When guys come to me looking to get into shape, I often challenge them on what ‘getting into shape’ means to them...what does it look like, how would it feel. There seems to be a common ideal around “being toned”, and as I dig deeper into what even THAT means, the real truth and desires start to emerge.
“I want to be able to see the muscle definition...”
“I want a bigger chest, or bigger arms…”
“I want defined abs and a flat stomach….”
(There’s always a ‘but’....)
“But I don’t want to get big and bulky, or be a bodybuilder or anything….”
We then talk about visualisation - who would they like their physiques to resemble….? It’s the usual roster of actors: Chris Hemsworth, Hugh Jackman (Wolverine); Henry Cavill; Ryan Reynolds; Brad Pitt (Fight Club days…), etc….
What intrigues me is that what most of these actors that guys aspire to be like have in common are pretty muscular physiques that weren’t created by following some basic ‘get fit’ program… Most of them followed a pretty gruelling regime that is based on a bodybuilding style of training….
There seems to be generally negative attitude towards bodybuilding...but when you want to ‘build muscle’... that’s essentially what you’re doing: bodybuilding. For some reason there is a fear or hesitation amongst older guys about using that style of training to get to the goals they’re after.
As someone who has only really only taken his fitness seriously into his mid to late 40s, I get it.
I was fascinated with bodybuilders, superheroes and athletic physiques from my teens, so I have no fear of what that means or entails - but it’s only in the last couple of years that I have actually started thinking in terms of ‘being a bodybuilder’ myself.
In terms of having guys reach their physique goals, there should be no reason why they can’t follow a bodybuilding program in their 40s, but it may not be the best training option. But, if you have the desire to put on some muscle, and the motivation to make the effort to do so, then a bodybuilding style of training in your 40s is certainly on approach.
The likelihood of becoming a pro bodybuilder in your 40s is pretty low - I think we can give up any pretence of expecting this to happen if you leave it until your 40s to start that kind of training. Instead, this article is going to focus more on whether a bodybuilding style of training will give you a decent return on your investment. I’ll also look at ways to bodybuild successfully as an older lifter.
Can You Start Bodybuilding Training in Your 40s?
Yes, it is perfectly possible to embark on a bodybuilding style training program in your 40s. If you want to build some muscle to get the kind of physique you aspire to, then there is no time like the present. But you will have to accept that this form of training is perhaps one of the most challenging (other than ultra marathons) and may have to take over your life in some respects to get the results you really desire.
Take up any sport, and your life will adjust fairly quickly to it. You spend time training, you maybe have a game at the weekend, and the first few weeks are filled with sore muscles and fatigue. But after a while it becomes routine.
Adopting a bodybuilding style of training (even for general fitness) may take over your life. Your sleep, the food you eat, how you socialise, all of these things will be influenced by your training. I’m not saying that this is a good thing or a bad thing, but can certainly be true.
Perhaps your life needs that direction? Perhaps you’ve been sleepwalking into poor fitness and health and this kind of focussed training is the shot in the arm (pun not intended) that you need. But it is, of course, not the only option. Other options may fit your lifestyle better.
Would I recommend it? If someone came up to me and said they wanted to just lose a bit of weight, look better and feel healthier, bodybuilding would not be the first training style that came to mind. But if someone in their 40s came to me and asked “do you think I’d be able to build some muscle and look a bit more like (insert any previously mentioned actor’s name here….)..?” I’d say yes.
Bottom Line: Bodybuilding in your 40s has many benefits, and it is a great way to improve your health and fitness. However, there are definitely other forms of training that may be more suited to your lifestyle and capabilities. Ultimately, it depends on what you want.
Benefits of Bodybuilding Training in Your 40s
There are many benefits to starting this style of training in your 40s, some of the main ones are listed below. These benefits are based on you currently being sedentary and then taking up serious training. Rather than someone who is already exercising and switches to a more bodybuilding style regime.
Benefit #1 Increased testosterone
Building bigger muscles, lifting weights, burning fat, sleeping more, eating better, are all ways to improve your testosterone production. I’m not even talking about anabolic steroids here (see below for my thoughts on those). Men in their 40s can expect to see a significant drop in production as they age, but proper diet, exercise, stress management, and sleep can all help to prevent that drop. You may even see a rise!
Benefit #2 Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease
If you are training naturally, eating better, burning calories, reducing stress, and sleeping 8 hours, then your risk of heart disease will be significantly lowered. Again - a caveat: if you are going down the anabolic steroid route, then your likelihood of dying from heart complications may actually increase! A bodybuilding lifestyle itself is not dangerous. In fact, it can be beneficial as you are promoting a lifestyle that involves good nutrition and regular exercise.
Benefit #3 Lower body fat
The main goal of bodybuilding is to have a very lean, muscular body. This means that you will most likely drop a lot of body fat. This has aesthetic benefits (obviously) but also helps to reduce your risk of metabolic diseases or certain cancers. Lower body fat can also help to improve appetite regulation, improve sleep, and improve testosterone production.
Benefit #4 Better sleep
So long as you can avoid overtraining, frequent exercise, good dietary practices, and a lower body fat percentage should help you to fall asleep quicker, and enjoy longer sleep. Insomnia and obesity are linked, with a theory being that being overweight can leave you feeling more fatigued and sleepy during the day. Which can have a knock-on effect during the night, affecting sleep-wake schedules. Check out this article by Sleep Foundation to learn more.
Benefit #5 Teaches you Discipline
Most adults have discipline in certain aspects of their life – not punching their boss in the face, going to bed before midnight, brushing teeth etc. But in other areas, where discipline is not enforced by work or social convention (don’t brush your teeth and people will start avoiding you), they have none.
Getting into a serious fitness regime, and you will find that self-discipline is crucial. Nobody is going to make you go to the gym, nobody will force you to eat broccoli, or drink a protein shake every morning. But if you want to succeed you will have to MAKE yourself do it.
Personally, I recommend a habit-based system, but however you get it done, you will have improved your discipline. Once you’ve got it back, a lot of other aspects of your life may fall into place and you’ll start to reap the benefits elsewhere.
Benefit #6 Increased Social Circle
A study in Ireland found that men aged 40-59 had the highest suicide rates, often this is down to loneliness. A 2013 study in the UK found that 700,000 older men reported “feeling a high degree of loneliness”.
There are many reasons for this and many ways to combat it. One such way is to be more active in your community, be it online or (preferably) in-person. Fitness is a superb way of increasing your social circle. Most men, even the ones who report feeling high degrees of loneliness, have friends. But as we age, we grow apart, physically and emotionally, and see each other less and less.
That’s why attending a gym 4 times per week can be a lifeline to many men. Then there’s the online support from forums, Facebook groups, and other social media channels. Sure, this could be applied to pretty much any leisure past-time, but I feel like the more dedicated fitness communities are a little more supportive than most.
Don’t get into fitness to avoid being lonely in ten years time. Do it because you want to. But an increased social circle is certainly one benefit.
Benefit #7 Prevents Muscle Loss
As we age, we begin to lose muscle mass naturally. This is called sarcopenia and affects all men (which is why most 100-year-old men don’t look like prime Schwarzenegger). Sarcopenia cannot be prevented, but it can be significantly reduced. Building muscle during your 40s and continuing through your 50s and 60s could make a huge difference to your future physique.
Benefit #8 Cognitive and Mental Health Benefits
As you have seen from the other benefits on this list, embarking on any fitness regime can create a lot of interlinked benefits. You burn more calories, which leads to lower body fat. This can improve your sleep quality, which can help to regulate your appetite. More sleep can also help to improve your cognition (brain power), and it can reduce stress and anxiety. Less stress and anxiety can in turn improve sleep quality, which can help you to feel more energised during the day. Leading to more calories being burned (more energy = more NEAT activity).
All of these benefits are wonderfully linked with each other, and bodybuilding (or any form of diet and exercise) is at the route of it all.
Downsides to Bodybuilding Style Training in Your 40s
As you can see, there are a lot of benefits to this kind of training in your 40s. But doing so at 40 is not the same as at 20. While there aren’t many downsides to starting a serious fitness regime....there are downsides to being 40. Here is a list of factors that you need to consider before starting.
Downside #1 Lower testosterone
Your body begins to produce less testosterone as young as 25 years old, and by 40 it will be significantly lower than that of a 20-year-old. There are ways to mitigate this, through diet, exercise, maintaining low body fat, and stress reduction. But most men do not manage this. If you haven’t exercised properly in years then your testosterone will likely be lower than it could be. This can affect muscle building, recovery, mood, and sleep.
Luckily, as we’ve found, testosterone levels can be improved dramatically by a diet and exercise overhaul. But this may take time. At the end of this article, I will be laying out exactly what you need to do if you want to build muscle in your 40s. Prioritising rest and recovery is perhaps the most crucial step, partly due to your current testosterone levels.
Downside #2 Longer recovery time
If you haven’t been exercising, then your muscles may not be ready for high volume exercise. It may take longer than usual to recover, particularly during the first few weeks. Few workout programs acknowledge this. But when I went back to the gym (aged 43) for the first time in 12 months it took me 7 days to recover from my first workout! This was not the case when I was 20. At 40, be prepared for a slow start.
Downside #3 Muscle takes a longer time to develop
Muscle takes a long time to develop no matter what age you are. But at 40, thanks to lower testosterone, longer recovery time, and the beginnings of sarcopenia, muscle mass may take even longer to develop. This can be mitigated with anabolic steroids, but that comes with multiple downsides (see below).
Just because muscle gain is slow, doesn’t make it not worth doing. Just make sure that you are mentally prepared for slow progress, and then any gains will be a pleasant surprise (some people will see fast muscle development even at 40).
Downside #4 Time
Got a busy job? Have a family? Have an active social life? Then a bodybuilding style approach to fitness may not be a good fit. Going to the gym 4-5 times per week will take up 6-8 hours (including travel time). Eating more food can take several hours each week, you also need to sleep longer (for the recovery).
Perhaps you do have the time, and I know that not all 20-somethings have loads of free time. Bodybuilding style training is probably the type of training that takes up the most of your life (other than distance running/cycling) compared to other forms of keeping fit. It is certainly a consideration - if you’re fully committed and determined to reach your goals, then it’s going to take some schedule adjustments.
Downside #5 Injury risk
As we age, our ability to recover from injuries diminishes. If it didn’t, then there would probably be a lot more 40-year old footballers out there, and 35-year old rugby players. This is doubly true if we have led a sedentary lifestyle for years beforehand. Mobility issues can arise from bad posture, muscle weakness, and joint issues can occur if you are overweight or obese.
Of course, this is also a good reason to begin bodybuilding! But just remember that you are 40+ not 20 when starting out. Use good form throughout your training, recover properly between sessions, and use nutrition to help you build a better, more robust body.
Assessing Your Training History
This article is based on the premise that you have been pretty much inactive for several years and have all of a sudden decided that you want to get into shape which includes the desire to build some more muscle. But that may not be the case at all. Perhaps you’ve been going to the gym religiously for 25 years and not been seeing the results so want to take things up a notch.
What your life has been like up to the age of 40 will make a huge difference in how easily you fall into this style of training in your 40s. Most 40-year-olds have not been exercising regularly. Statistically, you are more likely to be obese at 40 than ripped. That’s obvious.
If you are 40 years old and in amazing shape already, then you can discount most of the downsides mentioned above. You will probably already be experiencing many of the benefits mentioned above too. It’s still unlikely that you are going to get your Pro card, but you should expect to see very good results relatively quickly with little fuss.
If you are 40 years old and in terrible shape, then obviously things are going to be a lot more challenging. Building muscle may have to take a step back while you focus on losing body fat, improving your mobility, and building up the habits necessary to succeed. There’s no point in following a 5-day bodybuilding style program if you haven’t managed to go to the gym twice in six months.
My View as a Coach
If a 40-year-old came to me asking to follow a bodybuilding style program, but they were currently quite out of shape, I would recommend following a regular strength and conditioning program with a sensible diet. Once that was successful, they could then begin to specifically follow bodybuilding style programs and diets to build some extra muscle mass.
Remember, most of these programs are designed for gaining mass, and are aimed towards young, fit, and healthy men. If you are very overweight, then you need to be focused on fat-loss rather than muscle building. At least initially.
In fact, most of my clients don’t even start with the gym. That’s because ensuring they are eating a healthy breakfast and getting enough sleep is often more important. Working on stress management, sleep quality, nutrition, and mobility, are probably going to do most 40-somethings much more good than 5 sets of incline bench press and a steroid cycle!
Steroids or Natural?
My advice is always the same. I don’t recommend taking anabolic steroids. They are illegal, potentially lethal, and for the most part unnecessary. That being said, I won’t judge anyone who uses them, provided they know what they are doing, and stick to sensible dosages.
Regardless, it may be a good idea to talk to your doctor about getting your hormone levels checked. You may be low in testosterone, and then you can get legal doses of testosterone prescribed from your doctor. This is completely different to illegally purchasing steroids from a website or gym-goer.
Natural bodybuilding style training is a perfectly sound idea for men in their 40s, and consistently following it will help you to get your testosterone production back on track within a few months. This way you get all the benefits of naturally high testosterone without any of the side-effects (or admittedly massive gains) associated with anabolic steroids.
How to Start Bodybuilding Training in Your 40s
This is not a complete guide, that’s an entire article in itself. Hell, that’s 10 articles! But here are eight pieces of advice that I would give any 40-something who asked me about using bodybuilding to grow some muscle.
Get Your Health in Order First
This style of training is tough, it will push you to your limits, and at the end of it you will come out a healthier and (hopefully) happier man. But if you’re not ready physically or mentally, then it will not work out.
Get yourself to a doctor and have them give you an MOT. What’s your blood pressure like? What about your testosterone levels? How are your stress levels? Do you have any medical conditions or medication that can be affected by exercise/diet?
If you aren’t sleeping well, or you have poor mobility, then following a regular training program is a much better idea. If you have the money, then hire a personal trainer to help you learn how to perform each exercise properly, and to prepare you for the intense training to come.
Combating stress is also crucial. Stress can affect sleep, it can slow down recovery, and it can suppress testosterone. Talking to a health professional, learning some deep breathing exercises, and minimising stressful situations will really help you prepare for bodybuilding.
Sleep 8 Hours
I cannot stress enough how important sleep is to the 40-year-old trainee. It is necessary for muscle growth, muscle fibre repair, testosterone and growth hormone production, mood, appetite regulation, and cognition. Work on improving your sleep and you will immediately start to notice more energy, clearer thinking, and perhaps even some weight loss.
Train the Full Body
Single body part splits may work well for the Pros, but us mere mortals just can’t get good results from doing this. As a natural lifter, you will only realistically be able to train 3-4 times per week. Mathematicians among you will realise that you have more body parts than 3 or 4.
Full-body workouts that contain a lot of compound lifts are great for burning fat, building muscle, and increasing testosterone and growth hormone production. They also save time, a bench press will work the chest, shoulders, and triceps. That’s three muscle groups in one exercise.
You can do push/pull or upper/lower, which aren’t exactly full-body workouts but tend to produce similar results. Just avoid doing arms day, abs day, shoulder day etc …
Your form needs to be seriously good. You’re not going to get away with cheat reps, poor range of motion, or bouncing the weights. That is a shortcut to injury. Remove the ego, lift weights properly, get a trainer if you need to, and you will see the best results.
When starting out, you will struggle to recover from your workouts within 3 days. So be prepared for that. Be patient. As your fitness and strength improve, your recovery process will also improve, and soon you will be able to workout the day after your last session.
But ensure that you are not overtraining. Three to four workouts per week is ideal, and the other days should be spent pursuing active recovery. Walk 7-10k steps, take Epsom salt baths, hit your protein targets, try yoga, foam roll, stretch, even do some light cardio if you want. This can all help with recovery. Also, keep your sleeping schedule up (see above).
As you age, your body becomes less effective at utilising leucine, a key branched-chain amino acid that makes up protein. Leucine is the amino acid that is responsible for muscle growth and recovery, which is why older men begin to lose muscle. Increasing your protein intake is one way to prevent this. At 40, you are unlikely to be losing too much muscle anyway, but your ability to grow muscle could be affected. Hitting your daily protein targets is crucial. You may also consider a leucine supplement.
If you are starting from scratch, do not expect to be absolutely jacked within 6 months. Or even a year. This is going to be a long, hard process. But the results will absolutely be worth it.
Is it the Right Choice of training style?
Do you want to be a “bodybuilder” or do you just want to look good naked? Because those two things aren’t necessarily the same. If you really enjoy bodybuilding/gym culture and are prepared to make the necessary changes then of course a bodybuilding style of training would be the right choice.
But there are other ways to improve your physique, that may suit you better. Powerlifting is a good option, combining increased strength, the social circle, and it is a little less extreme when it comes