I always love writing articles like this one because they piss people off. Instead of accepting my opinions as an over-50 bodybuilder who has been training for almost 40 years, I get nasty comments about how stupid I am from people who have a fraction of my experience. I'm not bitter, though; I understand it comes with the territory. I just ask that you attempt to keep perspective and know that my motivations are not to sound like a know-it-all but to help those who want to maximize their results and not waste time.
As I run down the list of the five things I think are important for bodybuilders to avoid after 50, know there will always be exceptions. However, you are likely not one of them. I can't possibly know what is best for every single person. I'm simply giving my opinion based on my own experience and those of hundreds (if not thousands) of clients over 20 years of online training.
1. Focus Too Much on Moving Big Weights
Everyone together: SIGH
Yes, it's obvious, but at the same time, it needs to be said. No, you don't have to train as if you live in a nursing home. Lower rep ranges are a gamble, and the truth is that training after 50 should be focused more on intensity than pushing heavy weights. Of course, we should all still train as heavy as possible but utilize higher rep ranges after an incredibly thorough warm-up. I have had training sessions where it has taken longer to warm up than the amount of time to do my working sets.
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If you absolutely insist on training heavy, do your heavy compound exercises later in your workout after the target muscles have been fatigued. This will not allow you to push maximum weights, but it will allow you to drop to lower rep ranges without as much risk.
2. Not Enough Rest Days
Training too often is a common theme for guys who began training in the 70s or 80s. Volume was king during the Arnold days, and volume didn't start to drop until the mid-80s when Lee Haney arrived on the scene. Though volume started to fall, the frequency was still relatively high, with the typical training schedule being three days on and one day off. It wasn't until Dorian assumed the throne that low-volume training and lower frequency were the new trends.
In short, old guys don't like to take rest days. We want to train frequently and do a lot of work. It is for this reason that a lot of us deal with "itis" issues and inflammation. In turn, we tend to overtrain more than the younger generation. I could go on and on about how the younger generation is lazy as hell, but that would be typical old-guy speak, so I would prefer not to go down that path (or did I?).
As we age, recovery is not going to be as good as when we were younger. Logically, this means that fewer training days and less total workload for each session would be more productive. Keep in mind that it isn't about how much work you can do; it's about how much work is optimal based on your ability to recover and progress.
3. Not Training the Transverse Abdominis (TVA)
When we were young, we didn't have a distended abdomen. Even the guys who are lean but have been training heavy for decades have some degree of distention in their midsection. We could argue about whether it is related to GH dosing, insulin, being fat, not controlling the midsection, etc., but that is not my focus here. Though all of these things can play a part, the number one reason older guys deal with distention is a weak TVA. The abs can be strong, but the abdominal wall does not hold your guts in—the TVA does.
If you are over 50 and have distention or want to tighten your waist musculature so that you appear to have a smaller waistline, start doing vacuums regularly. You might scoff at this idea, and so did I—for years. I made a huge mistake by not focusing on my TVA sooner. Not only will the TVA help to minimize distention, but it will also help to provide support for your lower back. If you have ever had lower-back issues, you absolutely need to be strengthening your TVA. The impact this can have on lower-back health is profound.
4. Overeat and Have a Warped Idea of Proper Dieting
For some reason, people over 50 seem to have forgotten how to diet correctly. Going out to eat and having three old-fashions is not part of a bodybuilder's diet. Having a loaded baked potato, porterhouse, and some vegetables is not a bodybuilder's diet if you are trying to get lean. The rules for successful dieting haven't changed because you can afford to eat at nice restaurants.
There isn't one restaurant out there that gives a shit if you are lean and healthy. They only care that their food tastes great because this is what will bring you back again to spend more money. If you have ever eaten a chicken breast at a restaurant and thought it was the best damn chicken breast you have ever had—you may have even commented, "If I could get my chicken breast to taste like this, I would diet all of the time!"—that chicken breast has shit in it that shouldn't be in it. I have cooked chicken breasts for almost 40 years. I have yet to eat one that I have cooked and thought to myself that it tasted incredible.
Think about this for a minute: not many of us over 50 have as much muscle as we did in our younger days. I am the exception because I'm a badass, but we can't all be like me. #sorrynotsorry
If you don't have the muscle that you had when you were younger, how could it be possible that you could eat significantly more calories now and get lean? If you want to get lean, your calories will likely need to be lower than when you were younger. You don't have the metabolism at 50 that you had at 25 or 30. Yes, there are exceptions, but again, you're likely not one of them.
5. Focus on Getting HYUGE Instead of Staying Lean and Healthy
If you haven't built enough muscle by the time you are 50, understand that you are not likely to be adding much, if any, muscle after 50. Eating to get huge or "bulking" is not for the over-50 crowd. In fact, it's a recipe for poor blood markers and more stress on your heart and other organs. If you are 30 and bulking, you won't look anywhere near as horrible as if you are over 50. The fastest way to look like an old fat guy is to attempt a bulking phase in your twilight years.
Over-50 bodybuilders need to be more honest with their condition, as well. You don't need to "look good for 50" as much as you just need to look good. That's like a fat mom saying she would be in shape if she didn't have four kids. No one cares how old you are, and you shouldn't want to be thought of as being in shape "for your age." I cringe at the thought of ever hearing this.
Bodybuilding at 50 is different than bodybuilding at 30. The over-50 crowd should focus more on being realistic with goals and being honest when evaluating training and diet. Making a training mistake at 25 or 30 can result in an injury that sets you back six to 12 months. Losing six to 12 months of training in your 50s is a lot harder to accept than losing that same time in your 30s. Hell, I don't know if I'm not going to be drooling on myself in a nursing home in 12 months. Just sayin'.
Ken “Skip” Hill has been involved in the sport of bodybuilding for almost forty years and competing for twenty-plus years. Born and raised in Michigan, he spent 21 years calling Colorado home with his wife and their four children. Four years ago, he and his wife traded the mountains for the beach, relocating to South Florida. His primary focus is nutrition and supplementation, but he is called upon for his years of training experience, as well. He started doing online contest prep in 2001 and is considered one of the original contest prep guys (when the bodybuilding message boards were still in their infancy). Skip’s track record with competitive bodybuilders is well-respected, and he also does sport-specific conditioning, including professional athletes.