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How to get back in shape at over 40 The comeback starts here

Wie Du mit über 40 wieder in Form kommst Das Comeback beginnt hier

If you're over 40 and want to get back in shape but don't know what you should be doing differently than before, then this is the article for you. Read a few of these "get fit at 40" articles and you might get the impression that reaching 40 means you have to immediately swap barbells and dumbbells for a rollator and a senior bath.

Does your training really have to change radically as soon as you reach 40?

The short answer to this question is of course a resounding no. The fact that you're old enough to remember TJ Hooker's theme tune doesn't mean that your training program should include nothing more strenuous than shoulder rolls, toe raises and a few deep breathing exercises.

So if you're in your forties and you're worried that it might finally be too late to get back in shape, I've got good news for you: it's never too late.

Why being fat and unfit can be a silver lining

There is something positive about being overweight, unfit and out of shape. When you start exercising, your body will change relatively quickly. For someone who is lean, fit and strong, building muscle and strength takes a significant amount of time, effort and sweat.

If you are overweight and out of shape, on the other hand, you will make progress much faster.

In one study, researchers assembled a group of overweight and unfit men with an average age of 41 and had them train with weights three times a week (1). In addition, these subjects performed 30 minutes of light cardio training such as walking or cycling during the same training session.

After 14 weeks, these men had lost an average of 16.3 pounds of fat, which equated to just over one pound of fat loss per week. But that wasn't all. In addition to this fat loss, these men had gained nearly 10 pounds of muscle mass during the same time period, which equates to a significant amount of muscle.

And there was more.

Blood sugar levels, triglyceride levels and insulin levels had dropped. The levels of the "good" HDL cholesterol had risen. VO2max - a measure of cardiovascular fitness - had increased by over 25%.

Of course, these men would not have continued to make such rapid progress indefinitely. Over time, results tend to come more slowly. And no two people will respond in exactly the same way to an identical exercise and nutrition program, so no one can tell you for sure how quickly you can expect results.

But this study illustrates a very important principle quite well: if you are in your forties, out of shape and not fit, then it is possible to make big changes to your body in a relatively short period of time - in this case within 3 to 4 months - as long as you are willing to put in some time and work.

The basic rules when it comes to getting back in shape over 40

The basic rules for getting back into shape over 40 are basically the same rules that apply to exercisers in their 20s and 30s. Although the fact that you've moved around the sun a few more times will affect the rate at which you progress, people of different ages respond quite similarly to training. It's mainly the volume of results and the speed at which you achieve those results that make the difference.

I would say that your training doesn't have to be radically different once you turn 40. So you certainly won't have to change everything you do. However, I do have some ideas that can help make your training sessions more effective, protect your joints and avoid injury.

Heavy weights aren't everything

If you train with heavy weights all the time, you will eventually start to feel slight pain in your knees, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Over time, these initially annoying little things will become so serious that they will affect your training. It will take weeks, if not months, before they disappear and you can train properly again.

The solution is quite simple. If a heavy workout causes pain during certain exercises, then you should simply use light weights instead. Regardless of what some people will say, muscles can be built using lighter weights and higher repetition ranges.

In fact, a number of studies published in recent years have shown that lighter weights and higher repetitions can do a surprisingly good job of stimulating muscle growth.

In one study, high reps and light weights (3 sets of 30 to 40 reps) stimulated muscle growth just as well as heavier weights and lower reps (3 sets of 10 to 12 reps) (2).

And this is not limited to untrained beginners, who tend to build muscle regardless of what they do. Even for exercisers with an average of four years of training experience, sets of 20 to 25 repetitions work almost as well as sets of 8 to 12 repetitions when it comes to stimulating muscle growth (9).

Heavy weights...medium weights...light weights...all can be used successfully to get back in shape over 40.

Don't stop moving

Nagging joint pain and injuries can make it harder to get in shape over 40 than it was at 20 or 30. The standard approach to dealing with such an injury is to rest the affected areas. However, for some injuries, exercise may be the better way to go.

So-called eccentric training has been shown to work very well for treating tendon pain in the elbow and Achilles tendon area. In some cases, such training works better than surgery.

In one study, Swedish scientists investigated the effects of heavy eccentric calf training on a group of 15 middle-aged recreational runners (5). The subjects were told to continue their training even if they felt pain and to stop only when the pain became unbearable.

All subjects had been diagnosed with Achilles tendinitis at the start of the study - a degeneration of the tendon's collagen in response to chronic overuse. At the beginning of the study, the test subjects had already suffered from tendon pain for an average of 18 months.

At the beginning of the study, the pain was so bad that it prevented the recreational athletes from running. After 12 weeks of daily eccentric training (3 sets of 15 repetitions twice a day), all study participants had returned to pain levels similar to those before the injury occurred.

A control group of 15 runners with the same diagnosis and duration of symptoms were treated conventionally. In none of the cases was the conventional treatment successful. All patients in the control group ended up undergoing surgery.

In a group of subjects who were in their late forties and who suffered from a condition known as tennis elbow, performing an eccentric exercise known as the Tyler Twist in addition to a standard program of physical therapy led to a significant improvement in symptoms (3).

The authors of the study noted the following:

"All markers of chronic lateral epicondylosis showed significant improvement with the addition of an eccentric wrist extensor exercise to a standard physical therapy program compared to a physical therapy program without isolated eccentric exercise. Performing 3 sets of 15 repetitions daily for approximately 6 weeks appears to be an effective treatment for the majority of patients."

Similar results were observed in a group of men and women suffering from golfer's elbow, for whom all other treatments - physiotherapy, cortisone injections and painkillers - had previously failed (4).

There is also some fascinating research showing that regular heavy strength training works just as well as eccentric training in treating tendon pain.

A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports compared three different treatment methods - corticosteroid injections, eccentric single-leg squats and heavy, slow resistance training (6 seconds per repetition) (10).

The authors of this study also emphasized the fact that pain during exercise was "acceptable" but should not get worse after exercise is finished.

After 12 weeks of treatment, all three treatment methods showed similar results. After 6 months, however, things looked different. In particular, the eccentric training and slow resistance training led to further improvements, while the improvements with the corticosteroid group were less pronounced.

Note: If you are suffering from an injury, the first thing you should do is consult a doctor instead of trying to solve the problem yourself. And if what the doctors tell you contradicts what I tell you, then listen to their advice and not mine.

Bandages can work small miracles

If your knees and elbows are causing you pain during training, try wearing neoprene elbow and knee supports when you train. The main benefits of these types of supports are that they provide compression and warmth, both of which go a long way to making your ligaments and tendons much happier during training.

Here's what powerlifter Gary Gibson had to say about this in an article on

Warm ligaments will perform better under load than cold ligaments. The likelihood of injury is much lower with warm bands than with cold bands. But here's news that might shock you: a simple warm-up will make the muscles warm, but will leave the ligaments cold. This is because a lot of blood flows through the muscles, which is not the case with the ligaments. Knee supports retain the heat generated by the muscles and make it available to the ligaments in the immediate area. Think of these supports as a greenhouse effect for your joints.

I'm not suggesting that neoprene knee supports are some kind of universal cure for knee and elbow pain regardless of the underlying cause - but they are definitely worth a try. They helped me and could help you too.

Stimulate rather than destroy

Leaving the gym feeling like you've just gone several rounds with Mike Tyson at his best may make you think that your last training session was an effective one, but all that effort needs to be part of a structured plan that gets you closer to a specific goal. And that plan should include days that are hard and heavy as well as days that are easier.

If you push your body to its limits with every training session, several things will happen that you won't enjoy:

  • In the evening, you'll feel that "weird tired feeling" where you want to go to sleep but can't.
  • At 2am you'll still be staring at the ceiling wondering why you can't fall asleep.
  • You will get up the next morning just as tired as the night before.
  • Trivial things that you never noticed before will start to annoy you.
  • You will feel moody and irritable.
  • And worst of all, your results in the gym will start to diminish and you may well get worse instead of better.

Most athletes divide their training into different time periods, during which they train at different levels of intensity depending on how close they are to a competition. They don't train at maximum effort all the time.

Hard work is a tool used to stimulate physiological improvements. It is a means to an end and not the actual goal. Push yourself to your limits every day and there's a good chance you'll burn out sooner or later.

Stretch what is tense

Static stretching has come under increasing criticism in recent years, mainly due to the fact that it simply doesn't do many of the things it's supposed to do. Most research shows that stretching has little effect on muscle soreness and doesn't seem to do much to prevent injury.

However, if you feel that certain muscles feel a little tight (the leg flexors, hip flexors, quadriceps and gluteus are the usual suspects here) or you have some asymmetry in your flexibility (often one leg feels tighter than the other, for example), then it's worth experimenting with a little static stretching to see if this makes you feel better.

If you want a simple recommendation for better mobility, then aim to stretch tight muscles for a total of 60 seconds per day. Stretching for 60 seconds has been shown to improve mobility faster than stretching for 30 or 15 seconds in subjects with tight leg flexors aged 65 to 97 years (6). In addition, subjects who stretched for 60 seconds remained more flexible for longer than subjects in the other groups.

One stretch lasting 60 seconds and 6 stretches lasting 10 seconds each work equally well when it comes to improving mobility (7). Regardless of the duration of the individual stretches, the total daily duration of the stretch is the key to improvement.

Like most things, flexibility is influenced by our genes. There is a gene called COL5A1 that is associated with your innate level of flexibility (8). One version of the gene means that you are quite agile, while another version means that you are not. This means that both the rate at which your mobility improves and the point at which you stop improving are not entirely under your control.

So don't be discouraged if the whole thing takes a little longer.

Choose your weapons

Some people have a bone structure that makes them better at certain exercises than others. You may not be built to do deep squats with a heavy barbell on your shoulder, deadlifts from the floor, pull-ups with a straight bar or bench presses through the full range of motion.

If you have short arms and long legs, for example, you will find it much harder to do deadlifts from the floor without rounding your back than someone who has long arms and short legs. However, this doesn't mean you should give up deadlifts. Instead, use rack pulls where you use a starting position that allows you to maintain a normal rounding of the spine.

If your wrists hurt when you do pull-ups with a straight bar, use a bar with rotating handles. This will allow you to move your wrists more naturally as they are not fixed in the same position throughout the entire range of motion.

If bench pressing hurts your shoulders, use a so-called "shoulder saver pad", which shortens the lower part of the movement by 3 centimeters. Or use dumbbells with palms facing inwards and elbows held closer to the body (this simple modification of the exercise is often enough to get rid of shoulder pain with almost immediate effect).

And if you can't do deep squats with your buttocks touching your heels without adopting an unnatural lower back position, then less deep squats are perfectly adequate.

Getting in shape at over 40 does not require you to train through your full range of motion, especially if this causes you pain.

There will always be exercises that will hurt no matter how you perform them. If this is the case, don't shy away from these exercises and find exercises that don't hurt. There is no single exercise that you absolutely have to do that cannot be replaced by something else.

Find new ways to overload your muscles

To build muscle, your focus should always be on improving your training performance over time. You need to give your muscles a reason to grow or you will be stuck with the muscle mass you have now.

The way most people achieve this is by increasing the weight of each exercise. Once you are able to perform a certain amount of repetitions with a given weight, you increase the weight. However, as you get older, it will become much harder to increase the weight continuously.

In addition, you will often notice that the higher the weights, the more your joints will hurt. What is the solution? Should you train through the pain? Or just accept that it's impossible to get in shape when you're over 40?

Increasing the weight on the bar is not the only way to overload your muscles. You can do more reps with the same weight, reduce the speed at which you move the weight or use techniques to extend your training sets such as descending sets, static holds or rest pause.

These are all highly effective ways to increase the amount of work your muscles have to do, which in turn will make them bigger and stronger.

Take your time

Many in their late teens and early twenties come to the gym, do some loose arm circles and then immediately start doing the heavy stuff. However, if you're over 40, you're going to hurt yourself sooner or later if you do this. You need to take the time now to warm up well.

The exact warm-up and what you should do for this will depend on what your training sessions look like. It will vary from person to person depending on the environment you are training in, how strong you are, etc.

First of all, you should start each training session with about 10 minutes of easy cycling on the ergometer. A rowing machine can also do a good job here. This will help you to raise your body temperature. The time you spend on this will depend on your environment. If it's warm, a few minutes on the bike or rowing machine may be enough, but if it's cold, you'll need to warm up a little longer.

While I'm on the bike, I usually open my training diary and write down what I'm going to do. This helps me to clear my head and focus on the training session ahead. Having a plan on paper means I don't have to think about anything. All I have to do is follow the plan and focus on my training as much as possible.

Next, I start directly with my first exercise and do a very light warm-up set. I then progressively increase the weight over the course of several sets. All of this helps my joints, muscles and nervous system prepare for the heavy workout to follow.

If a warm-up set feels heavier than it should feel, then I repeat this warm-up set a minute later. The second round often feels much easier.

For the heavy basic exercises like squats and deadlifts, I sometimes do 7 to 8 warm-up sets, which is especially true if I'm working out in a cold gym. But even though a good warm-up can reduce the risk of injury and increase performance, it doesn't have to last forever.

Fascia rolls, dynamic activation exercises and other accompanying exercises can be used at certain times or by certain individuals, but many people do all this simply because they are doing what everyone else is doing, rather than because it actually helps them in their training sessions.

Final thoughts

If you're over 40 then you're likely to have more on your plate in life than you did when you were 21, making it harder to focus on eating right and exercising regularly.

Your previous enthusiasm for exercise may have waned - especially if you haven't been able to achieve the results you were hoping for. You may also feel that your body can no longer cope with the stresses you put it through in your twenties and that your recovery is taking longer than it used to.

But in the end, none of this really matters. With the right type of training, you can continue to build muscle and get stronger in your forties, your fifties and beyond.




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