Building Muscle Mass Over 50

Written by Teresa Bergen

Walk into your local recreation center any day and you’ll see committed retirees doing their daily exercise routines. “They think of this as their job,” says Ellen Womeldorf, health and wellness coordinator for James City County Parks and Recreation. “They want to live a good life as they age.” Regular workouts help them with daily tasks, like walking, standing and picking up their grandchildren.


Muscle mass begins to gradually decrease around age 40, while fat accumulates. By the time a woman hits 65, she might have 60 pounds more fat and 30 pounds less muscle than she did at 25. Hormone levels and protein synthesis decrease and individual muscle fibers atrophy and die, resulting in a loss of muscle mass. This condition is called sarcopenia.

Resistance exercise helps stave off sarcopenia. “If you’re 50 and you’ve been active your whole life, or even if you’re 70 and you’ve been active your whole life, it’s going to be a different situation,” says Catherine Egan, who teaches group exercise classes for seniors in Portland, Ore. Consistently using muscles helps preserve muscle mass and weight training can also increase bone density, lowering the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Getting Started
If you’re over 50, new to exercise and/or have a known medical condition, discuss your activity plans with your doctor. Work with a trainer or an experienced friend to learn to use gym equipment properly.
Start with a warm-up. Walking outside or on a treadmill prepares your body for resistance exercise. Older people should warm up for about 10 minutes, says Egan.

A good strength training program addresses all your major muscle groups: chest, back, shoulders, arms, core and legs. Do one or two sets of approximately ten different exercises. Pick a weight you can lift about 15 times before your muscles get too tired to continue. “You don’t want to challenge yourself so much that you end up with injuries,” Egan says.

Once you can easily do 15 repetitions of an exercise, increase the weight by about five percent. Aim for two or three strength workouts per week, with at least 48 hours in between to rest.

Consistency is Key
Weight workouts can make the difference between losing function and remaining independent. The seniors at the rec center inspire Womeldorf. “You see them in their upper 80s and they’re still walking around the track, doing their lat pull-downs and bicep curls. They realize if they don’t use it, they’ll lose it.”

Sample Exercise Tips

Lat Pull-Downs
Work the muscles in your back and arms to maintain your ability to do daily household tasks.

Leg Press Machine
Work your hamstrings and quadriceps to improve your balance.

Stability Ball Crunches
You don’t have to get up and down from the floor to do this core exercise.

Shoulder Press
This exercise mimics reaching up to a high shelf.

About the author

Teresa Bergen

Teresa Bergen is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer and web content developer who specializes in health, fitness and travel. Her articles appear on/in, Spirituality & Health, India Currents, Whole Life Times Magazine, Pique, Yogi Times, the South China Morning Post, and many other print and online publications. She’s the author of Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide and Meditations for Gym Yogis and writes a blog called Veg Travel and Fitness. She’s also the vegetarian/vegan editor of Real Food Traveler. In addition to writing, Teresa is a yoga teacher and ACE-certified personal trainer and health coach.