If you’ve been putting in work at the gym, but it’s not, well, working like it used to, it’s not just you. Our bodies change, and the workout regimen you swore by in your 20s and 30s may not be a fit in your 40s.
Several factors contribute to this shift. One of the big ones is — you probably guessed it — hormones. “Anabolic hormones, such as testosterone, human growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), help us perform physically, build new muscle, recover from exertion, and promote metabolic activity,” says Lifeforce Physician Renae Thomas, MD, MPH. “Unfortunately, these hormones typically decline with age, making it harder to see results from exercise, more challenging to push as hard, and requiring a longer time to recover.”
Your muscles also make a difference. Muscle mass and strength typically increase steadily from birth, peak at around age 35, and slowly decline from then on, according to the National Institute on Aging. “This is especially true when demands such as work, commuting, and caring for children make us less active,” says Dr. Thomas.
These increased responsibilities can also mean more life stressors (say, back-to-back meetings, shuttling kids to activities, or caring for aging parents). “This can increase levels of stress hormones like cortisol, which impacts our hormone balance, ability to perform, and recovery time,” says Dr. Thomas.
So, what can you do to combat these changes? First, understand that adapting is key. Lifeforce experts break down the adjustments that can help build up your strength and lean muscle in your 40s and beyond.
5 Ways to Adjust Your Workouts After 40
1. Step Up Your Strength Training
“As people get older, they may lift weights less,” says Ryan Greene, DO, MS, Lifeforce Physician and Medical Director of the Monarch Athletic Club. But he stresses that you should not resist resistance training.
Dr. Thomas strongly agrees. “Strength training is the most effective way to naturally build and maintain muscle mass,” she says. Studies show that strength training helps older adults increase lean muscle mass. Besides positive changes in body composition, lean muscle mass is associated with lower mortality risk and enhanced cognitive function.
Dr. Thomas notes that strength training can also improve hormone balance by boosting human growth hormone, IGF-1, and testosterone, which are all linked to lean muscle mass.
So, how much strength training should be built into your routine? Dr. Thomas suggests two to five sessions of resistance training per week — with cardio, stretching, and active recovery days mixed in on the other days.
2. Lean Into Lower Body Workouts
While all resistance training is beneficial, lower body moves will especially give you a leg up because studies show that they stimulate the production of anabolic hormones like testosterone.
“The legs and glutes are where the largest muscle groups are,” says Dr. Thomas. “Strengthening them — especially with relatively high volume and moderate-to-high intensity — requires the most effort and tends to produce the most significant hormonal release. Lower body strength training is also associated with better overall hormone balance due to improvements in insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, and reduction in excess cortisol and estrogen.”
Dr. Greene’s go-to moves for healthy hormones are squats and deadlifts. He particularly likes these exercises because they are compound movements. “These movement patterns integrate multiple different muscle groups. For example, squats focus on legs and core, and deadlifts require activation of the upper and lower body,” he explains. “Compound movements often require you to utilize large muscle groups, and they tend to yield the best results in terms of building and maintaining muscle mass.”
Ready to fire up your lower body? Check out this video routine from Lifeforce Health Coach and fitness expert Dotun Olubeko, where he demonstrates squats, deadlifts, and more fundamental lower body moves that will strengthen your results.
3. Practice Progressive Overload
Getting results isn’t just about which moves you do, but how you do them.
“The key with strength training is progressive overload, meaning you should aim to get stronger over time,” Dr. Thomas advises. “This doesn’t have to happen every session, but if you are still using the same weights or doing the same number of reps or sets on every exercise three months later, something isn’t adding up.”
“If you do the same thing over time, the body is going to adapt,” adds Dr. Greene. “If you’re not building muscle mass the way you want to, ask yourself, ‘Am I slowly increasing the weight I’m lifting? Could I try a different repetition scheme?’”
Both experts recommend making your progression slow and steady. Start with lighter weights and work your way up. If your last few reps aren’t significantly more challenging than your first few, that’s a sign you’re ready to graduate to slightly heavier weights.
As for rep schemes, Dr. Greene suggests working three to five muscle groups per day (for example, glutes, chest, and biceps), and starting with three to five sets of eight to 12 reps per exercise. Take about two minutes to rest between sets. “By the last few reps, you should be pretty fatigued,” he says. Once you’re feeling strong with that scheme, you can build from there.
4. Switch Up Your Sweat Sessions
We’ve been talking a lot about strength training, but it’s also essential to get variety in your workouts. Cardio is key for cardiovascular health, as well as enhancing stamina, energy levels, and sleep quality — all of which add up to gains at the gym.
Dr. Greene recommends a rowing machine because it’s a total body movement that recruits several muscle groups, as well as hitting the cardio component. Dr. Thomas’s go-to is walking because it’s inexpensive, easy to incorporate, and the intensity is modifiable by changing speed, incline, and duration.
Take time to find your own favorite. “All exercise is beneficial for health, including yoga, tai chi, stretching, walking, dancing, etc.,” says Dr. Thomas. “The best exercise is the one you will actually do long term. And if you enjoy it, you are more likely to do it!”
5. Prioritize Safety and Recovery
After 40, you’re more susceptible to injuries such as low back pain, knee issues, and rotator cuff tears, which can take you out of the game. So no matter what type of exercise you choose, “make sure you’re not exposing yourself to injury because you’re doing something you don’t have the capacity for, whether it’s a heavy weight or a type of movement you’re not familiar with,” warns Dr. Greene.
Dr. Greene suggests investing in personal or small group training for a couple months, if possible, for anyone new to strength training or looking to advance safely.
Rest is also essential to show up at your best. “Recovery becomes harder and takes longer with age, so more recovery days are usually needed,” says Dr. Thomas. “More often than reducing the frequency of exercise, I would recommend adjusting the intensity. Go hard when you can, and lighten up when needed. The human body is designed to move, but we cannot go hard every day, so varying intensity is key!”
Last but not least, a few habits should always stay consistent: plenty of hydration, quality sleep, stress management, and a healthy diet. Says Dr. Greene, “Those things will always be important, no matter how old you are.”
Looking for more customized support to feel your strongest at any age? With the Lifeforce Membership, you’ll receive quarterly biomarker testing, virtual consults with a Lifeforce clinician, and one-on-one coaching with a certified health coach. Plus, you’ll get $200 off the Lifeforce Diagnostic when you get started today. Learn more here.
This article was medically reviewed by:
Renae Thomas, MD, MPH; ABFM Board Certified in Family Medicine, ABPM Board Certified in Public Health, & General Preventive Medicine; ABLM Board Certified in Lifestyle Medicine
Ryan Greene, DO, MS, Board Eligible Integrative and Preventive Medicine Specialist