Can You Start Bodybuilding in Your 30s?

Can You Start Bodybuilding in Your 30s?

At the time of writing this article, I am 33 years old. While I have no plans on becoming a bodybuilder, it would be nice to know if I could. So I decided to try and answer the question “can you start bodybuilding in your 30s?”.

There is nothing stopping someone in their 30s from building a superb bodybuilding physique. But the likelihood of becoming a pro bodybuilder is incredibly low. Even bodybuilders who are considered “late starters” started in their mid-20s. Your physique before turning 30 is an important factor in how successful you can be in the future. 

As I’ve found with a lot of my articles on bodybuilding, there is a difference between trying to become a professional bodybuilder who competes at Mr Olympia and being an amateur bodybuilder who just wants to look better. Obviously, if your goal is to look better, then being in your 30s should be absolutely no impediment to you getting into bodybuilding.

If you want to become an IFBB pro, then 30 may be too late, but perhaps not impossible. It certainly depends on what your physique is currently like. In this article, I will look at the difficulties involved with starting bodybuilding in your 30s. Ways in which you can succeed, and some bodybuilders who started late in life.

Can You Start Bodybuilding in Your 30s?

At 30? Shouldn’t you be getting your food pre-chewed and waiting for the grandkids to visit? Of course, you can start bodybuilding in your 30s. But if you are reading this article then you probably aren’t asking permission to start bodybuilding.

You are probably wondering whether you can make a success of it. There are different ways to measure success. If you are wondering whether you could build an amazing physique, improve your health and fitness, and grow your social circle, then yes. You can have a lot of success in bodybuilding, even if you wait until 30 to start.

If your idea of success is lifting a Sandow trophy and retiring early thanks to your career earnings, then you may have left it too late. Most Pro bodybuilders start in their late teen years, and many of them are competing in their early 20s.

With the amount of time it takes to build significant muscle, you will be hitting your peak size right around the time that many bodybuilders are retiring. You could still compete in Masters categories. But it won’t be easy.

Still, many people take up running or tennis or boxing in their 30s, and they never even consider becoming a professional athlete. Maybe bodybuilders need to be a bit more realistic in their desires. This is just my perception, but I feel like many people who start bodybuilding have loftier goals than people who start running or other hobbies/sports.

Bottom Line: You can create an amazing physique, but it will take a lot of time, and you should forget about becoming a top pro bodybuilder. But then so should 99% of 20-year-olds who start bodybuilding. It is incredibly rare to be successful as a bodybuilder. 

Can You Become a Pro Bodybuilder?

Sorry to be the crusher of dreams, but I haven’t found a single pro bodybuilder who went from completely untrained (hasn’t ever built muscle properly) to a pro bodybuilder after the age of 30. Sure, there are a few examples of bodybuilders who started competing after 30. But every single one was training beforehand, and/or had a job that required a large physique.

If you have been powerlifting from age 18 through to age 29, then becoming a pro bodybuilder is perhaps possible. Even then though, you would be playing catch up. Bodybuilding has a lot of specific skills and training techniques that you would have to learn.

Also, if you are starting out at 30, you have missed out on 10-12 years of anabolic steroid use. Think how much muscle your competitors would have piled on in that time. It takes years to build muscle, and while you will see huge gains within the first 5 years or so, building the muscle mass of a pro bodybuilder can take 15 years (roughly).

Bottom Line: Unless you spent your 20s as an American Football player, rugby player, or competitive powerlifter/strongman, you are not going to have enough muscle mass to compete as a pro bodybuilder. Nor will you have enough time to catch up. But pro bodybuilding is only a tiny fraction of bodybuilding, so don’t be discouraged.

Can You Become a Natural Bodybuilder?

There are two reasons why becoming a successful natural bodybuilder is marginally more likely, but still very unlikely.

Firstly, natural bodybuilders have not been taking anabolic steroids, though as my article on steroids and bodybuilding demonstrated, this is not guaranteed. This means that they will have more realistic muscle mass, and you won’t have as far to go to catch them up. That being said, they will still have 10-15 years head start on you. Which you are unlikely to claw back, no matter how hard you train.

Secondly, the competition is smaller and therefore it is a fraction less challenging to reach the top. All of the money and fame go to pro bodybuilders (rightly or wrongly), which means that the top 1% of bodybuilders are going to go down that route.

In fact, the top 10% are going to go down that route, because even a non-successful pro bodybuilder is still going to attract more fans and money than a successful natural bodybuilder. That doesn’t mean that natural bodybuilders aren’t incredible people who have done incredibly well. But it does mean that the competition is a little less fierce.

At the end of the day, you are still going to struggle to compete with the best of the best, unless (as above) you have spent your 20s building muscle mass from non-bodybuilding related activities such as powerlifting, wrestling, Olympic lifting, etc.

Of course, there are many other benefits to following a natural bodybuilding career. It’s better for your health, for your wallet, and involves absolutely zero crimes committed.

Ages at Which Mr Olympia Winners Started Bodybuilding

To give you an idea of the likelihood of embarking on a seriously successful bodybuilding career at age 30+, I think it will be a good idea to take a look at the average age in which Mr Olympia winners started bodybuilding. As I’ve said in previous articles, there are many other measures of success in bodybuilding, but winning the most prestigious competition would certainly be seen as the ultimate goal for a bodybuilder.

Larry Scott (Winner 1965-66)

Larry started bodybuilding at the age of 16, and won Mr Idaho at age 20. He won Mr Olympia at the ages of 27 and 28. He last competed at the age of 41 years old.

Sergio Oliva (Winner 1967-69)

At 16, Sergio Oliva was fighting as a soldier in Cuba against Fidel Castro’s communist army. He appears to have got into bodybuilding at the end of the war when he would have been around 18 years of age. He won Mr Olympia at age 26 and stopped competing at age 44 (he managed 8th at Mr Olympia that year).

Arnold Schwarzenegger (Winner 1970-75, 1980)

Arnold got into bodybuilding at the age of 14 but didn’t start lifting until he was 15 years old. He won his first Mr Olympia title at 23 years of age. He retired at age 33.

Franco Columbu (Winner 1976, 1981)

It’s a little hard to work out exactly when Franco started bodybuilding. He was a boxer first, but I can’t find out when he first started training. Columbu first met Arnold at a bodybuilding competition at age 24 though, so probably around 20-21 years of age. He won his first Mr Olympia at age 35 and won his last at 40, retiring after the 1981 win.

Frank Zane (Winner 1977-79)

Zane started lifting weights in his teenage years. I can’t find the exact age, but it would have been around 16 or 17. He won his first title at 35 years of age, and retired at 41.

Chris Dickerson (Winner 1982)

I can’t find out when Chris Dickerson started bodybuilding, but he entered his first amateur competition at age 26. He won his first and only Mr Olympia title at the age of 43, but he won Mr Universe at 30, to give you some context. Still, Dickerson is so far the oldest starter and the oldest first time Mr Olympia on this list by quite a distance. Before bodybuilding he was a physique model though, so keep that in mind.

Samir Bannout (Winner 1983)

I can’t find any information as to when Samir Bannout started bodybuilding. But he won his Pro card in 1979 when he was 24 years old. Meaning that a teenage start is likely, but it could have been as late as 20. He won Mr Olympia at 28 years of age and retired at age 35.

Lee Haney (Winner 1984-91)

I can’t find the exact age that Lee Haney started bodybuilding, but he won Teen Mr America at age 19. Realistically, this points to around 16 or 17 years old. He won his first Mr Olympia at 25 years of age and retired around 33 years of age.

Dorian Yates (Winner 1992-97)

Dorian Yates began working out at 21 years of age. He won his first Mr Olympia title at 32 and retired at 37 years of age.

Ronnie Coleman (Winner 1998-05)

Coleman started bodybuilding at the age of 26, and won Mr Texas within a year of starting. However, he had been an American footballer at the College level, so it’s not like he wasn’t already pretty massive. he won his first Mr Olympia title at 34 years of age and retired at 43.

Jay Cutler (Winner 2006-07, 2009-10)

Cutler started bodybuilding at 18 but was working in construction (concrete construction) from the age of 11 alongside school. I can’t tell how manual his job was, but I assume that it must have been. Which could certainly have helped with building a frame for bodybuilding success. He won his first Mr Olympia at 33 years of age, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Finished 2nd to Ronnie four times before winning the title himself. He seems to have hit his stride around 2000, which would make him 27 at the time. He retired aged 40.

Dexter Jackson (Winner 2008)

I can’t find out when he started bodybuilding, but his first competition was in 1992 aged 23. He turned Pro at 30, but didn’t win his first title until he was 39! Again, there is more to this story than meets the eye. Dexter was winning Arnolds’ at 36, and had the misfortune (?) of competing against a prime Ronnie Coleman for most of his career. Jackson is still competing aged 51 and finished 9th in 2020.

Phil Heath (Winner 2011-17)

Phil Heath didn’t start bodybuilding until he was 23 but was a College-level basketballer before then, so would have been in exceptional shape. He won his first Mr Olympia at 32 and won his last one aged 38 in 2017. He came third in 2020 and looks set to continue for at least a few years.

Shawn Rhoden (Winner 2018)

Rhoden started bodybuilding at 17 years of age and won his first Mr Olympia at age 43. He is the oldest winner of the Mr Olympia title and the oldest first-time winner.

Brandon Curry (Winner 2019)

Curry won his first bodybuilding title aged 21 in 2003. But I can’t find out what age he started bodybuilding. He won his first and only (so far) Mr Olympia title aged 37.

Mamdouh Elssbiay (Winner 2020)

Big Raimy won his Pro card aged 28, he was definitely training at 26, but I can’t find out what age he started at. I’ve read somewhere that he started lifting aged 21, but there are images of him at 26 where he looked fairly average in size. There was certainly a huge increase in size between ages 26 and 28. Elssbiay (Big Ramy) won 2020, Mr Olympia, aged 36.

Average Age of Mr Olympia Winners

The average age of bodybuilders who won their first Mr Olympia title is 33 years of age. It’s impossible to give an accurate average for the first time they started bodybuilding because I don’t know that for everyone. But the average age that Mr Olympia winners began lifting is 19 (based on 10 bodybuilders where I can guess the age to within 1 year).

Late-Starting Bodybuilders Who Found Success

Probably the most well-known late-starting bodybuilder who found success is Ed Corney, who started bodybuilding aged 27. He didn’t start competing until age 35. Before bodybuilding he served in the coastguard and worked as a bouncer. So you can imagine that he may have been in decent shape, but still. This is very late to start bodybuilding, and he did well. Winning Mr USA in 1971 aged 38. He competed in the lightweight division of Mr Olympia between 1975 and 1983 coming 3rd in 1977.

It says a lot about how young most bodybuilders are that Phil Heath is considered a late-starter because he didn’t start until 23! Ronnie Coleman is probably the most successful late-starter, he didn’t get into bodybuilding until he was 26. But as an ex-American football player, he would already have been huge.

Realistically, starting bodybuilding at 30 is not going to get you anywhere near Mr Olympia, historically this has never happened. But you can still build an amazing body, and you really should focus on doing just this.

Many people have started bodybuilding much later than their 30s and had incredible success and even some fame!

Downsides to Bodybuilding in Your 30s

There are a few downsides to starting bodybuilding in your 30s, obviously, there is a lack of opportunity to become a pro as you are so far behind the competition. But that’s not really a downside unless you actually want to achieve that.

The biggest downside would be a natural drop in testosterone, and how long it takes to build muscle mass. Another downside is how little free time most people have in their 30s. This is usually the period of time where people are settling down and starting families.

By now, most people will be in steady employment which will take up at least 40 hours of their week, and then there is socialising with friends and family. Your early 30s is usually marked with a procession of weddings, baptisms, birthdays, and baby showers.

It can be hard to justify embarking on a bodybuilding lifestyle, which requires disciplined nutrition, hours in the gym, and a lack of flexibility with diet and social life. Maybe that is a good thing, and bodybuilding is the perfect excuse to get your life on track? But let’s be honest, life in your 30s can be hectic, messy, and challenging. Unlike your teenage years and early 20s where spending 3 hours per day in the gym is certainly possible for some.

Bottom Line: Yes, there are some downsides, but as you are about to see, the benefits far outweigh them. Starting bodybuilding in your 30s is a positive move that can help improve your health and fitness. 

Benefits of Bodybuilding in Your 30s

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is right now.

(Anon)

I saw this quote posted in a bodybuilding forum while doing research for this article. It sums everything up perfectly in my opinion.

Forget Mr Olympia, forget the Arnold Classic, forget 3 million Instagram fans. The real reason you want to get into bodybuilding is to improve your physique, feel healthier, and have more confidence. Right?

If this is the case, and it absolutely should be, then bodybuilding in your 30s is a superb idea. Here are five benefits of bodybuilding in your 30s.

Benefit #1 Bodybuilding Will Bring Structure & Discipline to Your Life

I don’t know about you, but after finishing University my life kind of lost a lot of structure. I had work, but as a self-employed PT everything was on my terms. Which kind of made things easy for me to avoid exercising or caring about my nutrition. I still stayed healthy (for the most part) because I worked as a PT. But a lot of people don’t have that luxury.

Bodybuilding creates structure, it thrives on routine and ritual. Once you get into it, bodybuilding will help you to become more disciplined, a skill that you can use in other areas of your life.

Benefit #2 Bodybuilding Will Help With Fat Loss

This is fairly obvious, but focusing on your diet, exercising more, and being sensible with junk food and alcohol is going to help you to burn fat and maintain a lean physique. There are hundreds of benefits associated with this: improved sleep quality, higher testosterone, reduced risk of metabolic diseases, better mood, improved self-confidence.

Benefit #3 Bodybuilding Will Improve Your Health

This ties in with benefit #2, but exercising regularly, eating healthily, and carrying less body fat are all associated with improved health. You could be extending your lifespan by a decade just by making this decision in your 30s.

Benefit #4 Bodybuilding Can Increase Your Social Circle

Once you are in your 30s, most people (men in particular) begin to become less social. They tend not to create new friendship groups, and will see less and less of their current friends. I know that this has happened to me slightly (partly due to lockdown). There are friends that I like a lot and would happily spend time with, that I know I probably won’t see again. That’s life.

But bodybuilding is a chance to forge new friendships. What’s more, these friendships will help you to engage in a healthier lifestyle, rather than most male friendships that focus on alcohol and video games! It’s nice to have different types of friendship, and gym friends are a great avenue to go down.

Benefit #5 Bodybuilding Will Increase Your Fertility

Low testosterone levels can make conception a lot harder for men. Do you know what helps? Less body fat, more muscle, better sleep, less anxiety/stress, and better libido. Bodybuilding (natural) can help with all of this. If you are planning on having kids in your 30s, then bodybuilding could help move this process along. Though I will note that low testosterone is just one cause out of several, so this is no guarantee!

Is Bodybuilding The Right Move?

If you want to take up bodybuilding, then bodybuilding is certainly the right move for you. But it is also one of the most full-on forms of training, and one that might not suit the 30 something lifestyle.

You need to assess what it is you really want. Do you want massive arms, a huge chest, and a six-pack? Or do you want to look fit and lean? Because the latter option requires less work and creates a better work/life/fitness ratio.

I would say that powerlifting was a better move for a 30-year-old or even (God help me) CrossFit. But a simple strength and conditioning program designed to build a fit and healthy body with decent muscle mass is probably your best bet.

Even taking up a sport such as football or tennis might be a good start, or hire a personal trainer and get yourself a six-pack. But if the idea of becoming a bodybuilder is firmly rooted in your mind, then get started as soon as possible, and go all in.

Can You Start Bodybuilding in Your 30s? Final Thoughts

I’m an online coach, if a client walked up to me and said “Matt, I’m 35 years old, I haven’t exercised since I was 19 and I want to become a bodybuilder”, I would look at ways to change their mind. Bodybuilding is one of the toughest forms of training, takes up a lot of your life, and can take a long time for you to see the results you hoped for.

But after discussing all options, if that client still wanted to start bodybuilding I would be happy to help. It has a wonderful community, is surprisingly supportive, will teach you discipline, help you to build a good relationship with food (provided you do it correctly), and has many health benefits.

The main thing you need to do is adjust your expectations of what your end results will be. If you are 35 and take up football, you wouldn’t expect to be signed for Utd within 5 years. So don’t expect to be getting your Pro card. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself and build an amazing physique.

About the Author Matt Smith

Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.

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