Starting Weightlifting Over 40

Here’s a simple, safe, and effective plan for starting weightlifting over 40.

Years ago starting anything new past 40 years of age was unheard of. The over 40 crowd didn’t dare test the waters of anything new and different. One might hear discouraging things like “Act you age,” and “Why start now?” muttered to those with higher aspirations for self-improvement.

These days it seems that 40 is not only the new 30, but possibly the new 20. More and more individuals of all ages have taken up the iron game as a part of their deposit on a longer, more quality-driven life. Strength training in general has come to the forefront as an integral part of a whole-body plan for a stronger and more balanced physique, both functionally and aesthetically.

If you’re over 40 and have read this far, let’s explore the ins and outs of starting a weightlifting program for the first time. On your own, scouring the interwebz for accurate information is a daunting task in and of itself, but pair that with the plethora of “broscience” and misguided information for 20-somethings, and you’ll want to quit before you start.

So have a seat, clear your mind, and let me take you through this one step at a time.

Set Expectations

The first order of business is to establish expectations. These are closely related to goals, but since you’re starting a program a bit later than most you may need to know about a few key points before starting.

There are two general categories for the over 40 lifter. One is where you don’t have years and years of wear and tear on your joints with years of lifting. Yes, lifting weights is a good thing, but in our youth we tend to learn as we go and ingrain certain principles into our programming that can result in pulls, tears, and other injuries. In other words, young lifters tend to lift too much weight, too often, and without much attention to injury prevention. They beat themselves up at a young age and more than likely carry on these bad habits as they get older. The bottom line for this category is you don’t have all that wear-and-tear, and you’re in decent shape.

The other category is where you find yourself in the state of the stereotypical 40-year-old: you’re a bit overweight, sedentary, have perhaps a few health concerns and (likely due to those factors), have achy joints.

Whichever category you fit into, taking up weight training will be a new and interesting journey, replete with new levels of soreness and physical as well as mental challenges. And in either case, success will come by simply paying attention to the advice below that best applies to where you are in life right now.

Things to Consider for the Over Forty Lifter

Here a few considerations to have in mind when you start down the weightlifting road:

You May Require a Lengthier Warm-up
No, at 40 you can’t just walk into the gym, slap some weight onto the bar and lift away. You will need to practice a general warm up, a dynamic warm up, and a more specific warm up. You need to fill the muscle groups or area with blood and get your joints pliable. Think of it as priming an engine before starting.

Since You’re a Beginner, You May Need to Take Your Time With Lifts
Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Learn the lifts, use textbook form, and aim to improve technique with each and every rep and set. Think of every workout as an opportunity to practice and improve. Don’t rush training.

Progress Will Come Quickly and Slowly
At first you will experience rapid increases in strength, but not much else. This is your nervous system adapting to the new stress. It’s a survival mechanism that protects the body in case you need to call upon that strength later. Body reshaping and muscle building will eventually happen. It may come slowly, but with enough consistency will become a reality.

Pay Close Attention to Recovery
As you age your metabolism will naturally slow. In turn, this will also slow your rate of recovery between workouts, fat burning, and muscle and strength gains. Do not despair. If you adhere to a solid plan, you will be ahead of the average 40-something. You can still improve your rate of recovery and progress.

Don’t Forget Your Lifestyle
It’s somewhat commonplace to become a bit obsessed with the new changes and challenges. But all that time and energy spent posting pics, talking shop, and constantly checking progress can hamper your life outside of the gym. Stay grounded. Train when it’s time to train then leave it at the gym.

You’re Better Than You Think
Just because your 40 doesn’t mean you should look at your experience with a handicap. This isn’t golf. If you’re just starting out, think of your journey as one of pure progress. Work to be better every day. You’re not living someone else’s life. Work with what you have—worrying over the rest is useless.

It Should Be Fun 
Finally, what you put yourself through day-in and day-out shouldn’t be a grind you dread. It shouldn’t feel like work. Look forward to training, the challenges that lie ahead, and aim to be better each and every day. Find joy in everything you do to improve yourself.

Embrace the Challenge

Training over 40 doesn’t relegate you to “fitness” level or “just getting in shape” crowd. There’s no reason that you couldn’t set your bar high and reach for peak performance. Everything is relative. When it comes to weightlifting, a myriad of benefits will have a compound effect. More muscle means a better metabolism; a better metabolism means more fat burning; and more muscle and less fat means a healthier body, improved mood, and more productivity.

Don’t feel like you have to be categorized as an old guy (or gal) in the gym. Take the challenge and do the best with what you have. Besides, 40 isn’t old.

Modify Your Training

Of course, it goes without saying that you will need to modify your training to fit your unique state of health, training availability, and ability. But let me reiterate that just because you’re 40 doesn’t mean you should lift light, use only machines, and circuit train exclusively. You should be able to perform any and all exercises within your abilities safely and effectively.

Barbells and Dumbbells
Barbell training provides some of the most effective means of developing muscle and strength. The barbell enables you to use as much muscle as possible by performing compound movements (using more than one joint during a lift). Bench presses, shoulder presses, rows, squats and deadlifts are all great exercises that work the entire body. But a word of caution: Don’t get caught up in putting too much weight on the bar. You will tempt injury and potentially be out of the gym as quickly as you came in.

Unilateral Work
Often overlooked and/or downright ignored altogether, unilateral training (single limb training) is one of the so-called “secrets” to training success. By using one limb at a time you can increase coordination, shore up weaknesses, and tap into new ways to stimulate growth and strength. For example, a single leg squat with your rear foot on a bench behind you will decrease the load on your spinal column, challenge your balance, and isolate each leg so one doesn’t overpower the other during the lift.

Before you scoff and stop reading hear me out. Machines have their place in any training program. Whether it’s to help work around an injury, finish a muscle group at the end of a workout, or simply something new, machines have advantages if used correctly. Yes, functionally speaking a squat gives you more bang for your buck than a leg press but if you’re specific structure makes squats difficult then the variety of leg press machines might just be your answer.

Going Heavy
Many gym-goers like to relate the weight on the bar with rep ranges. For example, a heavy workout may consist of a rep range of four to six reps while a light workout may be in the 12 to 15 range. Although this is a fine practice, I would like to propose that you stick with whatever rep range that is comfortable and safe, and gauge intensity more from an effort standpoint. Reaching momentary muscular failure within any rep range should be the goal instead of thinking of a certain weight as heavy or light.

Rep Ranges
With the above point in mind, it may be a good idea not to go too deep into the lower rep ranges. Too much volume of single, double, and triple-rep sets will eventually wear out joints and force your body into overtraining and fatigue. As long as muscular failure is reached with most sets your rep range can be a bit higher to circumvent injury.

The weekly frequency of training is a long forgotten principle when it comes to the average weight trainer. Programs of one body part per day once per week have spread across gym circles and taken as law. The fact is, the more frequency you undergo the more opportunity for progress. However, with a slightly “different” metabolism than the youngins’, you will have to pay close attention to intensity, recovery times, increases in strength, etc.

Don’t Go Down the Rabbit Hole

As stated earlier, the interwebz is a wonderful, amazing thing. We have so much information at our fingertips – literally. But this can backfire in a big way. Too much information can cause overload, confusion, and contradictory ideology. This proverbial rabbit hole is tough to climb out of, so I propose a rule of sorts. Whatever you choose to do, do it and only it for at least six months. Don’t research, look-up, or ask around for any other programs. Stick to the plan you chose and give it plenty of time. Switching from program to program too often will only stall progress and frustrate the living heck out of you.

Sample Program

What’s all this talk about weightlifting at 40 and beyond without a take-home sample program? As the name states, this is only a sample program but a great starting point which includes every point made above and then some.

Perform each workout once per week on nonconsecutive days. For example: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Feel free to perform any form of cross training or cardiovascular exercise on you off days. Each session should last around an hour, so pay close attention to rest periods. For warm ups, start with 5 to 10 minutes of light jogging, stationary bike, or any form of your favorite cardio. Next, perform a few sets of jumping jacks, burpees, or box jumps to prime your body. Lastly, follow the specific warm up sets listed for each exercise and use a light to moderate amount of weight.

Day 1 Warm-up sets Work sets Rest periods (in seconds)
Incline bench barbell press 2 x 10-12 3 x 6-10 60
Flat bench dumbbell press 3 x 8-12 60
Wide-grip lat pull-down or pull-up 2 x 10-12 3 x 8-12 60
Bent-over one-arm dumbbell row 3 x 8-12 60
Barbell back or front squat 2 x 12 3 x 6-10 90
Lying leg curl 3 x 8-12 60
Floor crunch 3 x 15-20 30
Day 2 Warm-up sets Work sets Rest periods (in seconds)
Seated dumbbell shoulder press 2 x 10-12 3 x 8-12 60
Wide-grip cable upright row 3 x 8-12 60
Seated dumbbell curl 1 x 12 3 x 8-12 60
Overhead cable triceps extension 1 x 12 3 x 8-12 60
Seated calf raise 1 x 15 3 x 10-15 30
Hyperextension 3 x 10-15 30
Hanging leg lift 3 x 15-20 30
Day 3 Warm-up sets Work sets Rest periods (in seconds)
Flat bench dumbbell press 2 x 10-12 3 x 8-12 60
Hammer Strength or machine press 3 x 8-12 60
Rack barbell deadlift 2 x 10-12 3 x 4-8 60
Seated cable row 3 x 8-12 60
Leg press 2 x 15 3 x 10-15 60
Dumbbell Romanian deadlift 3 x 8-12 60
3-way sit-up 3 x 15-20 30

Want more tips for starting later in life?:

You’re Not 20 Anymore: 2 Tips for Older Athletes