Building Muscle After 50: How To Get Enough Protein for Longevity
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Building Muscle After 50: How To Get Enough Protein for Longevity

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Building Muscle After 50: How To Get Enough Protein for Longevity

Posted a month ago

Brian Stanton

Brian Stanton


This article isn't for bodybuilders. It's for folks who want to stay strong and functional for decades to come. 

We're talking about having muscle for longevity, not looking good on the beach. There's nothing wrong with looking like Chris Hemsworth from Thor (does anyone else look like that?), but you don't need to be chiseled out of marble to benefit from muscle mass. 

The benefits of being adequately muscled are functional, aesthetic, and practical. It's an insurance policy against life's obstacles and the engine that fuels everyday tasks. 

Today, you'll learn how muscle supports healthy aging, the basics of strength training, and a series of practical tips for optimizing your protein intake. In five minutes, you'll understand how to build muscle after 50, before 50, and while 50 too. 

Muscle Mass and Healthy Aging

If you're interested in living happily for many years to come, seek to have more muscle on your frame. Let's review some persuasive science on the topic. 

One paper followed 1,413 older Chilean adults over 12 years.[*] Those with the most muscle mass had a 20% chance of dying, while those with the least had a 50% chance of dying. 
Other research suggests muscular strength is as protective as aerobic fitness (if not more) against all-cause mortality in men with high blood pressure.[*] Combining cardio and strength training gives the best results.  

Muscle does more than protect against death. Age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) is associated with a 6X higher risk of having a poor quality of life.[*

One explanation for these benefits is that muscle protects against serious falls. (A bad fall can send an older adult spiraling into decrepitude.) Strength training also increases bone density, reducing fracture risk if blunt trauma occurs.[*

Muscle also has metabolic, aesthetic, and—perhaps most importantly—functional benefits.[*] Strength isn't optional for picking up your grandkid, groceries, or self off the floor. 

The Basics of Building and Maintaining Muscle

The older you get, the more your body tries to shed muscle. At 80, a man will have around 40% less muscle in his quads than at 25.[*

Can you really build muscle after 50? It's harder but definitely possible. There are three main levers to pull:

  1. Strength training
  2. Protein intake
  3. Caloric intake

The first two levers will take us to the end of the article. The third deserves a mention, but we won't spend long. 

Basically, don't aggressively cut calories if you want to maintain muscle. And if you must cut calories, never restrict protein. 

Simple Strength Training 

You don't need an elaborate workout plan or fancy machines to build strength. A simple training program will do. 

Keep things efficient by prioritizing movements that hit multiple muscle groups. Good strength exercises include:

  • Push-ups
  • Bench press
  • Overhead press
  • Pull-ups
  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Planks

Strength train at least twice weekly for muscle maintenance, though 3–4 times weekly is probably better for gains. Experiment with 1–2 lower body and 1–2 upper body days until you find a sustainable routine. Do 3–4 sets of 5–10 reps each training day until close to fatigue. 

Measuring your body weight provides a crude approximation of muscle gain and loss, but DEXA is much more accurate.[*] (DEXA imaging measures lean mass, fat mass, and bone density.) 

Tracking your body composition every 6–12 months provides accountability that few people access. 

Log your efforts in the Exercise section of the Carb Manager app for extra motivation. There you'll also find tutorials and videos to help create your program. 

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Lifting weights alone isn't enough for muscle growth. In one study, frail seniors gained no muscle without a protein supplement to support their strength program.[*

How much protein do you need? More than the RDA would suggest. One controlled dietary study found that the RDA (0.8 g/kg body weight) wasn't enough to support muscle synthesis in "virtually all older people." [*

A more evidence-based target is 1.6 g/kg body weight, though many of us don't think in kilograms. To simplify, shoot for 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily. (That's 2.2 g/kg.) You'll have wiggle room to fall short and still hit 1.6 g/kg, and you needn't worry about brushing the safe upper limit of 3.5 g/kg daily.[*

So if you clock in at 160 pounds, aim for 160 grams of daily protein for anti-aging benefits. The following strategies will help get you there. 

How Older Adults Can Meet Their Protein Needs

Eating your weight in protein grams can be challenging. With a bit of planning, however, you can make it happen. 

Plan meals for protein 

Build every meal around a protein source. That might look like eggs for breakfast, turkey for lunch, and steak for dinner.

Each meal should contain 35–50 grams of protein, depending on your needs. Add a shake with 30–40 grams and you'll hit your target easily. 

Here's a sample high-protein meal plan with chef-created Premium recipes:

Breakfast: [recipe-link id="ug:e9c67cd4c75d487a8ccad79bb5a89f40”]Breakfast Pepper Pizza[/recipe-link]

Lunch: [recipe-link id="ug:82f8c572217a42988b87be64ac59146f”]Curried Chicken Salad Lettuce Cups[/recipe-link]

Shake: [recipe-link id="ug:844ea36491e6489c83d3b69100d7ce85”]Strawberry Cheesecake Protein Smoothie[/recipe-link]

Dinner: [recipe-link id="ug:8b2b74c0e3dc45dfb37e36fa165b91be”]Chili Lime Steak Fajitas[/recipe-link]

If you're short on time, eggs, tuna cans, and healthy protein bars are quick-and-easy protein hits. 

Spread it out

Don't eat all your protein at once. Distributing the protein over 3–5 meals allows you to absorb more protein for muscle protein synthesis rather than oxidizing the excess for energy.[*

Eat high-quality protein

As a rule, animal protein sources (eggs, meat, fish, whey) are better for building muscle than plant sources (beans, soy, pea). Why? Partly because animal sources are higher in anabolic amino acids like leucine. 

You may need to increase your targets to compensate for lower protein quality if you're vegan or vegetarian. Soy and pea, however, come close to meat and eggs—so favor those when possible.[*

Track your protein

Log your meals in Carb Manager as you progress toward your daily protein target. That way, you'll know where you stand.   

Most people consume far less protein than they think. Seeing your data can be a helpful kick in the rear. 

But the kick comes with an upside: a mini-bump of rewarding dopamine every day you hit your target. As each day passes, you become increasingly motivated to succeed. 

Over time, your strength-and-protein muscle regimen will put you in the upper echelon of healthy agers. That's a good place to be if you want to pick up your grandkids when you're 100.