Developing a 50 year old upper body.
May 29, 2012 8:32 AM   Subscribe

Help a middle aged guy develop his upper body.

I'm 50 and my arms and shoulders need work. I've always had small wrists and forearms and I want to be less embarrassed about my appearance. In the past year I got into stretches of a few weeks where I did 300 pushups each day (10 sets of 30). It seemed to help develop my shoulders somewhat but I lost the discipline to keep at it. I need a 45 minute routine I can do every day at home that will build my wrists, forearms and shoulders. Help?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If you want to stick with bodyweight conditioning to increase size and strength, your options are limited but they exist.

I suggest investing your time in a program such as Convict Conditioning, but there are plenty of others that do the same thing. The key is progressive overload of your muscles to increase size. If you're doing 300 pushups, then your muscles aren't being overtaxed to grow. A good calisthenics/bodyweight program (such as CC) will start having you do uneven pushups (i.e., one hand on a basketball or such) and work you toward one-handed pushups. This of course will develop your muscles.

I also would invest in one of those handy-dandy pull-up/dip bars to do pull-ups, chin-ups and dips. The former two work one side of your shoulders, and biceps and forearms; the latter works your triceps, chest and the other side of your shoulders. Both should work your forearms for grip.

If you want to invest in some dumbbells, this will help you get more growth, but you will need to allow for progressive weight overload to build strength.

Eat at a surplus and get plenty of sleep. Muscles do not grow when you are not resting, nor when you are ill fed.
posted by baconaut at 8:45 AM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're going for bulking up (adding muscle), a steady regimen of N reps of exercise X isn't what you should be doing, AFAIK from the literature. Someone far more qualified will drop in here to correct me if I'm wrong, but: varied exercises that "keep your muscles guessing" are better for building mass. Otherwise, your body decides how much is enough, and plateaus off there pretty quickly.

Additionally, as you've discovered, your brain gets REALLY bored with that plan quickly, making it hard to stick with it.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:54 AM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am going to have to respectfully disagree with IAmBroom here. "Muscle Confusion" is a marketing gimmick for programs such as P90X, and have absolutely nothing to do with the kinesiology of muscle building. What a varied workout does is keep the mind from getting bored -- so the second part of IAmBroom's statement is the reason behind variation.

Muscle building works on progressive adaptation. If you lift heavier and heavier weights, you will gain strength. If your muscles spend more time under tension, they get larger. If you do more reps, they gain endurance. Generally these fields overlap to some degree but you can't get all three to the same degree. Programs such as Starting Strength or StrongLifts emphasize heavy weights/low reps for massive strength gains, and some mass. Bodybuilders lift less heavy weights for more reps, and gain hypertrophy. Calisthenics/bodyweight has an upper bound on weight that can be lifted, but works endurance.

A good program, be it for functional strength, aesthetics, endurance or some combination thereof is going to work on constant progression and challenge to keep you from getting bored. A lot of it is mental though.
posted by baconaut at 9:02 AM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding baconaut. I highly recommend getting/building something that allows you to do both pullups and dips (a pullup bar is simple, but the parallel bars for dips are fantastic for building upper body strength) in addition to push ups.

I'd also find a way to add weight to these exercises once you can do a fair amount with just your bodyweight. There are belts you can buy on Amazon that are about $30 specifically designed for this; or you can just make some kind of substitute on your own.

If your goal is to change your appearance, you should also highly consider changing your diet, as what you are eating will have a larger impact on what you look like than the exercise you do will.
posted by MoonOrb at 9:14 AM on May 29, 2012

varied exercises that "keep your muscles guessing" are better for building mass.

"Muscle Confusion" is a marketing gimmick for programs such as P90X

While "muscle confusion" is indeed a marketing gimmick, there is a core element to doing varied workouts, and that's the difference between isolation and compound exercises and the development of muscles and stabilizing tissues in addition to the primary muscle being worked.

In other words, if you sit there and do absolutely nothing but concentration curls, you'll get great biceps, but you'll have weak shoulders. The varied P90X workout avoids this. But the "muscle confusion" term itself is bunk.

The Convict Conditioning method is surprisingly well done for something so wrapped up in its posturing, macho "convict" label. Heartily recommended.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:29 AM on May 29, 2012

I've been lifting weights since I was 14 (just shy of 30 years), and I really like--and have seen the best results with--stuff like Lou Schuler's New Rules of Lifting for Life. It uses the "more weight, more reps" approach that baconaut mentions, adds an alternating "push/pull" component (e.g., pull ups/dips) that ensures you're working both sides of your body, plus explicit rest periods so you don't get under/overtrained (or injured!) from the lifting. The workouts are also staged meaningfully to minimize injury and uneven training.

Before picking up one of Schuler's books to work through on my own, I worked with a trainer for two years who also used this approach. Good stuff, definite muscle mass retention/gain, and a clear program to follow. I did 30-minute workouts, 3x a week. Most of the exercises can be done at home with adjustable free weights, a bar, a swiss ball, etc., though to be honest I prefer a gym.

For wrists in particular, you could add something like a Gripmaster or gyroscopic ball. And as someone who's getting up there in age, too, I really recommend a few rotator cuff strengtheners before you get an injury. This book gives a brief set of exercises that would take, maximum, 5 minutes a day.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:42 AM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The problem with that many pushups, is that you're muscles have a memory, and they'll start to adapt to the exercise, so you want to try an assortment of things, and change things up as often as possible. The chinup bar suggestion is a good one. Yoga might be worth looking into - I know I have shoulder issues, and really feel them in downward dog. I'd suggest doing a class, but you can make it a home practice once you've got a few moves down.

I was going to suggest bouldering at a rock climbing gym. Great for building your upper body, and fun, but maybe you can break up the monotony of home workouts with that, once in a while.

You might want to work on your handstands too. Work against a wall at first.
posted by backwards guitar at 11:00 AM on May 29, 2012

+1 for Convict Conditioning. Following the progressions will give you goals as well as advice on the time it takes to reach them properly.
posted by Hylas at 12:52 PM on May 29, 2012

Just stay fit. The healthy answer, imo, is to work on the fact that you are "embarrassed" of your appearance. So, you have small wrists and forearms; trust me - nobody really cares but you. The better bang for your buck would be to work on the embarrassment and anxiety about it. Life is too short.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 2:43 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Keep records and write everything down. I use 150 sheets college ruled spiral notebook 9.5 in X 6 in. and like this format very much. It might do wonders for your motivation to turn the pages back 3 months and see how much progress you have made. Judging your progress by looking at your torso in the mirror is a not a precise measurment.
posted by bukvich at 6:21 PM on May 29, 2012

Thanks to those who corrected my advice. As I said, I'm no expert... and the advice is useful to me, too.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:48 AM on May 30, 2012

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