Powerlifting is not just a sport for 20-somethings and those over 40 years old may be surprised at what their bodies can handle as well as the numerous benefits that may come along the way.
So how do you get started with powerlifting if you’re over 40? It’s important to first build a foundation of movement basics and muscle to ensure that you’re ready to tackle the squat, bench, and deadlift. Once you’re there you should work on building strength in the three main lifts while also paying attention to your lifting technique and recovery.
The answer may seem surprisingly straightforward, but the reality is that powerlifting is a bit of a unique sport where age isn’t as large of a barrier as it would be for a sport such as gymnastics.
In the article we will go through the several benefits of powerlifting especially as someone over 40, how strong you’ll need to be to compete, some examples of powerlifters who are over 40 to hopefully inspire you and I’ve even added a sample routine to help you get started on this journey!
Can You Get Stronger After 40?
The short answer is: yes!
While this may vary at an individual level due to health conditions or perhaps even training age the overall answer is yes you will get stronger if you start training for strength. How strong you will get will inevitably depend on several conditions.
If you happened to play sports, did gymnastics, or were generally very active throughout your adolescence and childhood you will likely notice things will come a bit easier for you.
The reason for this is that you know how to move, or rather your brain and body remember how to engage muscles and a little bit of practice will go a long way.
If you don’t have any sort of history with sports or activities in the past, you shouldn’t be discouraged either, you just may need a little more work in order to feel comfortable and strong moving the barbell.
The benefit of being a novice is that progress is accelerated in the beginning stages and this phenomenon is not limited to young people. Therefore, if anything, less experienced lifters at 40 will see far more progress than those who spent their 20s and 30s training really hard.
Unfortunately, studies looking at middle-aged lifters are far and few between.
However, one 2018 study found that there were no significant differences in recovery between untrained young and middle-aged men when exposed to high volume training.
Additionally, a 2017 study found that both young and middle-aged, recreationally trained men responded similarly to high volume exercise.
One thing to note is that long term studies don’t currently exist and so it is possible that older individuals accumulate more stress, or perhaps hit a wall after several weeks, but at an earlier point than a younger lifter would. Whether this is actually true is still unclear.
With that said, you should not be afraid to start lifting weights at this age because your body is able to recover.
There is a misconception that powerlifting will hurt you and is not an appropriate exercise for the general population. However, if you continue to monitor your training intensity as well as recovery, ensuring you are sleeping, eating, and resting adequately, you can expect to handle 3-4x/week resistance training even after the age of 40.
Benefits of Powerlifting Over 40
The benefits of powerlifting don’t go away once you hit 40 and if anything, become more important. These benefits include increased bone density, stronger muscles, lower body fat percentage, and overall improved longevity and aging benefits.
While your primary motivation to start powerlifting may not have been long term health benefits, but I’m here to tell you that there are several that you should know about to hopefully keep you motivated.
So, beyond just having fun lifting heavy weight, those over 40 will reap the benefits at such a crucial point in their life, including:
The secret to strong and dense bones is resistance training. The way applying stress to a muscle prompts it to get stronger or grow, the same occurs with our bones. While this is important for any person, it is increasingly vital for those in their 40s, especially women.
As women cross the age of 45 peri-menopause is likely right around the corner which means a 3-year period of rapid losses in bone mass and strength. This makes resistance exercise one of the best activities to focus on in your 40s and beyond.
A combination of doing the 3 competition lifts with accessory resistance exercises multiple times a week is going to have a positive effect on your muscle mass.
Not only do muscles look great and give your body structure, but from a health and function perspective, it’s important to understand that if you don’t use it, you do unfortunately lose it. Age-related sarcopenia, or muscle loss, is inevitable and one of the best ways to mitigate it is through using your muscles as we do in powerlifting.
Lower Body Fat Percentage
A 2017 study found that middle-aged women who devoted more time, or days, to strength training tended to have lower body fat and higher fat-free mass. In addition, a 1999 study found improvements in body fat percentage of sedentary pre-menopausal women.
For many years we were told cardio is the way to lose fat, but those days are over and we now understand a healthy body requires resistance training. And beyond feeling and looking good, this may also decrease your risk of long term health complications.
If there’s one way to sum up why powerlifting or strength training to any degree is in your best interest it would be that it’s great for longevity if done properly.
One study in 2018 found regular exercise habits in middle age protected against ending up in a nursing home due to several conditions in older age. The stronger you get, the easier everyday activities become and the longer you can remain independent.
Therefore, the best way to fight against age-related issues is through regular exercise, and preferably strength training, making powerlifting a perfect choice if it’s something you’re interested in pursuing.
How To Start Powerlifting At 40?
To start powerlifting you should first ensure you have a good baseline level of physical fitness, both muscular and cardiovascular, work on technique, and then introduce progressive strength training.
Your starting point as a powerlifter will be dependent on what you have been doing throughout the last few months or even years of your life. If you are someone who used to compete or train like a bodybuilder, specific barbell work can start almost immediately, however, most people will need to ease themselves into it and work on the foundations.
Depending on how much time you have to spare for training, learning the proper technique can be done concurrently as you work on increasing your general physical preparedness (GPP).
Here is a general breakdown of what to focus on to ensure success.
General Physical Preparedness (GPP)
GPP is a relatively fancy way of saying you need to get fit. This doesn’t mean training for anything too specific but your muscles and your heart need to become accustomed to exercising regularly if this is not something you were doing prior to taking an interest in powerlifting.
One of the limitations of an aging body is that your recovery time becomes compromised to a degree. Working on overall fitness will improve your resilience and get your body prepared to tackle powerlifting-specific training.
This is also a great time to build up a baseline level of muscle and improve your overall mobility.
Tight hamstrings, tight ankles, and general mind to muscle connections may be your biggest barriers to success. Therefore, doing exercises and drills to help you wake up the muscles and improve your range of motion will open the door to your potential.
This time can include barbell movements but stay focused more on feeling good, building muscle, improving endurance, and working in all ranges of motion.
This phase of GPP can last anywhere from 6 weeks to several months based on your current fitness level.
For help selecting exercises in this phase take a look at any of the following articles:
- 22 Exercises To Improve Squat Depth (That Actually Work)
- The 9 Best Ab Exercises for Powerlifters
- 9 Squat Exercises to Improve Strength and Technique
- 18 Exercises to Improve Deadlift Strength
- How To Increase Ankle Mobility For Squats: 13 Exercises
Learning the Technique
The technique in powerlifting is important for 3 reasons:
- Poor technique may disqualify a lift from competition
- Poor technique may put you at greater risk of injury
- Poor technique may compromise how strong you become
This advice would be given to lifters of any age, however, once we hit middle age, our resilience to injury may not be as great as a 21-year-old and you may already have a history of injury, so it’s best that you avoid learning things the hard way.
In addition, if you have not worked with a barbell before the lifts will feel very foreign, and knowing what a “good lift” actually feels like will take some time and a regular assessment of your execution.
Some tips for this phase are to not focus on what weight is on the bar and to frequently record videos of your sets so you can assess what areas need improvement, whether it’s squat depth, leg drive in the bench press, or your back positioning in the deadlift.
I would recommend incorporating some sets of very light barbell back squats, bench press and deadlifts at the start of your workouts until you become comfortable with the proper technique.
This is also a great time to practice both high bar and low bar squat positions as well as conventional and sumo deadlift positions so you can make a decision for yourself on which one feels more comfortable for you. You can always make an adjustment later in your lifting career on which one you focus on, but knowing how to do both well is in your best interest.
To help you work on techniques and avoid some common mistakes, have a look at any of the articles below:
- 9 Squat Cues To Improve Technique (And 1 You Should Not Do)
- 13 Bench Press Cues For Max Strength (With Pictures)
- Top 10 Deadlift Cues For Stronger Pulls (With Pictures)
Now that you have a baseline level of fitness and have learned the proper technique for all three lifts, you can finally look to start working on building strength and allowing yourself to incrementally add more weight to the bar as you start to slowly progress.
In this phase, you’ll want to generally stick to sets of 3-6 reps and work at an intensity where it feels like you still have a couple of reps left until failure.
You don’t want to be working at your max effort each time you go into the gym because you will eventually hit a wall, a good motto to keep in mind is: “longevity over short term intensity.”
As the lifts start to get easier, you can add more weight to the bar and you should notice a generally linear increase over time.
At the end of the first couple of months of focusing on building strength, you may want to do a mock meet to test your strength if you aren’t up to signing up for a formal competition. Having a sense of where your maximal strength is can then help you select weights for the subsequent months of training and will serve as great motivation to keep getting stronger!
How Strong Do You Need To Be To Compete In Powerlifting At 40?
To sign up for a local, open powerlifting meet you don’t have to meet any strength criteria, however, if you wish to be somewhat competitive there are several things to keep in mind.
In my opinion, you should have at least a couple of months of consistent training under your belt before signing up for a meet, just for the sake of building up your own confidence in doing the squat, bench, and deadlift.
However, from a strength perspective, it’s not necessary to be very competitive because the first competition should be seen as a learning experience, and setting your sights too high for your performance may leave you disappointed.
As a novice you can still give yourself some loose expectations just to know if you are making steady progress:
- Novice women, depending on body weight, can expect to squat between 47kg -74kg, bench 32kg -50kg, and deadlift 56kg -88kg after a few months of consistent training.
- Novice men, depending on body weight, can expect to squat between 72kg-111kg, bench 54kg-83kg, and deadlift 82kg -127kg after a couple of months of training.
Read more in my article on How Strong Do You Have To Be At Your First Powerlifting Meet.
With respect to some longer-term goals, here are some milestones you may want to keep in mind:
- 1.5x bodyweight squat
- 1x bodyweight bench press
- 2x bodyweight deadlift
These milestones may take 1-2+ years to achieve, or they may come quicker, depending on your experience. Regardless, keep in mind that powerlifting is a sport of personal bests and if you’re making progress, it’s still something to be proud of.
If you have dreams of making it to a national-level competition you will need to find the national qualifying total for your weight class, sex, and age group for that federation. This is something you can start to think about, but meeting this qualifying total shouldn’t be your goal at your very first meet.
In powerlifting, there is no age restriction on competing and the 4 age categories for those over 40 are broken down by decade, each with their own standards: 40-49-year-olds are Master’s I, 50-59-year-olds are Master’s II, 60-69-year-olds are Master’s III and Master’s IV is anyone 70+.
A qualifying total will have to be accomplished at a local and/or regional level (depending on where you live) in order to make it to the national stage. For example, you can find the USAPL national qualifying totals click here.
If you have made the decision to compete you will want to go in prepared which can include knowing what to bring with you, how to eat on competition day, how to warm up, how to choose your attempts, and the general structure of the day.
For more information about powerlifting meets themselves check out any of our articles down below:
- What You Should Bring To A Powerlifting Meet
- How Powerlifting Meets Work
- Competition Gear For Powerlifting
- How To Pick Your Attempts In Powerlifting
- How Powerlifting Is Scored
- What To Eat During A Powerlifting Meet
- How To Pick Your Weight Class For Powerlifting
- 55 Powerlifting Mistakes To Avoid
- How To Find Powerlifting Meets
Examples of Elite Powerlifters Competing Over 40
The great thing about powerlifting is that it’s a sport where there are several examples of elite athletes over the age of 40 continuing to place in competition on an international and national level.
While the following examples are all individuals who started lifting weights early in their life, it’s still incredible to see the level of strength possible even in middle age. Notably, these individuals are not just strong for their age, they are just very strong and can size up many younger competitors.
Jen Thompson is an 11x world powerlifting champion and one of the best-known powerlifters in the game who continues to compete even into her 40s. She is most infamously known for her bench press, with her best being 144kg/319.6lbs at 72kg body weight.
She has been training since she was a young adult, but continues to put up great performance even into her 40s while balancing life as a mother and public school teacher.
LS McClain is an international powerlifting champion from the USA in his early 40s with his best total sitting at 862.5kg/1901lbs at 105kg/231lbs body weight.
His first ever powerlifting competition was in 2011 at the age of 32, which is a relatively late start compared to some powerlifters you see today, but he has still managed to work his way to the top in the past decade and continues to make progress as a Master’s level lifter.
Marisa Inda is a 5x national champion from the USA as well as a 1x international world champion powerlifter. She is in her early 40s and has a long history of bodybuilding before entering the world of powerlifting in her 30s.
She competes at a body weight of only 52kg/114lbs and her best total is at 430kg/948lbs She continues to train and make progress even throughout her 40s and is another great example for what is possible.
Powerlifting Routine For Over 40
The following routine is for someone who is ready to start including barbell movements consistently with a focus on gaining strength and has already spent some time developing overall fitness as well as practicing technique.
If you are not yet comfortable with the squat, bench press and deadlift, it would be best that you begin your journey to powerlifting with some general physical preparedness, or GPP, training and focusing on developing proper form.
When creating a routine for yourself you will need to keep a few things in mind:
- Always start with a squat, bench or deadlift because you are building strength in these and don’t want to be fatigued by other exercises beforehand.
- Don’t forget your accessory exercises! These are all the other exercises that aren’t a squat, bench or deadlift, but they are vital to keeping your joints healthy and your muscles strong.
- Remember to rest! The strongest lifter is always the one who stays healthiest the longest Aim to train every other day and try not to do more than 2 days in a row.
- Start light and add a 2.5 – 5lbs to the bar every week or every other week rather than going as heavy as possible the first week and needing to regress the next week.
- Body part splits are not necessary and mixing upper and lower body exercises on the same day is a great way to avoid fatiguing one area beyond its recovery limit. Instead opt for focusing on 1-2 competition lifts per day.
The following is an example of a 3 day split you can try for yourself to get you started on building strength in the squat, bench, and deadlift:
Powerlifting For Over 40 Workout #1 – Squat Focus
- Back Squat: 3×5 @ 65-75% of 1 Rep Max
- Romanian Deadlifts: 3x 6-8
- Front Foot Elevated Split Squats: 3×8-12
- Hamstring Curls: 3×12-15
- Single Arm Bent Over Row: 3×12-15
Powerlifting For Over 40 Workout #2 – Bench Focus
- Bench Press: 3×5 @ 65-75% of 1 Rep Max
- Overhead Strict Press: 3x 6-8
- Lat Pulldown: 3×10-12
- Tricep Extensions:3×15
- Reverse Fly/Rope Face Pull: 3×15
- Weighted Plank: 3x 20-30s
Powerlifting For Over 40 Workout #3 – Deadlift Focus
- Deadlift (conventional or sumo): 3×5 @ 65-75% of 1 Rep Max
- Dumbbell Chest Press: 3x 6-8
- Paused Goblet Squats: 3x 8-12
- Hip Thrust (any variation): 3×10-15
- Band-Resisted Deadbug: 3×20
Starting powerlifting after the age 40 is absolutely possible and with the right guidance it may be the best thing you do for your confidence and your health. It’s a myth that once you hit 40 it’s impossible to be strong, fit and healthy.
Luckily the sport of powerlifting provides an inclusive environment where age is not a limiting factor for participation or long term success and it in turn will ensure you age with grace and continue to be the strong, independent person you’ve been your entire life.
Check out my other articles on Master Powerlifting: