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Midlife Muscle

Full-range pushups can be a good substitute for bench presses. They’re more ergonomically correct and can help those with low neuromuscular efficiency in the pecs to feel their chest muscles working.

Q: I’m a 47-year-old man who has been an ectomorphic hardgainer. (At my age and with a very different metabolism, who knows what I am now?) I’m 180 pounds at 6’ tall with a bodyfat level in the high teens—17 percent, if you can believe the calipers. So I look fit and athletic for 47, but I’d prefer a lot more muscle and definition. I’m applying pretty good basic science to my regimen, but consistency has been a problem because of some nagging shoulder-inflammation issues. Flat-bench presses, for instance, seem to be out of the question. Inclines are somewhat better. Declines I’m still experimenting with, but I can’t go heavy with any of them. Okay, here are my questions:

1) If I have to pull bench presses, what are my best alternative pec moves, and how should I reconsider your prescribed workouts?

2) What can I reasonably expect in terms of muscle growth? I’m terrified to take in surplus calories for fear of storing fat.

A: I think I can address your questions, as I’m 47 and a hardgainer with a minor shoulder problem from powerlifting in my 20s. Let’s look at your bench-press situation first.

I’ve found wide-grip dips to be an excellent alternative to bench presses. If you can’t do those, you may have to resort to using pre-exhaustion—cable flyes followed immediately by machine bench presses or even pushups. I’ve found that my chest responds well to pushups; you can use the DXO technique (an X Rep at the bottom after each full rep) to make them more difficult and effective—that provides excess stress at the important semistretch position, where fiber activation is maximized. Also, elevating your feet and supporting your hands on a pair of pushup stands to increase difficulty and range of motion (if your shoulder can tolerate that) is something you can try, although standard pushups will do in a pinch.

Now, as a 47-year-old, what muscle growth can you reasonably expect? It’s more difficult to build muscle after 40, but you can still make impressive progress. It’s especially important to cycle your training the way we do—more abbreviated strength and size training in the winter (for example, the 3D Power Pyramid program in the X-traordinary Muscle-Building Workouts e-book), then move to size and strength as you reduce bodyfat in the spring and summer. Note the change from strength as the primary target in winter, with size as secondary; flip-flop those priorities when spring rolls around.

It’s also important to cycle down your intensity every four to six weeks; that is, four to six weeks of all-out workouts alternated with one or two weeks of subfailure training. That ensures that your muscle, nervous and endocrine systems recover completely before you ramp up intensity again.

Keep in mind that the leaner you are, the larger and more muscular you will look. If you got your bodyfat down to 10 percent, you would notice a distinct difference in appearance and muscularity. It doesn’t take a lot of calories to build muscle; you just need to eat clean most of the time and be sure you get enough protein. Hardgainers tend to need more carbs, so you could cycle in higher-carb days once or twice a week to refill glycogen stores in the spring and summer. Winter, when strength is more of a priority, eat 50 percent carbs every day—your calories should be above maintenance, but don’t let your bodyfat get out of control.

Q: I read your all of your articles, books and e-books and was wondering if you had any workouts specifically for old guys like me? At 65 it’s hard to hang on. I was Mr. Detroit in 1965, and I’ve got old injuries—knees, shoulders, back. It’s tough to find workouts that fit in. Can you help?

A: I think the best way to train, especially after age 40, is with Positions of Flexion. It’s based on picking exercises that work each muscle through its full range. In case you’re not familiar with 3D POF, a good example would be this triceps routine: close-grip bench presses, pushdowns, overhead extensions. That’s midrange work (arms moving perpendicular to the torso), contracted work (arms down next to torso) and stretch work (arms extending overhead).

You work the triceps through its full arc of flexion, or contractability, which not only develops the muscle more fully but strengthens the tendons and ligaments in all the critical positions as well. That prevents injury and enhances mobility. Each muscle group has a midrange, contracted and stretch position. There’s more information on 3D POF at

Q: I’m fairly big, so now I figure I’d better think about ripping up. Some bodybuilders at my gym said that I should start doing higher reps, but I’ve read that higher reps don’t burn many more calories and aren’t that great for muscle gains. I’m confused. Will high reps help me get cut?

A: The general consensus these days is that bodybuilders shouldn’t do high reps for muscularity for the reasons you mentioned; however, I believe that using a few high-rep sets, or at least longer tension-time sets—40 to 50 seconds—with drop sets and double drops will help you get leaner via two specific pathways:

1) More muscle burn, which in turn triggers growth hormone release. Growth hormone is a potent fat burner.

2) More pump and occlusion, or blood flow blockage, which forces development of the endurance components in the muscles, including the mitochondria.

Now, that doesn’t mean you should do all of your work sets in the 12-to-20 zone. You need a variety of rep ranges to stress all of the various muscle-building pathways—lower reps for max-force generation and higher reps for endurance-component work. If you do high reps only, you miss stressing the important max-force characteristic, and you can lose size in key fast-twitch power fibers.

If you use 3D POF, you can do lower reps, seven to nine, on the midrange exercises; medium reps, nine to 12, on the stretch-position exercises; and higher reps, 12 to 15, on the contracted-position moves. Longer tension times on contracted-position exercises, like leg extensions for quads, are especially important, as those exercises bring the most occlusion, so they’re best for developing the mitochondria, where fat is burned for fuel.

Editor’s note: Steve Holman is the author of many bodybuilding best-sellers and the creator of Positions-of-Flexion muscle training. For information on the POF videos and Size Surge programs, see the ad sections in Iron Man Magazine. Also visit for information on X-Rep and 3D POF methods and e-books. IM

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