The Ultimate Guide to Training and Staying Fit at 50+
It’s never too late to pick up a gym habit. You’re never too old to get your dream body, and you're never too past it to sculpt a summer six-pack.
However, we can roughly divide older gym-goers into three types: those that never stopped training, those who have lapsed and those that have never trained at all. But the benefits of training into your 50s are undeniable. Because, while age-related muscle loss, called sarcopenia, is a natural part of ageing (once you hit 30, you can lose as much as 3 to 5 per cent a decade), numerous studies, including this one published in The New England Journal of Medicine, have found that resistance training can counteract muscle weakness and physical frailty in older people.
With that in mind, we tapped PT Keith Lazarus, himself a 57-year-old man and in the shape of his life, to develop a plan perfect for experienced men plus the best exercises for men over 50. So, whether you know what you're doing or you're new to all this gym-stuff, here's how to construct a plan that will make your body stronger for longer.
Strength Training For Men Over 50
Strength training for men over 50 is vital to counter-balance muscle wastage – but take care. Safety needs to be a priority here, alongside recovery and consistency. Injury becomes harder to bounce back from as you age, so slow and steady wins every time. Isometric movements, unilateral work and slow tempos are your friend. Aim for three resistance training sessions a week, doing four to five sets of exercises.
Beginning Weight Training Over 50
Starting weight training over 50 might seem intimidating – but don’t panic. There’s no need to adhere to weight lifting stereotypes and getting shredded – it’s all about moderation.
While total-body workouts have their place, bodybuilding-style isolation exercises (like bicep curls) are important to build into your routine. The recovery time needed is shorter than with heavy lifts – enabling you to train more often. Consider losing the barbells after 50 and focusing on dumbbells instead. As you age, your connective tissues lose elasticity and lifting a barbell restricts your limbs from moving comfortably.
Gym Workouts for Men Over 50
No matter what your training past, over 50 your cardiovascular health becomes more important than ever. Aerobic fitness relaxes blood vessels over time and keeps your heart running well and your blood pressure low. No matter what else you do, regular cardio is vital – so make sure you incorporate a few sessions a week.
To keep muscles strong, you’ll also need some weights and strength training – but make sure you increase the recovery time you might have been used to when you were younger. For every half hour in the gym, spend an hour foam rolling or doing easy yoga.
Plan #1: For Men of Experience
So you’ve been in the gym longer than Bieber has been alive. You’re in great shape, and you still train like you’re twenty-five. But sooner or later, your body is going to begin fighting against the punishment. How do you doctor your training to ensure you stay as lithe as ever?
“I would think of the body as a global entity,” says Lazarus. “There's nothing wrong with split sessions in principle, but you don’t want to overload too much of your muscle type at our age.”
“Practically, it’s more productive to train the body as a whole,” says Lazarus. Focusing on functional fitness instead of the constant arm-day, back-day, leg-day routine puts the emphasis on mobility, the quality that’s taken for granted by younger gym-goers. Granted, there’s space for a heavy lifting schedule in your sessions, but keep the activities varied and the focus on movement. “Tonight it could be a CrossFit-inspired workout. Tomorrow it might be pure movement exercises or light weights for speed,” says Lazarus.
Plan #2: For Men Who Are out of Practise
If you finished training and are urged to get back on the horse, where do you start once you reach the big 5-0? Well according to Lazarus you should start from the very beginning.
If the lift is an old favourite the muscle memory does not forget, there’s bound to be some issues due to the time out. “My clients will first grab a weight, show me a movement and go from there, because the movement may have changed over the years – maybe they’ve sat on their hip too long, or there’s been a shoulder injury." The emphasis should not be on the load. Put your ego to one side and take it light. Once the muscle memory’s kicked back in, accelerate with extra load.
Lazarus tells us that once you reach 50, you can take no more than two or three years out of training before all hope of becoming as fit as you were has vanished, with muscle and mobility deterioration irreparable. That’s not to say you won’t still improve – "only by looking at a person could you judge what they can or can’t do," says Lazarus – but full strength is out of the question.
Plan #3: For Men Trying Something New
“First, complete beginners at 50 should be coaxed into having the confidence to do basic movement drills,” says Lazarus. “A lunge, a side lunge, stepping up or simply touching their toes.” Given most guys can’t touch their toes in their twenties (see here for our beginner’s guide to stretching), flexibility, mobility and safety are paramount. Below is a basic movement drill that can be completed nice and easily for first-timers under supervision.
Lunge forward as far as you can with your right leg, bending your trailing knee so it almost brushes the floor.
Use the heel of your right foot to push yourself off into the next lunge, this time leading with your left leg.
Place your right foot onto the elevated platform and push up through your heel to lift yourself up and place your left foot on the platform.
Step back down with your left foot, concentrating on flexing your hip and the knee of your right leg. Repeat on the other side.
As a newbie don't worry about the weights you're lifting. Instead, concentrate on proper form. A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that older adults were most likely to stick to training if they felt like they knew what they were doing, rather than how much muscle they were able to gain. So if you're new to lifting consider working with a PT or joining some classes. It could keep you in the weights room for longer.
The 10 Best Exercises For Over 50s to Try:
Unsure where to start? Men's Health fitness editor, Andrew Tracey, has assembled 10 moves to master that will look after your joints, while boosting strength and confidence on the gym floor.
Landmine shoulder press
Why: "The landmine creates a semi-fixed range of motion, guiding you upwards and forwards," says Tracey, "by activating the shoulders without forcing them directly overhead and into excess flexion, it's ideal for those dealing with niggling shoulder pains or mobility issues."
How: With your barbell anchored at one end, lift the loaded end onto your shoulder and step back into a lunge position (A). Brace your core and create tension through your entire body. Push the barbell away from your shoulder explosively, following the natural arc that the barbell will create (B). Slowly lower the weight back down to your shoulder. Repeat.
Trap bar deadlifts
Why: "Standing inside of the weight you’re lifting, rather than behind, puts your body, especially your lower back, in a much more advantageous position," says Tracey. "This allows you to keep your torso upright and use more leg drive, letting you up the weights without upping the injury risk."
How: Stand inside your trap bar and hinge down, gripping the handles with a flat back and neutral spine (A). Squeeze your lats and core then ‘push the ground away’ with your feet, driving through the legs and standing upright (B). Reverse under control. No trap bar? Use dumbbells.
Gymnastic ring push-ups
Why: "Moving your bodyweight through space, especially pushing yourself up from the floor, is a skill you never want to lose," says Tracey. "The gym rings add instability, building stronger, healthier shoulders and a bigger chest without the excess weight of the bench press."
How: Assume a strong plank position above a pair gymnastics rings. Turn your hands slightly outwards and actively push down on the rings, separating your shoulder blades (A). Flex at the elbows slowly lowering your chest towards the ground, keep the rings close to your body. Stop when you feel a stretch through your chest (B). Press back up under control to the start position, repeat.
Why: "Unilateral or single leg work is great for loading the legs one at a time, meaning you can use half the load for the same effect, decreasing the stress on the rest of your body and reducing your recovery time," says Tracey. "Walking lunges are ideal as they also target the postural muscles of your upper back, as well as your core."
How: Standing tall, grab a set of dumbbells and hold them with straight arms by your sides (A). Keeping your chest up at all times, take a long step forward with one leg, bending your front knee until the back knee touches the ground (B). Stand up explosively, pause and repeat with the other leg, moving forward.
Chest supported rows
Why: "Rows are absolute game-changers for building your upper back and fostering shoulder longevity," says Tracey. "By supporting your chest with a bench, you don’t only remove stress from your spine and lower back, avoiding injury; but you also eliminate any excess movement ensuring that you’re targeting your lats with tip-top form."
How: Set an adjustable bench to around 45 degrees or prop a flat bench up with a box. Position yourself face down with your chest on the pad, holding a pair of dumbbells, arms at full reach (A). Staying tight to the bench, row both dumbbells up towards your hips, pause (B) and slowly lower before repeating.
Why: "Farmers carries are a safe, practical and functional way to lift some seriously heavy weights, keeping you stronger for longer in everyday life," says Tracey. "Research has shown that a powerful grip correlates to longevity, and is a good predictor of overall health and likelihood of serious illness. Farmers carries will build your grip in spades."
How: Grab a set of heavy dumbbell or pass the strap of a gymnastic ring through a set of weight plates, attach your ring and pull tight. Repeat with another set. Grab the rings or dumbbells, stand tall and brace your core (A). Purposefully stride forward (B). At the half way mark, drop your weights, turn around, re-grip and return.
Goblet squats (with or without weight)
Why: When performed correctly, goblet squats are a safe and effective option for all levels as they help encourage an upright torso when squatting. Begin the exercise using your bodyweight, squatting onto a box or chair. As your confidence and strength increases, add a weight and then start squatting without the box.
How: Stand with your legs slightly wider than your shoulders. Tightening your core, stick your backside out, bend your knees and lower yourself into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground and your knees track over your feet. Think about sitting back on a box, rather than 'dropping' down. Continuing to look ahead, pause for a second at the bottom of the movement. Be sure to keep your torso upright. Drive back up through your heels, squeezing your glutes and thrusting your hips.
Why: The floor press is fantastic choice of exercise as the back is supported and the range of movement is controlled by the floor. It is a low equipment exercise, no bench necessary, making it easy to fit into home workouts.
How: Lie face up on the floor holding two dumbbells at chest height. Press up as if you were on a normal bench until your arms are fully extended. Then slowly lower back to the starting position.
Banded face pull
Why: These work by strengthening the rear delts and middle traps which are important to support the scapula and keep the shoulders healthy. You’ll also benefit from a good chest stretch during each rep.
How: Pull the band directly towards your face, keeping your elbows higher than your forearms, until your knuckles face your cheeks. Lower your arms back down and repeat.
Why: A brilliant exercise to engage the entirety of the core. For an additional challenge, there is an emphasis on coordination as well. Begin alternating the legs to begin, when confidence and strength increases, extend the arms alternately.
How: Begin lying on your back, knees bent at a 90-degree angle, hips under your knees and arms outstretched above your shoulders. Pull your navel to your spine and push your back into the floor. Simultaneously extend your right arm above your head and left leg straight, just above the floor. Bring them back to the starting position, ready to repeat on the other side.
Training at 50: Mistakes to Avoid
To keep working at your maximum potential, Tracey explains, there are a few pitfalls to avoid when you're lifting at 50.
Don't Train Like You're 50+
"Ironically, the number one thing to avoid is training like you're over 50. [Don't] majorly lower your training intensity, and one of the most important things we need to do to increase longevity and lower all markers of mortality is to build as much muscle mass as possible," says Tracey. "Focus on hitting the gym hard, lifting weights, and don't make it a case of switching over to cardio or super light weights. Train hard and heavy, within a reason."
Don't Lift for Max Reps
"You're less likely to build muscle mass that way, and working up to heavy maximum lifts takes a long time to recover from. The older you get, the longer that time to recover will be," says Tracey. "Avoid maxing out all the time and avoid going below three reps too often — you want to make sure you can train as often as possible."
Don't Hit Body Part With Big Volume
"That will take you a long time to recover from. Let's say you hit your chest and back with a large amount of volume, your body has taken a pounding on a systemic level. Instead, spread out the volume across the week and avoid doing super-high volume sessions that focus on individual body parts. Full-body sessions with the appropriate volume are more appropriate, as we want to make sure you're back in the gym ASAP."
Balance Pushing with Pulling
"The temptation is to go into the gym and do a load of pressing exercises and not to throw in many pulling exercises," says Tracey. "This will keep your shoulders healthy for longer and incorporate a good mixture of pushing and pulling — ideally an equal amount," says Tracey. "Try to superset movements, so you're going rep-for-rep on those. Face pulls or band pull-aparts, too, are great for shoulder health and postural muscles and can be down between sets."
Keep Doing Cardio
"Do your due diligence in terms of working your cardiovascular fitness and respiratory system, as they're pivotal to your longevity. The fitter you can get, the longer it's going to take to decline and lose fitness," says Tracey. "Build the highest peak possible of muscle mass and fitness, so there's a longer way down.
Training Over 50: Nutrition Hacks
Solid nutritional principles are applicable at any age, but there are a few hacks that every over 50 can use to ensure the middle-age spread is kept at bay. “Don’t eat until you’re full,” says Lazarus. As far back as 2008, the British Medical Journal found a correlation between eating quickly until you’re full and mounting obesity. 80 per cent full is the benchmark that’s going to keep you eating well while watching your waistline. Beyond that, it’s simply good nutrition: lots of protein, fewer white carbs and a tight noose around that alcohol habit. Happy training.
Workout Advice for Over 50s
Full-body sessions over isolating muscle groups
Keep activities varied
Prioritise form over load
Flexibility, mobility and safety are paramount
Consider working with a PT or joining some classes
Start by working on basic movement drills
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