Staying physically active is crucial for good health, regardless of age. But what's the best age to build muscle? Starting at a peak age can have some advantages, but children and seniors can benefit from strength training just as much as adults.
Bodybuilding vs. Strength Training
New Mexico State University defines strength training as a form of exercise that uses resistance to improve muscular fitness. In the long run, it may increase bone mass and strength, preserve lean mass, improve blood lipids and facilitate fat loss. This training method can also make everyday activities easier, boost brain power and reduce stress.
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Along with good nutrition and rest, strength training is the foundation of bodybuilding. But this doesn't mean that bodybuilding and strength training are one and the same.
According to the World National Bodybuilding Federation Canada, bodybuilding is a more structured approach to strength training and requires specialized nutrition, including the use of supplements. The purpose is to build lean mass, maintain low body fat and achieve an aesthetic physique.
Strength training, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily focus on aesthetics. Additionally, it doesn't require a special diet or supplements. You may lift weights for the sole purpose of feeling good or improving your overall fitness.
Should Children Lift Weights?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends children and teens engage in at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per day, including three or more weekly sessions of muscle-strengthening activities. Bone-strengthening exercises are just as important and should be performed at least three times a week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies weight training and bodybuilding using free weights or gym machines as moderate activity. Cycling, running, jogging and circuit weight training, on the other hand, are classified as vigorous exercise.
Strength training can benefit children, including those who haven't entered puberty yet. This form of exercise may improve sports performance while strengthening their muscles and bones, states the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
It's perfectly safe for children and teens to lift weights and perform body-weight exercises such as push-ups and squats. Furthermore, they can gradually increase the load (up to a point) and experiment with different repetition ranges.
As the Mayo Clinic notes, strength training can help children look and feel better, maintain a healthy weight and perform better at their sport of choice. The goal here isn't to build muscle. Ideally, children should use light resistance and focus on maintaining proper form.
Contrary to popular belief, weight lifting doesn't stunt children's growth. According to St. Louis Children's Hospital, kids as young as seven can start lifting weights. Strength training should be combined with other activities as part of a balanced fitness regimen. The advice of a personal trainer or physical therapist is extremely important, especially for children.
Teenagers and Bodybuilding
Working out during puberty may lead to muscle and strength gains, according to the ACSM. These effects are unlikely to occur in young children because they lack the hormones needed to build mass. Teens, on the other hand, may experience an increase in muscle size due to strength training. In fact, many iconic bodybuilders, such as Jay Cutler and Arnold Schwarzenegger, started when they were teenagers.
Note, though, that children and teens who are still growing shouldn't follow adult strength training guidelines. Instead, they should perform strength exercises as part of a balanced training plan that also includes cardio, flexibility training and other types of exercise, points out the ACSM.
Testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, peaks around age 19, states a review published in PLoS One in October 2014. According to Harvard Health Publishing, this hormone plays a key role in muscle growth and strength, normal development, sexual behavior and bone health. Therefore, adolescence is a good time to start building muscle, but that doesn't mean you should start training like a bodybuilder.
The Hospital for Special Surgery explains that a well-rounded fitness program is the best choice for teens. Adolescents should focus on building up their strength and endurance. Researchers recommend starting slowly with light weights and increasing the load gradually. Aim for three or more sets per exercise and 10 to 15 reps per set. Use a weight that allows you to maintain proper form throughout the entire range of motion.
Best Age to Build Muscle
There is no such thing as a perfect age for gym workouts. The above guidelines indicate that people of all ages and fitness levels can join a gym and reap the benefits. However, it's one thing to lift weights and another thing to start bodybuilding. Generally, the best age for bodybuilding is between 20 and 30 or when you have reached full growth.
As discussed, testosterone levels peak around age 19. After age 30, they begin to gradually decline by about 1 percent per year, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It's estimated that about 40 percent of men over 45 have low testosterone. This hormone allows men to build mass and strength, so even the slightest decrease may affect their physical performance.
Read more: Can I Start Bodybuilding in My 30s?
Low testosterone levels are associated with muscle loss, diminished strength and increased fat mass, explains a research paper featured in Reviews in Urology in 2017. Additionally, peak anaerobic power decreases by approximately 1 percent per year, even in pro athletes, states ExRx.net. Therefore, you may find it easier to build mass and strength in your 20s when your testosterone levels are still high – but that doesn't mean you can't start bodybuilding at an older age.
A small study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in June 2013 found that strength training improved muscle function in men aged between 60 and 78. According to PennState, this form of exercise may also increase muscle strength, preserve lean mass and reduce all-cause mortality rates in older adults by up to 46 percent.
If you start bodybuilding in your 50s, you may find it harder to build mass and achieve the same performance as someone younger, but there are other benefits you should consider. Weight training helps reduce age-related muscle loss, keeps your joints strong and may decrease injury risk, states The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. It also makes it easier to lose fat and keep the pounds off, which may lower your risk of heart disease and cardiometabolic disorders.
- New Mexico State University: "The Benefits of Strength Training and Tips for Getting Started"
- World National Bodybuilding Federation Canada: "What Is Bodybuilding?"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "General Physical Activities Defined by Level of Intensity"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Youth Strength Training"
- Mayo Clinic: "Strength Training: OK for Kids?"
- St. Louis Children's Hospital: "Should Child Athletes Lift Weights?"
- PLoS One: "A Validated Age-Related Normative Model for Male Total Testosterone Shows Increasing Variance but No Decline After Age 40 Years"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Testosterone — What It Does and Doesn't Do"
- Hospital for Special Surgery: "Strength Training for Teenagers"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Low Testosterone (Male Hypogonadism)"
- Reviews in Urology: "Revisiting the Role of Testosterone: Are We Missing Something?"
- ExRx.net: "Weight Training for Specific Populations: Older Adults"
- Journal of the American Geriatrics Society: "Mechanical Muscle Function and Lean Body Mass During Supervised Strength Training and Testosterone Therapy in Aging Men With Low‐Normal Testosterone Levels"
- PennState: "Strength Training Helps Older Adults Live Longer"
- The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension: "Resistance Training: Health Benefits and Recommendations"