Training for the Older Athlete: Making Gains After 40

Getting older doesn’t have to suck.

Many athletes in various sports have stayed in the game long after they were “supposed to” retire.

With the increasing focus on training and nutrition, as well as supplementation advancements, individuals are not only living longer, but thriving as they get older.

Just look at the turnouts at distance races, obstacle course runs, powerlifting meets, and physique shows.

The question posed here is if it’s possible to make significant muscle and strength gains after 40. The short answer is yes.

Now there are some differences when it comes to someone who is in their 40s and has been training for 20 years versus a lifter who is 40 years old and new to the iron.

In addition to that are the subjects of type of training experience, injury history, adherence to proper form, technique over time, and relative health state.

Training the Older Athlete Squat

What 40-plus really means

Being over 40 isn’t a sign that you need to retire from the iron game and resort to strictly bodyweight calisthenics. The current world of training offers so many more options and adjustments than ever before.

With advancements in progressions and regressions, challenging bodyweight moves, and smart modifications to existing exercises make workouts more effective. You have no excuses for not making gains after 40.

So what’s the bottom line? 40-plus means more experience, more mileage, and more wisdom of what works. You’ve heard that 40 is the new 30, but how about we go a bit further and start thinking that 40 is the new and smarter 30?

Naturally changing goals

Of course many reading this may have slightly different goals than to singularly grow as big and strong as possible. Sure, packing on more muscle and strength are great goals, but you may find yourself needing a little more attention in other areas. Some of those other goals may include:

  • More mobility and flexibility
  • Getting leaner
  • Making the most out of all lifts due to time constraints
  • Getting a bit more functional

Related: Short on Time? Try This Tabata Workout for Fat Loss

After years of training and an active lifestyle in sports you will find that you need the above for a healthier life. Whatever your goals are, the fact is that you can make significant gains in all of the above after 40. All it takes is a little attention to detail and an open mind.

Making adjustments

So, what are these adjustments? Let’s list out a few things you can shift gears on but still make some impressive gains.

1. Warm-ups/mobility: Many think that it’s the age that makes the body change, but mileage needs to be assessed as well. With that said, it’s the type of mileage you’ve acquired over the years. If you’ve been training the incorrect way all this time you’ll need to honestly assess your mobility, flexibility, and injuries.

Training the Older Athlete Pec Deck

You’ll also need to pay closer attention to warm-ups and ramp-up sets before getting to the heavier weights. “Priming” your body for the heavier work to come will not only lead to a better workout, it will also help prevent potential injury and promote long-term healthy joints.

2. Full-range of motion: Half reps on squats and pulsing up dumbbell shoulder presses is not only unimpressive, it’s also derived straight from ego. Some may resort to the excuse of hurt knees, shoulders, and back in relation to specific lifts, but why would you still lift heavy with half reps? Squash the ego and get back to basics.

Can you perform a full range bodyweight squat? The answer should be yes. If so, simply wipe your slate clean and start to bodyweight squat while training legs. The same with shoulder presses. Start with a lighter weight, use a full range of motion by touching the dumbbells to your shoulders and pressing all the way up.

3. Smart exercise choices: Upright rows, leg presses, leg extensions, and behind the neck anything will all take their toll in one way or another over time. It may be time to adopt a few new exercises and replace others.

If you experience some strength imbalances with bilateral (both limbs) training such as squats, leg presses and bench presses, give unilateral (single limb) training a try. Try subbing in single-leg squats, lunges, and dumbbell presses.

Training the Older Athlete Unilateral Training

4. Stay in-tune with signals: If you’ve got a lot of training under your belt then it goes without mentioning that you know a thing or two about how your body responds, when to ramp up, and when to cut back. With age comes a shift in metabolism and hormone production.

You’ll need to keep a closer eye on the risks of overtraining and a steadfast plan against injury. Be sure to schedule your training split in such a way as to account for proper rest and recovery. Always listen to your body when it signals that an injury is looming. This is no time to be a hero and just work through the pain.

5. More patience: With your new-found attention to detail you will need a special skill not many half your age possess- patience. You can make significant gains in muscle and strength after 40, but you’ll need steadfast persistence, a carefully-crafted game plan, and plenty of patience for your body to take form. But there’s also a bright side.

Older trainees hold their fitness longer. What does that mean? If you were to take some time away from the gym, your ability to keep your already made progress would last longer than compared to a 20 year old. In other words, you keep at or near your fitness level long after the start of a layoff. So quit complaining that you’re “just getting back in shape” after some time away.

Related: Never Stop Making Gains-Microprogressions for Non-Stop Growth!

Now that we’ve outlined some of the concerns, let’s look at a sample program that puts those points to use. Be sure to perform some mobility exercises as well as a general warm-up and plenty of warm-up sets prior to your heavier training. This is a sample program and can be adjusted and modified to your specific needs and abilities.

Sample program

Perform the following workout twice per week. For example, Workout 1 can be performed on Mondays and Thursdays and Workout 2 can be performed on Tuesdays and Fridays with Wednesdays and the weekends for rest or other recreational activities of your choice.

Before each workout start with a dynamic warm-up of 3 rounds, 10 reps each of push-ups, bodyweight squats, floor crunches, burpees and jumping jacks.

Workout 1
Workout 2

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