Being 40-something can be pretty sweet. We're (typically) smarter, wiser, and often much better off financially than our 20-something counterparts. Plus, a touch of grey scruff—aka The George Clooney Effect—can certainly add to our sex appeal.
Still, let's not sugarcoat it too much. When it comes to bodybuilding, being over 40 kind of sucks.
The speed of muscle growth and rehabbing injuries just ain't the same. Body fat is harder to shed and seems to come back at an accelerated rate, and workouts that once left you pumped and feisty now leave you dazed and wandering through the parking lot for 20 minutes, looking for your car.
Not to mention the minor things: paying more attention to food choices and digestion. Making sleep a priority. Destressing. Taking quality supplements. The list goes on.
But if someone had told me these "smart" things the over-40 crew has to monitor more closely for progress when I was 25, I feel like I could be much farther ahead of the curve now in my 40s.
Listen up, whippersnappers. Pay heed to these five tricks of older and wiser bodybuilders that will turn 20-somethings into genetic freaks and 40-somethings into more efficient bodybuilding machines.
1 Eat Clean, Bro
IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) is probably the most important dieting sensation to hit mainstream bodybuilding in the last five years. It's helped literally thousands of borderline OCD lifters get past the psychological barrier that kept so many foods off limits, especially while dieting.
I'm a hardcore clean eater, and learning to embrace the freedom afforded by IIFYM has benefitted me, my family, and certainly my clients.
However, like all good things, some guys—especially young guys—take it too far. They build diets around far too many processed foods and not enough "clean" staples.
Now, that's no big deal at 22, but these foods don't do an aging body many favors. As you age, your efficiency at digesting food goes down, sometimes dramatically. You know you're in trouble when three slices of pizza now leaves you fumbling for antacids the next day.
What to do now: Build your meal plans around 80 percent clean (sorry, I like that word) bodybuilding foods in manageable portions. Eat at least one serving of veggies at most meals. Drink a lot of plain water. And get used to eating that way—you know, like a grownup bodybuilder—so it becomes your new normal. Of course, enjoy a little flexibility so you can still have a life.
What you'll get: You certainly don't need brown rice, boiled veggies, and chicken around-the-clock to build muscle. But if you aren't processing and eliminating foods efficiently, it isn't a massive leap to assume you aren't recuperating and rebuilding to the best of your potential either.
When the spoils are, at best, a couple pounds of new muscle a year, it's certainly wise to keep your inner machinery running smoothly.
2 Clean up your sleep
Young people enjoy deep, restful sleep; adults often struggle to get five quality hours per night. Is it youth that allows them to rest—or being rested that keeps them young? I'm not so sure anymore.
What I do know is that, when you're young, you can stay up late and get into trouble several nights in a row and still have great workouts. That simply won't happen later; your body won't let it. Not unless you call eating flapjacks in your sweatpants and watching ESPN a workout.
What to do now: Take rest as seriously as you take training. The best over-40 bodybuilders happen to also be the best sleepers. They do a bunch of little things—dim the lights at dusk, avoid caffeine after 4, sleep in a dark bedroom—and follow a regular schedule that helps facilitate deep, restful slumber.
All of this is way tougher than it sounds. I suggest you start seeing an early bedtime as a challenge—see if you can get to bed by 10 at least five nights a week.
What you'll get: Sleep is the most powerful natural recovery aid at your disposal. One bad night may not translate to missed pounds on the scale, but it can translate to a lousy workout and crappy eating patterns, which can snowball—and translate to missed pounds on the scale over time.
See what a week of an "early to bed, early to rise" lifestyle does for your focus, late afternoon energy, and especially your gym drive.
3 Practice Good Form
Most lifters have a "pop story." That time they went for a 405 bench and their shoulder went pop. Or they were doing shrugs, looked sideways to check out the cardio scenery, and suddenly their neck popped.
If you have one to tell, it probably happened when you were under 30. Why? Because when shit goes pop after 40, you don't just rest for a week and come back. Instead you get doctor visits, rehab, and hopefully not an addiction to hydrocodone.
That's why guys over 40 often train a lot better—better exercise technique with controlled intensity. Less to impress, more to stimulate. It's far easier to stay healthy and mobile this way. Better yet, it's excellent for hypertrophy, or muscle growth.
What to do now: If you're a bodybuilder, stop training like a wanna-be powerlifter (or worse, a CrossFitter) and clean up your technique. That means full range of motion, controlled tempo, and peak contractions. Lower the weights and focus on feeling the working muscles. Chase metabolic stress and muscle damage rather than maximal load. Train hard, but never, ever train sloppy.
What you'll get: You'll stay injury-free (seriously, do dudes ever get hurt training this way?) and you'll likely experience far better growth in "stubborn" muscles—you know, the ones that tend to get missed with heavy, sloppy training. That way, you can occasionally cycle in dedicated phases of heavy, basic training well into your 40s and live to tell about it.
4 Stay mobile
Mobility is like hygiene. It doesn't work if you don't maintain it every day. But unlike hygiene, when you're young you can let your mobility slide and not have to pay the piper.
Instead, the debt is paid in your 30s and beyond: when your pecs and lats are so tight from a decade of pressing that performing even basic overhead work spells disaster and you let yourself flub a shoulder workout or ten. Goodbye, superhero proportions—sure wish I could've reached that comic-book potential when I was healthy enough to do so.
What to do now: You don't need to join a yoga studio to improve your mobility. You probably have a very good idea of where you're tight (pecs, lats, hips, etc.). If not, just start front or overhead squatting to point out flaws you never even knew you had.
From there, start working with a professional to increase your mobility in these areas. It will take a little bit of effort initially—as all things do—but maintaining it is far, far easier.
What you'll get: Maintaining even a basic level of mobility while you're young will greatly expand your exercise menu after you get older.
Most "dangerous" exercises, like the behind-the-neck press, are only really dangerous if you lack sufficient mobility to perform them. Taking steps when you're young ensures you're not relegated to the dorky machine section of the gym when you're 40.
5 Get A Life
I've noticed a trend that's both fascinating and a little depressing among bodybuilders I know—both young and old alike.
A lot of guys are "serious" about training in their 20s. They hit their meals, don't skip workouts, and live the bodybuilding lifestyle to its fullest.
Then by the time 40 rolls around, many have dropped off. They either got too beat up or simply burnt out by all the years of hardcore commitment for so little (monetary or emotional) return. Many of these has-beens were the guys that were truly the poster boys for "living the lifestyle."
The ones that tend to stick though? Those that practiced balance early on. The guys that understood that being a good bodybuilder—while incredibly challenging—doesn't have to be all-consuming. There can still be time for family, fun, vacations (as in vacations from the gym, not planning travel around hotels within driving distance of a power rack), different sports, and hitting the occasional drive-thru.
What to do now: Take a serious audit of your time and how you're investing your energy. Are you spending more than 10 hours a week bodybuilding? That's not just gym time—that's cooking, shopping, cleaning, eating, reading message boards, and thinking about bodybuilding.
If you answered yes, it should be because you have a contest or serious goal coming up, or you have designs on a career in the sport.
If not, I can almost guarantee that some of your time could be better spent in other areas that bring you joy, make you money, or expand your horizons (i.e., make you a more interesting person to hang out with).
What you'll get: Training less when you're 25 won't necessarily help you be more muscular when you're 40. However, busting your ass and establishing a solid career when you're young sure makes bodybuilding as a 40-something a lot more practical, not to mention realistic.
Although there's nothing wrong with still delivering pizza at age 45, and I guess it leaves your afternoons free when the gym is dead.
Still, you think George Clooney works for Papa John's?
What keeps people motivated in the gym year after year? Spoiler: It ain't wishful thinking or magical pixie dust.
You can clutch your Tupperware all 365 days of the year, or be a human being and enjoy your time with friends.
Arnold dominated the golden age of bodybuilding with real strength built from heavy lifts. His key to success still applies to most training avenues today!