Women over 50 - is it really possible to bulk?

For years I have been saying I'd like to gain 5 lb -- of muscle not fat (vanity). I realize this is a long term project. I'm willing to undertake a long term project, though, and that isn't the reason I've avoided it. The real reason I haven't stepped to the plate is uncertainty. At the end of a year+ effort, will I really have a different body composition vs. recomp (less effort)?

More specifically:
I'm thinking best case would be a 10 month bulk at 1lb/mo -- best case half fat half lean
That gets me to my 5 lb lean gain goal with 5 lb to lose -- that takes me 10 weeks best case.

The questions I have are:
Will my gain be half lean?
Will I need a bigger surplus to stimulate muscle synthesis?
My goals are smaller than DEXA margin of error, so how will I know if it's working?

Without cognitive assent to a realistic plan, I have been in a recomp for several years, and no question -- I am stronger and have improved definition. I'm right on the edge of healthy BMI, though, and it would be healthier if I gained a few pounds. Maybe I should just gain the 5 lbs and recomp at that weight a few years?

tl;dr:
Does anyone have experience (personal or as a trainer) building lean at my age (56 and hopefully past menopause soon)? I'd like to hear about how it worked. Thanks.
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Replies

  • steph2strong
    steph2strong Posts: 426 Member
    100% you can build lean muscle at any age. You may want to read this interview with Joan McDonald -age 74, started her fitness journey at age 70. She has more muscle mass and definition than many women half her age. https://www.weareageist.com/profile/joan-macdonald-74-journey-to-strength-and-fitness/
    She has over 1.3 million followers on instagram and is highly inspirational.

    What stood out for me most in your post is the statement that you are right on the edge oh a healthy BMI and it would be healthier for you if you gained a few pounds. With that statement alone, I would say that recomp isn't likely your best choice, commit to a slow and steady gain (I'm assuming being on the edge of a healthy BMI means you are on the low end).

    The uncertainty you feel will always exist, you can't predict the future on what will work for you, you will only know by trying. If you wait for the perfect moment, or feeling 100% certain, you'll be waiting forever, there comes a point where you just have to decide to try and see what happens. So I would say, just take the plunge and commit and work at it. What's the harm? Sure it might not work for you, but it also might be amazing... or it just might be somewhere in between :)
  • ythannah
    ythannah Posts: 4,362 Member
    If you try it, I'd be really interested in your results because I am in much the same position (57 and low weight). When I started lifting I sort of accidentally did a recomp, without knowing what that was at the time, because I stripped off quite a bit of bodyfat. The only noticeable effect of eating more was.... errr... greater waste output.

    I'm now in the position of needing to gain weight that has been lost unintentionally due to illness and might attempt a sort of bulk once I can eat normally again and resume lifting.
  • steveko89
    steveko89 Posts: 2,211 Member
    I don't have any specific experience as a trainer, but based on the research I've done for my own purposes, I think 5 lb of lean mass in a year is unlikely.

    Lyle McDonald suggests the following is possible/expected for muscle gain rate based on training age.
    6224ubqucy0l.png

    Massing is important and since you've thought about it, I say go for it. Even if you're only able to gain that ~1.5 lbs of lean mass in a year, that would make a noticeable difference in composition if/when you got back down a similar scale weight. Here's a good read by former physique competitor and RP COO Lori Shaw about massing as a woman. https://renaissanceperiodization.com/expert-advice/why-massing-is-beneficial

    I finally got out of my own way enough to lean bulk this fall and have been really happy with the results. I gained about 6 lbs by trend weight over 5 months and it was maybe one third lean tissue (via my handheld skulpt device). I'm an early 30s male with about five years of good training history; I wasn't going to add more than 1-2 lbs of lean mass in 5 months. Since ending the bulk in January I'm back down about 4 of those 6 lbs. Need to rescan with the skulpt to see what it says for BF%.

    Another nice effect from that bulk was that my TDEE went up during and has stayed elevated by about 150 cal/day (roughly 5.5%). Prior to the bulk I've been in a pretty constant state of poorly cutting/net recomping. The only explanation I can see is that I'd incurred some metabolic adaptation from those years of being so scale-focused trying to get leaner and worrying about fat gains. 5% jives with literature values for the effects of "chronic dieting", though I wouldn't have expected my tactics to have caused that.

    Further, there's more to aesthetics than measurable muscle gain. I've seen some qualitative improvements to body composition since I started loosely following the Renaissance Periodization diet templates. Basically six small meals throughout the waking period, protein throughout, carbs loaded around training, fats timed away from training. In the ~6 weeks I've been doing that, if anything calories are up about 100/day and weight has trended up slightly (likely from the additional carbs).
  • sijomial
    sijomial Posts: 19,811 Member
    For years I have been saying I'd like to gain 5 lb -- of muscle not fat (vanity). I realize this is a long term project. I'm willing to undertake a long term project, though, and that isn't the reason I've avoided it. The real reason I haven't stepped to the plate is uncertainty. At the end of a year+ effort, will I really have a different body composition vs. recomp (less effort)?
    At the end of a year of consistent and appropriate training you will be able to make a difference and see a difference. There isn't an age cutoff, it certainly doesn't get easier though!
    At 61 I can still gain muscle and strength but need to take more care over recovery compared to my far off youth.

    The questions I have are:
    Will my gain be half lean?

    Impossible to answer - there's far too many variables. It's an experiment you have to run.

    Will I need a bigger surplus to stimulate muscle synthesis?
    It's your training that stimulates muscle growth, a surplus may well support growth better. You can't force feed growth by eating more and more, that's a bit of a throwback to dirty bulking by bodybuilders who were getting more than a little external help. There's a bit of imbalance in your post talking a lot about calorie balance and not about what actually drives the process - your training. Hopefully that's just for brevity or you think you have that dialled in but do remember the "perfect diet" and poor training gets no results.

    My goals are smaller than DEXA margin of error, so how will I know if it's working?
    Progress pictures, tape measure, long term strength increases, mirror, fit of clothes......

    Without cognitive assent to a realistic plan, I have been in a recomp for several years, and no question -- I am stronger and have improved definition.
    Well done - you have answered the question "can I still add muscle?".

    I'm right on the edge of healthy BMI, though, and it would be healthier if I gained a few pounds. Maybe I should just gain the 5 lbs and recomp at that weight a few years?
    That's a no-brainer to gain weight if gaining weight makes you healthier. I think you need to throw away this idea that recomp is only at precisely weight maintenance calories. Why not just think of gaining muscle rather than what you maybe think are two different processes of recomp or bulking?

    tl;dr:
    Does anyone have experience (personal or as a trainer) building lean at my age (56 and hopefully past menopause soon)? I'd like to hear about how it worked. Thanks.

    Not a trainer but I've been helping a 60/61 YO friend who was completely new to the gym and weight training. In the limited time the gym was open in the last year or so she made good and noticable physique improvements. Plus feeling delighted at seeing some muscles appearing. Plus much stronger, more confident, fitter and simply enjoying her training.

  • ahoy_m8
    ahoy_m8 Posts: 3,043 Member
    edited May 2021
    @NutritionSteph That is inspiring, exactly what I hoped to hear. Thanks tons for that! Yes, I'm lower end normal so the recomp alternative would be after gaining the few pounds. And you're right, the only way to answer my questions for sure is to try it. Just want to do it eyes open.

    @ythannah Sorry to hear about your illness. No fun. Hoping you enjoy a really good recovery. I'm right there with you on wanting to gain a healthy (but realistic) way.
  • ahoy_m8
    ahoy_m8 Posts: 3,043 Member
    edited May 2021
    @steveko23 Thanks for the Lori Shaw link. I remember seeing that Lyle McDonald table but couldn't find it so thanks for that, too. I would take a 150 kcal bump to TDEE!

    @sijomial Good points about recovery and training plan being the big driver. I am thinking about revamping my training regimen with a trainer either way. But definitely if I attempt a bulk. About the recomp, I realize that strength gains can come from efficiencies in muscle recruitment, so I wasn't really sure if I had gained any real mass. I guess you're right, though, that definition would suggest there was at least a little. Thanks also for sharing the experience with your 60yo friend. Super encouraging.

    Replies so helpful. Many thanks, you guys.
  • steveko89
    steveko89 Posts: 2,211 Member
    ahoy_m8 wrote: »
    @steveko23 Thanks for the Lori Shaw link. I remember seeing that Lyle McDonald table but couldn't find it so thanks for that, too. I would take a 150 kcal bump to TDEE!

    @sijomial Good points about recovery and training plan being the big driver. I am thinking about revamping my training regimen with a trainer either way. But definitely if I attempt a bulk. About the recomp, I realize that strength gains can come from efficiencies in muscle recruitment, so I wasn't really sure if I had gained any real mass. I guess you're right, though, that definition would suggest there was at least a little. Thanks also for sharing the experience with your 60yo friend. Super encouraging.

    Replies so helpful. Many thanks, you guys.

    Perhaps the best path is revamp the training regimen while eating and maintenance and see if that provides the better stimulus you're looking for? Isolate training as the variable you're changing to best be able to assess it's effect?
  • sijomial
    sijomial Posts: 19,811 Member
    Initial and quick strength gains can mostly be assigned to using your existing muscles better, recruiting more fibres and stronger signalling. Plus outside influences of technique improvements and simple confidence.

    But that doesn't go on forever. Long term steady progress in strength is a pretty good indicator. Often as you say it's a combination of signs that forms a picture.
  • ahoy_m8
    ahoy_m8 Posts: 3,043 Member
    @sijomial Good point. Hadn't thought of that. I also take your point about drawing an artificially bright line between bulk and recomp. They start out the same -- eating in a ~100 surplus and revamped ST. The difference would come at the 5 lb gain point. At that point, do I keep gaining in anticipation of a cut or just level off and recomp there-- that's the difference.

    Early in the pandemic I floated the idea of having a trainer come to the house to supervise ST for DH and me. DH was a gym goer pre-pandemic. It was on his "will do for my mental health" list until gyms were closed here. He adapted great. So proud. He started running (hadn't run 2 steps in our whole 10+ yr marriage) and actually lost unwanted pounds during the pandemic. Got a training app that varied his strength routines and was super consistent with it until a shoulder injury worsened (muscle tears). For the past 2 months he has done no ST at all (cardio only). I kind of wonder [1] if working with a trainer might have averted the injury (due to form or just a different mix of exercises) and [2] if there is any ST he could be doing without aggravating the injury. He got a big cortisone injection & is doing PT now, but that is shoulder ROM focused vs. overall strength. I floated the idea when I myself had a shoulder situation (adhesive capsulitis, caused by hormones not injury) and was thinking about regaining lost strength and having a more efficient workout. He wasn't enthusiastic then. Wonder if it is a good idea to re-float the concept.
  • Beautyofdreams
    Beautyofdreams Posts: 1,009 Member
  • sijomial
    sijomial Posts: 19,811 Member
    "The difference would come at the 5 lb gain point. At that point, do I keep gaining in anticipation of a cut or just level off and recomp there-- that's the difference."

    Reassess when you get there, nothing has to be decided now. Quite apart from not being able to predict your response to training your goals may evolve too.

    Shame about the shoulder injuries for you both, that to me increases the benefit of a good sports physio or trainer that specialises in rehab advising/guiding you.
  • ahoy_m8
    ahoy_m8 Posts: 3,043 Member
    Makes so much sense. Thanks.
  • cupcakesandproteinshakes
    cupcakesandproteinshakes Posts: 1,089 Member
    I’m in a similar position. I’m 47. Been lifting properly for 4 years. I’m 174 cm and maintained at 135 to 140.
    I had anxiety about bulking and tbh there aren’t tons of women our age that do it, but there are some.
    I was and am pleased with my recomp results. Anyway I have been letting my weight drift up slowly since the gyms reopened in the uk.

    I think it’s a mental mindset as much as anything. You have to accept that there will be some fat gain as well as muscle and your body likely is gonna look softer.

    If you’re planning on a 5 pound gain, that isn’t a lot of weight. If you don’t like the results then you can lose it again I guess. It’ll b a challenge to try anyway!
  • cupcakesandproteinshakes
    cupcakesandproteinshakes Posts: 1,089 Member
    Sorry I just reread the original post and see you plan to gain 10 pounds. Seems reasonable to me. You can reassess at any stage of the process of course.
  • ahoy_m8
    ahoy_m8 Posts: 3,043 Member
    @cupcakesandproteinshakes If I'm honest, I find in myself some anxiety about bulking, too. It's a confidence block (will it work?) and a psychological block (years and years of unhealthy messaging from parents about body size). Damn, I wish the logical brain were winning on this one. The bottom line is exactly what you said: a 5 lb gain isn't too hard to lose. I've done it countless times in decades of maintenance.

    @steveko89 Want to thank you again for sharing your experience. After sleeping on it, your approach makes a ton of sense for me, starting with working out the lifting program first. That is the smart first step. Like you, I can stop at 6 lb and then do a small cut if I feel like it, kind of breaking the whole undertaking into to smaller bites. I can't expect to have results like a 30 year old male, but I like your approach. Thanks again for sharing experience & insights.


  • Chieflrg
    Chieflrg Posts: 9,098 Member
    edited May 2021
    ahoy_m8 wrote: »
    For years I have been saying I'd like to gain 5 lb -- of muscle not fat (vanity). I realize this is a long term project. I'm willing to undertake a long term project, though, and that isn't the reason I've avoided it. The real reason I haven't stepped to the plate is uncertainty. At the end of a year+ effort, will I really have a different body composition vs. recomp (less effort)?

    More specifically:
    I'm thinking best case would be a 10 month bulk at 1lb/mo -- best case half fat half lean
    That gets me to my 5 lb lean gain goal with 5 lb to lose -- that takes me 10 weeks best case.

    The questions I have are:
    Will my gain be half lean?
    Will I need a bigger surplus to stimulate muscle synthesis?
    My goals are smaller than DEXA margin of error, so how will I know if it's working?


    Without cognitive assent to a realistic plan, I have been in a recomp for several years, and no question -- I am stronger and have improved definition. I'm right on the edge of healthy BMI, though, and it would be healthier if I gained a few pounds. Maybe I should just gain the 5 lbs and recomp at that weight a few years?

    tl;dr:
    Does anyone have experience (personal or as a trainer) building lean at my age (56 and hopefully past menopause soon)? I'd like to hear about how it worked. Thanks.

    1. Depends on many variables.
    2. Depends on how sensitive you are to stimulus and your programming. I think you are at a good starting point.
    3. Short & long term data

    Plenty of experience and in a few years I'll be focusing on people of advanced age primarily.

    It works the same as any training any age.

    Sufficient stimulus within a well written program that includes enough protien including leucine, valine, and isoleucine to achieve a hypertrophy response.

    One thing we look at in more older individuals is we dont process protien as efficiently as our younger years so we need more and better quality protien to achieve the same response assuming we have the same training conditions.

    I can't tell you what you should expect without data on your training history. I can suggest you seek sources backed by science for your goals and educate yourself. Take what you read from forums such as this one or trainers who base their opinions of the information to obtain a certification with a grain of salt.


  • ihavereallycooldogs
    ihavereallycooldogs Posts: 6 Member
    steveko89 wrote: »
    I don't have any specific experience as a trainer, but based on the research I've done for my own purposes, I think 5 lb of lean mass in a year is unlikely.

    Lyle McDonald suggests the following is possible/expected for muscle gain rate based on training age.
    6224ubqucy0l.png

    Massing is important and since you've thought about it, I say go for it. Even if you're only able to gain that ~1.5 lbs of lean mass in a year....

    I think that I am misunderstanding something here and I'd like to know. On the chart that you pasted, it says that a woman with 1 year of proper training can expect to gain 10-12lbs in the year. What makes you say that 5lb of lean mass is unlikely in one year for OP?

  • steveko89
    steveko89 Posts: 2,211 Member
    steveko89 wrote: »
    I don't have any specific experience as a trainer, but based on the research I've done for my own purposes, I think 5 lb of lean mass in a year is unlikely.

    Lyle McDonald suggests the following is possible/expected for muscle gain rate based on training age.
    6224ubqucy0l.png

    Massing is important and since you've thought about it, I say go for it. Even if you're only able to gain that ~1.5 lbs of lean mass in a year....

    I think that I am misunderstanding something here and I'd like to know. On the chart that you pasted, it says that a woman with 1 year of proper training can expect to gain 10-12lbs in the year. What makes you say that 5lb of lean mass is unlikely in one year for OP?

    If I understand OP’s training history, they’ve been training for a few years while recomping. Even if that programming was suboptimal, years of adaptations would preclude gaining as readily as a new trainee.
  • Speakeasy76
    Speakeasy76 Posts: 961 Member
    I'm 44 and know I need to bulk to meet my strength/muscle-growth goals. Also, I've recently lost about 12 pounds in 6.5 weeks which I attribute mainly to being on an elimination diet; I had only wanted to lose 5-7. I had a BMI of 22; now it's 20.2. I know I look a bit "scrawny" in some parts, as I've never been small and don't have a small frame I can now see my first ribs that I didn't see before. However, I get your concern about bulking from not only an age standpoint, but a psychological one as well. I have struggled with weight for maybe 3/4th of my life, and to now be on this side of it is very strange and not a position I'd ever thought I'd be in. I also keep thinking I"m going to regain the weight as I add more foods back into my diet.

    I think I'm going to give myself a month doing what I'm doing now, and then eat in a small surplus, like 100-150 calories/day. Keep us updated on your progress!
  • ahoy_m8
    ahoy_m8 Posts: 3,043 Member
    steveko89 wrote: »
    steveko89 wrote: »
    I don't have any specific experience as a trainer, but based on the research I've done for my own purposes, I think 5 lb of lean mass in a year is unlikely.

    Lyle McDonald suggests the following is possible/expected for muscle gain rate based on training age.
    6224ubqucy0l.png

    Massing is important and since you've thought about it, I say go for it. Even if you're only able to gain that ~1.5 lbs of lean mass in a year....

    I think that I am misunderstanding something here and I'd like to know. On the chart that you pasted, it says that a woman with 1 year of proper training can expect to gain 10-12lbs in the year. What makes you say that 5lb of lean mass is unlikely in one year for OP?

    If I understand OP’s training history, they’ve been training for a few years while recomping. Even if that programming was suboptimal, years of adaptations would preclude gaining as readily as a new trainee.

    This is true. Plus my age.