It might not be common for older men to start bodybuilding, but that doesn't mean you can't. You can start lifting weights safely at any age. However, senior bodybuilders should talk to their doctors before embarking on a program.
Basics of Bodybuilding
Bodybuilding focuses more on aesthetics than on function, according to the National Institute for Fitness and Sport — it's not about how much weight you can lift, but rather how much weight it looks like you can lift. The sport emphasizes the size of your muscles, as well as the shape, symmetry and definition, and those who participate aim to induce hypertrophy in their muscles.
Hypertrophy sounds like a fancy word, but it's simply the term for growing muscles. According to the American Council on Exercise, building muscle takes time as well as good nutritional practices and thoughtful, consistent training. However, the rate at which hypertrophy will happen depends on the individual, ACE says, and factors include a person's genetics, sex and a variety of other considerations, including hormonal influences, nutrition, hydration and training frequency and duration.
Read more: How to Become a Bodybuilder
Muscle Building for Seniors
Even those who aren't interested in being a 60-year-old bodybuilder benefit from lifting weights. People lose muscle mass as they age, a condition known as sarcopenia, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This typically starts around age 50, though it can begin earlier, especially for those who lead an inactive lifestyle — and it affects everyone by approximately age 75, the Cleveland Clinic says.
However, a muscle-building program can change all of that. According to a position statement from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published in August 2019, a properly designed resistance-training program can counteract age-related changes in function and atrophy of skeletal muscle.
Additionally, this training program can improve muscular strength and power of an older adult, as well as improve mobility and physical functioning, including during activities of daily living.
What constitutes a well-designed training program? The position states that it should include 2 to 3 sets of one to two multi-joint exercises for every major muscle group at the intensity of 70 percent to 85 percent of a 1-repetition maximum, two to three times per week. Multi-joint exercises, also known as complex exercises, according to Good Samaritan Health Solutions, include lunges, step-ups, squats, deadlifts and push-ups.
If you're new to the sport of bodybuilding, start slowly and gradually ramp up your exercise routine. Don't try to bench press your body weight in the first few exercise sessions.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends a simple start of working each muscle group — that is, arms, legs, stomach, back and hips — twice a week, giving each group a day of rest between strength sessions. Do 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise; if you can do 12 reps without your muscles fatiguing, you're ready to increase the weight slightly.
Nutrition for Bodybuilding
Nutrition is critical when it comes to bodybuilding. Although protein is typically considered the most important macronutrient for building muscle, your body also needs carbohydrates to fuel your exercise, according to the Cleveland Clinic. These carbs should come from a mix of such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains more often than processed carbohydrates.
A study published in May 2014 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommended that most bodybuilders — no matter what their age might be — may benefit from eating 2.3 to 3.1 grams per kilogram of lean body mass per day of protein. Additionally, they should consume 15 percent to 30 percent of calories from fat and the remainder of their calories from carbohydrates.
The number of times you eat per day can make a difference, too. The research also said that eating three to six meals per day that each contain between 0.4 to 0.5 grams per kilogram of body weight of protein before and after training may maximize potential benefits.
If you're considering supplements, be careful which ones you choose. The study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition notes that creatine monohydrate, caffeine and beta-alanine may have beneficial effects relevant to contest preparation, but others either do not or need more research. The American Council on Exercise notes that combining casein and whey supplements, both types of milk protein, can help with improving muscle strength.
However, eating more protein in food form may be a cheaper way to get the same results. Some protein-rich foods, according to the Cleveland Clinic, include boneless, skinless chicken breast, with 27 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving; Greek yogurt, with 11 grams of protein per half-cup; and canned tuna, which has 20 grams in every 3 ounces.
If you're a vegetarian, don't worry. There are plenty of plant-based protein options, too, such as edamame (9 grams of protein per half-cup serving), lentils (also 9 grams per half-cup serving) and split peas (8 grams per half-cup serving).
Read more: Bodybuilding Without Supplements
Safety for Senior Bodybuilders
Many 60-year-old bodybuilders are in excellent health, but it's important for those just starting a bodybuilding program to get medical clearance from their doctor, particularly if there's a pre-existing condition, recommends the American Academy of Family Physicians. Additionally, you should listen to your body when exercising and stop if you feel dizzy, short of breath, have chest pain or break out in a cold sweat.
Additionally, you might feel some muscle soreness as you begin to increase your bodybuilding program, such as when you begin to lift heavier weights. Delayed onset muscle soreness typically develops between 12 and 24 hours after working out, according the American Council of Sports Medicine, and the pain often peaks between 24 and 72 hours later. You can reduce the pain by applying ice packs, massaging the sore muscles and taking over-the-counter pain relievers.
However, keep in mind that muscle soreness is different than other types of pain that you shouldn't ignore. When lifting weights, pay attention to sharp pain that prevents you from moving a body part — or moving at all — or decreases your range of motion, says the Cleveland Clinic.
Additional warning signs to look out for are pain where you've previously injured yourself or had surgery, pain that's accompanied by massive swelling or deformity or pain that is constant, worsening in severity, not getting better after several days of relief measures or is coupled with pressure and bruising.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation"
- American Council on Exercise: "Do Bodybuilding Supplements Work?"
- National Institute for Fitness and Sport: "Powerbuilding: The Middle Ground Between Powerlifting and Bodybuilding"
- American Council on Exercise: "How Muscle Grows"
- Cleveland Clinic: "How Can You Avoid Muscle Loss as You Age?"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Resistance Training for Older Adults: Position Statement From the National Strength and Conditioning Association"
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Seniors and Exercise: Starting an Exercise Program"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Is Your Exercise Causing Good or Bad Pain? How to Tell"
- Cleveland Clinic: "8 High-Protein Foods to Reach for (Dietitian Approved)"
- Good Samaritan Health Solutions: "Multi-Joint Exercises for a Killer Workout and Improved Joint Health"
- American Council of Sports Medicine: "ACSM Information on...Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Exercise and Seniors"