In my last article, I looked at the likelihood of becoming a successful bodybuilder in your 30s and decided that this was incredibly unlikely. But that there were many benefits to starting anyway. In this article I will try to answer the question “can you start bodybuilding in your 40s?”.
There should be no reason why you can’t follow a bodybuilding program when in your 40s, but it may not be the best training option. There have been several bodybuilders who started much later in life than 40 and managed to create excellent physiques. If you have the desire and the motivation, then bodybuilding in your 40s is certainly possible.
While my last article talked about the likelihood of becoming a pro bodybuilder, I think we can give up any pretence of expecting this to happen if you leave it until your 40s. Instead, this article is going to focus more on whether bodybuilding will give you a decent return on your investment. We will also look at ways to bodybuild successfully as an older lifter.
Yes, it is perfectly possible to embark on a bodybuilding program in your 40s. If that is what you want to do, then there is no time like the present. But you will have to accept that bodybuilding is perhaps the most challenging form of training (other than ultra marathons) and is going to take over your life.
Take up any sport, and your life will adjust fairly quickly to it. You spend time training, you maybe have a game at the weekend, and the first few weeks are filled with sore muscles and fatigue. But after a while it becomes routine.
Bodybuilding will take over your life. Your sleep, the food you eat, how you socialise, all of these things will be influenced by bodybuilding. I’m not saying that this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is certainly true.
Perhaps your life needs that direction? Perhaps you’ve been sleepwalking into poor health and bodybuilding is the shot in the arm (pun not intended) that you need. But it is not the only option, and other options may fit your lifestyle better.
Would I recommend it? If someone came up to me and said they wanted to look better and feel healthier, bodybuilding would not be the first training style that came to mind. But if someone in their 40s came to me and asked “do you think I’d be able to bodybuild?” I’d say yes.
Bottom Line: Bodybuilding in your 40s has many benefits, and it is a great way to improve your health and fitness. However, there are other forms of training that may be more suited to your lifestyle and capabilities. Ultimately, it depends on what you want.
There are many benefits to starting bodybuilding in your 40s, I’ve listed some of the main ones below. These benefits are based on you being sedentary and then taking up bodybuilding. Rather than someone who is already exercising and switches to bodybuilding.
Building bigger muscles, lifting weights, burning fat, sleeping more, eating better, are all ways to improve your testosterone production. I’m not even talking about anabolic steroids here (see below for my thoughts on that). Men in their 40s can expect to see a significant drop in production as they age, but proper diet, exercise, stress management, and sleep can all help to prevent that drop. You may even see a rise!
Please be aware, if you are going down the anabolic steroid route, then your likelihood of dying from heart complications actually increases! But if you are training naturally, eating better, burning calories, reducing stress, and sleeping 8 hours, then your risk of heart disease will be significantly lowered.
The main goal of bodybuilding is to have a very lean, muscular body. This means that you will most likely drop a lot of body fat. This has aesthetic benefits (obviously) but also helps to reduce your risk of metabolic diseases or certain cancers. Lower body fat can also help to improve appetite regulation, improve sleep, and improve testosterone production.
So long as you can avoid overtraining, frequent exercise, good dietary practices, and a lower body fat percentage should help you to fall asleep quicker, and enjoy longer sleep. Insomnia and obesity are linked, with a theory being that being overweight can leave you feeling more fatigued and sleepy during the day. Which can have a knock-on effect during the night, affecting sleep-wake schedules. Check out this article by Sleep Foundation to learn more.
Most adults have discipline in certain aspects of their life – not punching their boss in the face, going to bed before midnight, brushing teeth etc. But in other areas, where discipline is not enforced by work or social convention (don’t brush your teeth and people will start avoiding you), they have none.
But if you get into bodybuilding you will find that self-discipline is crucial. Nobody is going to make you go to the gym, nobody will force you to eat broccoli, or drink a protein shake every morning. But if you want to succeed you will have to make yourself do it.
Personally, I recommend a habit-based system, but however you get it done, you will have improved your discipline. Once you’ve got it back, a lot of other aspects of your life may fall into place. On the flip side, they may get neglected because nobody is perfect.
I talked about this in my article on 30-year-olds starting bodybuilding, and if anything this is even more relevant when you hit your 40s. A study in Ireland found that men aged 40-59 had the highest suicide rates, often this is down to loneliness. A 2013 study in the UK found that 700,000 older men reported “feeling a high degree of loneliness”.
There are many reasons for this and many ways to combat it. One such way is to be more active in your community, be it online or (preferably) in-person. Bodybuilding is a superb way of increasing your social circle. Most men, even the ones who report feeling high degrees of loneliness, have friends. But as we age, we grow apart, physically and emotionally, and see each other less and less.
That’s why attending a gym 4 times per week can be a lifeline to many men. Then there’s the online support from bodybuilding forums, Facebook groups, and other social media channels. Sure, this could be applied to pretty much any leisure past-time, but I feel like bodybuilding is a little more supportive than most.
Don’t become a bodybuilder to avoid being lonely in ten years time. Do it because you want to. But an increased social circle is certainly one benefit.
As we age, we begin to lose muscle mass naturally. This is called sarcopenia and affects all men (which is why most 100-year-old men don’t look like prime Schwarzenegger). Sarcopenia cannot be prevented, but it can be significantly reduced. Building muscle during your 40s and continuing through your 50s and 60s could make a huge difference to your future physique.
As you have seen from the other benefits on this list, embarking on any fitness regime can create a lot of interlinked benefits. You burn more calories, which leads to lower body fat. This can improve your sleep quality, which can help to regulate your appetite. More sleep can also help to improve your cognition (brain power), and it can reduce stress and anxiety. Less stress and anxiety can in turn improve sleep quality, which can help you to feel more energised during the day. Leading to more calories being burned (more energy = more NEAT activity).
All of these benefits are wonderfully linked with each other, and bodybuilding (or any form of diet and exercise) is at the route of it all.
As you can see, there are a lot of benefits to bodybuilding in your 40s. But bodybuilding at 40 is not the same as bodybuilding at 20. While there aren’t many downsides to starting bodybuilding. There are downsides to being 40. Here is a list of factors that you need to consider before starting.
Your body begins to produce less testosterone as young as 25 years old, and by 40 it will be significantly lower than that of a 20-year-old. There are ways to mitigate this, through diet, exercise, maintaining low body fat, and stress reduction. But most men do not manage this. If you haven’t exercised properly in years then your testosterone will likely be lower than it could be. This can affect muscle building, recovery, mood, and sleep.
Luckily, as we’ve found, testosterone levels can be improved dramatically by a diet and exercise overhaul. But this may take time. At the end of this article, I will be laying out exactly what you need to do if you want to bodybuild in your 40s. Prioritising rest and recovery is perhaps the most crucial step, partly due to your current testosterone levels.
If you haven’t been exercising, then your muscles may not be ready for high volume exercise. It may take longer than usual to recover, particularly during the first few weeks. Few workout programs acknowledge this. But when I went back to the gym (aged 32) for the first time in six months it took me 4 days to recover from my first workout! This was not the case when I was 20. At 40, be prepared for a slow start.
Muscle takes a long time to develop no matter what age you are. But at 40, thanks to lower testosterone, longer recovery time, and the beginnings of sarcopenia, muscle mass may take longer to develop. This can be mitigated with anabolic steroids, but that comes with multiple downsides (see below).
Just because muscle gain is slow, doesn’t make it not worth doing. Just make sure that you are mentally prepared for slow progress, and then any gains will be a pleasant surprise (some people will see fast muscle development even at 40).
Got a busy job? Have a family? Have an active social life? Then bodybuilding may not be a good fit. Going to the gym 4-5 times per week will take up 6-8 hours (including travel time). Eating more food can take several hours each week, you also need to sleep longer (for the recovery).
Perhaps you do have the time, and I know that not all 20-somethings have loads of free time. But it is certainly a consideration. Bodybuilding is probably the type of training that takes up the most of your life (other than distance running/cycling).
As we age, our ability to recover from injuries diminishes. If it didn’t, then there would probably be a lot more 40-year old footballers out there, and 35-year old rugby players. This is doubly true if we have led a sedentary lifestyle for years beforehand. Mobility issues can arise from bad posture, muscle weakness, and joint issues can occur if you are overweight or obese.
Of course, this is also a good reason to begin bodybuilding! But just remember that you are 40 not 20 when starting out. Use good form throughout your training, recover properly between sessions, and use nutrition to help you build a better, more robust body.
This article is based on the premise that you have been pretty much inactive for several years and have all of a sudden decided that you want to begin bodybuilding. But that may not be the case at all. Perhaps you’ve been going to the gym religiously for 25 years and now want to take things further.
What your life has been like up to the age of 40 will make a huge difference in how easily you fall into bodybuilding in your 40s. Most 40-year-olds have not been exercising regularly. Statistically, you are more likely to be obese at 40 than ripped. That’s obvious.
If you are 40 years old and in amazing shape already, then you can discount most of the downsides mentioned above. You will probably already be experiencing many of the benefits mentioned above too. You are still not going to get your Pro card, but you should expect to see very good results relatively quickly with little fuss.
If you are 40 years old and in terrible shape, then obviously things are going to be a lot more challenging. Bodybuilding may have to take a step back while you focus on losing body fat, improving your mobility, and building up the habits necessary to succeed. There’s no point in following a 5-day bodybuilding program if you haven’t managed to go to the gym twice in six months.
If a 40-year-old came to me asking to follow a bodybuilding program, but they were currently out of shape, I would recommend following a regular strength and conditioning program with a sensible diet. Once that was successful, they could then begin to specifically follow bodybuilding programs and diets.
Remember, most bodybuilding programs are designed for gaining mass, and are aimed towards young, fit, and healthy men. If you are very overweight, then you need to be focused on fat-loss rather than muscle building. At least initially.
In fact, most of my clients don’t even start with the gym. That’s because ensuring they are eating a healthy breakfast and getting enough sleep is often more important. Working on stress management, sleep quality, nutrition, and mobility, are probably going to do most 40-somethings much more good than 5 sets of incline bench press and a steroid cycle!
My advice is always the same. I don’t recommend taking anabolic steroids. They are illegal, potentially lethal, and for the most part unnecessary. That being said, I won’t judge anyone who uses them, provided they know what they are doing, and stick to sensible dosages.
However, it may be a good idea to talk to your doctor about getting your hormone levels checked. You may be low in testosterone, and then you can get legal doses of testosterone from your doctor. This is completely different to illegally purchasing steroids from a website or gym-goer.
Natural bodybuilding is a really good idea for men in their 40s, and consistently following it will help you to get your testosterone production back on track within a few months. This way you get all the benefits of naturally high testosterone without any of the side-effects (or admittedly massive gains) associated with anabolic steroids.
This is not a complete guide to bodybuilding in your 40s, that’s an entire article in itself. Hell, that’s 10 articles! But here are eight pieces of advice that I would give any 40-something who asked me about bodybuilding.
Bodybuilding is tough, it will push you to your limits, and at the end of it you will come out a healthier and (hopefully) happier man. But if you’re not ready physically or mentally, then bodybuilding will not work out.
Get yourself to a doctor and have them give you an MOT. What’s your blood pressure like? What about your testosterone levels? How are your stress levels? Do you have any medical conditions or medication that can be affected by exercise/diet?
If you aren’t sleeping well, or you have poor mobility, then following a regular training program is a much better idea. If you have the money, then hire a personal trainer to help you learn how to perform each exercise properly, and to prepare you for bodybuilding.
Combating stress is also crucial. Stress can affect sleep, it can slow down recovery, and it can suppress testosterone. Talking to a health professional, learning some deep breathing exercises, and minimising stressful situations will really help you prepare for bodybuilding.
I cannot stress enough how important sleep is to the 40-year-old bodybuilder. It is necessary for muscle growth, muscle fibre repair, testosterone and growth hormone production, mood, appetite regulation, and cognition. Work on improving your sleep and you will immediately start to notice more energy, clearer thinking, and perhaps even some weight loss.
Single body part splits may work well for Pro bodybuilders, but us mere mortals just can’t get good results from doing this. As a natural bodybuilder, you will only realistically be able to train 3-4 times per week. Mathematicians among you will realise that you have more body parts than 3 or 4.
Full-body workouts that contain a lot of compound lifts are great for burning fat, building muscle, and increasing testosterone and growth hormone production. They also save time, a bench press will work the chest, shoulders, and triceps. That’s three muscle groups in one exercise.
You can do push/pull or upper/lower, which aren’t exactly full-body workouts but tend to produce similar results. Just avoid doing arms day, abs day, shoulder day etc …
Your form needs to be seriously good. You’re not going to get away with cheat reps, poor range of motion, or bouncing the weights. That is a shortcut to injury, and as we’ve already established injuries hit different when you’re past 30. Remove the ego, lift weights properly, get a trainer if you need to, and you will see the best results.
When starting out, you will struggle to recover from your workouts within 3 days. So be prepared for that. Be patient. As your fitness and strength improve, your recovery process will also improve, and soon you will be able to workout the day after your last session.
But ensure that you are not overtraining. Three to four workouts per week is ideal, and the other days should be spent pursuing active recovery. Walk 7-10k steps, take Epsom salt baths, hit your protein targets, try yoga, foam roll, stretch, even do some light cardio if you want. This can all help with recovery. Also, keep your sleeping schedule up (see above).
As you age, your body becomes less effective at utilising leucine, a key branched-chain amino acid that makes up protein. Leucine is the amino acid that is responsible for muscle growth and recovery, which is why older men begin to lose muscle. Increasing your protein intake is one way to prevent this. At 40, you are unlikely to be losing too much muscle anyway, but your ability to grow muscle could be affected. Hitting your daily protein targets is crucial. You may also consider a leucine supplement.
If you are starting from scratch, do not expect to be absolutely jacked within 6 months. Or even a year. This is going to be a long, hard process. But the results will absolutely be worth it.
Do you want to be a bodybuilder or do you just want to look good naked? Because those two things aren’t necessarily the same. If you really enjoy bodybuilding culture and are prepared to make the necessary changes then of course bodybuilding is the right choice.
But there are other ways to improve your physique, that may suit you better. Powerlifting is a good option, combining increased strength, the social circle, and it is a little less extreme when it comes to weight loss/weight gain. It’s also a lot less hung up on aesthetics and muscle symmetry. All that really matters is increasing your lifts, and that means that there will be a lot of positive experiences, particularly during the first year or so.
Then there are traditional sports done recreationally. Tennis clubs, football clubs, rugby clubs etc are all great ways to improve your fitness, lose fat, and gain new friends. You can then combine it with a couple of gym sessions to injury-proof your body.
There is also the personal trainer route which I talked about earlier. Obviously, you will need to spend quite a lot of money, but the results will be better and quicker than if you did it on your own. A PT can also help with improving sports performance, improving your powerlifting performance, or even with bodybuilding.
You can certainly begin bodybuilding in your 40s, and if that’s what you want to do, rest assured that it is a positive step for your physical and mental health. However, there are other options that may suit your lifestyle and capabilities better. It is important to consider all possibilities before embarking on something that could define the rest of your life. Also, see a doctor before doing anything. That’s just common sense.
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.