How to Build Muscle at Any Age

Muscle-building programs can energize your entire being and offer all kinds of exciting benefits, including better balance, more confidence, and the ability to do daily physical tasks and favorite sports with greater ease. Whether you are just getting started or need a refresher on best practices, these basic principles can help you get stronger in a relatively short period of time. In just a few weeks you should feel and quite possibly see a difference in your body. A physical therapist or exercise physiologist can help you design an ideal program and help you execute each exercise with good form—which is essential to building strength and avoiding injury.

Your Muscles Want a Challenge

To build muscle, you need to properly lift weight to the point of exhaustion.

“You want to choose a weight/resistance that is challenging for eight to 10 repetitions that you can still complete with good form on the 10th rep, but muscles are fatigued,” explains occupational therapist Rebecca Grantham, MA, OTR/L, UCLA Medical Center. “This is better than high repetitions with low weight. Research shows strengthening happens with increased load, not increased reps.”


“It’s especially important to strengthen the gluteal (butt) muscles, which are often overlooked during exercise,” says Grantham. “These muscles help stabilize the knees and hips and can help prevent injuries to these joints.”

Exercises can be multi-joint or uni-joint. For older adults and those who have not exercised in a while, multi-joint exercises are an excellent choice. Multi-joint exercises, as the name implies, require the use of multiple joints. For example, a leg press machine requires the use of hip, knee, and ankle joints, whereas a bicep curl (uni-joint) involves only the bend of the elbow to perform the exercise. Multi-joint exercises on machines are especially good for seniors, as they require multiple muscle groups to perform, and the machines provide greater safety. In contrast, squats with barbells are also multi-joint but require much greater balance, control, and coordination to do correctly. It is something to work toward, rather than to start with.

A well-rounded muscle-building program should involve all the major muscle groups. These muscle groups are commonly defined as chest, back, arms, shoulders, upper legs (quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes) and lower legs (calves). In general, it’s best to do multi-joint major muscle group exercises first and then do uni-joint exercises. For example, the chest press is a multi-joint major muscle group exercise involving the muscles of the chest, shoulders, and arms. That can be followed by exercises that isolate a single muscle, such as a bicep curl.

Number of Reps and Sets

Repetitions (reps) refer to the number of times you perform each exercise, and sets refer to how many times you repeat the same exercise (e.g., 10 bicep curls repeated three times would be 10 reps and three sets). For beginners and intermediate exercisers, one to two sets of eight to 15 repetitions is the standard recommendation for muscle building. Rest for 60 seconds or so between sets. Keep in mind that by the time you get to the last few repetitions, it should be difficult to complete with good form, but you can still do it. If you get to the last rep and it’s super easy, you need to start with a heavier weight. Conversely, if you can’t get to the last few reps without good form, you need to start with lighter weight until you get stronger.

In general, exercisers will be able do more reps on machines compared to free weights. That is because free weights require the use of more muscles to stabilize and control the weight. Bands and tubing can also be used to build muscle, and they have a unique advantage.

“Flex bands/Therabands provide constant resistance and focus on concentric and eccentric strengthening. If you maintain tension in the band, you have to control the whole motion from beginning to end,” says Grantham.

Concentric refers to when the resistance is lifted/pulled (the muscle is shortening), and eccentric refers to the return of the resistance (the muscle is lengthening). Muscle builds more efficiently when it’s deliberately working during both phases. While this same concept can be done with weights but you really have to focus. Most people, especially when they’re getting started, just let gravity return the weight. Bands encourage control throughout the whole exercise, making your muscles work in both directions rather than just one.

Session Duration and Sessions per Week

How long and how often a person should exercise are frequently asked questions. According to the National Institutes of Health, adults need at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week plus muscle strengthening activities on two days each week to attain the most health benefits from physical activity. How long you exercise will, of course, vary according to your starting point. But, in general, allow 30 to 60 minutes for each session. An excellent way to begin is with a “total body” workout. Specifically, you would do both upper- and lower-body exercises during each session and do two to three sessions per week. Giving yourself an hour for each total body workout will be especially invigorating, and you’ll reap the rewards rather quickly.

As your muscle-building progresses, it’s common to divide up routines to work out specific muscle groups more thoroughly. More advanced exercisers typically work out three to four times per week.

Building a Progressive Program

The human body progresses when it’s challenged and responds best when it’s continually asked to exert greater force (or volume) to meet a demand. So, variation needs to be part of every program. If you do the same exercises, using the same weights, in the same order for months and months, you will plateau. There are many interesting ways to introduce variety into a resistance training program. For example, you can adjust the sequence: If you always start with your upper body, start with lower body. You can reduce your repetitions and increase the amount of weight. You can add sets. It’s best to pick one concept to change and alter your routine every four to six weeks, depending on your progress. Again, it doesn’t have to be massive routine overhaul, in fact, it shouldn’t be. Just offer your body something different in the order, weight, type of exercise, or repetitions.

At-Home Adaptations

The whole idea behind muscle-building is to give your body something to resist against. Going to a gym has its advantages, such as finding buddies to exercise with, being inspired by others, and having easy access to equipment, personal trainers, and group fitness classes. And with Silver Sneakers off-setting the cost of some or all of a gym membership for those ages 65 and up, it shouldn’t be difficult to find a place to work out. Nonetheless, you can do a lot at home. Squats using your own body weight can also provide you with progressive opportunities in terms of how many you do and how low you go. Plastic jugs make great hand weights. Fill them with water half way and progress by adding more water through time. Balancing water-filled jugs while you lift them adds a noteworthy challenge because the water moves—trying to keep the water still is quite difficult.

Following a well-designed program that has progression built into it can help anyone get stronger at any age. Don’t hesitate to hire a personal trainer or physical therapist to help you design a program specific to your needs. Your body is well worth the investment in time. And the rewards will come.

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