Four Keys for Building Lean Mass After Age 30!

By Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS

Sprint, Lift, Fuel, Sleep!  These are four keys to building lean mass as we age (for any age).  Muscle, bone and connective tissue are the adaptable target tissues most health professionals think about when talking about lean mass, but we should probably include that white matter between our ears too!  What happens during exercise and sleep are very impactful to the performance of your hard drive (brain) that might just be the key to maintaining a positive attitude about exercising.  The science behind it all is very real, but finding time and motivation to consistently complete weekly workouts, is an art. So what do we know about training smart when it comes to adding lean mass that is also time efficient?

The great news is that shorter, “higher intensity” interval sprints and lifting routines are routinely showing up as impactful ways to make the best use of your time when exercising with the intent to gain lean mass (1,2,3).  In fact, for years, efforts to do exhaustive endurance training before finding your way in the weight room were no doubt working against efforts to spare or gain lean mass (‘interference’ effect with concurrent training) (4).  Drilling down further, there is some evidence that doing strength and power work on the same day in the weight room might yield great lean mass or hypertrophy returns (complex training vs. compound training) (5).  When it comes to the reps and sets that are best to stimulate gains in lean mass, that might be harder to discern what is optimal for lean mass gains (hypertrophy) (6).  When it comes to creating tension in a muscle that stimulates hypertrophy and net gains in lean mass, eccentric phases of movements when lifting seem to have a slight advantage of concentric (lengthening vs. shortening) as does shorter rest intervals between sets on the same exercise (time under tension to fatigue) (7).

I must warn you that even if you have the most dialed in workout plan to stimulate gains in lean mass, your drive to workout will be greatly compromised if you are coming up short on your sleep as will your ability to resolve muscle soreness from one workout to the next (deep sleep, or slow-wave sleep & hGH) (8).  Sleep is a huge topic for hard working athletes who have limited time between competitions to physically recover while also preparing mentally for the smartest game plan.  Sleep is literally protective when it comes to critical trophic factors that impact muscle and brain like insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) (9).  Of course, if you walk into any dietary supplement retailer, a good portion of the store will be dedicated to products purported to improve your chances of doing more work in the weight room to stimulate gains in lean mass or improve recovery efficiency from bouts of resistance training (10, 11).  Unfortunately, the cast of characters behind many of the energy and muscle focused dietary supplement brands seem to feel they can’t compete in the marketplace unless they intentionally adulterate dietary supplements with active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) that can cause positive doping outcomes for drug tested athlete and risk drug to drug interactions for anyone using medications!  This is such a big problem that the US Department of Defense has dedicated extensive resources to an identification of API adulterated dietary supplement trends that put our military warfighters at risk (Operation Supplement Safety) as has US Anti-Doping with educational resources for drug tested athletes (Supplement 411) (12, 13).

Many who desire a leaner more muscular body are vulnerable to seek out and abuse “appearance and performance enhancing drugs” that could cause serious physical and mental health dilemmas.  Organizations like the Taylor Hooton Foundation (THF) and the American Academy of Pediatrics are dedicated to raising awareness with young students who often seek to accelerate biochemical maturation by any means possible (14, 15).  Those of us on the plus side of age 30, are on the downside of biochemical maturation (by a long shot) and are also vulnerable to the idea of combating the loss of lean mass with the help of API’s under the supervision of an endocrinologist.  The only problem is that the industry that has emerged to assess and implement hormonally based anti-aging intervention are not the endocrinologist, for the most part, they are osteopaths and naturopathic doctors.  It’s reported that these anti-aging clinics are primarily in the business of creating co-dependent use of anabolic hormones, and often find themselves at the center of doping scandals with drug tested athletes (16, 17, 18).

So what can you do that doesn’t involve pharmaceutical based interventions?

  • First of all, avoid excessive use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen as they can attenuate adaptive responses to resistance training (19). There are similar concerns about excessive antioxidants from dietary supplements or highly fortified conventional foods (functional foods) blunting favorable adaptations from exercise (20).  There is even some new evidence that cryotherapy (cold tubs) used chronically may limit adaptations in the weight room during offseason workouts for athletes attempting to gain lean mass (21).  It’s a “too much of a good thing” story potentially for all of these anti-inflammatory interventions when it comes to the necessary initiation of our immune systems involved in the adaptation process.
  • Try to work all your major muscle groups twice per week in the weight room. That could be a head to toe workout (all major muscle groups) twice per week when time is tight or a four-day split workout routine where you split muscle groups up over two days, maybe Monday and Tuesday and repeat again on Thursday and Friday.  One example of a four-day split would be chest, back, and arm muscle groups on Monday and Thursday and shoulders and legs on Tuesday and Friday.  When time is tight and you need to knock it down to three days per week, combine and abbreviate Thursday and Fridays work together (Fig. 1).
  • You can almost look at lifting two-days a week as “muscle maintenance” and lifting four-days a week as “muscle gain” as you can do more exercises per body part on a four-day split workout routine. Athletes training to gain lean mass would typically do 2-3 exercises per body part on a four-day split vs. 1-2 exercises per body part on a two-day a week maintenance program.
  • Time under tension created by performing sets to failure is a strong stimulus for up-regulation of growth factors in the muscle being trained (22). Higher reps (8-15 reps) with short rest interval (60-90 seconds) is a typical body building approach to getting a “pump and a burn”, but hypertrophy can occur with heavier sets too (4-8 reps) with up to 3 minutes of rest between set (23).  Obviously, the amount of weight used with lower reps is increased, recruiting more motor units in a muscle and typically requiring a longer rest interval between sets.
  • Periodization of workouts are planned variations of different exercises, sets, reps, and rest intervals from week to week, that are large enough to keep muscle responding and adapting to weekly workouts. Beginners don’t need as much variation in their workouts as athletes who have been training with consistency for years.  For most thirty plus folks training for gains in lean mass, they could do the same workouts two weeks in a row before changing their workouts up.  Even two days per week lifting will yield gains for those just getting started in the weight room.
  • On a four-day split, we will change the exercises up a bit from Monday to Thursday and Tuesday to Friday. For example, we might do flat bench chest work on Monday and dumbbell incline press on Thursday.  If you don’t have a spotter, you will be doing more dumbbell work than barbell work for safety purposes.  Barbells seem to be preferable when doing heavier sets with low reps (5 sets x 5 reps).  Heavy dumbbell work can be pretty stressful for those who are just getting started with their workouts.
  • When time is tight and the facility you are training in is not too crowded, you can speed up a workout by switching between two exercises vs. just sitting and waiting to repeat all your sets for a given exercise. For example, if you did a set of chest you could immediately do a set of back exercise and go back immediately to chest until all the sets for both exercises are completed and then move on to another pairing of exercises.  The key for gaining lean mass is that you go to failure on these sets, so the weight has to be dialed-in so you are just accomplishing the target reps per set.  While this idea of working opposing muscle groups with no significant rest other than transit time from one exercise to the next will get you out of the weight room faster, it’s possible that it’s not optimal for time under tension in a working muscle compared to doing continuous sets on the same exercise with a set rest interval.
  • Machines in place of free weights can work for beginners in the weight room, but you will quickly learn they have limitations on range of motion that will limit progress long term. In a pinch though, machine work is better than doing nothing (like when traveling).  Pulley based machines do get more use for secondary or assistive lifts on a regular (like arms exercises).
  • In a perfect world, athlete might do their lifting in the morning, rest all day and come back and do their interval sprints, agility work and jumps (plyometric work) in the afternoon during the offseason. That is time-consuming but yields maximum power and strength outcomes.  For most thirty somethings, you have to do the entire workout all in one shot with interval sprint first (maybe sprints some stadium steps or intervals on a treadmill) followed by lifting where we would do fast plyometrics or Olympic movements first before getting into slower movements with more weight secondarily.  It’s just not best practices to lift and then try and sprint, especially on leg day in the weight room (injury vulnerability)!
  • On days where you want to throw in a longer bout of conditioning at lower intensity, like a long jog or grind out an hour on an elliptical trainer, you can almost treat the conditioning as a warm-down after lifting so flip it to lift first followed by endurance work last. If you do the long conditioning first, followed by a lift, you will attenuate your potential to gain lean mass on balance.  Athletes who work summer jobs in the heat, show up and run in the heat with their team and then walk into the weight room and attempt to load a muscle for net lean mass gains are almost always disappointed in the results.  In fact, when athletes become muscular for their frames and we don’t want to have them gain more lean mass, we simply change up their workouts to condition before they lift to minimize gaining more size while giving them more power work in the weight room vs. sets and reps that yield more time under tension and hypertrophy.
  • Lastly, a good training partner might be one of the most potent anabolic stimuli that exist! A good training partner with similar goals can help you attempt extra reps that alone you would potentially been too fatigued to attempt (that critical push to failure for hypertrophy).  A good training partner challenges you to up the weight on the bar when you are completing your reps on a set too easily.  Maybe most importantly a good training partner creates some meaningful accountability to show up and train when you really felt like taking the day off.  It’s amazing how on some days, you will drag into the weight room wondering how your are going to get through a workout only to find yourself feeling a great deal of accomplishment when the work is done.  Those are important days where you might be in a critical phase of training that athletes venture into routinely, kind of a functional level of over-training often termed over-reaching.  Over-reaching is not something you want to do weekly, but “gutting” out a workout is hardly the end of the world either.  We would typically build in a week of backed off workouts where the loads are reduced after a week where the weight was increased on lifts and muscle soreness rating are elevated.  Smart periodization builds in breaks every 3-4 weeks or so that is kind of an active rest week.  Taking a full week or two off completely after a finishing an 8-10 weeks of consistent training is not a bad thing either (take a vacation).  Pushing it too hard, year round all can result in vulnerability to injury or “unexplained underperformance syndrome” (24).

Here is an example a Four-Day per Week vs. Two-Day per Week workout and diet schedule (Figure 1 – add vs. maintain lean mass):

Dave's Chart

While that may look like a lot of work, more than you currently have time for, it will be some weekly structure that gets you heading in the right direction when it comes to maintaining or adding lean mass.  What days out of seven that you train are completely flexible.  Working around orthopedic issues will demand exercise substitutions.  Life happens so this is not about perfect execution, especially when it comes to the dietary aspect of gaining lean mass.  Over the top clean eating has put many on an obsessive trajectory for orthorexic tendencies (25).  Clean eating was a pretty harmless concept, to begin with.  Stay away from fast food, eat less processed food, organic food where we had our highest exposure to pesticide residues and endocrine disruptor exposures and easy on the booze.  Somewhere along the way, clean eating got hijacked by the elimination diet believers who categorically like to find fault with foods.  The Paleo crowd has categorically eliminated several classes of food and it’s just kept snowballing since the early 2000’s on who could top who, on elimination strategies to obtain an existential level of cleaning eating nirvana (26).  Let’s keep our dietary discussion grounded and prioritized when it comes to supporting gains in lean mass:

  • For brevity sake, if you would like digest all that goes into High-Performance Fueling to support training that can help you with your efforts to gain lean mass, you can watch this ACSM webinar from 2016 “Nutritional Myths & Practices of the Elite Athlete” that will answer many of your questions…
  • Protein calorie distribution over the course of the day is very important when training four-days per week with hypertrophic loads in the weight room. Binge eating patterns are not going to get the job done when it comes to lean mass gains or visceral fat avoidance (27, 28).  This is where I have to start with young athletes who are clueless on fueling.  It’s not an issue of if they are eating enough protein as opposed to how they distribute it over the day.
  • The science of what all is at play with time under tension to failure in a working muscle along with the resulting chemical signaling to up-regulate the anabolic side of muscle hypertrophy (mTORC1 activation) is still being sorted out so expect more details to come, but here is what we do know about the quality of protein. Essential amino acid (EAA) rich protein sources are key to ramping up the tissue remodeling process to recover from hard resistance training sessions (mTORC1 translocation).  In addition to mTORC1 translocation, EAA plays a role in the more delayed part of tissue remodeling where proliferation of satellite cells, play a very important role.  EAA and vitamin D both might be very important in helping aging muscle recover efficiently from hypertrophic bouts of resistance training (29, 30).  Exactly how the EAA leucine acts as the most proteogenic amino acid is still under investigation, but it’s a well-established fact that has elevated the value of high leucine protein sources in the marketplace, targeted at muscle sparing and recovery (whey isolate, egg white, casein, soy isolate) (31, 32).
  • So post workout, this is why you will see the same proteins in the formulation of recovery shakes and bars that often utilize a blend of fast digesting whey, slow digesting casein and moderate pace digesting egg white or soy protein isolate. The priority right after a workout is hydration and get some well-timed carbohydrate into your blood stream, but by the time you get out of the shower it will be time to either eat an EAA/leucine rich meal or gap up till meal time with an EAA/leucine rich recovery snack or shake of some type.  For drug tested athletes we only use NSF Certified for Sport dietary supplements or highly fortified conventional food snacks (functional foods) because of the aforementioned adulteration trends from some unethical fraudsters in this space…
  • Expect to see some protein blends out soon that are targeted at consumption before bed that are formulated for time released properties (casein focused chronobiological snacks) (33). Casein rich snacks like Greek yogurt work well and leave athletes training to add lean mass hungry for breakfast.
  • A preworkout something (typically stimulants) riddle most workout gyms. Stimulant based preworkout products are some of the most highly adulterated dietary supplement/functional food categories.  Old folks (age 30 and up) might stick with some caffeinated hot tea with beet powder to stimulate energy, nitric oxide driven blood flow, and work capacity all while helping manage blood pressure (bravo food) (34, 35, 36).
  • *Creatine can also be put in the pre-workout mix for those who are really challenged with loss of lean mass characteristic of inactivity and aging. Loading is not necessary to get benefits from pre-workout creatine use nor does it require use after workouts or on off-days.  Just find an NSF Certified for Sport source of creatine and use pre-workout.  You will find that you can do more reps at the same weight and ultimately increase the amount of weight used (37, 38, 39).  Pretty simple, but no doubts one of the most effective alternative athletes have had to help accrue lean mass during offseason workouts for the last three plus decades!
  • *Leucine metabolite HMB has been a solid performer for athletes fighting to hang onto lean mass during the stressful grind of the competition schedule and used for disease state interventions where muscle wasting predominates. Consumption patterns are typically broken up over the course of the day (3 x day) with one intake before workouts (40, 41).
  • The list of novel functional ingredients (nutraceuticals) that are potential positive effectors of lean mass, grows annually (42, 43, 44). To date, none of these novel functional ingredients has measured up to creatine preworkout, leucine rich protein isolates post workout and HMB spread over the course of a day.  One of the exploratory functional ingredients currently being popularized is orally consumed phosphatidic acid (PA) (45, 46).  Like many other functional ingredients, PA is found naturally in foods, but when supplemented, per serving feed rates exceed reasonable food form delivery potential necessitating manufactured sources (like creatine and HMB).  It’s too early to call on the efficacy of supplementing phosphatidic acid so if you are PA curious, eat more cabbage for now (47).

I can tell you with over 35 years of work in sports that athletes quickly fatigue of dietary supplements, but they never tire of eating.  They have robust appetites and believe me when I say, you don’t want to pay the grocery bill for a bunch of hungry swimmers or football athletes!  Consistently, the most affordable high-quality protein that we have at every meal for athletes who are trying to gain lean mass are eggs.  Here are some great videos that feature eggs in easy to make recipes…

Good Luck…Sprint, Lift, Fuel, Sleep!


Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS •
Egg Nutrition Center Health Professional Advisor –
Consulting Sports RD for MLB/MLBPA
Volunteer Ambassador –
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