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  • Writer's pictureMark Edwards

Best Workouts for Men Over 50 to Build Strength and Muscle: Unlocking Strength at Middle Age

Updated: May 9




What are the best workouts for men over 50?


Adding muscle after 50 is not only possible but absolutely necessary.


Let's get one thing out of the way. If you believe that vigorous aerobic exercise, like running 5-10k per day, is going to be an effective strategy, you're welcome to that opinion. Nothing wrong with running.


But it ain't going to maintain muscle mass. Not as you age.


Muscle building is vitally important for men over 50. I'll get into the "why."


You MUST create a plan to build muscle in your 50s. Without it, decrepitude and illness are going to creep up on you.


So hopefully, I'll be able to change your mind if you're someone who wants to rely solely on running to stay healthy and fit into old age.


And if you're ready to begin strength training for mid-life health goals, read on.








Crow in Cemetery


I'm Over 50. Is it too late for me to get stronger?



In fact, you can't afford NOT to get to work on building a stronger body through lifting weights as you approach your older years. Your physical and mental health are closely linked, so get your body moving and benefit in countless ways.


Let's start with all the reasons that muscle building over 50 is A MUST.



Man doing barbell curls


Can I Gain Muscle Over 50?


Building muscle after 50 is both possible and necessary.


Exercises for men, especially over 50 guys who are experiencing the hormonal effects of aging, must include weight training (or strength training, resistance training, lifting weights - I'll use those terms interchangeably). Lifting weights helps to build overall strength, increase muscle mass, improve the tensile strength of tendons and ligaments, improve range of motion, enhance balance, reduce the risk of injury, boost resting metabolism, and increase falling testosterone levels.


In essence, we're talking about muscle-building exercises that do far more than just add strength.


Decrepitude for older guys is the number one factor in loss of movement independence. If you just let things go, you can pretty much predict a lower quality of life as time marches on.


If you avoid doing the work, you can look forward to several things when you hit your 60s and 70s: struggling to pick up a bag of groceries, needing help to stand up off the Porcelain Throne, or walking up a couple flights of stairs while clinging to the banister.


And let's not forget about tripping over something, falling, and breaking a hip.


Falling and breaking a hip for many people in their 70's or older means game-over.


That's your future if you don't start regular resistance training right now.


"I run a few kilometers a week, so I think I'm pretty well-positioned for my 50s, 60s, and 70s.


You're either very misled or just lying to yourself.


Read on and let's get after it.


Is There a Difference in Training for Guys Over 50?


The primary focus of resistance training workouts for men over 50 should be on exercises that include all major muscle groups of the legs, shoulders/arms, chest, back, and abs.


To do that, we train the big movers.


Now let's get into some caveats.


Older guys will build muscle more slowly. If you've been training regularly since your 20's or 30's, you've got a solid base and are set up to not only preserve what you've got but keep building and stay strong.


Make no mistake, though. You're not going to build muscle like you did in your 20's.


If you got into weight training in your 30's and 40's, the strength gains will be tougher but doable. It's just not going to happen as fast, and takes more effort.


If you have never trained with weights and start in your 50's, or even in your 60's, you can seriously upgrade yourself. Big time.


You need to get in there and get strong to live a full active life into your 70's and 80's.


Training Frequency


You'll have to train less frequently because we older guys recover more slowly. Our muscles take longer to recover and our joints recover more slowly from training stress.


Those are the facts of life.


So instead of training 5 or 6 days a week and recovering for one day, you might train 3 days per week, have a day or two of cardio, and 3 days of active recovery interspersed among your training days.


What About Heavy Lifting Days?


Be cautious and patient. We might do one heavy day per week in a lower rep range and two days of higher volume work. It's inadvisable to go heavy several times a week as if you're 24 years old.


Don't do it. You're going to accumulate too much fatigue. Then we've got two problems.


Slow recovery.


Injury.


At 50, 55, 65, getting injured in the gym is a big deal. Why? Because recovering from injury takes a LONG TIME when we're older. Believe me, I know. Since 50, I've had 3 knee surgeries, a hip surgery, and a shoulder/bicep surgery. All of these surgeries were the end result of training injuries.


Recovery takes a long time, and you don't want to spend a year in recovery while your body loses strength and ability every day.


Training With Heavy Singles after 50.


A word of advice: don't do it.


Once or twice a year, you might test your 1-rep max for movements like squats and deadlifts. Testing.


But over 50 guys who train specifically to increase their heavy singles are generally asking for trouble. The chance of injury while training for heavy singles is always present to a greater degree than training in higher rep ranges, and as I mentioned, recovery from neuro-muscular fatigue take longer for us over-50s. That means those of you constantly training in that low rep range will likely be training very often in a state of physical fatigue.


"Mistakes were made," as politicians and talking heads were fond of saying after things went sideways in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan. Let's not repeat that phrase from a hospital bed.



Why Full Body Workouts?


Whenever possible, full-body workouts are the way to go. Focus on the big, compound movements, with other movements as supplementary or accessory movements. There are several reasons for this, but first, why is resistance training the foundation?


Fact: As men age, our testosterone levels drop, leading to muscle sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss). For many older guys, the result is what is colloquially known as "man-boobs," in addition to flabby-looking arms, chest, and legs. But probably the worst part of this is a significant loss of physical strength that continues into old age.


Another issue we try to address with resistance training is weight loss. Increased muscle mass = decreased body fat. That's a big win.


Don't get me wrong. Cardiovascular fitness is important, but a healthy cardiovascular system isn't going to help you up and down the stairs or carry your groceries home for you.


And that's just the bare minimum. Wouldn't it be better to be fit and strong, truly STRONG, through middle age until the end, AND have good cardiovascular health?


Increase your testosterone levels


Men's testosterone levels peak in their late 20s and thereafter, levels decline at about 1% per year. Equally troubling is that between the ages of 20 and 60, the typical male will lose about 30% of his muscle mass and muscle strength.


With lower testosterone comes the added "bonus" of putting on body fat more easily. Low testosterone levels can have other serious implications on health including reduced libido, fatigue, and depression.


Research suggests that strength training workouts help stimulate the production of testosterone which in turn can help restore normal body functions such as increased energy levels and improved libido for men over 50 who may be struggling with low testosterone symptoms.



Man running at dawn


What about running?


No amount of running is going to remedy muscle and strength loss, regardless of what you'd like to believe. There are beliefs, and then there are scientifically validated facts. Running doesn't mitigate muscle and strength loss. Running isn't going to prompt your body to be more anabolic. And it does absolutely nothing for limited hip mobility overall flexiblity.


In fact, because of the limited range of hip motion involved in running, over the long term, it only worsens stiff hips.


I've already touched on this but I'll mention it again. Being able to run 5k at 75 years old isn't going to help you carry your groceries home, climb three flights of stairs, or get out of your car.


Plain and simply put, a full-body workout incorporating compound movements is the best way to promote testosterone production, counteract muscle loss and increase fat loss, and maintain or increase strength, thereby improving quality of life.



Human skeleton


Strength Training and Bone Density


Strength training workouts can also help to address other age-related issues that may impact overall health and well-being. For example, it can improve bone density, which is essential for preventing osteoporosis and reducing the risk of fractures. It can also improve joint health and flexibility, reducing the risk of injury and enhancing mobility.


Make no mistake, one of the most serious effects of inactivity is loss of bone density. To reverse this or prevent it, load-bearing exercise is essential.


Walking the dog won't do it. Nor will running 10k's or marathons.


Note: I'm not anti-running. I'm anti "running is the be-all end-all of exercises." It simply isn't. Running can be part of a sensible fitness program. But it shouldn't be the centerpiece.



Man doing military press


Full body strength training workouts for time efficiency


For many guys, a common refrain/complaint/excuse to avoid strength training is lack of time.


Newsflash: you're not the busiest person on planet Earth. Sit down with a notebook, identify your priorities, and start making a schedule before the week starts that allows some time to train.


By incorporating full-body workouts into your exercise routine or program, anyone can fit two to three 1-hour sessions per week into even the busiest schedule.


Full-body strength workouts are the most effective way to reach optimal physical fitness levels in the shortest amount of time possible. By targeting multiple large muscle groups at once with compound movements such as squats and presses instead of doing isolation exercises like bicep curls or leg extensions, men over 50 can maximize their workout routine quickly and efficiently.


Supersets & Giant Sets For Strength and Time Efficiency


Supersets are sets of two different exercises performed back-to-back with no rest in between sets that work opposing muscles or muscle groupings like chest/back or biceps/triceps which allows you to complete twice as much exercise per session in half the time spent compared to traditional lifting alone.


Giant sets involve performing three or more different exercises consecutively with no rest in between sets. This targets multiple large muscle groups at one time for maximum fatigue and ultimate muscular development gains at once – perfect for men over 50 aiming to maximize their workout time!


Supersets and Giant sets are great ways to get even more done in a shorter amount of time by cutting down on rest periods and exhausting the core muscles..


And let's not forget the interest factor. By programming exercises in superset pairs or giant sets, you can keep moving throughout a workout, avoiding boredom while keeping your heart rate elevated throughout the workout. Supersets and giant sets can be a solid part of any strength training program.


How about circuit training?


There is also that old standby, Circuit training. This type of workout has been around for a very long time but was introduced in its modern form in the 1950s. It closely resembles giant sets. In fact, giant sets could be incorporated into an effective circuit.







And what about CrossFit®?


CrossFit®-type workouts, known in some quarters as "functional fitness," also provide a great opportunity for maximum efficiency by combining elements from weightlifting, cardiovascular exercise, and gymnastics techniques to take your workouts from moderate intensity exercise to a high-intensity workout routine that will challenge both strength and endurance simultaneously – perfect for busy schedules.



I thought High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) was supposed to be the best?


Lastly, I'll briefly mention HIIT (high-intensity interval training).


High intensity exercise routines are generally body-weight movements performed at speed, singly or circuit-style, to keep heart rate elevated. That's not going to build muscle.


Strength work CAN be incorporated into a HIIT workout routine. That's a plus.


But programmed and performed the standard way, although a great fat burner, HIIT is not going to help muscle building. On the contrary, an older guy who is in a caloric deficit to lose body fat in conjunction with frequent HIIT will lose both body fat AND muscle mass.


In the short term, this very intense exercise can work for weight reduction and of course, HIIT provides a great cardiovascular workout, but in the long term, HITT is simply not the best approach on its own to building and maintaining muscle mass. I cannot recommend HITT workouts as the sole source of exercise for older guys who want to get strong and build a solid foundation of health unless they incorporate external loads into their HIIT routine.


And then we call it CrossFit®.


Ultimately what you decide will depend on several factors, including training experience, available time, equipment, and so on. But I can't recommend High-Intensity Interval Training as the sole form of training for older guys who want to get stronger.



TRX Cossack Squat photo
TRX Cossack Squat


Flexibility and Mobility to Prevent Injury and Reduce Aches and Pains


Lastly, incorporating mobility exercises into any full-body resistance training routine is essential as it will help reduce injury risk while improving flexibility, postural alignment, joint health, and overall, physical performance and well-being, which is especially crucial when targeting older age groups.


Mobility work can involve a wide range of movements and techniques, often involving mobility bands, a foam roller, a lacrosse ball, or no equipment at all.


Mobility work should be done before and after working out, and the type of movement you choose is going to be directly related to the type of workout that you're preparing your entire body for or post-workout to reduce stiffness and maintain your improved range of motion. There is no "one size fits all."


What sort of workout are you preparing for?


That's the question that needs answering when choosing the right mobility movements.


I hesitate to call any of this "stretching" or flexibility exercises simply because doing mobility work goes far beyond the image we have of a standard "stretch" or simple flexibility.


One of the best resources available for mobility work is "Becoming a Supple Leopard" by Dr. Kelly Starrett. Well-illustrated and easy to follow, it's quite literally the mobility bible for many coaches and trainers.


Kelly's "Virtual Mobility Coach" app is also a great resource.


When in doubt, always find a qualified, experienced trainer or coach.

Let's get to the movements and ways to combine and approach them.



Man with Barbell
Barbell Snatch Grip

Productive Strength Training Movements to Build Essential Muscle


Strength training can involve using different types of weights, resistance bands, or other forms of resistance to target specific muscle groups and create overload. There is no single way to use resistance to build muscle mass. Rather, there are multiple ways to achieve this end.


The best strength plan midlife has certain characteristics but at the same time is highly individual.


The resistance training program or fitness program you choose will partly depend on the type of equipment and space that you have available, so we'll touch on different approaches.


Any of these movements can be performed with barbells, kettlebells, or dumbbells.

Although there's nothing like a barbell, I'm a huge fan of kettlebells and dumbbells for the simple reason that they're versatile and offer benefits that barbells don't offer, such as the ability to train right and left separately. This is a fantastic way to address strength imbalances.


Here are the core resistance training movements that are particularly productive for men over 50. These are the best exercises bar none.






Squats

The squat is a compound exercise that targets the quadriceps, hips, glutes, and core. Squats build strength and stability in both the lower and upper body and improve balance.

The squat is truly the king of strength movements. If you could only choose one movement to do above all else, the squat would be in the top 2.


Why Squat?

There isn't a single aspect of your daily life that doesn't involve some form of squat, so maintaining strength in this movement is paramount for healthy aging and avoiding decrepitude.


There are a dozen wrong ways to do a squat, and only a few ways to do it right, so always get a coach to teach you proper form from the outset. You'll more often than not see gym bros doing it wrong. Get a coach.




Deadlifts

The deadlift is the granddaddy of all lifts. After all, what is a deadlift? It's lifting a heavy object off of the ground.


It's another essential compound exercise that targets the back, hamstrings, quads, glutes, and "core," and even the upper back. Deadlifts are a great way to build overall strength and improve posture. The intense isometric contraction involved in stabilizing the back, shoulders, hips, hamstrings, glutes, and more is only rivaled by the squat.


Don't get bogged down in debates over which kind of deadlift is best. Any variation - Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift, Conventional, Sumo, Bulgarian Split Squat - will bring enormous benefits. Each variation of the deadlift focuses on a different aspect of the movement, but there isn't a loser in the bunch.




Bench Presses or Floor Presses (and variations)


The bench press is an effective exercise for building strength, muscle, and stability in the chest, arms, and shoulders. It's one of the primary lifts, but too many guys spend too much time on their bench when they really should be squatting more to build their skinny underdeveloped legs and a stronger core.


Floor presses are a decent alternative to bench presses for a number of reasons. First, you may not own a bench. Some guys may be rehabbing shoulder injuries and have a more limited range of motion (like me) and for them, floor presses with dumbbells are a good way to go because the floor will limit the range of motion, protecting the shoulder joint if you're someone dealing with shoulder discomfort or pain.


Lastly, some argue that a more beneficial movement for the upper body is the strict standing press, also known as the military press. Let's examine that.







Standing or Military Press


Whatever the bench press can do, the standing shoulder press goes hand-in-hand with. The standing press is one of the most underrated movements out there.

Because it's done from a standing position, the core has to be braced in a way that carries over into other sports and basically to everyday life movements, something that the bench press lacks.


Starting from the feet firmly planted to the ground, the entire body has to isometrically contract to vertically push the barbell off of the shoulders to overhead. Nothing beats it as a pure, functional upper-body movement.


According to Mark Rippetoe, it's underrated and in fact may have more carry-over into contact sports simply because the weight is being moved through space from an "athletic position."





Pull-ups and Chin-Ups


Truly the king of bodyweight movements. The pull-up is an excellent exercise for building upper body strength and can be modified to suit your fitness level. Lat pull-downs? Fuggedaboudit. The pull-up is by far a better movement for overall fitness and strength. Pullups/Chinups require correct shoulder positioning, body positioning, and grip strength. They build the upper back muscles, biceps, and lats better than any movement bar none. Do cable lat pulldowns til you turn blue if you like. You still may not be able to do a correct pullup.


Lat pulldowns have their place, especially for injury rehab, but if it's one or the other, choose the pullup.





Black and White photo of middle aged man doing pushups



Push ups


Pushups are the most basic bodyweight movement. Humans have been doing these since we were living in caves, in one form or another.


Similar to a bench press, a push up is pressing your bodyweight in a face down position instead of moving a barbell off of the chest in a face-up position. Pushups are a great way to build arm and shoulder strength while working on core stability since a pushup requires a solid plank to be maintained throughout the movement.


And the best part is a push up requires no equipment so you can do them anywhere. On vacation? Start the day with 100 pushups. Business trip in a crappy hotel without a hotel gym? One hundred in the morning will do wonders. No excuses!



Man and woman doing front planks


Planks


Planks are a great exercise for strengthening the core and even improving balance (think side-planks or planks on a Swiss Ball). They can be done anywhere and require no equipment.


Movement can be added for a greater challenge, such as a side plank with rotation.


Check this out:






There are other movements that I consider important but secondary to the ones just mentioned. These include lunges, suitcase carries, overhead carries, and weighted step-ups, among others.


And you might be asking "what about the Olympic lifts? Snatches? Clean and Jerk?"


While these are great movements and can be incorporated into a good program, or even be the sole focus of a training program, they are highly technical movements that I wouldn't consider "the core" of a strength training program for over 50 guys.


However, they're fantastic movements for strength and flexiblity, and they're a load of fun. If the Olympic lifts appeal to you, always get a competent coach to teach you proper technique.



Now add kettlebells, dumbbells, and/or barbells and the variations are limitless. A solid strength training program for ANY level trainee can be created to counteract muscle loss and not only build muscle but also improve your metabolic conditioning.


This is NOT complicated but it can become complex. Yes, there's a difference.

You'll also notice that movements tend to be separated into pulling and pushing exercises, and upper body - lower body movements.


Let's look at some sample programs using kettlebells. Barbells and/or dumbbells can be substituted for some movements depending on your goals and access to equipment.


I'm not wedded to any particular implements. The basic requirement is that you must be able to adjust the amount of load as needed, regardless of whether you're using dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, or any combination of these.


The Programs


Beginning Trainee: Kettlebell Supersets Example Program

I don't like to call this "Exercise for Beginners Over 50" because that title would be misleading. The following could be suitable for any level of trainee (or any age for that matter) simply by increasing the number of sets, reps, or even by incorporating super sets to push the intensity.

Day 1:

  1. Goblet Squat 3x8-10

  2. Single-arm Kettlebell Row 3x8-10 per side

  3. Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift 3x8-10

  4. Push-up 3x8-10

  5. Kettlebell Swing 3x12-15

  6. Plank 3x30 seconds

Superset 1:

  • Goblet Squat + Single-arm Kettlebell Row (3 Rounds)

Superset 2:

  • Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift + Push-up (3 Rounds)

Superset 3:

  • Kettlebell Swing + 30-second plank (3 Rounds)


Day 2: Active Rest


Day 3:

  1. Kettlebell Deadlift 3x8-10

  2. Kettlebell Chest Press 3x8-10

  3. Kettlebell Reverse Lunge 3x8-10 each side

  4. Inverted Row 3x8-10

  5. Kettlebell Goblet Clean 3x12-15

  6. Russian Twist 3x12-15

Superset 1:

  • Kettlebell Deadlift + Kettlebell Floor Press (3 Rounds)

Superset 2:

  • Kettlebell Reverse Lunge + Inverted Row (3 Rounds)

Superset 3:

  • Kettlebell Goblet Clean + Russian Twist (3 Rounds)


Day 4: Active Rest


Day 5:

  1. Kettlebell Front Rack Squat 3x8-10

  2. Kettlebell One-arm Overhead Press 3x8-10 per side

  3. Kettlebell Step-up 3x8-10 per side

  4. Pull-up or Assisted Pull-up 3x8-10

  5. Kettlebell Clean and Press 3x12-15

  6. Bird Dog 3x12-15 per side

Superset 1:

  • Kettlebell Front Squat + Kettlebell One-arm Overhead Press (3 Rounds)

Superset 2:

  • Kettlebell Step-up + Pull-up or Assisted Pull-up (3 Rounds)

Superset 3:

  • Kettlebell Clean and Press + Bird Dog (3 Rounds)


Day 6: Rest


Day 7: Active Rest


This active rest day is meant to give your muscles a chance to recover under active conditions. You can do some light activities, such as walking, yoga, or general mobility. Keep your body moving with intent for an hour or more. And it doesn't have to be a straight hour. You could break up your active movement throughout the day.


This looks too simple. Is that it?


This simple program can be made as easy or as hard as necessary by simple progressions and regressions. Want more stimulus? Use a heavier kettlebell, or if unavailable, add an extra round and/or extra reps to increase the difficulty as much as you like.


Rest as little as possible between movements and you'll get some very nice metabolic conditioning in too.


Prefer Giant Sets? Then go through all 6 movements for one round, and then go back to the first movement for round two.


Either way, you'll be time efficient and build some solid strength.



Beginning Trainee Kettlebell Giant Sets Example Program


Day 1:

Giant Set 1:

  1. Kettlebell Goblet Squats - 3 sets of 10 reps

  2. Kettlebell One-Arm Rows - 3 sets of 10 reps per arm

  3. Kettlebell Push-Ups - 3 sets of 10 reps

Giant Set 2:

  1. Kettlebell Deadlifts - 3 sets of 10 reps

  2. Kettlebell Overhead Press - 3 sets of 10 reps

  3. Kettlebell Russian Swings - 3 sets of 10 reps

Day 2:

Giant Set 1:

  1. Kettlebell Lunges - 3 sets of 10 reps per leg

  2. Kettlebell Bent-Over Rows - 3 sets of 10 reps

  3. Kettlebell Chest Press - 3 sets of 10 reps

Giant Set 2:

  1. Kettlebell Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts - 3 sets of 10 reps per leg

  2. Kettlebell Upright Rows - 3 sets of 10 reps

  3. Kettlebell Farmer Walks - 3 sets of 30 seconds

Day 3:

Giant Set 1:

  1. Kettlebell Step-Ups - 3 sets of 10 reps per leg

  2. Kettlebell High Pulls - 3 sets of 10 reps

  3. Kettlebell Incline Press - 3 sets of 10 reps

Giant Set 2:

  1. Kettlebell Single-Arm Swings - 3 sets of 10 reps per arm

  2. Kettlebell Concentration Curls - 3 sets of 10 reps per arm

  3. Kettlebell Skull Crushers - 3 sets of 10 reps per arm


In this example, we split the workout into two giant sets instead of a single giant set.

There is only a brief rest between movements - just enough time to get into position for the next movement. Again, the difficulty of this simple workout can be increased with easy tweaks:


  • Increase the number of sets

  • Increase the number of reps

  • Increase the weight of the kettlebells or dumbbells


Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Complexity isn't necessary. Mix things up to keep it interesting, and not complicated.


Aim for two to three strength training sessions each week, and be sure to give your muscles time to recover between workouts.


FAQs

Question: What about training for max singles? Can I do high intensity low-volume training regularly?


Answer: Having an occasional day to hit a personal best max single is fine, but don't overdo it. This sort of training, done too often (ie 2 or 3 times a week) can be counter-productive for older guys because we generally require more time to recover from heavy, low volume workouts. This sort of training is very taxing on the nervous system. Lean towards moderate intensity loads with somewhat higher volume. As I mentioned, constant training to improve your one-rep max is a recipe for injury.


Question: What about bodybuilding workout plans?


Answer: This depends on each person's goals. Older men should be training for full-body strength and functionality. Bodybuilding workouts focus on muscle-group isolation and have little concern for functionality. These programs also take significantly more time. So be aware. I don't advise bodybuilding-style programs for older men.


Question: I want to look ripped, so isn't it better to follow a bodybuilding workout plan?


Answer: Doing full-body, functional training will give you a body that looks and feels stronger than you ever thought possible. Just look at people who regularly do CrossFit type training. Train for function, eat better food, and you'll get ripped.


And remember: abs are made in the kitchen. Train right and eat right, you'll get ripped.



With a little research, it can be possible to design your own program. However, for many guys, hiring a personal coach or buying programming from one of the many competent coaching programs online can be a much better way to get started.


Remember, the best fitness plan midlife is the one that you can do consistently.


Lastly, you can't out-train a bad diet. Good health starts in the kitchen. To get started with nutrition or strength training, book a call HERE.



Disclaimer: All information provided on this website is for informational purposes only. No information provided is to be construed as medical advice. If you have medical issues, always consult your doctor.

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