Building Muscle and exercising

I am 52 years old and for the last year I have been attending the Gym. I Swim a mile a day three times a week and the Gym, free weights in between. I want to build stronger more defined muscle. Any suggestions?

Basically what you want is to get stronger. Stronger muscles are bigger muscles. However it’s also true that pure strength doesn’t produce the “most aesthetic” musculature, and I use quotes there because I think some of that is just preference and weird concepts promoted by bodybuilders and Hollywood actors that emulate them in movies.

That being said a combination of pure strength training mixed in with some hypertrophy assistance work is what you’re wanting if you want to get stronger and also look better.

At 52 your testosterone is lower than when you were 25, and because of that you will not build muscle as quickly or recover as quickly from your exercises. However, you will still be able to build muscle and get stronger. This is true of almost anyone at any age. The only limit is if you’re already what I’d call legitimately stronger you probably can’t continue to get stronger and stronger past a certain point (age ultimately does limit this), but especially people over 50 (all the way up to people over 90 that I’ve personally been aware of) can build muscle and get stronger if they’re starting off from a relatively untrained state strength-wise.

It’s easy to exercise for aerobic or general fitness since just about anything you do will give you some benefit. But to gain muscle, you need to work out in a more scientific way. It’s not enough to just lift weights. You need to lift weights in specific ways which encourage the body to build more muscle. If you don’t do things the right way, your body won’t build muscle. It may make your existing muscles more fit, but it won’t necessarily make those muscles bigger.

To gain muscle, you have to slightly damage the muscle. This is done by lifting a relatively heavy weight for a short number of times. A basic guideline is to find a weight you can lift 8 times but not 12. Do 2-3 sets of that weight (e.g. Lift 20 pounds with biceps 8 times, rest, 8 times). Give your muscles a day to rest and then the next day add one more rep (lift 20# 9 times, rest 9 times). Keep doing that. When you eventually get to 12 reps, increase the weight and go down to 8 reps.

The trick to gaining muscle is to work out in a zone which causes microtears in the muscle fibers. When the muscle repairs the fibers, it makes them a little bigger. If you work out with too little weight, you don’t stress the muscle enough and it doesn’t get bigger. If you use too much weight, you’ll tear the muscle and get injured.

If you’re just starting out, start with light weight and 8 reps. If you’re not sore by the next workout, go up by 2 reps instead of 1. This will allow your muscles to adapt so they don’t get injured. If you try to start at your max weight, you’ll definitely be very sore the next day and may even injure the muscle and have to take a long time off. By starting light and going up by 2 reps, you’ll avoid injury and quickly get to that sweet spot of effort.

Does your gym have personal trainers? If so, a few sessions with one will greatly help. They will be able to give you the specific advice you need to gain the muscle you want.

Like most people speaking on fitness I think filmore’s heart is in the right place but I have to strongly disagree with his specific recommendations.

I think there are two things you should do:

Buy: Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd Edition by Mark Rippetoe. (Kindle edition available)

Buy: 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength by Jim Wendler. (I don’t believe the physical edition is still in print, but you can find it from third party sellers.)

I would specifically stay away from personal trainers, who are mostly poorly trained and ill equipped to train anyone in a meaningful way.

The reason I suggest those two books:

Starting Strength/Mark Rippetoe is going to teach you how to do the three canonical powerlifting lifts: Squat, bench press and deadlift. Most importantly for the squat and deadlift he is going to go into immense detail to teach you how to do both motions 100% correctly. Both are almost never taught correctly by your standard globo gym trainee, and many will teach you extremely dangerous and stupid variations of these simple and (when done correctly) perfectly safe exercises.

He will also teach you the press (overhead press / military press) and the power clean. The press should be part of your routine but I’m 50/50 on whether or not most people should bother with the power clean.

If you want to learn these motions there is, quite simply, no better resource in the world other than going to a legit trained powerlifter or what’s called a “Starting Strength Coach” and having them teach the exercise in person.

Mark Rippetoe will also outline a program that in his words is the best program for a novice lifted wanting to get strong. I agree with a lot of caveats, in that it’s ideal for young lifters, who can afford to lift for 2 hours three times per week and who are able to get 8+ hours of sleep every single night and eat a large amount of protein and calories to support the maximal muscle growth possible. If that’s you, then you should follow his program to a tee.

For people who put their other life activities above lifting I think Wendler’s 5/3/1 is slower and a lot more sustainable. You can get all your lifting in with 5/3/1 in 30-40 minutes, 3 times a week as a beginner or even adopt a modified 2 times a week or 4 times a week plan for flexibility (he lays out the alternate versions in his book.)

My personal recommendation would be (after reading Starting Strength and spending some sessions in the gym practicing all the lifts with NOTHING on the bar until you feel you an do them safely) to adopt a version of Wendler’s 5/3/1 for beginners.

You mention you go to the gym three days a week and lift in between, so I’m not sure if that means 5 days of gym time or not, but what I’d do (shift days as necessary):

Monday: Wendler 5/3/1 Squats, “Assistance” Bench Pressing, and whatever other assistance work you want. Then do your normal swim.

Wednesday: Wendler 5/3/1 Deadlifts, Wendler 5/3/1 Press (Military/Overhead Press), and whatever assistance work you want. Then do your normal swim.

Friday: Wendler 5/3/1 Bench Press, “Assistance” Squats, and whatever assistance work you want. Then do your normal swim.

If you’re already going to the gym five days a week I’d move two of your swims to non-lifting days. You can shift these days however you want but within these parameters: do not lift two days in a row, ever, and make sure between each week of lifting you get 48 hours consecutive rest. If this means you’re doing Sunday / Tuesday / Wednesday or something instead that’s obviously fine.

The above advice will only make sense if you buy the books, by the way, and I don’t presume to be able to replicate the advice of experienced coaches and lifters in a forum post.

Another reason I’d steer you toward Wendler is his system embraces assistance work and Rippetoe’s virulently eschews it, mostly–for the legitimate reason that assistance work can detract from your body’s resting from the main lifts and thus your maximum strength gain. But you’ve indicated an aesthetic interest in your lifting, which means assistance work is both desirable an necessary.

The overarching principle of this recommendation is:

  1. Relatively low work load (so it doesn’t overwhelm your life or your body with lifting.) This 30-35 minutes 3 times a week.
  2. Focus on full body, free weight motions. These are the best at building strength.
  3. Incorporation of assistance work.

If you follow Wendler’s program you’ll primarily do low rep sets for strength, although the last set of each day for his program lifts you are told to lift as many as you can which could potentially get you some hypertrophy as well just from his program (hypertrophy lifting is more what filmore was talking about, where you’re doing large numbers of reps.) Most strength building regimes your rep count per set is 5 or so at max, in fact 5 is almost a universal standard in strength oriented lifting programs.

Assistance work on the other hand, you should be able to do a lot more reps because the weight is lower. Typically then your 5/3/1 sets for the day will be low sets, heavy weight. Your assistance work will be higher reps (10-12 max) and lower weight, and will not be full body exercises but will be exercises targeting desired muscle groups. I still almost never advocate “true isolation” exercises like the “super strict” curl or the leg curl or et cetera. I think most lifts, even assistance, are better when utilizing at least a few muscles in coordination with one another. For example what I call the “standard” curl, where you allow your shoulders to move forward naturally as the weight is lowered and come up as they are raised gets your shoulders into the lift but the back should only be working isometrically (stabilizing the rest of the body.) You can get crazy with it and do a true cheat curl which is using the back and even the legs to help you get the weight up, and at that point I think it’s mostly an unproductive lift.

My advice is fine for someone looking to gain a bit of extra muscle. Your advice is more for someone who is looking for the more body-builder type of appearance and is willing to put that type of effort into it. There are many different results from lifting weights and you need to work out in a method which gives the results you want with the amount of effort you’re willing to put in.

That’s why I recommended getting a personal trainer. Find one who actually does weightlifting. They will be able to put together a plan based on your specific goals. They will also be able to make sure you are using correct form, which is critically important for success and to avoid injury.

No, actually your advice is more typical of body building regimes–high reps at lower weights are standard hypertrophy body building exercises. My specific regimen that is really just repeating accepted wisdom and showing the OP sources that are more vettable than me or you is a regime that builds strength and helps to build aesthetic.

This further shows you aren’t as informed on this as you should be before offering advice. Barbell work is often out of vogue in bodybuilding in favor of huge numbers of machine and dumbbell exercises, so the fact that you confused it with a bodybuilding regime is telling.

The OP wants to get stronger and wants to have better defined muscles. Your recommendations don’t do much for either and are not structured in a meaningfully useful way as your advice relies on poor concepts like increasing number of reps instead of trying to increase weight per rep instead.

There are good ones out there, but they probably won’t call themselves personal trainers. They’ll call themselves weightlifting coaches. You shouldn’t confuse the two. Most glob-gym trainers cannot effectively teach barbell movements, and barbell movements are massively more effective at what OP is looking for.

From the OP:

I do think that the Starting Strength book and DVD are worth purchasing just to learn the movements properly, but the program itself is definitely not appropriate for an older lifter. Rippetoe’s other book, Practical Programming for Strength Training, has a lot of good information on how to adjust strength programs for the 50+ crowd, but it’s really addressed at a coach rather than a novice lifter, so I wouldn’t recommend it for the OP.

5/3/1 is a great program for someone who knows what they’re doing, but the “pick your own assistance work” aspect makes it unsuitable for anyone else.

The vast majority of personal trainers are grossly ill-informed and not worth any amount of money.

All the competitive bodybuilders I’ve interacted with are very familiar with the barbell exercises. Are you sure you’re not just conflating the average gymgoer with the typical bodybuilder?

My phrasing may have made it weird, but I obviously knew OP’s age in my post, I had already posted that he can expect slower recovery and muscle gains as a 50+ year old man in a previous post. My point was trying to explain why I wasn’t recommending the standard 5x5 linear progression Rippetoe advises for OP.

The assistance work advice should probably be fleshed out, I agree. But even if OP does no assistance work at all he’s still doing 5/3/1, I think the core 5/3/1 is good for someone like OP and minimizes time in the gym (important for most people who aren’t wanting to be beast powerlifters.) Wendler is flexible on assistance work but he does mention in 5/3/1 the ones he’s most in favor of, and I generally agree: chin-ups, dips, dumb bell rows, etc. I always advise people incorporate curls because I know how people work, people want big biceps and shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Is there much utility in it? None, really, or close to none (the stronger bicep can help as a stabilizer in more meaningful motions), but they’re a fun lift and I usually think people should be allowed to do t hem.

Yes, trainers are dangerous. That’s a whole other thread but they really are terrible. Most will teach you bad form, bad programming, and will tell you outright lies about the more effective ways of lifting. They’ll demonize stuff like squats with a barbell and have you doing weird shit on a giant rubber ball etc.

It depends on what we mean. Competitive bodybuilders are usually very familiar with barbell exercises because competitive body building requires a lot of strength to build the big muscles, but there’s probably ten guys who call themselves amateur bodybuilders or who say they are “into bodybuilding” for every one actual legit bodybuilder who competes and wins contests. Most of those amateur guys are into hypertrophy with machines and dumbbells, doing squats on Smith machines and various other ill thought out nonsense.

Maybe you’ve been exposed to a better class of bodybuilder wannabes than myself, though. Most “normal gym goers” are even lower on the rung, in that they never set foot in the weight room of their gym or if they do it’s maybe one or two machines once every few weeks. Most people pay $30-40/mo for a treadmill membership or access to a swimming pool, that I’ve seen.

But yeah, absolutely, competitive bodybuilders are definitely into barbell exercises. They are just a rare breed in my experience when compared with the vast majority of “bros” out there who think they’re on the path to being Arnold.

I started using Wendler’s 5/3/1 at age 54 after 20+ years of sedentary jobs and excuses.

I’m 56 now and it kicks ass. I’m a natural ectomorph, so I’m not bulky and never will be. But I’m darn strong for my weight & muscle size. And vastly stronger than I was when I started. I have good definition for somebody who doesn’t live in a gym and/or eat dangerous chemicals.

Having said that, I think a good trainer is an excellent way to start getting the background knowledge needed to do the moves correctly and have some idea of what other exercises are good complements to the Big 4.

The hard part is the “good” in “good trainer”. My advice is to find an iron head gym, not a fitness studio or franchise “club”. Talk to the guys there until you find one who’s smarter than the average and can explain some why, not just spout doctrine. Spend the money to work with somebody for a couple of months; enough to work the rust out and gain the form. And change trainers immediately if he/she doesn’t get the idea that you’re not a 'roided out 22 year old. Slow and steady wins this race at our ages. At least at first.

I have no clue where our OP lives (somehow I doubt it’s Galway) but finding somebody to start with ought to be possible in most good-sized US cities.

Seriously at the level of our op the distinctions between strength and hypertrophy protocols are immaterial.

*Any *resistance work will result in significant gains and he should concentrate on learning good form and not getting injured. Going to low rep high weight sets in any portion of his routines is ill-advised. There is no need to be so scientific about it at this level; there is a need to not get hurt.

Expert guidelines advise the novice to do 8 to 12 reps at low to moderate loading (60 to 70% 1 repetition max for strength focus and 70 to 85% of 1 repetition max for hypertrophy) for 2 to 3 sets per exercise. For older adults (65 plus, not quite our op) more 65 to 75% 1 RM for 10 to 15 reps.

Add weight as you get up to the top of the rep range in good form. Multi-joint compound exercises to be emphasized.

At the op’s age (just a few years my junior) adequate high quality protein right after resistance exercise is more important than when younger.

As he gets more experience and has pretty close to perfect form adding some higher weight lower volume sets makes sense and periodization becomes important (with the best evidence supporting “undulating periodization” - mixing up lighter high rep and lower rep high weight sets).

Increased definition, if an explicit goal, is going to be a function both of mass and of decreased body fat, dificult but not impossible to achieve concurrently. Optimal nutrition to accomplish your goals could take up several threads of debates.

Wanted to add that Clarence Bass has some great articles on weight lifting and nutrition. Seeing that Mr. Bass is now 76 years old, I would assume his advice is appropriate the older folks.

I agree with that. Keep it simple and straightforward for the beginner so he can develop a good base without getting injured. If he wants more, then he can get more into the advanced techniques. Doing low reps with high weight is more appropriate after his muscles have adapted and he knows how to not get injured. A beginner is less likely to get injured doing 8-12 reps with lower weights than 5/3/1 with high weights. The gain will be slower, but it lessens the chance of an injury which would need a long recovery time.

I consider myself a competitive bodybuilder and I’ve won contests and I am not familiar with this crowd of “bodybuilder wannabes” who like to call themselves bodybuilders but who don’t actually seriously compete. IME, someone who calls themselves a bodybuilder (an active bodybuilder, not something done 20 years ago) is usually someone who lives the lifestyle of a competitive bodybuilder.

About a million of them hangout at places like bodybuildingdotcom and twitter and talk about lifting and eating but mostly spend their time looking at porn. Competitive BBing is a pretty small sub-culture. I’d say almost all young men who have any interest in physical fitness (or just looking good and trying to get laid) have at some point considered themselves some sort of bodybuilders. Just as there are probably a million kids playing around with music in their bedrooms (while buying related equipment and visiting the relevant niche forums) but few of them are musicians. And there are a million kids jerking off on their phone camera, but they aren’t filmmakers.

My take on the OP’s question:

Lift weights. Then lift more weight. Not too frequently.

I meant IRL, not on the internet. And that is complete nonsense; most young men who have any interest in physical fitness or looking good or trying to get laid have at some point considered themselves some sort of bodybuilder. Nonsense. I don’t know where you guys are meeting these people. I’ve never met them. Or met a very, very few. Not nearly enough to give any sort of stereotype or image associated with such a type.

Thanks Guys, I *am *living in Galway, Ireland. At the moment I swin only on monday, weds and Fri and lift weights the other 2 days, I am planning on switching that round. My take on what you are saying is heavy weights, short reps? Should I take any supplements, I take an Amino supplement at present? I just want to look bigger not like any kind of arnie type just yet.

And this is why doctors should not speak about weight lifting. Literally thousands of lifters have started without having ever lifted a weight and done Bill Starr’s 5x5, Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength (a 3 set 5 rep scheme), Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 etc and have had great results. If you visit some of the websites these guys maintain (especially Rippetoe’s) or just read their book, you’ll even see that at least in Rippetoe’s case he tried to publish his results in the sports medicine literature and largely no one would publish it because they said it violated various rules of scientific thought despite being based on 30 years of effectively making people stronger.

If you can’t do a lift with good form you have no business doing any reps, and certainly not lots of low weight reps. If you actually knew anything about these programs you’d know that they don’t start anyone with high weight at low reps. They all start at low weight, in fact for both Rippetoe and Wendler they go into great detail explaining exactly how to make sure you start at a low weight. Both programs are almost too easy for the first few weeks (this rapidly changes for Starting Strength and slowly changes for 5/3/1.)