How to keep your strength while dieting. How to build muscle after 40. Here's everything you need to know.
Realistic Gains After 40
Q: How much muscle can a natural, advanced lifter build in his 40s?
A: I'd love to tell you that an advanced lifter in his 40s can keep building tons of muscle... in part because I'm over 40 too. But it'd be a lie.
It's not even an age thing (although that plays a role), but a matter of training experience and adaptation. To me, "advanced lifter" means at least 15 years of hard training. That means you've gained quite a few pounds of muscle already.
The human body has a limited capacity to build and keep muscle naturally. This is largely dependent on our genetics. The ACTN3 genotype, myostatin levels, body structure, and many more factors come into play.
We don't fully understand all the factors yet. But the fact is that the average human male can add 30-40 pounds of muscle above what his normal adult weight would be over the course of his training career. Of course, using anabolics will bypass many of the naturally limiting factors that prevent a natural from growing to Mr. Olympia size.
I'm also talking about pure muscle weight. With those 30-40 pounds you'd likely add some extra pounds in the form of glycogen, water, and collagen. Not to mention that you could add some fat and still look great. You might add 50-60 pounds of scale weight over your career, but only 30-40 pounds of that weight would be muscle.
The closer you are to reaching those 30-40 pounds, the slower and harder your gains will be.
So let's take a 40-year old man who's at a normal adult weight who would be around 175 pounds without lifting. And let's say, after 15 years of training, he's now 210 pounds with a similar or better body fat percentage.
By lifting for all those years, he added around 30-35 pounds of muscle to his frame. Realistically, he can now hope to add 5-10 pounds of muscle at most.
If a second 40-year-old man gained only 10 pounds over the course of his training career (because he hasn't been training hard and smart consistently), he has the potential to gain more muscle than the first guy if he trains the right way.
Why is the more dedicated and experienced lifter going to have a harder time building a lot of new muscle? First because of adaptation. His body is well adapted to lifting. It's very hard at that point for training to represent a stress. If the training is no longer a stress, the body won't change because extra muscle isn't needed to do the work.
If you want to increase the training stress you need to:
- Lift more weight or...
- Do more volume or...
- Push your sets harder
But there's the catch-22. All three of these things can jack up cortisol and might stop progression. Furthermore, you can't always push them up. There will be a point where it's hard to add 5 pounds per 6-8 weeks on a lift. And if you already train to failure or close to it, there isn't much room to increase there either.
And adding volume – especially in older lifters – is one of the best ways to halt progress. It's also not very practical for the real world. A normal human being with a job and family can't spend 2-3 hours in the gym every day. An advanced lifter needs an extremely high training stress to keep progressing, but doing just that might actually do more harm than good.
Also, as you get older your physiology changes, and not for the best when it comes to building muscle:
- Testosterone levels tend to decrease.
- Growth hormone and IGF-1 can decrease.
- Stem cells decrease due to a lower IGF-1 level. Stem cells are required to repair muscle damage. Fewer stem cells means that you don't repair and build muscle as easily.
- Your body likely has more chronic systemic inflammation. This can significantly decrease your capacity to build muscle (among other things) in part because it reduces insulin sensitivity.
- You lose nerve cells and have atrophy in others. This will decrease strength. And if strength goes down, it can be harder to maintain, much less add, more muscle tissue. The muscle tissue is adapted to a certain level of loading. If your nerves no longer allow you to produce as much force, the lower level of muscle tension produced when training might not be enough to fully stimulate growth.
Finally, as you're getting older, life tends to take over. If you have a full-time job and a family, you have a lot more stress. That can also impact your capacity to progress.
Now The Good News
Don't stop trying to improve because it's possible to surprise yourself and achieve more than you thought. I got into my best shape at 41 and I'm still able to improve a bit.
Here are a few guidelines that tend to help older lifters keep making progress:
1. Don't always train hard.
I know this sounds counterintuitive, but periods of maintenance training can help re-sensitize your body to training. Call it "strategic deconditioning" if you want.
For 3-5 weeks, do the minimum necessary to avoid losing muscle. If you're a dedicated lifter, that's going to be much less than you think. Do less volume, don't push your sets hard (stop 2-3 reps short of failure), and focus on technique rather than load.
I like three full-body workouts per week using 3-4 lifts per session at that time. After that period, push hard for 6-8 weeks, ramping up the demands of your workout every two weeks or so.
I actually discovered this strategy when I started doing more seminars. I spent a period of four weeks training 2-3 times a week and not having the energy to push super hard. But when I got back to serious training, I surpassed my previous best.
2. Use a specialization approach.
This is something I began using with high-level bodybuilders to blast through a growth plateau.
When you're advanced you need a serious stimulus to force the body to adapt. But at the same time, if you increase overall training stress you won't be able to recover. Specialization is a great way to achieve that strong stimulus without excessively overloading your body.
Select one or two muscle groups (or one big lift) to focus on. Train them three days a week and the rest of the body once a week at maintenance level (either by doing everything in one workout or splitting it in two). Then, every four weeks, place your focus on different muscles or a new lift.
3. Focus on creating the look you want.
There's a phenomenon I call "muscle migration." When you've achieved an overall muscle mass close to your limit, you can still create an aesthetic evolution of your body by changing WHERE you're holding that muscle.
- If I train like an Olympic lifter or athlete, my hamstrings, traps, mid-back, and glutes improve, but I lose some size in the chest and arms.
- If I train more like a bodybuilder, my chest and arms improve and my quads get better, but I lose some size in the glutes and hams.
- If I train like a bro, my chest, arms, and shoulders improve, but I lose overall lower body mass.
In all three scenarios, my weight stays at about 215, yet the visual affect is different.
When you're approaching the most muscle mass you can carry, focus on developing the muscles that'll give you the look you want. Purposefully place muscles that aren't required to get "that look" on the backburner. This is a lot like specialization but without rotating every four weeks.
4. Get lean.
Everybody looks better when they're leaner. If you can't gain a ton of muscle anymore, you can still improve your look by getting ripped.
I talked about how I reached my best look at 41. I was actually smaller than earlier in my life, but because I was much leaner the overall look was better. Even if you don't gain muscle, you'll still look awesome if you get down to a true 8 percent body fat.
5. Reduce inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity.
When you're older these two are in large part responsible for preventing you from building muscle and getting leaner. Your lifestyle and diet will play a big role.
But if you'd like to take prevention a step further, Flameout® and Curcumin are awesome to reduce low-grade systemic inflammation. Indigo-3G® is the best supplement out there to improve insulin sensitivity.
It'd be nice if we could all continue building muscle until the day we stop training. Sadly, that's not the case. But even when muscle growth is harder to achieve, you can still find ways to improve.
Strong AND Ripped?
Q: How can I maintain strength while cutting?
A: Many things can contribute to strength. As such, you can lose strength for many reasons while dieting down. The two main reasons you lose strength when trying to get lean are:
- You're losing muscle. This is the most obvious one. But it should never happen unless you get down to lower than a real 8 percent body fat. If you keep training hard (but smart), have a high protein intake (1.25 to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight) and an acceptable deficit (not losing more than two pounds per week) you won't lose muscle.
- You're losing tightness. This is the most common reason for losing strength. Normally what happens is that you get weaker on the big basic lifts (bench, overhead press, and squat) but your strength on isolation exercises for the muscles involved will be the same or even higher.
By losing muscle glycogen, intramuscular fat, water, and fat, your strength leverage becomes worse and the joints are less "compressed." If you accumulate a lot of glycogen, water, and fat inside the muscle and water/fat outside the muscle, you're creating pressure around the joint which stabilizes it. This passive stabilization makes you stronger. When you lose it, the body feels less "safe" and force production is more easily inhibited as a protective mechanism.
Let's Address the Muscle-Loss Thing
The reason why people lose muscle while dieting is NOT the caloric restriction. To maintain or even increase muscle, your body needs protein and enough calories to fuel the repair processes.
"Yeah, but Thib, if I'm in a caloric deficit I don't have enough calories to fuel the repair process!"
Really? When you're in a deficit you still walk, move around, and train, right? Of course! But you're in a deficit… by definition you are not taking in enough energy to fuel all of that. How can you still function?
Well, by using stored energy for fuel. And the same can be done to fuel the muscle repair and growth process. Even in a deficit, if protein intake is sufficient you should be able to repair and even grow some muscle by relying on stored energy and the ingested protein.
I'm not saying you can build as much muscle on a deficit. When you eat less – especially when you go lower in carbs – you get a lower level of mTOR and IGF-1, which can make it harder to build muscle. But you should still easily be able to maintain what you have.
So why then are people losing muscle while dieting down if it's not because of the caloric deficit? Because they're afraid of losing muscle. That fear leads to the fulfilment of that fear.
So let's say a dude decides to get shredded. He cuts calories and maybe starts doing cardio. But he heard that he'll lose muscle when trying to get lean. At first, he feels smaller in his clothes and doesn't look shredded yet. It's even harder to get a pump (because of lowered carbs and sodium). So in his mind, it must be because he's "losing muscle."
So what does he do? He trains with more volume and intensity. He goes to failure more often, uses a ton of set-extending techniques like drop sets, rest/pause, and supersets for 90-120 minutes sessions using short rest intervals.
The higher volume and intensity both dramatically increase cortisol levels. Cortisol is already elevated more when you diet down (since it's involved in energy mobilization). And this chronic output of cortisol greatly increases the risk of losing muscle since cortisol breaks down muscle tissue.
You also create a lot more muscle damage. Under normal circumstances this would be fine since you need the damage to grow. But if you create so much damage that you can't repair it all before protein synthesis comes back down (24-36 hours after your workout) you might lose muscle!
When you're dieting down, you shouldn't try to use your lifting workout to burn more calories (by increasing volume), nor should you panic and jack up the volume. If anything, when you're dieting your capacity to tolerate volume and adapt is lower. You need to do less, not more. Just make sure you push hard on those sets.
The Loss of "Tightness" or Joint Stability
This is likely the main cause of strength loss while dieting down, especially in the initial phase of dieting.
The more stable a joint involved in a lift is, the stronger you'll be. If the joint is more stable there's less of a strength leak. Also, if the body feels "unsafe" it won't allow you to use all of your strength potential.
When you're on a fat loss regimen you lose...
- Subcutaneous fat
- Intramuscular fat
- Muscle glycogen
- Intramuscular water
- Extracellular water
When you lose intramuscular fat, muscle glycogen, and intramuscular water you "deflate" your muscles. As a result, these muscles aren't pushing as much on the joints. The bigger the muscles are, the more "packed" the joint is, even passively. This makes the joint more stable.
When that happens, you'll lose strength on the multi-joint movements, mostly the pressing movements – the shoulder is an unstable joint as it is.
Your squat will also go down, but the deadlift and pulling exercises aren't as affected. Interestingly, even with a drop in performance on the big lifts, you're just as strong, if not stronger, on isolation or machine exercises for the muscles involved in the big lifts. Your bench press goes down but your triceps extension, pec deck, and lateral raise will probably be just as strong.
The feeling of heavy lifting on joints that are less packed is that everything feels heavier from the moment you unrack the weight. You feel it in your bones. The eccentric/negative is a lot harder and more painful than usual too.
I once lost seven pounds over a three-day period from dehydration. My bench press performance dropped by 60 pounds!
So, what can you do to prevent that from happening?
1. Keep sodium high.
When we start dieting – or even just improving upon our current diets – our sodium intake goes down significantly. That can lead to water loss and a lack of pump. Keep sodium intake high if you want to keep your strength (and pump) up.
Sodium will help muscles stay fuller (more packed) and is also involved in muscle contraction. That's why I like Plazma™ even when dieting down. The ratio of electrolytes is perfect and helps maintain an ideal level of intramuscular water. I also recommend adding Himalayan salt to your meals.
2. Include eccentric and isometric emphasis work.
Using slow eccentric/negative reps on your big lifts (anywhere between 5 and 10 seconds) helps improve motor control and keeps everything tight. It also strengthens tendons.
Both elements will make the body feel safer and will allow you to use a greater proportion of your strength. Include isometric holds during the eccentric phase of a lift (1-3 pauses per rep lasting 2-6 seconds depending on the number of pauses).
During an isometric action, the synergist and antagonists are contracting more than during concentric actions. This develops the capacity to stabilize a joint, improving your capacity to use your strength potential.
For example, here we have professional beach volleyball player Diana Gordon doing 6 reps with 225 pounds using a 5-second eccentric.
For the pauses I recommend:
- 1 pause per rep: (normally at mid-range) 5-6 seconds
- 2 pauses per rep: (normally mid-range and just before bottom) 3-4 seconds
- 3 pauses per rep: (top third, mid-range, just before bottom) 2-3 seconds
3. Use a higher frequency on the big lifts.
The more often you practice the big lifts, the more efficient you are, and the more you can maintain or even increase your strength. The approach I use is to train three key "big lifts" three days a week. One day I focus on eccentric, one day on isometric, and the third day on regular lifting.
4. Don't panic.
When dieting, there will come a time where you feel small, have a hard time getting a pump, and don't look any better. Don't be emotional. Keep your head down and resist the urge to add more volume or garbage work.