Let’s get straight to the point: yes. For most readers, the answer will be a resounding yes, you can build muscle after 50. There are only a few cases where this will not be the case, namely:
- If you’re currently already at peak lean mass (i.e. you’re an aging bodybuilder who hasn’t stopped training),
- If you have a muscle-wasting condition (not aging, but a disease like ALS),
- If you are irreversibly paralyzed (unfortunately, this often cannot currently be reversed).
However, let’s say that you’re an average 50-year-old American man or woman. The average American 50-year-old man is obese (80 percent), struggling with a chronic disease (2 out of 3), and sedentary. For women, the most overweight age bracket is older (60 to 64), yet women share low activity levels and chronic conditions. It’s unlikely that most adults aged 50 and above are exercising and increasing their muscle mass – but they should be. Not for vanity, but for health.
Muscle is amazing. Having more lean mass burns more calories, protects your joints, takes stress off your worn-out cartilage, and helps reduce the symptoms of neural conditions as the body and brain work harder together to expand the nerve networks necessary to mobilize your muscle mass. And yes, if you’re an average 50-year-old American, you can definitely build muscle mass.
You don’t need whey protein, you don’t need to hit the iron, and you don’t need to look like Arnie (in fact, it’s exceedingly unlikely that you ever will). You can put on lean mass and reduce bodyfat the same way anyone else does through proper training stimulus, a modest protein intake, and a caloric deficit.
Muscle wasting can be prevented, slowed, and even reversed
There’s a name for aging muscle: it’s sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is essentially age-related muscle atrophy. However, it isn’t clear when or why sarcopenia sets in. Some people say you hit your potential peak for muscular size at 25. Others say 30. Some say 40. No one’s come out with data that definitively put a number on it. And since it’s likely that most people don’t work out hard enough to reach their muscular potential ever (let alone at age 25), you can certainly get bigger and stronger well into your 50s than ever before.
Sarcopenia is not really a well-defined condition and is still a matter of ongoing research. There are several studies that point out that older people can’t just stop muscle atrophy, but actually reverse it, and achieve hypertrophy. In fact, there is research that suggests that there’s no massive difference in the rate at which older people get stronger. While this cannot necessarily be conflated to muscle mass, the two are related.
In other words, even if you’ve worked out before, or have been working out for a while, you really don’t have to worry about whether your peak days are behind you. Unless you’ve been a lifelong bodybuilder or powerlifter, it’s unlikely to matter – and you will probably continue to get stronger well into old age, as long as you continue to train. It wouldn’t be the first time someone started training seriously at 50 years of age.
You can even gain muscle in your 90s
One particularly famous randomized controlled trial discovered that the ‘very elderly’ (72 to 98 years of age) can still gain muscle mass, under a good exercise regimen and a healthy diet. This means you can continue to gain lean mass and build muscle long after 50 up until your body completely quits on you. Without supplementation, one might add.
Your nerves are responsible here
There are many theories for why muscle goes away faster as you get older, but one predominant reason might be your nerves. This is in line with how strength training has shown to improve cognitive function and even slow down dementia. Your strength is a matter of muscle mass, yes, but it’s primarily a matter of neural adaptation.
The first time you pick up a relatively heavy weight, you’re signaling to your body that it was a struggle to do so. If you decide to do it again, the next week, with greater intensity (more repetitions with the same weight, or a heavier weight with the same repetitions), you’re reaping the benefits of a smart and efficient human body that increases strength and performance relative to what’s needed, rather than always keeping you at 100% and thus wasting a ton of energy.
But rather than just demand that your muscles grow more, your body first learns to make use of the muscles that exist by improving the efficiency of how your motor neurons interact with said muscle. The more you train towards lifting heavier weight, the more muscle your body recruits with hits nerves.
This is not just a physical endeavor, but a cognitive one. Your brain and nervous system must branch out and ‘wake up’ nerves and muscles that haven’t been in use for a while. This keeps you spry both physically and mentally. Quitting, then, causes your body to give up on those nerves and muscles faster – and the muscles follow the nerves, wasting away as your body stops properly making use of them.
If you were once strong, you’ll have an easier time getting back there
Muscle memory is real, and not just a matter of ‘bro science’. But it doesn’t mean your muscles actually ‘remember’ how strong or big they were in the past. It’s just a layperson’s term for explaining the function of your myonuclei, a part of your muscle fiber that essentially helps control protein synthesis. Bodybuilders and athletes have known for years that it’s easier to put on muscle you once had, regardless of how long it’s been since that muscle has been gone. The same goes for strength, which is easier to regain after you’ve already acquired (and subsequently lost) it.
This means if you were an amateur bodybuilder in your youth, chances are you’ll more easily build up lean mass than your elderly peers. If you were once ferociously strong, your strength may easily come back to you. It is a matter of training stimulus, diet, and genetics. But what was once there is more easily regained.
If you’ve never worked out, you will still make quick progress in the beginning
As explained previously, much of the strength gains made at the beginning of one’s training are the result of your nerves getting used to lifting the weight. Similarly, muscle growth slows down exponentially the more you train.
For a young untrained male with 60kg of lean mass, they might see about 10kg of lean mass in their first year of training. The next year, they might gain about 5kg of lean mass. Over the next five years, they might only gain about a kilo or a pound of lean mass per year. The exact rate depends on age, sex, and genetics. While you can still build muscle after 50, it may not be at the same rate as a 16-year-old with much higher testosterone levels, or a 20-year-old.
Your muscular potential is determined by your genes and your bone mass. In general, the human frame can only support a certain amount of muscle. This is controlled by myostatin, a protein that inhibits muscle growth. Some people have a myostatin deficiency, which allows them to reach a much higher muscular potential than the average human being, with or without steroid use (it’s also known as the Hercules gene, and one example of a person with a myostatin deficiency is strongman Eddie Hall).
There are neat calculators online that help you see what your muscular potential might be if you’re interested in that, but the amount of muscle you gain will generally slow over time, and the amount of lean mass you end up with will depend on how much lean mass you had to begin with, and how fast your muscles grow in the first year or two.
You should be training anyway
Don’t let the idea that old age will make you weaker scare you. It isn’t necessarily true. Several studies show that those aged 50 and above can perform just as well, or even better than a significant portion of younger trainees. And if you’ve never trained before, or haven’t trained in decades, you’ve got a whole new you to look forward to in a few years.
If you’re gifted and generally strong or fit without exercising much, don’t think that won’t change. But keep in mind that strength training is protective against age-related atrophy, and can help you not only keep your lean mass but grow it.
More than just being something fun to do and setting new goals for yourself, training (especially resistance training) comes with a slew of benefits in old age, including the cognitive and metabolic benefits discussed previously. And while you won’t build muscle as quickly as you did in your 20s, you can build muscle after 50.