You’ve always dreamed about bulging biceps and now you’ve decided to do something about it, but you’re over 50! Is building big arms over 50 even possible? Read on to find out.
Welcome friend! In this article, you will learn about building muscle mass on your arms after 50. Is it possible, what does it require, what can you expect, etc.
The chances are that you are a guy and I’m writing this from that perspective, but this information will apply mostly to women as well.
I’m not going to keep you in suspense, the truth is that you can build your arms in your 50s, or 60s or 70s for that matter. The fundamental principles of building muscle don’t change as you age after all. Sure, the process will be a bit slower since you won’t recover as fast from your workouts but it’s completely doable.
However, the biggest question in my mind is what do you exactly consider as big arms. Are we talking about clearly defined muscles and veins or clearly strong arms with a bit of fat on them? Those are both very much achievable if you are otherwise healthy. But if we are talking about something like Arnie (you know, Schwarzenegger) in his prime, I hate to break it to you that’s likely not going to happen. We’ll talk a bit about why in a moment.
Truth About Muscle Building
The truth about building muscles is that it’s not actually that much affected by your age. The only things that tend to change as you age are your activity levels and your hormonal profile. That is if you stay otherwise healthy of course.
These will mainly affect how much muscle mass you will carry if you are not doing any specific activities to increase and maintain your muscle mass (i.e. strength training). Also, your ability to build new muscle mass will be affected because your recovery and hormonal profile will be negatively affected.
But there seems to be this common misconception that people in their 50s and older have somehow become physically too old to improve. Typically people become weak and frail at an older age simply because they are not active enough and their hormonal profile and diet don’t support maintaining muscle mass and physical fitness.
In case you don’t know the basic principles of building strength and muscle, I recommend you read my article Strength training for seniors. I know that you probably don’t consider yourself as a senior and you don’t have to, the information applies to adults of all ages.
In short, building muscle and strength requires three things:
- Certain kind of stress to the muscle. Typically a resistance training workout with a progression over time.
- Recovery of the muscle. Muscles don’t grow larger during the workout, they grow by recovering and adapting to the stress of the workout. This means rest between workouts.
- Enough energy and protein. The recovery and adaptation of muscles require quite a bit of energy and building blocks in the form of protein. You get these from your diet.
- (I know I said 3, but this is important) Repeating this cycle over and over again successfully. A single workout will not produce any noticeable effects. This means you need a routine.
That’s all you need to build muscle. The hardest part by far is sticking to a routine. Even if you have everything else perfect but don’t do it routinely, you will not see any change. And naturally, this is hard to achieve, otherwise, everyone would be fit. But it doesn’t have to be.
One big problem is also the fact that most people carry quite a bit of excess body fat and since building muscle requires an energy surplus eating more than you need is not always a wise decision. Fortunately, an untrained muscle will grow even in a caloric deficit if everything else is done correctly and the body has enough energy stores (=bodyfat). We’ll talk more about that in a minute. But first, we need to understand how aging affects this stress-recovery-adaptation cycle.
Hormones and Age
The biggest change in building muscle as you age is caused by changes in your hormonal profile. The most important hormones for building muscle are testosterone, estrogen, and growth hormone.
These tend to decline with age. For men, there is a low and linear decline in testosterone levels from around 30 years old and women have a more clear-cut hormonal change during menopause when the ovaries stop producing estrogen.
While these hormones do play a significant role in your ability to build muscle and lose fat, the more important factor is actually your genetics. Especially if you are a male in your fifties.
This is because the decline in testosterone levels is typically not so great in your fifties that it should have a significant effect on your ability to build muscle. That said it’s very much possible to suffer from low testosterone in your fifties due to a poor lifestyle, disease, or obesity.
But let’s presume you are an average guy that’s generally in good health and normal weight. The changes are that your testosterone levels will not significantly affect your ability to build bigger arms.
Even if you do have low testosterone levels due to high body fat or bad lifestyle choices, the good news is that proper exercise, diet, and sleep – the thing you need to build muscle – are pretty much your best bet to increase your testosterone levels naturally.
If you are concerned about your testosterone levels, you can always get it tested to rule out any possible medical reasons. My recommendation is to not presume anything and also to be very critical about hopping on any kind of replacement therapy unless you have ruled out everything else.
For growth hormone there is not much you can do but it’s the same as with testosterone, it won’t affect your ability to build muscle that much in your fifties.
So let’s presume your testosterone is in check or will improve with training. That will still leave your genetics. The truth is that genetics play a huge role in your ability to build muscle and improve strength. This is something the fitness industry doesn’t want to admit because they want to sell the dream of hard work and the right supplements for working everyone.
But the truth is that your genes pretty much dictate how well you react to strength training and how much muscle mass you can put on. Now to be perfectly clear, most people can build significant muscle and you shouldn’t use your genetics as an excuse, but it’s good to have realistic expectations.
If you want to learn just how much your genetics can affect your muscle-building ability, check out this great article by Stronger By Science.
Basically, the differences in people’s ability to build muscle are extremely high. If you take a bunch of untrained people and control all variables, the worst responders will actually lose muscle from working out while the best responders will grow five times more muscle than the average responder.
This is important to know to not get disappointed. If you follow fitness YouTubers and read fitness magazines, all the people at the top have great genetics, and many if not most use performance (and muscle) enhancing drugs. This means that if you are an average joe in your fifties it’s unlikely you can build arms like them.
Then again, you never know how you respond to training unless you try for yourself. One thing is for sure, training never goes to waste. It will at the very least help you maintain muscle mass which is very important as you age.
Definition Vs Strength Vs Size
Now that you know how age affects your ability to build big arms let’s talk about the actual training. One key thing to building big arms is if you care about definition and aesthetics (most people do) or do you just want to be big and strong.
I’m asking you because it’s basically quite easy to get big, strong, and fat and it’s also quite easy to get lean and “toned” (a bit of muscle definition). But it’s quite hard to get lean, strong, and big, especially as you get older.
Simply aiming to be big is usually not healthy at a higher age since it involves a higher body fat and putting a strain on your cardiovascular system from excess weight. My recommendation is to aim for a healthy weight with some fat and a good amount of muscle mass.
This kind of physique is easier to achieve and maintain and it shouldn’t cause any significant health trade-offs. In fact, being slightly overweight with good muscle mass might offer some longevity benefits.
Just to be clear, we are talking about clear muscle definition but probably no sixpack. But no jiggly spare tire either. You should aim to keep your body fat (way) below 25 % and BMI way below the obesity line of 29.9.
On the other hand, if you are very thin, which is possible since you want bigger arms, you should aim to get your BMI around 25 while keeping your body fat in control.
It’s also possible to be skinny fat, which is actually very common for middle-aged men that don’t do strength training. Skinny fat simply means low muscle mass and a relatively high body fat with normal weight. So BMI <25 but bodyfat >20% for men for example.
How To Build Big Arms Over 50
Like we established in the beginning, to build big arms you need a workout routine, enough energy, and time for recovery. I’m not going to lay an exercise routine here but I’ll link to a couple of good ones.
But first a couple of recommendations. First of all, you should never aim to just make your arms stronger and bigger. This is because strong arms on a weak upper body are simply unfunctional but also pretty much impossible to achieve.
To grow big arms, you will need to build a lot of strength in your whole shoulder girdle. You will need a strong back, chest, and shoulders as well. Trying to just pump your biceps and triceps will only produce mediocre results and injuries as your upper body won’t be able to support the increasing weights required to drive muscle growth.
Not to mention that anyone who lifts weights will silently laugh at a physique that consists of trained arms and skinny upper body and stick legs. The truth is that you probably want big arms to impress other people. I can promise you that a balanced, athletic body is far more impressive than just big arms.
That said there is nothing wrong with emphasizing your arms in your workouts, just don’t forget the rest of your body. Your legs, hips, and lower back are far more important for long-term health for example but there’s nothing wrong with prioritizing some body parts.
My recommendation is to start a beginner full body program and add a bit of extra arm workout into each workout OR choose a balanced body-building program. This one is one of my all-time favorites: The Muscle Building Workout Routine. It’s free and I’ve run it several times with great success myself. Remember that the important thing is to keep adding weight or reps, you should be able to do it every workout as a beginner.
Finally a bit of diet advice. If you are very skinny, you need to learn how to eat enough healthy food. The only way to build muscle is by getting enough calories and protein. Training nutrition is too long of a topic to go into detail here but a good guideline is to eat 1 g of protein / 1 lb of lean body weight and aim to gain about 1 lb of weight per week if you are lean and building muscle.
If you are significantly overweight I don’t recommend eating in a caloric surplus (i.e. “bulking” = gaining weight) since you will always gain fat with muscle. If you have significant fat you should actually begin in a caloric deficit and continue workouts until you can’t progress anymore. At that point, you need to assess if you want to lose more fat or start bulking to gain strength and muscle. This is because, in the beginning, it’s possible to gain muscle even in a caloric deficit IF you have high body fat, your body will simply tap into its energy reserves.
As a beginner, you will build muscle at a superior rate for the first couple of months, enjoy this and let it motivate you. To build big arms it’s going to take a year or two of consistent work.
Well, there you have, how to build big arms at an older age. Sorry for the long and rambling post, there’s a lot to cover but I hope I gave you a good general idea of building muscle after 50. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to drop a line in the comments section below and I’ll get back to you.
Building muscle is a long process so it’s important to enjoy the journey or you will never reach the destination. But that’s the great thing about working out, it gives you a feeling of success as you improve your strength workout after workout. You start to enjoy the process quite fast but you have to give it time to form into a routine. Consistency over a long time is the most important factor. In training, nutrition, and rest.
Thanks for reading and I hope you found the post useful and enjoyable, remember to spread the word if you did by linking to your friends!
See you next time.
2 thoughts on “Building Big Arms Over 50 [How To Do It Right]”
Thank you for your excellent articles including this one. It’s good to read the truth instead of hype. Looking around the gym over the years, genetics clearly plays a major role … some guys become beefcakes in a year, others like myself remain basically skinny for years, even if we can improve definition and add some muscle.
After reading your encouraging article on the deadlift, I have added it; I’ve been too scared to try it at almost age 60.
I’d be very interested to read your advice on combining weight training with distance running and cycling. The latter seems to burn the muscle gains of the former. I guess many older people enjoy long hours of running/hiking/cycling, but struggle to build/retain the muscle needed.
Glad to hear you are liking the content James! The truth is that training for significant long-term muscle growth is hard unless you have the right genetics. That said, the average guy can build a respectable amount of muscle mass by training and eating correctly over a long time period. But most people lack the patience and diligence it requires (and the motivation), and even then some people struggle to make any significant progress. Fortunately training for health and longevity is much easier to achieve without optimizing everything.
The deadlift is a great functional exercise that has a lot of carry-over to everyday living. Just make sure your form is perfect before you start increasing weight on it. Deadlift is notorious for the deception of strength – you can lift a lot with a horrible form that compromises your spinal health. You need to hinge from the hips and keep a straight back. I recommend you start with romanian deadlifts to get the movement pattern correct if you’ve never deadlifted before. Oh and definitely get someone check your form, it’s VERY easy to fool yourself thinking you’ve got it just to end up pulling your back because of a round back (been there, done that).
You are correct about the problem between high volume cardio and building muscle. The fact is that building muscle requires an energy surplus (=increase in body weight) and enough rest for recovery. If you do a lot of cardio, these can be compromised but you can make the situation better by making sure you eat and sleep enough. This equation gets harder as you get older and if you are a “hard-gainer” to begin with. But the truth is that it’s likely better for longevity to maintain a lighter body weight with healthy muscle mass and good cardiovascular health. Of course, there is a point when too much exercise becomes a strain on the body, this applies to all exercise so lifting can be overdone as well. A only lifting and increasing weight without cardio is definitely a bad idea. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it really doesn’t matter if you don’t have huge muscles while it doesn’t matter if you don’t enjoy endless hours of cardio. A healthy combination of both forms of exercise according to your own preference and doing activities you like is the main thing. And maintaining a healthy weight of course.