Training Over the Age of 40

by Frank Fire Jr.

This month’s topic is one with which I am all too familiar, fitness training for the over-40 firefighter (I have been “over 40” for almost 11 years now). An important observation here is the following: Growing old does not cause a decrease in physical activity; a decrease in physical activity causes growing old.

It should go without saying that if you are new to working out (and especially if you are in the over-40 age range), get medical clearance before attempting any strenuous exercises.

Use your imagination to get around any old injuries or orthopedic problems that might limit you. I have advanced arthritis in my right shoulder, which doesn’t let me do any barbell bench presses anymore (one of the few exercises I used to be marginally strong at). I learned that I could use very heavy dumbbells and keep my elbows at the right angle to avoid any pain and still keep a decent amount of strength in my chest and shoulders.

There’s an old joke my orthopedic surgeon told me after my first shoulder surgery. “A weightlifter complains to his doctor, ‘Hey doc, it hurts when I do this!’ The doctor matter of factly tells him, ‘Don’t do that.’” You would be surprised how simple it can be to work around some injuries and still get in productive workouts. A variety of machines can help here as well. If you can’t squat anymore, try leg presses, or find a front or hack squat machine. Pulleys can be extremely helpful as well. Often when using pulleys, some of the tension can be taken off your joints, lessening discomfort and avoiding additional stress. The point, however, is that if something you are doing is causing you pain, substitute something else for it, or take enough time to let the injury heal properly.

The principles behind gaining muscle and strength are exactly the same as for younger individuals, but allowances should be made for the inevitable loss in muscle mass caused by lowered testosterone production, as well as the likely onset of arthritis and the possibility of a previous injury.

Testosterone production can decrease by 1 percent per year after the age of 30, with obvious negative implications for most of the things guys like to do. We will discuss some ways to lessen this negative fact of life.


It can be expected that a healthy individuals, male or female, over 40 or even over 50 or 60, can make nearly the same percentage gains as average lifters in their 20s. If you haven’t been working out regularly, your base strength level would probably be much lower than it was in your 20s, but gains in strength, endurance, and power can be proportionally the same. This has been proven in study after study: As long as you stimulate the muscle correctly and sufficiently, you will grow stronger.

The current world power-lifting record for women over 40 in the bench press is 234 pounds and for squat is 413 pounds. The current world record for men over 40 in the bench is 512 pounds and for squat is 748 pounds.

The over- 50 men’s records are 479 pounds in the bench and 704 pounds for the squat. Obviously, age is no barrier to impressive feats of strength.

A proven and popular way to increase exercise intensity is by using “High Intensity Training.” Older individuals can increase the intensity of the workout by many methods other than just increasing the weight, which could lead to overuse injuries.

The most basic change you can make would be to decrease your rest periods between sets to as little as 30 or so seconds while using the same amount of weight. This would apply to every exercise of every body part you are training in that specific workout.

Another similar method is supersetting, which we discussed in an earlier article. This usually involves performing two sets of the same exercise with essentially no rest between sets. For example, if you were to curl 100 pounds for a set of 12, then immediately take off about 20 pounds and attempt another set of 12. This is a time-honored way bodybuilders use to increase muscle mass. And, when muscle mass increases, so does strength.

Another intensity improver and time-saver is staggered sets. This is most commonly defined as interspersing working different muscles between sets. For example, you could do a set of crunches or sit-ups between every set of bench presses.

For a PDF table of exercise choices, CLICK HERE (96 Kb).


Adjustments to your training regimen should include the following:

Train for hormone (testosterone) release: Most people undertrain when it comes to intensity and overtrain when it comes to duration. It is a well-known fact that heavy physical exertion stimulates the release of growth hormone and testosterone. You need to be working hard every set (except for the warm-up). The ideal duration for strength and hypertrophy workouts is from 45 to 60 minutes. In workouts longer than this, “good” hormone production falls off, and cortisol begins to be produced (cortisol is a stress hormone that can break down muscle).

Higher reps per set: 8 to 15 reps in most exercises for most training objectives, but as low as 5 for strict strength training.

More warm-up and stretching: the amount of warm-up before each lifting session should be at least 10-15 minutes, and each muscle group to be exercised should be stretched after the warm-up, then again after lifting. This will go a long way in preventing injury and post-workout soreness.

Change workouts more frequently: Do not doing the same workout more than a couple of times a month. Remember, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be where you’ve always been.

Change the order of exercises: If you usually start with bench presses, start with a back or leg exercise instead. It is still best to start with exercises that use the largest muscle groups first, but you can still change things with regard to actual exercise order.

Change the exercises you do: If you are in the habit of benching for your chest, substitute dumbbell bench presses, incline benches, close-grip benches, or decline benches, and so forth. If you always do squats for your legs, try machine leg presses, lunges, step-ups to a box, or one-leg squats with dumbbells. Varying the exercises you do may be the most important single change you can make to avoid overuse injuries and keep your muscles adapting to different stresses.

Periodize your workouts: Periodization is simply shifting the emphasis of certain workouts; for example, you may schedule two consecutive workouts to concentrate on hypertrophy (using lighter weights and higher reps per set and less rest between sets). Then schedule a few workouts to emphasize strength (by using more weight and fewer reps with longer rest between sets). Then you may tailor your workouts to increasing power: Use about half the weight employed for a strength workout, but perform the movements much faster with little or no rest between sets. After that, you could do several workouts concentrating on muscular endurance, with light to medium resistance and higher reps, in a slow and controlled fashion.

Use bodyweight exercises when possible: It is not that difficult to get decent workouts in doing nothing more than sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, and dips. You can use small platforms for your feet or hands to perform incline or decline push-ups. You can use numerous variations in grip spacing when doing pull-ups or chin-ups, to focus more stimulation of the biceps or different areas of the back. Then there is the ever-popular burpee1 (invented by a professional torturer, no doubt). Use your imagination; you’d be surprised at what you can come up with!
Rest: This is a big one. It should be obvious that you don’t get stronger while you are exercising; you actually are breaking down muscle and becoming weaker. It is during the day or two or three you take off between workout that the muscle adapts and grows. It is not unusual for older athletes to need at least twice as much rest between strenuous workouts as they did when they were younger. The rest limitation will dictate how often your workouts need to be. You may no longer be able to exercise each body part with a heavy workout twice a week. You may need to follow every heavy workout with a light one, or simply take another day or two of rest, meaning you may go 4 or 5 days between every big body-part workout.


1. If you are unfamiliar with burpees, begin in a squat position with hands on the floor in front of you; kick your feet back so you are now in a push-up position; immediately return your feet to the squat position; jump up as high as possible from the squat position; and repeat, moving as fast as possible

As noted in previous columns, your best use of time would be to split the above body parts into two days of workouts, e.g.: Chest, shoulders and triceps on day 1 and back, biceps, and legs on day 2. Do abdominal work on most workout days. You could also split the workouts into upper body one day and lower body the next or pushing movements the first day and pulling the second day.

Frank Fire Jr. is a 19-year veteran of the Cuyahoga Falls (OH) Fire Department. He spent two years service with the Canton (OH) Fire Department. He is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a personal trainer and is his department’s certified fitness coordinator. He has been a competitive power lifter for more than 20 years and has competed in the Firefighter Combat Challenge nearly 50 times, with a best finish of seventh at the 2001 World Championships in the over-40 division. He has also created a set of Strength and Stamina videos produced by Fire Engineering.

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