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How To Build Muscle After 60: My Promising Strategy

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This article shares a 4-part strategy I created for myself when I turned 60 so that I could rebuild muscle I had lost due to age & a severe health circumstance.

In it I detail my workout & diet plans, including my notes on training frequency, volume, recovery, motivation, & more; it’s my muscle building at 60 roadmap.

At the end of the article I share a couple of selfies showing my progress using my strategy outlined here.

 

What kicked this into gear

I turned 60 a couple of years ago, a few months after another 7-hour heart surgery.

While glued to my hospital bed with tubes stuck in all sorts of places coming out of me, I had a moment, an epiphany of sorts.

I just knew I had to re-build my lost muscle mass if I wanted any kind of a fulfilling life going forward.

But how best to go about it?

I needed a bulletproof strategy.

 

So…how to build muscle after 60?

I organized what I call my Bodybuilding At 60 Roadmap into these four strategic areas.

For me, they are the most important pieces of my muscle building plan:

 

* A mental game strategy so that I maintain focus, attitude, & accountability.

* A bodybuilding strategy centered around proven training techniques & workout splits.

* A diet & nutrition strategy that insures my body has all of the right nutrients at all of the right times.

* A recovery strategy that prioritizes the importance of adequate rest for all of the time away from my workouts. 

 

My 5×5 training cycle

If you’d like to read exercise, set, & rep specifics on one of the main workout routines I created for this “rebuild project”, please check out:

5×5 Workout for the Over 50 Year Old: My Necessary Variations

Update: I’ve been working this program in a few times a year since I first put this Build Muscle After 60 idea together.

 

A little background

You see, my congenital heart disease had awoken from its decades-long slumber and once again reared its ugly head.

It had ruined my fitness & health over the past 5 or 6 years, and it’d left me literally broken.

So as I lay there in the ICU, a deeply-felt thought came over me: If this heart operation is a success, I am determined to get real strong again & reclaim my former active life.

Months later now and I’m getting better (fingers crossed), so that’s a start.

And I’ve been digging into lots of sports science & medical research on muscle building over 60.

This is so I could put together a solid plan for myself, which is what I’m sharing in this article.

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Science resources included

As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science and medical resources, clinical studies, & nutritional data used in this article.

 

What’s next

In the sections ahead I’ll go into more detail on each of these strategic areas, and you’ll see how they work together to make a solid plan for anyone over 60 who wants to build muscle like me.

 

The mental game strategy

Magic book on a table with light and sparkoles coming up from its open pages

The mental game area is sort of the Mission Control of the overall muscle building plan.

This is an important piece simply because weight training is harder for me here at 60 than it was at 22, 30, 40, or 50.

And I don’t think ALL of it has to do with being incapacitated for the last 5 or 6 years prior to surgery.

So I knew I had to make sure my head was in the game all the way, in order to handle whatever physical or psychological challenges I’d face along this muscle building journey.

Here are the components of my mental strategy:

  • Concrete goal setting
  • Lifestyle prioritizing
  • Attitude management
  • Tracking nutrition & workout stats

 

Concrete goal setting

The NIH (Nat’l. Inst. of Health) says proper goal setting is key to success when it comes to our body transformation plans.

 

Lifestyle prioritizing

Making my health & fitness goals my top priority no matter what or who is going on.

This way all of my day-to-day choices are in the best interests of my health & muscle building goals.

Anything that isn’t in those best interests gets kicked to the curb.

 

Attitude management

Be excited now about where you’ll be in the future thanks to your strength training & muscle building, I tell myself.

Enthusiasm and positivity can carry the day even as challenges present themselves.

Be diligent, committed, and persevere…but be sure to have fun & enjoy the experience.

 

Tracking of workout & diet stats

I like keeping good records of my workouts anyways, but I think it’s essential to do so when progressive resistance training.

Our workout log tells us so much, and it’s an encourager when we look back and see the gains we’ve made along the way.

I’ve found calorie counting – despite its imperfections – to be really helpful too.

I did it religiously on a spreadsheet I made for the first 18 months or so when I put this muscle-building plan into motion; now I do a loose version of it in my head.

Keeping track like this really helps me to keep me in the ranges of my daily macronutrients — protein, fat, & carbs — including my fiber, sugar, & sodium numbers.

Since I’m a hard gainer, it keeps me informed if I’m not getting the caloric intake I need to increase my muscle mass or keep my energy stores stocked.

Tracking my workout & diet numbers like this provides accountability as well, keeping the plan on point over the long haul.

Clinical research results support this self-monitoring behavior.

I found a few studies like this one, which show that people who tracked their inputs were more more successful with their weight loss goals than those who didn’t bother.


60 year old bodybuilding strategy

Small girl with colorful toy barbell making a face while getting ready for overhead press exercise

Important note: All of the workout ideas I share below work great for women & men alike.

Here are the main components of the strength training part of my muscle building plan:

  • Use the best workout splits for a 60+ year old
  • Lift heavy
  • Utilize progressive resistance training
  • Use compound exercises
  • Be smart with cardio, do HIIT
  • Avoid overtraining symptoms & injury

 

Use the right workout splits

It’s critical to choose the right lifting schedule in terms of overall load & training frequency in order to maximize muscle building results.

Sports science has shown that workout programs like the good old Bro Splitwhich works each body part very hard but only once per week – are often not quite as effective at building muscle mass as the workout splits that work each body part twice per week.

At least for older adults, per Harvard Medical.

 

Lots of options for weightlifting after 60

Therefore the best choices for us experienced but older muscle builders will probably be some variation of the Upper Lower workout split, the Push Pull Legs split, and variations on a 4-day split or even a 5-day split.

My main thought is about insuring adequate recovery.

I also should mention the Full Body Workout, where you work all of your major muscle groups 3 days per week.

 

Note to beginners

I think the Full Body Workout is a great workout to begin with if you’re new to muscle building or haven’t lifted weights in awhile.

It’s not as intense as it may sound if this is all new to you.

With the 3-day full body workout you’re doing very few sets per muscle group, much less than you’d be doing if you split your workout over a four or five-day schedule.

I put together an easy-to-follow full body workout ideal for beginners right here on heydayDo.com:

9 Muscle-Building Dumbbell Exercises for Seniors – Full Body

 

Here are a couple of examples of a 4-day workout split over the course of a week.

Upper/Lower 4-day split, 7 day schedule

  • Day 1  Upper (Back, Chest, Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps)
  • Day 2 Lower (Glutes, Legs, Calves, Abs)
  • Day 3 OFF/Cardio
  • Day 4 Upper
  • Day 5 Lower
  • Day 6 OFF/Cardio
  • Day 7 OFF/Cardio

 

Being mindful of allowing extra recovery time

I’ve noticed that I am prone to slower recovery after lifting workouts now that I’m older (well, plus my heart situation too I suppose).

My slow recovery is why I wouldn’t jump on the Full Body Split with lots of volume, since each body part is being worked 3 times a week.

Below is my current variation of the 4-day workout split, keeping in mind I reevaluate my upcoming training cycle plan at the end of the one I just completed.

(These days they’re 6-10 weeks long.)

 

Current 4-day workout split, 7 day schedule

  • Day 1 Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
  • Day 2 Legs, Back, Biceps, Abs
  • Day 3 HIIT low-impact cardio or OFF**
  • Day 4 Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
  • Day 5 Legs, Back, Biceps, Abs
  • Day 6 cardio or OFF
  • Day 7 OFF

Note: There are lots of variations of both this 4-day split, the Upper Lower split, & the Push Pull Legs split that will work just fine too.

 

** My HIIT workouts consist of anywhere from 4 to 10 sets, depending on what I’m doing & how I’m feeling that day. But I don’t a lot of cardio exercise year-round by any means — I’d be too tuckered out.

If you’re interested, here’s a beginner’s guide to HIIT I wrote up for older kids such as ourselves: HIIT for Seniors

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Lift heavy most of the time

If you want to build muscle, having the majority of your work sets with 12-15 reps isn’t going to cut it.

After warmup, get heavy with failure in the 5-12 rep range for the main work.

Research supports this, as noted by a Bodybuilding.com PhD. here.

The author goes on to say that most resistance training research generally indicates that 8-12 reps is a “sweet spot” for muscle size and 3-7 reps the range for strength gains.

The American College of Sports Medicine Guidelines for resistance training is on board with these rep ranges too.

That’s good by me since I’m going for both muscle size & strength.

 

Bottom line: There’s no exact rep scheme that’s the perfect one, so I’m not going to sweat it. I’ll circle around the 5-12 range and bet that it’ll all be groovy.

 

High-rep finisher sets have their place too

But you can definitely mix it up on occasion to keep your muscles on their toes, like having a high-rep set (20+ reps) to finish off that exercise or that muscle group for the day.

For example, a muscle mass-building program I got from the excellent strength & conditioning coach Jeff Cavaliere at Athlean X makes use of high-rep finishers during certain weeks of the program.

Research also supports the benefits of these high-rep finishing sets, as you can read from a PhD. on T-Nation here.

 

Use the progressive resistance training method

To continue to stimulate muscle mass increases over multi-week cycles, I plan to employ progressive resistance training.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, progressive resistance training just means that as we get stronger, we keep increasing the intensity.

For weightlifting this intensity boost usually means we keep adding more weight to our exercises, so that we stay within our preferred rep range.

This is how we stimulate muscle growth.

 

Keep the progression progressing

But it also applies to naturally adding more reps on that day you discover that you’ve gotten stronger and so are able to do more reps at that weight than ever before.

Keep repping to failure and next workout bump the weight up.

Harvard Medical is a fan of progressive resistance training for older weightlifters like me.

In this article on preserving your muscle mass, they reference a composite of 49 research studies that showed the effectiveness of progressive overload in increasing muscle mass and slowing sarcopenia (muscle loss) in older adults.

They recommend to simply keep boosting the weight and training volume as we get stronger.

They say it’s a lot more difficult for older bodybuilders to increase muscle mass, but that progressive resistance training will work for us.

 

Do the main compound exercises

In case you didn’t know, compound exercises are those which engage multiple muscle groups and involve multiple joints in their movement.

Compound exercise benefits include burning more calories than isolation exercises, improving our muscle coordination, and boosting our cardiovascular system among other things.

They also are great for seeing how fundamentally strong we’re getting.

Here are the main compound exercises worth incorporating into a muscle building plan:

  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Loaded carry (AKA Farmer carries)
  • Bench press
  • Overhead press
  • Dips
  • Bent over row
  • Pull Ups

And a study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that squats & deadlifts boosted testosterone levels, but weight machines did not.

Testosterone provides great benefits for female & male weightlifters alike, especially those of us who’re older.

 

Be smart with cardio, so I’m going to HIIT it

heydayDo author Greg Simon doing low-impact HIIT on his mini-stepper

Yours truly, getting in my low-impact HIIT on my mini-stepper

Getting in our weekly dose of cardio’s a good idea too.

I’m going to get mine by doing high-intensity interval training.

I’ve found HIIT very effective at boosting my metabolism in a minimal amount of time required on my part.

So much so that I’ve stopped doing any steady-state cardio workouts completely.

 

HIIT helps with weight loss

Some of you reading this may be looking to shed a few pounds.

I can wholeheartedly endorse HIIT as a viable means to accomplish that.

I did a HIIT + low-carb diet experiment on myself the first year after that surgery I mentioned, and lost 19 lb. of useless weight.

I plan to write up the how & what of that weight loss “self-study” and post it here soon.

 

A few of HIIT’s benefits

There is a boatload of sports science research on the benefits of high intensity interval training.

What I like the most is that it provides the same cardiovascular benefit & calorie burning that steady-state cardio does, but in a fraction of the time.

In this sports research study, 4-6 HIIT sets with a 30 second sprint in each set burned more fat than 30-60 minutes on a treadmill.

Here, 7 1/2 minutes of HIIT (30 second sprints + 2 mins.recovery x 3 sets) boosted metabolism and burned as many calories as 45 minutes on a stationary bike did.

 

Avoid overtraining symptoms & injury

I knew I had to make sure I didn’t go overboard in my enthusiasm due to being able to work out for the first time in years.

So I set up a few training limits to avoid coming down with any overtraining symptoms.

If you’ve never experienced them, I promise you they’re a drag to have.

They can last for weeks and derail muscle building plans.

 

Here are the overtraining prevention guidelines I set for myself:

  • Don’t lift more than 3 days in a row
  • Don’t lift more than 4 days a week
  • Limit my HIIT cardio per week to 10-20 minutes; don’t do it year-round either
  • Keep the workouts under an hour
  • Limit the progressive cycles to 6-8 weeks long
  • Take a week off after every cycle
  • Insure good sleep habits
  • Every day, get all the nutrients & calories I need
  • Listen to my body – take the foot off the gas when needed

 

A little context:

Some of those weightlifting guidelines may change as time goes by.

I wrote them less than a year after both major heart surgery and several prior years of being shut down workout-wise due to heart failure.

I’m hoping I keep getting stronger and can continue to handle heavier training volume; we’ll see.

 

Diet & nutrition strategy

Salmon & salad on a plate

I mentioned lifestyle prioritization back in the Mental Game Strategy section.

And I consider what we eat & drink to be lifestyle choices that we make voluntarily, every time we decide to put something in our mouth or not.

As I’m sure you are aware, what we choose to eat & drink can sink or sail our body transformation plans.

Our diet & nutritional intake has a huge impact on the results we get from all that hard work we put in with our workout program.

Keep in mind the old saying“You can’t out-train a bad diet”.

So I need to make sure my nutrition is solid.

 

Get adequate protein

Protein’s critical to our success as muscle builders.

It boosts the hypertrophy in our muscles that we initiate through our weightlifting.

Harvard Medical notes that older people do not synthesize the protein we consume as well as we did when we were young.

Therefore we need to eat more of it if we’re planning on muscle building.

 

How much more?

Sports science experts are in decent agreement on this one…hooray, since that doesn’t always happen.

(amounts listed are per day)

ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine):

0.7 grams – 1 gram per lb. of bodyweight for the athlete

 

ISSN (Intl. Society of Sports Nutrition):

0.64 – 0.91 grams per lb. of bodyweight for the athlete

 

I need to drink a bunch of my protein every day, since I can’t eat as much as I used to.

I rely on two types for my smoothies & shakes:

Here’s an Amazon SEARCH window I made. They have a gazillion protein powders, though most of them have artificial sweeteners which I try & avoid.


Here’s an article I wrote after I analyzed a few dozen of the “cleaner” protein powders out there:

Best Protein Powders Without Artificial Sweeteners

 

Take carbs + protein pre-, intra-, & post-workout

Sports science experts and world record holders in powerlifting are also in agreement (here & here) that the peri-workout* period should include loading carbs & protein.

(*Peri-workout means the time period surrounding your workout: before, during, & after)

This has been proven to benefit the strength & muscle building results of weightlifters in a number of clinical studies like this one.

 

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Take casein protein before bed

The ISSN wrote a position stand on nutrient timing with specific emphasis on protein timing, part of which I mentioned earlier.

Another point they emphasized was that downing some casein prior to bed had been shown to boost muscle protein synthesis in older adults.

 

Eat quality carbs

Quality carbs need to be a big part of this muscle building nutrition strategy too.

Lifting more and training harder requires more glycogen to supply us energy to handle this heavier load.

Quality carbs are what we’ll fill the tank with to accomplish that.

 

Get the athletic benefits of Omegas

Foods with unsaturated fatty acids in them need to be on the diet too.

These are where we’ll get our necessary doses of Omegas 3,6,& 9.

Intense exercise like our resistance training can trigger inflammation signals in our bodies as the Cleveland Clinic notes here.

But we can mitigate its effect on us by consuming plenty of omega-rich foods like salmon, nuts, & flax seeds.

And easier still is to supplement a heathy diet with Krill oil, which is loaded with omegas.

 

Recovery strategy

baby resting on a white blanket with a smile on its face

This fourth and final area of my Bodybuilding After 60 Roadmap needs only a simple but committed strategy.

And that is to be mindful of the additional rest & recovery that our bodies need in order to perform over the long haul in our muscle building plan.

This means to make sleep a priority, make a non-stressful environment a priority, and to pay close attention to the feedback given to us by our major muscle groups.

If a particular workout split isn’t providing a particular muscle group adequate time to recover, tweak the muscles’ workout or tweak the split to accommodate more rest for that muscle group.

 

“No pain no gain” is a dumb mantra at our age

Heck, we’re probably going to have some kind of pain no matter what anyways, whether we’re gaining muscle or not.

I just don’t want to overcook any body part and end up sidelined.

After putting in the hard work, the focus is now on insuring that our bodies are restored & ready for the next workout.

 

Muscle Building Over 50 FAQ

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Here are answers to a few of the more common questions asked regarding muscle building.

 

What’s a good workout split for women?

Workout splits are not gender-specific, so any of the ones I mentioned earlier will work for both women & men.

But let’s be sure we’re on the same page semantically speaking.

 

The true definition of a workout split is simply the schedule that you use to split your muscle groups across X number of days.

 

The most common by far is 7 days, since as a culture we tend to ‘plan for the week ahead’, or use a ‘weekly planner’, etc.

You may come across someone at the gym or online saying something like That workout split is intense. I’m doing 15 sets of chest.

But they’re describing their volume, not their day-to-day scheduling of muscle groups.

All good?

Here are a few examples.

 

If you’re a beginner, start with the Full Body Workout 3x/week

Just starting out? Awesome!

Your best bet is to train your entire body 3 times a week, with at least 1 day of rest between those 3 full body workouts.

Most people do Mon-Wed-Fri, but Tue-Thu-Sat or Wed-Fri-Sun are just the same.

You’ll get a day off between 2 of the workouts, and 2 days off after the third one, which is nice because you’ll start your new workout week more recovered.

 

After several months, consider moving to the 4-day split workout

After 6-12 months, depending on how you’re progressing and how you feel, you can switch to one of the 4-day workout splits.

You’ll be doing this at some point because progressive resistance training muscle building benefits kick in as you gradually add more sets & thus total reps to your weekly volume.

A total body workout like the one you started with will no longer be feasible at that point.

It would take hours to complete and plus, your muscles wouldn’t recover in 2 days anymore due to the extra volume you’ve added.

 

If you’re interested, I wrote an article detailing various workout splits and which muscle groups to workout together.

You can read it here.

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What are overtraining symptoms?

Courtesy of ACE (the American Council on Exercise), the definition of overtraining is  “constant intense training that does not provide adequate time for recovery.”

Symptoms include:

  • Always tired
  • Muscle tweaks &/or soreness
  • Strength declining
  • Same workouts are harder to do
  • Lousy attitude
  • Poor sleep

 

Does protein make you gain weight?

In & of itself protein does not make you gain weight.

Weight gain only happens when your total daily caloric intake is more than what your body’s metabolism + your physical activity level can burn off.

It doesn’t matter what macronutrients (protein, carbs, fats) are being consumed in excess. If you eat & drink more calories than you burn for energy, you’ll gain weight.

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Building muscle after 60 summary

So that’s the plan I cooked up to help me be the best muscle building 60+ year-old version of me as I can.

Summarizing the four key areas:

  • Be mentally on top of this bodybuilding adventure
  • Have an optimal workout schedule and training strategy
  • Eat & drink smartly to assist my muscle building
  • Prioritize my rest & recovery so I’m always good to go

 

My progress in 2 years of photos

First up is me right before turning 60 & about to have surgery, sick as a dog with heart failure:

Me, sick as a dog with heart failure, right before surgery

 

Here I was 7 months after my heart surgery, finally into my muscle building plan…yippee!

How To Build Muscle After 60 - heydayDo author Greg Simon doing a set of dumbbell exercise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here I am in 2021, a little bigger & a LOT stronger:

How To Build Muscle After 60 - heydayDo author Greg Simon at 62 (2021)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wrapping Up

I hope this article on building muscle after 60 and its research is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.

Let’s go.

– greg


About The Author

heydayDo author Greg Simon

Hi! I’m Greg Simon.

Fitness training & nutrition researching since 1982. Over 60 & active. Surfer. Organic food grower. Congenital heart disease survivor (so far).

heydayDo.com is my Fitness After 50 blog that’s about encouraging a healthy lifestyle as we age.

I share my fitness training experience as well as the sports science research I’ve done on the many benefits strength building, exercise, & good eating habits offer us older adults.

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