-quality protein in every meal: Carbohydrates and fats are important for fueling performance both in and out of the gym, but adequate protein from quality sources is essential for building muscle. Aim for 0.75 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
  • Cook and eat homemade meals more often than eating out: Think of it as the "pack a lunch, don't hit the drive-through" rule. Highly processed foods have been linked to higher saturated fat, higher sugar, and increased body fat gain compared to less processed foods.


You can train all you want, but without sufficient recovery, you won't make much progress toward your goals. As an older lifter, it's important to focus on general recovery strategies to support your training efforts.

One of the most effective ways to improve your daily recovery is by prioritizing quality sleep and getting an adequate amount of sleep. Poor sleep habits have been shown to negatively affect hormone levels, energy levels, and lean muscle mass.

Another overlooked recovery booster is going for a walk. Daily or regular walks have been proven to improve cardiovascular health and aid in fat loss. Walk your dog, walk your children to the bus stop, walk your grandkids to the playground - whatever gets the job done.

If you start your training plan and feel like it's still too overwhelming, consider swapping one exercise day for "exercise snacks." These short mini-sessions, lasting less than 5 minutes each, can be used as a cardio alternative or for strength training. When done consistently, this can improve cardiovascular health.

When you apply this throughout-the-day approach to strength training exercises, it's called "greasing the groove," and it can be a great way to improve exercise technique, build strength, and stimulate muscle growth. It's most commonly applied to bodyweight exercises like push-ups or pull-ups, but it can be done with weighted movements as well.


If you've started referring to your ankles, knees, and wrists as "Snap, Crackle, and Pop" due to the constant noises they make, it's probably time for some mobility work. Whether it's a few minutes of simple stretching, an online yoga class, or time spent on a foam roller, paying attention to mobility work can significantly reduce overall aches and pains.

Mobility training can technically be considered an adjunct to recovery because it improves blood flow, enhances flexibility, and reduces post-workout soreness. However you categorize it, make sure to include it in your weekly to-do list.

Don't want to dedicate a whole session to mobility drills? Then try starting each weight training workout with two or three reps of the Turkish get-up. It's a "hack" to identify areas of your body that need work because it involves multiple joints and muscle groups in one movement.

Sample Exercise Plan

You need a combination of strength work, muscle-building work, conditioning, and mobility training. Luckily, you don't have to do everything in every workout. Plan to go to the gym three days per week, alternating between basic full-body workouts. Reserve one or two additional days for cardio/conditioning sessions and schedule them according to your availability.

The only rule with this exercise layout is to avoid performing the same type of workout two days in a row. For example, a weight training workout can be followed by a rest day or a cardio/conditioning day, but not another weight training workout.

The details of the program (exercises, sets, and reps) can be adjusted according to your specific goal, but this is an effective "all-around" starter program to get accustomed to consistent training.

Weight Training Workout One

Take a two-minute rest between sets of the first exercise. Rest for 45 to 60 seconds between sets of the other exercises. Front Squat with Straps: 4 sets of 6 reps Seated Cable Row: 3 sets of 12 reps Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3 sets of 12 reps Triceps Pushdown: 2 sets of 10 reps Reverse Crunch: 2 sets of 20 reps

Weight Training Workout Two

Rest for two minutes between sets of the first exercise. Rest for 45 to 60 seconds between sets of the other exercises. Trap Bar Deadlift: 4 sets of 6 reps Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 10 reps Incline Dumbbell Press: 4 sets of 10 reps Incline Dumbbell Curl: 2 sets of 10 reps Bear Plank: 3 sets of 20 seconds

Cardio/Conditioning Workout One

Perform the following exercises as a complex, completing one set of each without stopping. After the last exercise, rest for 90 seconds before reversing the order. Use the same barbell and weight for each exercise. Bent-Over Barbell Row: 4 sets of 6 reps Romanian Deadlift: 4 sets of 6 reps Upright Row: 4 sets of 6 reps Front Squat: 4 sets of 6 reps Overhead Press: 4 sets of 6 reps Back Squat: 4 sets of 6 reps

Cardio/Conditioning Workout Two

Complete the Farmer's Walk. Then, either immediately or later in the day, go for a simple, unweighted walk. Farmer's Walk: 3 sets of 100 feet Walk: 30 minutes

The first day of your new life awaits you.

The Kurgan was wrong. It's definitely not better to burn out than to fade away. Fortunately, with the right approach, you don't have to do either. Whatever motivated you to start hitting the gym - whether it was a health scare, the desire to see your grandchild get married someday, or simply the goal of looking fantastic at your 30th high school reunion - follow the plan and you might just feel like you've turned back the clock


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