Can you still build muscle in later life?

They say that 60 is the new 40, and this statement feels more accurate now than ever before. But can you still build muscle in later life? Or is there a cut-off point where you'll find it impossible to do so? 

Can you still build muscle in later life?
Matt Smith
· 6 min read

They say that 60 is the new 40, and this statement feels more accurate now than ever before. But can you still build muscle in later life? Or is there a cut-off point where you'll find it impossible to do so? 

Can you still build muscle in later life?

As you age, it becomes harder to build muscle or even maintain it. There are numerous reasons for this, but the three most significant are:

  1. Your body doesn't absorb leucine (an amino acid that is crucial for muscle) as well, meaning that you need to consume MORE protein than younger people. Something that older people rarely do.
  2. Large hormonal changes can lead to a reduction in testosterone for men, and women see a decrease in oestrogen and progesterone levels. These hormones are required for building and maintaining muscle mass.
  3. A reduction in activity levels, either through retirement from an active job or due to a decrease in mobility. This last step can become a vicious circle. 

Just because it becomes more difficult, it does not make it impossible to build muscle in later life. What does matter, though, is what your current muscle mass is.

  • A 60-year-old who has never lifted weights before in their life could build muscle relatively easily
  • A 60-year-old who has been lifting weights for decades would struggle to build muscle and would start to see a reduction over time. 

This may sound backwards. But it does make sense. If you have never really exercised before, then you would only need to build a small amount of muscle to see progress. 

In contrast, if you have been exercising at 100% for years, then it would be challenging to overcome all of these age-related barriers. 

Most 60-year-olds haven't been training at 100% though—most members of the general population train nowhere near their full capacity. So the answer for most is that yes, you can build muscle in later life.

Is it possible to build muscle after 30?

It is around your mid-30s that your testosterone levels begin to naturally lower. So, it would make sense that building muscle after 30 would be tricky. But this is not the case. 

For starters, there are many ways to naturally increase your testosterone levels (or progesterone levels for women). Sleeping better, eating healthier, and regular exercise are all ways to prevent a loss of hormones.

Also, as mentioned before, while it may become slightly more challenging, most people are nowhere near their potential. A change in approach to fitness can lead to some fast changes.

But even people who've been lifting all their lives can expect to see improvements in their 30s as they get better and more efficient at lifting.

Most professional bodybuilders peak in their late-30s and early-40s. Many powerlifters and World's Strongest Man competitors also see better results in their 30s than in their 20s. 

Can an 80-year-old build muscle?

While a 30-year-old building muscle is probably not going to raise many eyebrows, an 80-year-old probably would! 

As you've probably guessed from reading this far, it certainly is possible, but this depends on the fitness of the person in question, their mobility, and their current levels of muscle mass.

What is true, though, is that an 80-year -old can maintain muscle much better through resistance training (weights or bodyweight) than an 80-year-old who does nothing!

Is it ever too late to build muscle?

There is never a time in anyone's life where lifting weights for the first time is a bad idea. It can slow muscle atrophy (loss), improve your ability to walk and climb stairs, and can offer you a more active and independent lifestyle. 

If you are in your 90s and expecting Schwarzenegger levels of muscle gain, then you may be disappointed. But even a 90-year-old can benefit from resistance training and some more cardio. Just ensure you consult your doctor first and have a coach or trainer to teach you proper technique (as poor form can lead to injury).

How to build muscle in later life

If you are interested in building muscle, there are specific steps you should take to ensure success. Here is a brief list for you to follow:

  1. Consult your doctor first – This is a good idea for anyone over the age of 60. You may be on medication that can be affected by exercising or have medical conditions that require extra thought about exercise selection, like high blood pressure.
  2. Increase your protein intake – You need protein to build muscle, and as leucine absorption is lower the older you get, that means more protein is required. Whey protein powders are an economical way to increase your protein levels.
  3. Focus on compound movements and resistance machines. A compound movement is one that works multiple muscles at the same time rather than just a single muscle (known as an isolation movement). Resistance machines are great for people who lack coordination or muscle mass. After a few weeks' training, you should be able to switch to free weight exercises and can start to add isolation exercises into your routine.
  4. Learn how to squat and deadlift – These are two of the most challenging exercises to learn to do correctly. However, they are also the two most effective for older people. Hire a coach or sweet-talk a fitness instructor into teaching you these movements. Treat the exercise with respect, but don't be too scared to learn. Performed correctly, they can transform your life.
  5. Aim for high-rep, low-weight exercises at first. Once you have mastered the movements, you can begin to increase the weights used, and reduce the reps. This will help you to build strength.
  6. Focus on rest and recovery – Give yourself ample rest between sets and between exercises. But also focus on recovery after the session. Sleep for eight hours, increase your protein intake and stay active to improve recovery. This will reduce the risk of injury and will allow you to avoid the more unpleasant side-effects of overtraining.
Matt Smith
Matt Smith
Matt Smith is a fitness and nutrition writer who runs the website Beer n Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science and was a personal trainer in London for several years.