- It’s never too late to build muscle and strength. You can build muscle no matter your age.
- A proven strength training program for building muscle after 50 is to lift two or three days per week, doing 10 sets per muscle and week, with about 8–15 reps per set.
- Eat a healthy high-protein diet. A protein supplement can help you increase your protein intake if you don’t get enough from your regular meals. Other helpful supplements include creatine, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D.
Building muscle after 50 is not only important for a great-looking physique, it’s also essential if you look forward to a long life of healthy aging in a strong body.
Contrary to popular belief, age is not an obstacle to gaining muscle. Strength training is both effective and safe for older adults.
In this article, I’ll guide you through everything you need to know to start building muscle past the age of 50.
It’s never too late.
Your Muscles After 50
As you get older, starting as early as your thirties, you begin to lose muscle. At first, it happens so slowly that you don’t notice it. However, as the years pass, the loss of muscle mass accelerates.1
As if that wasn’t enough, you start losing strength even faster than you lose muscle, and fat begins to infiltrate your muscles.2
This process leads to reduced physical function and a lower quality of life, maybe even disability and early death if unchecked.
Fortunately, you don’t have to sit by and watch this decline take place. On the contrary, you can and should do something about it.
The cure is called strength training.
Strength training is the best way to not only prevent the decline from happening for many decades, but you can also reverse the process and gain muscle mass and strength instead. Best of all, it’s not a bitter pill to swallow, but fun, time-efficient, and effective – all at once.
I’m Past 50. Is It Too Late for Me to Start Training?
I could end this paragraph there, but let’s see what science says.
Both men and women 50 and above experience gains in strength and muscle mass from lifting weights.5 In fact, both men and women respond equally well to strength training.6 Of course, men usually have more muscle mass to begin with, meaning they build more muscle from training in absolute terms. However, women can build just as much muscle as men in relative terms, based on the amount of muscle mass they have.
In just a few months, you can expect to increase your muscle mass dramatically and lose fat simultaneously. In one study, male participants with a mean age of 60 gained 2 kg of fat-free mass while simultaneously losing 2 kg of fat mass during 16 weeks of training.7
Is It Harder to Build Muscle After 50?
It is. You don’t have the benefits of youth holding your hand anymore. But harder does not mean you can’t do it. It doesn’t even mean you have to train excessively hard or spend hours a day in a gym. You have to challenge your muscles, sure, but the crucial thing is to train smart.
A few things aren’t the same when you get older and want to build muscle.
- Recovery. You probably don’t recover as fast from workouts.
In other words: yes, building muscle is a bit trickier after 50 compared to, say, 25. But challenges are meant to be overcome. Both anecdotal and scientific evidence shows that you can build muscle and get great results after 50, 60, 70, and so on.
Do You Need to Consult a Doctor Before You Start Lifting?
Maybe, but probably not. It used to be the standard recommendation to consult a physician before starting any kind of exercise program. However, we now know that the risks of sitting on the couch far outweigh any risks associated with exercise. Having to go to the doctor even if you feel great is another obstacle to taking up exercise, which prevents many people from starting in the first place.
Accordingly, in 2015, the American College of Sports Medicine changed its recommendations. You don’t have to check with your doctor before participating in regular exercise if you don’t suffer from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or renal disease, and you don’t have any signs or symptoms of these diseases.8
If you feel healthy, you’re good to go.
Now, we’re not saying you should jump into an elite lifter’s training program from the get-go. That’s a bad idea, regardless of age. A good training program eases you into the habit of regular exercise.
If you want to be on the safe side, feel free to consult your physician before hitting the weights. It doesn’t hurt, for sure.
Important: everything in this article assumes that you are healthy without any severe medical conditions. Everyday age-related aches and pains are one thing and part of life. However, if you have any serious injury, disease, or other medical condition, don’t jump into any exercise program without talking to your doctor first.
How to Build Muscle After 50
The same basic principles for building muscle and getting stronger still apply after 50.
You need to challenge your muscles by forcing them to do something they are not used to doing. To build muscle and become stronger, you have to work your muscles harder than before.
You accomplish this by gradually increasing how much weight you use. Pick a pair of heavier dumbbells, add a small plate to the bar, or move the pin on the machine to a heavier setting. You can also try to do one repetition more with a certain weight. However you go about it, you must strive to do a little more, lift a little heavier.
This method is called progressive overload. It’s the fundamental principle to gain muscle for both young and old.
If you always lift the same weights the same number of times you can comfortably do, your body has no reason to become stronger or to build muscle. It can already do everything you tell it to do!
Of course, if you’re new to weight training, you should ease into it to learn proper form and get used to the movements. However, once you know how to perform your exercises and feel comfortable and coordinated training, it’s time to slowly but surely ramp things up and challenge yourself with heavier weights.
How Many Times per Week Should You Train?
You can split your body into several training sessions where you train a couple of muscle groups every workout, or you can train your entire body every workout. I suggest you go for the latter if you are new to strength training. That way, you work each muscle more often, allowing your muscles, brain, and nervous system to coordinate your lifts better.
Training every other day is a great way to both stimulate your muscles over the entire week and to allow them enough recovery between workouts. Working out on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays gives you the weekend free, but plan your training week around your own life and schedule.
Which Exercises Are the Best for Building Muscle?
You get the most bang for your buck by focusing on compound, or multi-joint, movements – exercises that work several muscle groups simultaneously. Isolation exercises, meaning those that work one muscle at a time, work just fine too.11 Once you get used to strength training, adding some isolation work, especially for muscles you feel need some extra love, can be a helpful tool. Basic, compound exercises should be the mainstay of your training, though.
It’s important you train your entire body to avoid imbalances and to develop all your major muscle groups.
Starting from the bottom of your body and going up, a fine selection of exercises for working your whole body can look like this:
- Squat. One of the best exercises to strengthen your body and build muscle. It trains your legs, glutes (your butt), adductors (muscles that bring your thighs together), and your lower back. An excellent machine-based option is the leg press.
- Bench Press. Often called the king of upper body exercises, and for a good reason. The bench press works your chest, front deltoids, and triceps. You can also perform this movement with dumbbells or in a chest press machine, either for variety or if you simply prefer doing so.
- Deadlift. A hip-dominant exercise that strengthens most of your body but targets your back, glutes, and hamstrings in particular. You’ll also find that it’s a good exercise for your grip.
- Barbell Row or Seated Row. These exercises are excellent for training your back, especially your mid-back. They also work your biceps. You can also perform machine rows for more stability.
- Lat Pulldown. Another back exercise; this one targets your lats more than rows do. It also hits your biceps.
- Overhead Press. This great exercise hits much of your upper body but targets your shoulders and your triceps in particular. You can perform the exercise standing or seated with a barbell, a pair of dumbbells, or in a machine.
If you perform these exercises in a full-body workout and do so 2–3 times per week, you have an excellent foundation for building muscle. You’ll work most, if not all, of your muscle groups in both an effective and time-efficient manner.
Most of the exercises above are done with free weights, but if you prefer using corresponding machines for some of the exercises, that’s fine. What’s important is challenging your muscles, not the tool you use.
What About My Arms?
All the upper-body exercises I mentioned above work your biceps and your triceps very effectively. For example, studies show that lat pulldowns make your biceps grow just as much as dedicated biceps curls.
There is nothing wrong with training your biceps and triceps separately, but I suggest you start by focusing on compound movements that work your entire body, including your arms. Later on, you can add isolation work for your biceps and triceps if you feel you need to.
A Sample Workout
Using the exercises mentioned above, here’s what a sample workout could look like:
- Squat: 1–4 sets
- Bench press: 1–4 sets
- Deadlift: 1–4 sets
- Seated row: 1–4 sets
- Overhead press: 1–4 sets
- Lat pulldown: 1–4 sets
Of course, you can use alternatives to these exercises, like the leg press instead of the squat.
Start with one set per exercise, and gradually work your way up to four sets per workout.
And speaking of sets …
How Many Sets Should You Do?
Again, start conservatively. Ease into it. Start with one set per muscle group and workout, adding a set every few weeks until you perform three sets per muscle group. If you do that three or four times per week, you have reached the optimal training volume for building muscle.12 13 Alternatively, if you’ve opted for two full-body strength workouts per week, gradually increase the number of sets for each muscle group per workout to four or five.
Even a single set per muscle is better than zero sets, but more is better. Just by performing two sets instead of one, you can expect 40% greater gains.14 Ten sets per muscle group per week give you increasingly better muscle growth.15
How Many Reps Should You Do?
This holds true for older lifters above the age of 50 as well. Research shows similar gains in muscle mass when you use weights you can do 20 reps with as when you go heavy for eight reps.18
A recent study discovered something interesting.
When older adults train with heavy weights and low reps, their fast-twitch muscle fibers grow less than with moderate weights.19
Using heavy weights for low reps is the most effective way to increase your max strength, but it might not be the best idea for you, as an older adult, to focus exclusively on lifting as heavy as possible. Not only do you get similar results by lifting moderate weights for more reps, but you might also reduce your risk of injury. Strength training is a very safe activity, but going all-out heavy puts more strain on your body than using moderate loads.
For the majority of your training, I suggest you stay within the 8–15 rep range. It’s a sensible way to build muscle and strength, with less chance of injuries.
To Fail or Not to Fail?
Very much connected to reps, we have the concept of failure. Failure is when you perform a set to the point where you can’t do another repetition with good form. The jury is out on whether young lifters build more muscle from training to failure, although some evidence suggests a benefit from doing so.20 However, research shows that training to failure is not necessary after the age of 50. You likely gain just as much strength and muscle mass by terminating a set a few reps before you reach failure.21
Training to failure now and then won’t do any harm. It can even be fun to challenge yourself. Doing so all the time taxes your muscles and nervous system, though, and can impair your recovery abilities. Therefore, perform most of your sets to the point where you feel you could do a few more reps if you had to, but don’t go all-out to failure. Leave a repetition or three in the tank.
How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?
As a general rule, long rest intervals between sets, around 3 minutes, are better for building muscle and strength, even though the difference isn’t significant.22 Resting longer allows you to regain most of your strength before gripping the bar again. That means you can perform more reps, and your training volume increases as a result. Training volume is one of the major factors for muscle growth.
That might not apply when you’re above 50.
When it comes to recovering from training, you’d think young individuals would have the advantage. That might be the case the hours and days after a training session, but in between sets, it’s probably the opposite, strange as it may sound. Young individuals might require twice as long rest to recover properly between sets.23 24
When you get older, your muscles change their composition. Your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which fatigue easier, become smaller, while your slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are resistant to fatigue, increase.25 That might, at least partially, be why you don’t require as long rest to recover between sets as you grow older.
Science backs this up in practice as well. In one study, 22 older men gained more muscle and strength with rest intervals of one minute compared to taking a four-minute break between sets.26
In summary, if you feel ready to hit the weights again after 1–2 minutes of rest, go for it.
Now, if you want to rest longer between sets, feel free to do so. It won’t cost you any gains. Your workouts will take longer, though. If that’s an issue for you, don’t worry about speeding things up a bit by only resting a minute between your sets.
Eating to Build Muscle After 50
Lifting weights tell your muscles to grow bigger and stronger. However, they can’t do so without proper amounts of energy and nutrients. You build muscle both in the gym and in the kitchen, and you can’t ignore either if you want good results.
Eating to build muscle isn’t very different after 50, with a few minor considerations.
You can use our calorie calculator to estimate how many calories you need. It is based on the Mifflin-St Jeor equation, one of the most accurate formulas available. All you have to do is enter your sex, weight, height, and age, in addition to your estimated activity level, and it will crunch the numbers for you.
You should aim for a little more than your average daily calorie needs to build muscle effectively. The exception is if you are overweight and want to lose body fat. Then you need to eat fewer calories than you need to keep your body weight stable. As an overweight newcomer to the world of strength training, you can both build muscle and lose fat at the same time without too much trouble.
Protein is the building block of your body, and if you don’t eat enough of it, you’ll have trouble building muscle.
Older adults need more protein than young adults. Research shows that older people need up to 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to prevent age-related muscle loss.27
However, you don’t want just to maintain. You want to gain.
That means you need even more.
Current recommendations say you should aim for 1.6 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to gain muscle.28 However, those numbers are, more often than not, based on studies with young participants. To be sure you get enough protein to support optimal muscle growth, consider aiming for 2 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. There are no known side effects to doing so, and it might just be what your muscles need to start growing.
Some good protein sources, loosely ranked for muscle-building properties include:
- Milk and dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, quark, casein- and whey protein powder)
- Red meat (beef, pork, lamb, game, ostrich)
- White meat (chicken, turkey)
- Fish and seafood
- Soy-based foods (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy protein powder)
- Beans, lentils
- Nuts, almonds, seeds
You can get all your protein from regular food, or you can supplement your diet with a protein powder to reach your target intake.
How Much Protein Should You Eat Per Meal, and How Often?
You can’t use an unlimited amount of protein in one sitting for muscle-building purposes. Eating 90 grams of protein at once does not build more muscle than eating 30 grams.30 That holds for both young and older adults.
A simple rule of thumb is to eat 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and meal. Spread meals of that size evenly over the day, every 3–4 hours or so, and you provide your muscles with a constant supply of building material.31 32
Protein Before Going To Bed
Eating protein before you go to bed allows your body to keep building muscle while you sleep. Research shows that you need 40 grams of protein before sleep to keep your muscle protein synthesis elevated all night long. Twenty grams do not cut it.36
However, this does not necessarily translate into long-term muscle growth, as long as you eat enough protein during the day as a whole.37 Regardless, if you find it hard to consume large amounts of protein in every meal, adding an extra protein meal before sleep can help boost your total protein intake.
Fat is vital for your hormones, your cells’ health, and vitamin uptake, among many other things, including giving your body plenty of energy to work and train.
A daily fat intake of 20–35% of your total calories makes sure you get enough for performance and health.38 For example, say you eat 2,500 calories per day. If you want 25% of those calories to come from fat, you’d need to eat about 70 grams of fat.
Current Dietary Guidelines for Americans don’t specify an upper limit on how much fat you should eat for health purposes.39 You don’t have to follow a low-fat diet if you train and want to build muscle. On the contrary, eating too little fat can lower your testosterone levels.40
Somewhere between 20–35% of your total calories from fat is probably the best interval. There are no harmful effects from going higher, but if you have a limited number of calories to eat, an unrestricted fat intake could mean less than optimal amounts of protein and carbs left to distribute.
For many decades, saturated fats have had a bad rep. Many blame them for increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and other health problems. While you probably decrease your risk of CVD by replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats, saturated fats might not be the devil many think they are.41 42 43
You find unsaturated fats, often considered the “good fats” in olive oil, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and avocados, to name a few sources.
Foods with large amounts of saturated fat include eggs, cheese, butter, and meat. These aren’t bad foods. Most of them are excellent sources of nutrients and the best protein for building muscle.
As long as you eat a varied diet based chiefly on unrefined foods, avoiding or reducing refined and ultra-processed options, you probably don’t have to worry too much about it.
Read More: How to Build Muscle on Keto
Carbohydrates don’t build muscle independently, but that does not mean that they are useless for building muscle. You store the carbs you eat in your muscle as glycogen, which you then use to fuel your workouts. Carbohydrate is the best fuel for intense exercise like strength training.
Calculating how many carbohydrates you should eat is easy. First, determine how many calories and the amount of protein and fat you need following the outlined steps. Then you add carbs to the calculation until you reach your intended calorie intake.
Base your carbohydrate intake on good, healthy choices instead of simple, refined sugars. You don’t have to avoid sugar, but sugar-based foods should be the little extra something in your diet, not the foundation.
These are some excellent choices for your carbohydrate needs:
- Potatoes, both regular and sweet potatoes
Do I Have to Count Calories?
No, you don’t. However, doing so at least once can be helpful. You get a feel of how much you need to eat.
As an example, let’s go back to those 2,500 calories.
- You have decided on 200 grams of protein and 70 grams of fat.
- Each gram of protein and carbohydrate is 4 kcals, and each gram of fat is 9 kcals.
- 200 x 4 = 800 kcals from protein.
- 70 x 9 = 630 kcals from fat.
- 800 + 630 = 1,430 kcals from protein and fat.
- 2,500 – 1,430 kcals = 1,070 kcals from carbohydrates.
- 1,070 / 4 = 270 grams of carbs, give or take.
Now, grams here and kcals there are not important. These numbers are just there to guide you. You don’t have to weigh everything you eat and calculate grams and calories precisely. Keep the rough averages in mind and go from there. When you’re looking to build muscle, a little too much food won’t hurt, but not getting enough can prevent you from seeing the results you want.
Providing protein for your muscles regularly during the day is beneficial, but you don’t have to plan your fat and carbohydrate intake with any particular diligence. It’s an excellent strategy to include carbs in your meals before and after training, though.44 Eating carbohydrates before training improves your performance, and doing so afterward lets you replenish your energy stores again.
Supplements for Building Muscle After 50
A good diet is your nutritional foundation for building muscle and getting stronger. However, getting all the nutrients your body needs is not always easy. Or at least not convenient. That’s where supplements come in.
As we said before, you need more protein for optimal gains in muscle mass when you get older. You can get it all from regular food, but it’s not always convenient. A protein supplement is a great way to increase your daily protein intake.
Don’t expect any different or better results from a protein powder compared to the same amount of protein from food, though. It’s just an inexpensive and convenient source of protein.
You have many different types of protein supplements to choose from, which might be confusing. Whey protein and soy protein are two common ones. Whey protein comes from cow’s milk, and soy protein comes from the soybean. Both are excellent choices. Soy protein is likely the best option if you don’t use animal-based proteins, but if you do, whey protein has a slight edge.45
Read More: Whey or Soy Protein for Building Muscle?
Drinking a shake with around 40 grams of protein after your workouts is a great way to make sure your muscles have what they need to grow bigger and stronger. Young lifters only need 20 or so grams, but that’s not enough when you get older.
As for timing, you should also aim to get some protein down soon after a workout. That doesn’t matter much for young lifters, but it might make a difference in gains for older ones.46
Creatine is probably the most effective supplement for anyone who wants to gain muscle and strength, for both young and old. Older lifters might benefit even more from using creatine.
In older adults, the combination of strength training and creatine has many benefits. Not only do you gain more muscle and strength than with training alone, but you also improve your bone mineral density and become more resistant to fatigue when you train. Your body handles your everyday physical activities better. Creatine can even enhance some of the functions of your brain.47 48 49
Creatine is inexpensive and, best of all, safe for older adults. Your muscles will thank you for it.
Take 5 grams of creatine per day, after your workout on training days and with a meal on rest days. Adding it to a post-workout protein shake is an excellent way to remember to take it.
When buying creatine, go for creatine monohydrate. It’s the original and still the best. Many other variants have popped up on the market over the years, but none have matched monohydrate, which is also, by the way, the least expensive.
Read More: Creatine: Effects, Benefits and Safety
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids your body requires for many things. They keep your cells healthy and are crucial to keeping your heart, blood vessels, and immune system in shape, amongst other things.
In recent years, omega-3s have received attention because they might help build and maintain muscle mass, especially in older people. One meta-analysis found that 2 grams or more of omega-3 fatty acids per day may help you gain muscle and strength.50 Another meta-analysis found no such effects.51 That one didn’t focus specifically on strength training, though.
While the jury is still out, mainly because of the limited amount of available research, a quality supplement providing 2–3 grams of the omega-3s EPA and DHA won’t do any harm. Who knows, it might help your gains somewhat, in addition to potential cardiovascular benefits.52
Also, supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids reduces inflammation after a strength training workout.53 In young people, actively reducing the inflammation a training session creates can impair muscle growth.54 However, this is not the case in individuals over the age of 50.55
Older individuals often have low-level chronic inflammations present. Anything that helps deal with those, like omega-3s, enables you to gain muscle more effectively.56 Anti-inflammatory drugs do the job but bring potential side-effects at the same time. A couple of grams of omega-3s per day don’t.
These are supplements providing most of the essential micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – in one convenient package. Many of these are crucial for your muscles, but don’t expect a multivitamin/mineral pill to be your key to muscle growth. Instead, look at it more as a precaution. You don’t want to get too little of any of the vitamins and minerals you need for a strong and healthy body.
You can get all these micronutrients from a varied diet. However, how many of us eat that varied diet? A quality multivitamin/mineral supplement is an excellent investment to ensure your muscles have all the nutrients they need at their disposal.
When choosing a multivitamin/mineral supplement, don’t go for one with many times the recommended daily intake of any of the micronutrients. Getting enough is good, but more is not better. It can even slow your gains down instead of boosting them. Some vitamins and minerals can become toxic if you overdose on them long enough.
Your body requires vitamin D to keep your bones strong and to absorb calcium. It also regulates processes involving your immune system and cell growth, among many other things. You get vitamin D from the sun, some dietary sources like fatty fish, and from fortified foods.
Vitamin D plays an important role in muscle development and performance.57 A 2019 study with more than 4,000 older participating adults showed an association between vitamin D deficiency and lower muscle strength and performance.58
In other words, you don’t want inadequate vitamin D levels if you take your training seriously. Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is widespread. More than 40% of the US population is considered vitamin D deficient.59 Dark skin prevents you from making vitamin D from sunlight, leading to a whopping 82% of black Americans being deficient.
Consider a daily vitamin D supplement providing 2–4.000 IU (International Units) to ensure you get enough of this vital nutrient, especially if you are not outside in the sun a lot and don’t eat fatty fish several times per week. That is a safe dose and a proper safeguard to ensure your body and muscles get enough.
Read More: Vitamin D: Effects, Benefits, and Safety
These are the supplements I believe can benefit you the most. Most other supplements are unnecessary or even useless. Some, like caffeine, are supported by scientific evidence and help your performance in the gym a bit. However, the ones listed above are the ones that can either directly help you build muscle or ensure you don’t get too little of something you need to get good results.
Want to learn more about dietary supplements? Which ones are worth your money, and which are questionable or useless? Check our StrengthLog’s Supplement Guide, our free guide where I review 26 of the most popular supplements.
I’ve Been Training for a Long Time. What about Me?
This article is mainly intended for those over the age of 50 who are new to the lifting game.
If you’re an experienced lifter with years of training under your belt, you don’t have to change anything. Just listen to your body if it tells you that you might need more recovery to perform its best now that you’re over 50.
The basic training principles and the nutrition parts of the article apply to you as well, of course, but other than that, you know your own body and capabilities far better than I do. Keep doing what you’re doing. You have already laid the foundation of staying ahead of the pack as far as health, strength, and muscle mass goes.
While you won’t be able to keep building more and more muscle indefinitely as you get older, you already have an incredible advantage over any same-age peers who aren’t lifting.
You can build muscle no matter your age. Strength training has proven to be both safe and effective even for older adults.
You might, however, have to be a little more particular about some of the details of your training, diet and recovery if you want the best results.
- Train every muscle group 2–3 days per week, using mostly compound movements.
- Work your way up to 4 sets per exercise and 8–15 reps per set.
- Practice progressive overload by increasing the weights you use when you are able to.
- Listen to your body and get enough rest and recovery to perform well.
- Eat a balanced diet, preferably with a small calorie surplus. Avoid going on a weight loss diet if you’re trying to build muscle, unless you are overweight.
- Aim for a daily protein intake of at least 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.
- Eat 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight every 3–4 hours.
- Supplements that help you build muscle are protein powders (if you don’t get enough protein from your diet) and creatine. Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and a quality multivitamin/mineral tablet is a good way to ensure you’re not getting too little of any vital nutrients.
There you have it! The essentials of building muscle after 50.
It’s never too late to start building muscle. Yes, there it is again.
Respect your body, engage in regular strength training, challenge your muscles, and eat a healthy diet with enough muscle-building protein. As long as you do so, you’re on your way to building a stronger, healthier, and more muscular you, regardless of your age.
Track Your Workouts in StrengthLog
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- Building Muscle as You Age: Protein Needs for the Older Lifter
- How to Build Muscle: Exercises, Programs & Diet
- How Fast Can You Build Muscle?
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