The Only Three Exercises You Need To Build Muscle (For Men Over 40) 


If you’re a man in his 40s like me, it’s likely your priorities have shifted a bit whether it’s kids, a wife, work or all of the above. You don’t want to spend two hours in the gym each day like you did in your 20s. You just want to be able to show up, get your lifts in, and be done. Since you don’t have too much time in the gym you want to make sure you’re making the most of it. The last thing you want to do is wander around the gym aimlessly not knowing what you should be doing or even worse injuring yourself in the process.

The truth is there’s no need to do crazy long workouts like you may have done in your 20s. You can get the exact same results if not better by spending less time in the gym when you’re a bit more purposeful. You see as you get older sometimes less is actually more and that’s why today I’m going to share the only three exercises you need for muscle growth specifically for men over 40.

These three exercises will accomplish two things: First I’ve selected exercises that will give you the best bang for your buck. In other words they’re easy to load and they target multiple muscle groups to a significant degree. Second, this trio was selected strategically to ensure a balanced physique. To ensure this I’ve selected one multi-joint pushing movement that will target every upper body pushing muscle, one multi-joint pulling movement that will target every upper body pulling muscle, and one multi-joint leg movement that will target the entire lower body.

So without further ado let’s jump in!

Number one: Low Incline Bench Press

One article published in the Journal for Interventional Medicine and Applied Science found that training routines that included just the bench press or any variation of it seem to be adequate enough to stimulate overall chest development. Research also suggests that the bench press one rep max is tightly correlated to pec size and strength meaning the bigger you bench the bigger your pecs. 

At least to a degree but why a slight incline over a traditional flat bench press? To answer this question I have to look at some EMG data showing the level of activation in the pecs, delts, and triceps during bench pressing movements of varying degrees. 

One study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health sought to answer the question of which bench press variation will give you the best bang for  your buck. To accomplish this they placed electrodes over the lower middle and upper chest alongside the  triceps and front delts. 

They found that at a 30 degree angle activation of the interior delts and upper fibers of the pecs were maximized for the lower and middle fibers.Traditional flat bench was best and there was little to no difference in tricep stimulation across all angles. Looking at the graph however you can see that 15 degrees is not only great for hitting all fibers of the pec but also elicits more activation of the deltoids.

Most people will notice that they can do substantially more weight on a flat bench than a traditional incline of about 45 degrees so this low incline variation gives you the best of both worlds. Not only is it easier to load than the traditional incline variation but it also produces more activation in both the upper chest and delts. 

How to perform the low incline bench press

To perform this exercise place an adjustable bench into a rack and place the bench in the first setting. The first setting on most benches is roughly a 15 degree angle. No need to get too technical here as we’re just looking for a slightly elevated bench similar to a flat bench press. We want to achieve a stable shoulder position by creating an arch in the back and squeezing your shoulder blades together to maximize our force producing potential. This setup allows us to place more load not only on the pecs but also the smaller muscles assisting with the lift I.E the shoulders and triceps as well. The bar path will be pretty similar to that of the flat bench press when it comes to pressing imagine pushing yourself into the bench as much as you’re thinking of pushing the bar up and back towards the rack and as always make sure to maintain the three points of contact your glutes, the back of your head, and your feet all firmly planted into the bench and ground respectively.

Number Two Pendlay Row

This compound movement targets all of the upper body pulling muscles and it’s also the best exercise for applying load through your entire back musculature. On top of that since every rep is initiated from a dead stop the momentum is removed from the equation reducing the risk of injury.  The exercise acts as a hybrid between a barbell row and a chest supported row. As the arms are in a higher degree of shoulder flexion when performing a Pendlay row whereas a traditional barbell row it’s safe to say that there is a greater stimulus on the lats as their main function is shoulder extension. This exercise also hits the traps, rhomboids. rear delts, and biceps as well as the spinal erectors. This is important to note as the spinal erectors are extremely important to giving thickness to the back given the fact that they run the length of the entire spine.

How to perform the Pendlay row

To set up for the Pendlay row:

  • Position your feet at roughly shoulder width with the bar just over the front of your foot. 
  • Hinge your back positioning your chest almost parallel to the floor. 
  • If hamstring tightness is an issue here you can always perform this movement off some bumper plates or blocks. 
  • From here grab the bar with a pronated overhand grip at about shoulder width. 
  • If you’re feeling too much pressure on your lower back it’s likely your grip is too wide 
  • Unlike a barbell row where we first deadlift the weight up in order to get into position we will instead be lifting directly from the ground.
  • Here it’s important that you keep a strong shoulder position. This can be done by retracting or squeezing our shoulder blades together. 
  • From there pull the bar down towards your lower sternum think nipple line by driving your elbows back in towards your pockets.
  • Your back should remain in the same position throughout the entire movement.

Things to watch out for:

  • Make sure to keep your elbows at about 45 degrees as tucking them any further would prevent the traps from working properly.
  • Flaring them too much will take the lats out of the movement putting more load on the rear delts.
  • Avoid letting the weight fall straight back to the ground without control.
  • I recommend aiming for a 3 second concentric with each rep. This is a great way to add more time under tension while also working your spinal Erectors isometrically.
  • Another common mistake for this exercise is going too heavy. 
  • For better and safer results stick to a weight that you can lift in a controlled fashion.

Tips for performing the perfect row:

  • There is EMG evidence to suggest that keeping your scapula retracted throughout a rowing movement leads to higher lat activation so focusing on this is vital, specifically if you want to maximize your lat growth.
  • The biggest benefit I find with the Pendlay Row versus the traditional barbell row is it places less stress on the lower back despite our spine being more parallel to the floor. 
  • This is because the load that is used with the Pendlay Row is often much lighter than that of the traditional barbell row.
  • A good load to aim for is anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of your body weight when working in the 8 to 12 rep range and as mentioned before if you are finding that your lower back fatigues simply adjust the setup by placing the bar on blocks or a bumper plate. 

Number Three Barbell Back Squat 

If you want a big set of legs you’re gonna have to do some form of a squat period. Whether it be with a barbell, kettlebell, or machine. EMG data shows that squats elicit extremely high muscle activity in all the main lower body musculature from the quads and hamstrings to the glutes and even the calves. The best thing about the squat is there are so many variations that you’re bound to find one that works for you. Although personally, I don’t think you can beat a good old-fashioned barbell back squat. 

To produce the most amount of force as safely as possible what we want to do is maximize stability in our setup. Another thing to consider with the squat is depth. It seems that the deeper you go the more leg activation you get. Research comparing shallow squats versus deep squats shows a direct correlation between leg muscle activation and squat depth. That said I recommend going only as low as you can before experiencing discomfort. If you’re struggling with lower body mobility and want to squat a bit deeper you can try placing a small plate under your heel. Due to differences in morphology some people are better suited to squat than others. Placing a small plate under your heel leads to more plantar flexion of the foot and ultimately a more upright and stable posture throughout your squat. 

How to perform the barbell back squat

  • Create a shelf for the bar with your upper back by squeezing your shoulder blades together hard.
  • Grab the bar with a tight “white-knuckle” grip and pull it down on your back, pointing your elbows toward the ground.
  • Tense and engage your core by taking a big belly breath and holding it before unracking the bar.
  • Set up directly under the bar with your feet parallel and don’t take more than 2 or 3 steps back after you un-rack.
  • Once you have established proper foot position, grab the ground with your feet and screw them into the floor. 
  • Spread the floor apart by creating outward tension with your feet and legs.
  • Initiate the Squat through the hips by engaging your core, controlling your spine and pushing your hips back.


So there you have it: the only three exercises you need to build muscle specifically for men over 40. Remember no matter what age you are, the same principles apply. If you progressively overload any muscle over time it will grow and to ensure longevity we must stay safe and injury free to the best of our ability. On top of training safely and effectively we must also keep other lifestyle factors in order. This means taking recovery as seriously as your training: sleep seven to nine hours per night, eat a sufficient amount of protein, and get enough calories to support your goals.