If a magic bullet for healthy ageing existed, strength training would be it. But it isn’t quite as simple as reaching for the nearest kettlebell. From prioritising power in your twenties to future-proofing your bones in your fifties, consider this your guide to building strength, at any age.
Here at WH, we often field questions on the most head-scratching topics in health. But if there’s one we’re asked more than any other, it’s this: what’s the best way to exercise?
It’s not an easy one. On the days when energy is as elusive as a sunny bank holiday, the workout you enjoy is the one you’re most likely to show up for. But if there was a gold medal for a workout, it would go to strength training – and for one big reason. From helping you manage your bone health to supporting your body composition, it can help you at every age and stage.
But much like your approach to the alcohol aisle, the way you lift evolves as you age. While hypertrophy takes priority in your twenties, by your fifties, mobility is key. With that in mind, we picked the brains of strength training pros to bring you a guide to building muscle at any age.
Strength training in your late teens to early 20s
What to do: functional training
'During these years, the biomechanics of your body are changing all the time; the angle from your hips to your knees widens, your centre of gravity shifts, and your body composition fluctuates,’ says Dr Stacy Sims, an exercise physiologist specialising in female health.
By focusing on functional training – so-called because it mimics everyday movement – not only will you reduce your risk of injury, but you’ll also learn to work with, rather than against, your changing body. Take squatting. ‘You might feel like you can squat with perfect form, but your body is changing so often that you’ll regularly need to relearn your movement patterns to suit your biomechanics,’ adds Dr Sims.
And Christina Prevett, a physiotherapist specialising in female strength training, agrees. She frequently sees athletes with injuries caused by adding load to lifts before they’ve nailed their form; it’s the reason studies show that almost half of young athletes have issues with their pelvic floor. ‘This doesn’t mean you should avoid lifting, but it’s fundamental to learn the right bracing technique and mechanics of each lift before adding any weight,’ Dr Prevett says.
When you are ready to add weight (‘when you’re able to do three sets of 10 to 12 reps, with the last four feeling easy,’ says Dr Sims), the time is ripe for progressive overload – with research published in the book Strength Training For Young Athletes revealing it to be key to improving your strength, skill and confidence using weights. ‘Start with a low weight and high rep count to ensure you hit your full range of motion and become familiar with all movement patterns, then incrementally add weight of 1kg to 2kg every two to four weeks,’ Dr Sims says.
There are seven primary movement patterns to acquaint yourselves with:
Push (anything away from your body)
Pull (anything towards your body)
Press (above your head)
Example workout week:
Dr Sims suggests three 30-minute training sessions a week (on non-consecutive days) is sufficient, if you can hit your major muscle groups: your upper and lower body, your abdominals and your upper and lower back.
1x 30-min upper-body functional training
1x 30-min lower-body functional training
1x 30-min core functional training
That said, consistency trumps frequency; research in Pediatric Exercise Science found that ongoing neuromuscular changes within this age bracket mean a break can erode any gains.
Strength training in your late 20s to mid-30s
What to do: hypertrophy and power training
The good news is your muscle mass and strength reach their peak between the ages of 30 to 35. The bad news? After the age of 30, your muscle mass decreases by between 3% and 8% per decade. But help is at hand, in the form of hypertrophy training.
This involves performing three to four sets of 10 to 12 reps using moderate to heavy loads, to elicit a muscular response known as sarcomeric hypertrophy, whereby the number of contractile proteins – needed to flex (or contract) your muscles – increase, making your muscles bigger and stronger.
Only, muscle mass isn’t all you’re losing. While you may be feeling more powerful in the office, your body isn’t playing ball, and you can expect to drop power – defined as the ability to produce speed and force in a short period of time – by 7% to 14% per decade.
Enter: power training. ‘If power training were a formula, it would be strength training plus speed, and it involves sets of around two to four reps,’ Dr Sims explains. Power training enhances your neuromuscular system by teaching it to send signals from your brain to your muscles as quickly as possible, so your body can respond to stimuli more efficiently. A study in Sports Medicine found that adding hypertrophy and power training to a progressive overload plan is vital if you want to improve your body composition, bone density and power, while reducing the risk of injury.
Don’t just set off and hope for the best, mind. Start with four weeks of hypertrophy to build your muscles before adding power training for two weeks, Dr Sims says. Then, take a ‘deload week’. These give your muscles more time to recover, so they can grow back stronger, with one study showing they can improve bone density; just reduce the weight you lift, take longer rest breaks, perform fewer sets and repeat.
But if you’re planning to get pregnant – on average, first-time mothers in the UK are 31 – Dr Prevett has this to say. ‘Advice during pregnancy can be conflicting, but heavy lifting on a progressive hypertrophy programme is safe – and beneficial.’ That said, this is not the time to start lifting for the first time.
Stick to what your body knows and talk to a GP if you’re unsure.
Example workout week:
2x non-consecutive 30-45 min power sessions
2x non-consecutive 60-min hypertrophy sessions
‘Both power and hypertrophy training are taxing on your neuromuscular system, so do no more than four non-consecutive sessions per week,’ says Dr Sims, who advises 60 minutes per session. For power workouts, do 30 to 45 minutes. ‘You want maximum effort, so stick to two to four reps, or six to 10 seconds per set.’
Strength training in your late 30s to 40s
What to do: heavy lifting and power training
Hello, perimenopause: the years before your final period, when fluctuating reproductive hormones serve up a smorgasbord of symptoms from anxiety to brain fog. But adapting the way you train and shifting your focus from hypertrophy to heavy lifting and power training could be revolutionary.
‘[Less] oestrogen – which plays a big role in muscle repair – at this time means your muscles lose strength,’ says Dr Sims. Keep your reps low, and shoot for three to five sets of six to eight reps; fewer reps mean you can lift heavier, meaning more stimulation for your central nervous system (CNS), she says. ‘We typically rely on oestrogen to recruit muscle fibres and build strength, so you want to teach your CNS to pick up some slack,’ she adds.
The CNS, made up of your brain and spinal cord, activates your muscles via electrical impulses, which means that improvements in its function can boost your body’s ability to produce force. Activating your CNS is the bread and butter of power training, which is why Dr Sims advises it as well as heavy lifting.
Heavy lifts can also help you manage body composition. A study in the Journal Of Exercise Rehabilitation found that premenopausal women over the age of 40 lost an average of 3% body fat (and gained 2% muscle mass) following 12 weeks of strength-focused resistance training. The researchers looked at the participants’ levels of adiponectin and leptin – appetite-regulating hormones that stimulate and inhibit feelings of hunger respectively – and found regular strength work decreased leptin and increased adiponectin.
Ever the multitasker, oestrogen has a hand in bone density, too. ‘[It builds] bone mineral by promoting the activity of osteoblasts – the cells needed to produce bone,’ says Dr Sims. Several studies have shown that strength training can slow bone loss over time as weightlifting forces bone-forming cells into action; power training, however, is thought to improve bone density in postmenopausal women over strength training alone, as it applies more pronounced stimuli. Strong findings.
Example workout week:
Up to 4x 45-60 min weightlifting/power sessions
Dr Sims suggests training for 45 to 60 minutes, no more than four days per week, to give your muscles and nervous system time to recover before you go again. Always include an exercise- specific warm-up and cool-down, with stretches that mimic the movement of the exercises you’re doing.
Strength training in your 50s
What to do: heavy lifting and mobility
Just as those in their twenties need to relearn movement patterns to suit their changing body, those going through the menopause can benefit from doing the same. Besides body composition changes, your joints may feel stiffer, as your levels of oestrogen (yep, her again) decline, which can lead to painful inflammation. The amount of synovial fluid (a thick liquid that cushions the end of your bones and reduces friction inside your joints) also decreases, so cartilage becomes thinner.
Although this means your range of motion – or ability to lift heavy – may not be what you’re used to, you should honour that. ‘Heavy strength work is still your focus,’ says Dr Sims, citing studies that show it to be as effective for easing symptoms in menopausal and postmenopausal women as it is among the perimenopausal.
The key is to phase it in gradually. There’s no need to go back to square one, but tune into how your body feels in certain exercises before going too heavy. And consider doing one body-weight set of each exercise before you add weight. Next, try to work in at least two 20-minute sessions of mobility work per week, and exercise-specific warm-ups and cool- downs. And if you’re tempted to skip the latter, don’t.
‘It’s vital that you do a mobility warm-up before every workout and prior to adding any weight, since women in their late forties and early fifties are more susceptible to soft tissue and joint injuries due to [hormonal changes],’ Dr Sims says.
Heed her advice and you’ll be future-proofing more than your muscles. ‘Resistance training increases the neural growth factor to your brain, which reduces the risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s,’ adds Dr Sims.
In 2020, the University of Sydney published the first study showing that strength training could protect the hippocampal subregions in the brain (responsible for learning and memory) from degeneration or shrinkage. Over 26 weeks, participants performed three 90-minute workouts per week, involving three sets of eight reps of five to six exercises that hit most major muscle groups, alongside exercise- specific stretching.
Example workout week:
1x 45-60 min lower-body weightlifting (and mobility)
1x 45-60 min upper-body weightlifting (and mobility)
1x 45-60 min full-body weightlifting (and mobility)
Optional: 1x 15-min HIIT session
Dr Sims recommends training three times a week – one lower-body, one upper-body and one full-body session of 45 to 60 minutes, on alternate days. If you have time, add a HIIT session, too. ‘One 15-minute HIIT class, performed at 90% of your max effort, will invoke the strongest stimulation of your growth hormone and testosterone possible – both of which will contribute to the maintenance of muscle mass,’ she shares.
Strength training in your 60s and beyond
What to do: hypertrophy and power training
Newsflash: hitting 60 is no reason to stop weightlifting. Studies show that age-related loss of muscle mass accelerates when you reach your seventh decade; the risk of falling and injuring yourself may increase, too (around one in three adults over 65 fall at least once a year, according to the NHS).
But there’s now strong evidence to show that strength training can offset these effects, and it could be particularly beneficial for elderly people. The older you are, the more adaptable your neural motor units – the cells in your brain and spinal cord that send commands from your brain to your muscles – will be to the stimulus of strength training; as they become more efficient, you’ll be more able to tolerate submaximal loads (they’re heavy, but don’t require all-out effort) for a longer time.
It’s for this reason that hypertrophy training – with sets of 10 to 12 reps – should be your go-to training style. ‘If you’ve been training accordingly, you’ll have developed significant strength in your fifties, so now it’s time to build up your lean muscle mass,’ says Dr Sims. As for the weight you should be lifting, Dr Prevett points to research showing that even women with moderate to severe osteoporosis – which is more prevalent with age and the menopause, and most common after 50 – can lift more than 85% of their one-rep max safely.
But as with other life stages, power training should be part of your protocol, too. Strength training is more effective at improving bone density when combined with power training, making the duo all the more important when you’re over 60; Dr Sims refers to a study showing it improved proprioception (your sense of positioning) in a group of 78-year-old women, thereby reducing their risk of falling. Powerful stuff.
Example workout week:
3-4x hypertrophy/power sessions, up to 30 mins each
Aim to train three or four times a week on non-consecutive days, with sessions lasting no longer than 30 minutes, says Dr Sims. ‘Perform three sets of 10 to 12 reps of two to three exercises, remembering to take rest as and when you need.’
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