If you’re young and serious about calisthenics, you’ve got fresh joints and a few decades ahead of you. It’s ok to take the slow road and work (wisely) on the money moves, such as handstand push-ups, the human flag, one-arm chin-ups and the back lever, after you’ve built a base level of strength and muscle mass. These exercises are all very impressive but if attempted hastily are a recipe for disaster.
If you’re in your 40s or 50s and just starting out, you’ve still got to build the base of strength and muscle mass before you move on to other things and honestly, those skills are probably not in the cards. You may not have enough time to safely learn them, they are likely far too hazardous to the joints and connective tissues, and frankly, you’re likely not best served working on skills at this point in your training life. You don’t have to rule them out completely, just understand that skills training should proceed very slowly and is not the best builder of underlying strength and muscle.
What are you best served working on when you’re in your 40s and 50s? Building and maintaining strength and muscle mass with intelligently programmed basic calisthenics exercises with strict adherence to a few basic rules.
Here are the top 5 rules to visit and revisit along your journey:
5. Drop the numbers mindset
Most of the calisthenics internet content that generates a lot of traffic is numbers oriented: my set of 40 unbroken pull-ups, here’s what happened to me when I did 200 push-ups a day for a month, the thousand rep workout, etc. It’s very easy to click on these things and watch them and get excited. But this does not mean that you should use them as a recipe. In fact, you shouldn’t. Chances are the content was generated by someone half your age who is more interested in clicks than in the wellbeing of the 50-something trainee. More importantly, such goals can be damaging for an older trainee, and they can lead to repetitive use injuries and can promote the sacrifice of technique and proper form in favor of a numeric goal.
Dropping a numbers mindset does not mean that you ought not to have a numeric goal or to count sets or reps entirely, it just means that you do not sacrifice what’s truly important (good form, injury prevention and fatigue management) in favor of an arbitrary number. If you do three sets of ten well executed push-ups a day and those reps are strict enough and with a complete range of motion such that each set was taken two or so reps shy of failure, you have been successful, even though 30 reps wouldn’t likely generate a lot of clicks. Here’s an example:
4. Be careful of skills training and iffy exercises
As discussed, skills training serves a purpose other than maximizing muscle and strength building and can be quite rough on the joints. Additionally, I have found that exercises such as parallel bar dips can cause lingering shoulder pain. Similarly, a steady diet of straight bar pull-ups or chin-ups will give me lingering elbow pain. Pay attention to your aches and pains if you do these exercises. Most of the time, I use suspension trainers such as gymnastics rings for pull-ups and dips, and find that the freedom to rotate my arms during the movement helps to prevent these pains.
I have also found that any exercise that specifically targets the shoulders, such as handstand push-ups, pike push-ups, and suspension trainer lateral raises, will give me persistent shoulder pain. I avoid these exercises, and fortunately, the shoulders receive adequate stimulation from push-ups and gymnastics ring dips.
3. Manage your effort and intensity wisely
We all know that volume and intensity lie on a continuum. The more intense the effort, the fewer sets and reps you will be able to do, and vice versa. In fact, if I take a set to or close to mechanical failure, that’s it for me for the workout and I may need a couple of days or more before I’m ready to repeat. The older I get, the more my body seems to prefer easier exercises performed for higher reps higher volume with lower intensity. For example, three sets of 20 jackknife pull-ups with rings serve me better than three sets of 8 regular pull-ups on a bar.
2. Form is Everything
Good technique and well-executed reps with complete range of motion give you so much bang for the buck. A good set of 12 push-ups with controlled tempo, full range of motion, and mind-muscle connection is far more effective at building strength and muscle than a set of 30 fast reps with partial range of motion.
Here’s an example of a good set of pull-ups that you probably wouldn’t write home about:
- Three words: Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
ABOVE ALL ELSE, SHOW UP EVERY DAY. You need be compelled far less by traditional notions of “progress” such as more volume, more weight, harder exercises than you do by consistency and repeated effort. It’s far more important THAT you do it than HOW. At this point in your training career, think of progress as years spent in honest training.
Notice that I didn’t say anything about programs, rest, specific exercises, progress, workout journals, or splits. That’s because these specifics are secondary to the above. They should all be manipulated in order to serve the principles outlined here. That is, if a daily full-body workout is best for your preferences and schedule, do that. If not, don’t. Just make sure you get the work in without dreading it, you don’t have lingering joint pain, you are fresh each time you hit your training session, and you are able to recover and do it again. And again. And again.
And if you must watch videos by people half your age for motivation, keep reminding yourself that what they’re doing should not be what you’re doing.
So my gift to you is this – at a certain age and after a certain number of years of training, you really don’t need to worry about all the usual stuff like how often you should be training and how many reps you should be doing…. Just do it again tomorrow (and do it well) for the win!
14 thoughts on “Top 5 Most Important Rules for Building Strength and Muscle with Bodyweight Calisthenics After 50”
Man, this was helpful! All of it, and especially #1. I need to be reminded that at 59yo, I’d best focus on consistent movement rather than more pounds on the bar. Thanks!
Yeah, I have to remind myself also. Thanks for you comment and glad it was helpful.
Very helpful. Thanks a lot for your insights.
Thank you very much.
Timely reading for me Steve. As a 53 year old physical culturist it is a constant battle for me to not get tempted by the “noise” on social media. Will be reading this article at regular intervals as a reminder to stay the course that is right for me.
Couldn’t agree more, John. One of the reasons I wrote this was to remind myself of the same! Thanks for your feedback.
Thanks for this article.
I agree with it all, but was too self conscious to admit that these rules are true.
In my mid 50’s, I hate to admit that I needed permission to accommodate calisthenics to my current age and condition.
My basic rule for exercise is that something is always better than nothing.
But with calisthenics, I have had difficulty accepting that incline or knee pushups are ok and healthy. I have been doing them regularly, but with secret shame – even though I feel better and avoid elbow pain when I use them.
From you, I see that inclines are useful and infinitely better than nothing; as are the other movements usually classified as beginner level.
I am fine with the idea that I might be a beginner for the rest of my life; that it is more important to do something, regularly, than to do nothing because I can’t meet someone else’s standards.
I bought your book. If you revise it, I hope that you will include this article in it, maybe as an appendix for older trainees.
Henry, thanks so much for your comment and for buying the book. Part of the problem is, just as most of the fitness industry is geared towards those who are already fit, it’s also geared towards 20 and 30 somethings. We need to make some new guidelines, such as progress is measured in years spent training honestly and without injury. I try to remind myself that if I lifted weights, and I’m glad I don’t, I would never go heavy. I really like the idea of a book revision for older trainees and I may just get started on thinking that one through. Thanks again for the inspiration.
Steve, You did it again giving positive and truthful information. I’m definitely going to read this again. Every time the noise gets in my head from social media.
Wish I live closer to hang out and talk about topics like these with have some beers. 🙂
Thanks so much Albert. I always value your feedback. And I agree, it would be great to get together over beers.
Fantastic article, thanks for this. I’m 50, and guilty of the above. I currently have a trapezius strain, perhaps due to overuse. I need to apply this philosophy, and resist the urge to overreach.
Thanks for your feedback, Vincent. Yes, the injuries at this age really are a drag. I literally have to force myself to stop watching videos by people much younger than me who aren’t affected by such things. I hope the trapezius strain heals soon.
I just stumbled across this article. I’m a personal trainer; been so for (collectively) 17 years. The info in the above article is absolute gospel, and should anyone reading be *ahem* of certain age, take the advice to heart. When applied, it can and will pay dividends.
Thanks very much, Brian. I really appreciate your feedback.