build muscle after 50

My shoulders were screaming.

build muscle after 50
Trying to build muscle after 50?

I couldn’t sleep. I had to lay flat on my back because of my aching delts.

That was a good workout.

I remember those days almost 40 years ago when a good push workout (chest, shoulders and triceps) gave you a serious pump. It was a good kind of pain.

But can you build muscle after 50? That’s what is important now. ?And the very question on your mind.

It doesn’t matter how strong you were in your 20’s. What about now?

Get Strong Part Deux or How to Build Muscle After 50 Like a Beast

This article is part 2 in a series of articles about how to get back in shape after 50?years old.?Part 1?describes why a weight training program is necessary and how to assess your current level of fitness.

  • What limitations do you have that will affect how and where to jump into a new weight training program?
  • Knowing where you stand, fitness wise, is key to beginning a new program and progressing without injury.

This article will address the?upper body pushing movement, one of the five major moves you want to perform without limitation. Upper body pushing occurs in both the vertical plane (overhead) and horizontally (away from you).

It is a practical movement that allows you to reach upwards or lift something overhead as well as push or slide something away from you. ?It is a movement you utilize multiple times a day, every day of your life.

The functional exercises you will use to build strength for upper body pushing are:

  • the overhead press for vertical plane pushing and
  • the push up or bench press (or machine pressing) for horizontal plane pushing.

The basic push up is your key to a beginner strength building program

The push up may be the best exercise available for anyone to do regardless of their age. Push ups are great for the novice as well as for building muscle after 50.

Not only does the push up work the chest, shoulders and triceps to produce the pushing force, it stabilizes the midsection by holding your body in the plank position. The?push up?is a great core development exercise. So you get two for the price of one.

Three factors affect the difficulty of performing a push up:

  • the length of the lever (distance between your hands and the other contact points on the ground)
    • a shorter lever, like using hands and knees for example, is easier than the standard push up position using hands and toes
  • the angle of the lever (elevated hands, elevated feet, etc.)
    • elevating the front of the lever (like placing your hands on a bench, for example) is easier than a flat lever (the standard push up position) or a decline lever (with your feet elevated)
  • and the number of contact points with the ground (hands and feet)
    • your apparent weight is increased when you decrease your contact points with the ground (like lifting one foot as opposed to keeping both feet (toes) on the ground). This is the same reason you lay flat on thin ice to avoid falling through because it spreads your weight over a larger area (pounds per square inch).
You can modify these parameters to create an exercise that is right for your fitness level. Seek to find a push up variation where you can perform 6 to 10 good reps. This is your starting point.

Use Good Form

The basic setup is (assuming a standard push up on the floor):

  1. Hands about shoulder width apart or slightly wider
  2. Shoulders are directly above your hands
  3. Your back is flat and straight.
  4. Your head is in a neutral position meaning your neck continues the straight line of your back and you are looking down at the ground just slightly in front of you.
  5. Elbows stay tucked in close to your sides as you lower your body. Don’t flare your elbows wide. Note: When you perform wider hand push ups, your elbows no longer stay tight to your sides.
  6. Your chest and chin should be just a few inches from the ground at the bottom of the push up. If a spotter put their fist on the ground under your chest, your sternum would touch their fist at the bottom of your push up.
Common Mistakes
  1. The bent spine is probably the most common problem. A humped-up back (butt up in the air), sway back (pelvis collapsing towards the ground) or a hunched back (shoulders arched up) are all common.
    • The source of all these problems is weakness. The first two demonstrate core weakness (abs and low back) while the third is showing weakness in your pushing muscles (chest, shoulders and triceps).
    • The solution? Get stronger. Do your push ups (and maybe some planks for core stability), focus on form over reps and gradually you will be able to maintain a straight body throughout the movement.
    • Don’t do 10 sway-back, crappy reps. Do 3 strict, straight-body reps and build your strength slowly.
  2. Flaring your elbows rather than keeping them tight to your side. If you are doing this, you are likely also performing a half-rep because you are too weak to get down into the bottom position. Specifically, your triceps are too weak to support you with good form and full reps.
    • Solution? Get your reps in and build your strength. A good strength builder is negative push ups. Start in the up position and just lower your self down slowly to the bottom. Get back into the top position and do another negative push up. Focus on your straight back and keeping your elbows tight as you descend towards the ground. You’ll get there.
  3. The drooping head or reaching chin, whatever you want to call it. Again, due to weakness, you are unable to perform a full, strict rep. To compensate, you reach your chin towards the floor instead of lowering your body. This leads to a variation of the bent spine problem.
    • The fix? Focus on your neutral spine position and just do your reps to build strength.
  4. The last common problem is the ubiquitous partial rep. I see people all the time who think they’re pretty good at push ups rip off 20 or 30 partials (only going down about half way) but can barely do a full, strict push up. Don’t let this be you. Always use good form and complete reps no matter what exercise you are doing.
    • One way to fix this is to do some “bottom half” reps in your training. Start in the bottom position and push up half way before dropping back to the bottom. Keep repeating the lower half of the push up. This strengthens your pecs and anterior deltoid (front of your shoulder) which are the primary movers that get you out of the bottom position.

Does your wrist hurt?

If you don’t have great flexibility in your wrists and are unable to comfortably stay in the push up position, try some push up handles. These allow you to keep your wrist straight and in a strong position during the movement, taking all the strain off your flexed wrist.

The are standard push up handles which offer the additional benefit of providing a deeper flex at the bottom. You can stretch your chest muscles more and get a better pump.

Another option are the rotating handles which allow a more ergonomically comfortable hand position. You can rotate your hands from palms back at the top to a neutral grip at the bottom which may feel more comfortable to you.

Give the handles a shot if you experience wrist discomfort with the standard hands-on-the-ground push up.

The Push Up Progression

  1. A standing push up against the wall is the easiest variation. Stand a few feet from the wall and push your upper body away from the wall. The farther your feet are from the wall, the more difficult it becomes. You can also vary the width of your hand placement to change the feel of the exercise. Wide hands stress your chest and shoulders more while a narrower grip affects your triceps more. Generally, anyone can find a standing wall push up position where they can perform a set of push ups.
  2. Incline push ups on a bench or table. Place your hands on the edge of the bench and lower your body until your chest touches the edge of the bench. If this is too difficult, perform the incline push up from your knees. Shorten the lever to reduce the load. You can also use a few other exercise principles to build strength quicker such as:
    1. isometric holds at the bottom of the push up. Just hold the body in the static position with the chest a few inches from the bottom.
    2. stress the eccentric phase (negative) of the exercise when the muscles are lengthening by lowering the body in a slow, controlled descent.
    3. stress the concentric phase of the movement when the muscles are contracting by explosively pushing away from the bottom position.
  3. The standard?push up?with both hands and feet on the same level. If too difficult, begin with the hands and knees on the ground position. Again, vary hand position and use other muscle-building principles.
    1. A variation to add here is reducing the points of contact with the ground. If you simply take one foot off the ground and tuck it behind your other ankle, leaving two hands and one foot on the ground, you have increased the load of the exercise just a bit.
  4. Decline push up with your feet up on a bench or table. This moves the stress to the upper pectorals.
  5. Elevate the hands on blocks or books to get a deeper stretch at the bottom of the move.
  6. At this point you have gained sufficient strength to start experimenting with the endless push up variations available. You can try things like:
  • Elevate one hand only to create an asymmetrical load.
  • Place your hands together with your fingers and thumbs forming a diamond pattern and perform a triceps focused or close grip push up.
  • Place one hand ahead of your shoulder and one behind the shoulder for a?different?asymmetrical?loading.
  • Perform the spider man push up where you bring your right knee to your right elbow at the bottom of the move. Push up and repeat on the other side.
  • Try the alligator push up where you crawl forward while doing push ups with one hand in front of the other. So it’s right hand in front, down and up, left hand in front, down and up and keep crawling and doing push ups.
  • Plyometric push ups where you push off aggressively from the bottom position with enough force to raise your hands off the ground. For an even more advanced variation, clap your hands in the air before catching yourself for the next push up. Careful here. If you have weak or inflexible wrists, you could be risking injury.
  • Place both hands on a basketball or stability ball for a very difficult close grip variation on an unstable surface.

The sky’s the limit now. If you have come this far, you can try one-handed push ups and other super advanced variations. But you don?t really need to get into these more eccentric forms of the push up. Just add reps and sets to the more basic stuff and you will build considerable strength and endurance.

Good luck with your push up development program. Push ups are excellent for building muscle at 50 and beyond. To get good at push ups, do them often. The additional core benefit you receive makes them a star?performer?in your exercise repertoire.

Wide Shoulders or a Chiseled Chest?

Tough one. Better go for both to be sure.

Strong shoulders look good
You can build strong, wide shoulders at any age


While push ups do work the front of your shoulder (anterior deltoid), you need to do overhead presses to build shoulder width.


Want to look good at the beach?

You need wide shoulders.

Want to look good in clothes?

Wide, strong shoulders set the stage for your tapered look.

OK. How do you get them?

The shoulder is a complex ball and socket joint that performs a range of movements. This is not a tutorial on building your shoulders, rather it is a primer on performing a basic human movement, the Push.

And the overhead press is primarily a shoulder pushing movement.

Since you can load the press fairly heavy once you get accustomed to it, shoulder presses are the basic exercise that you will use to build size (width) and strength.

So how do you go about it?

There are a lot of ways to press overhead:

  • standing
  • seated
  • kneeling on one knee
  • with a barbell
  • with dumb bells
  • with kettle bells
  • single handed
  • or two handed
  • with cables
  • or resistance bands

Start with the standing press

I like the standing press because it forces you to engage more of your body to do it correctly.

Just getting into position requires you to pick the weight up off the floor, get it racked (in position across your chest) and then your core has to lock down prior to pressing the weight.

I’d recommend a set of dumbbells for your entry level pressing drills rather than a bar bell but either approach will work fine.

Dumbbells provide the benefit of independent arm movement which addresses symmetry problems (side to side weakness or imbalance). In addition, the dumb bell press activates the deltoid muscles a bit more than the barbell press.

So for the sake of getting the most of your workout time, standing dumb bell pressing is superior. Just slightly.

Dumbbell press variations

Vary your hand position to maximize your results. There are three primary options here.

  • Palms facing forward
    • Hold the dumb bells with your palms facing forward (your thumbs are pointed towards your head) and press straight up. This forces a wide grip so to speak. The weights (and your hands) are farther apart at the bottom than at the top of the movement.
  • Neutral Grip
    • Hold the weights with your palms facing in (towards your head) during the entire movement. This creates a narrow grip and the weights move generally in a straight line from top to bottom.
  • Arnold press
    • Named for the king of bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who apparently invented this movement, the Arnold press starts with your palms facing towards you at the bottom and ends with them facing away at the top. It is a unique move as the weights are out in front of you (changing your center of gravity) at the bottom of the move and then your hands move outwards and rotate as you drive the weight up. Reverse the motion on the way down. A great exercise.
Single handed movements

Once you get a good feel for the overhead press, gain some strength and confidence, add some single-handed presses. These really work the core as you must brace your midsection hard to keep your body straight during the press.

Don’t bend away (in your mid-section) ?from your pressing hand. There is a little natural bend in your upper body at the top of the move because the weight moves directly over your head.

  • Single Arm Press
    • You can use any of the grips (forward, neutral or Arnold) for the single arms press.

Kettle Bell Presses

Kettle bell pressing feels a little different than dumb bell pressing due to the different grip involved when holding the kettle bell and the lower racked position (below your shoulder) of the bell at the bottom of the lift.

So do some kettle bell presses because you’ll get a slightly different workout for your shoulders.

  • Kettle bell press
    • Hold the kettle bell with a straight wrist and the bell resting against your forearm.
    • The bell rests on your upper chest in the bottom position.
    • Drive the bell up using the combined contact points of your palm and your forearm.

Designing a Workout

Keep it simple.

First do either vertical pressing or horizontal pressing during your workout. But not both.

Yea I know you used to do chest, shoulders and triceps as a standard push workout back in your heyday.

But you don’t have time for that now and besides, your recovery may be compromised.

The biggest change I have noticed between lifting in my 20’s and building muscle after 50 years old is the sensitivity to recovery time.

Don’t over train. You won’t see results.

So if you’re lifting 3 days a week, do horizontal push on day 1 and 3 and vertical push on day 2. Next week, reverse it. And so on.

Now apply some basic rules.

The 3 to 5 Rule

What the heck does that mean? Apply the 3 to 5 rule like this:

  • Choose 3 to 5 exercises
  • Do 3 to 5 sets

Example of a push up workout

  • Standard push up – 3 sets
  • Wide grip push up – 3 sets
  • Spiderman push ups -3 sets

That is 3 exercises and 3 sets per exercise.

What about reps?

The Rule of 10

OK pay attention so you don’t get confused.

Normally for strength training I apply the rule of 10 which basically says keep the total reps under 10 for each exercise.

So if you’re doing 3 sets (which is what I normally do), reps could be:

  • 5-3-2 or 10 total (means 5 reps in set 1, 3 reps in set 2 and 2 reps in set 3)
  • 3-3-3 or 9 total

A 4 set workout could be 4-3-2-1 for 10 total.

A 5 set workout would be 2-2-2-2-2. Got it?

So when you’re doing this type of workout, you select a weight where you can get your reps but are still challenged. And you add weight every set.

A hypothetical 3 set bench workout might be:

  • 185 lbs for 5 reps
  • 205 lbs for 3 reps
  • 225 lbs for 2 reps

Where the rule of 10 doesn’t apply

If you’re doing body weight workouts like push ups or body weight squats or whatever, you typically won’t be challenged enough by a 10 rep workout. So you have to do more reps to get a decent workout.

If you get serious about push ups, for example, you may easily get to 40 to 50 rep sets. So just feel it out.


About the author 

Mark Fickler

Mark aka The Old Spartan and Over-50 Fitness Savior is a 64 year old coffee guzzling father of five wandering the outdoors around Albuquerque, New Mexico. Mark helps Active Boomers get lean, healthy and strong so they live rewarding, fun lives using his signature 2 Rule Easy Fat Loss training program.

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