Hitting the Weights – At any Age!
A humbling fact is that after the age of 30, adults start to have a gradual loss of muscle mass (also known as sarcopenia) which correlates to some decline in physical performance (Fragala et al., 2019). From this point onwards, we have to continuously work ever-slightly harder just to maintain our current level of fitness. And, after the age of 70, even greater decreases in physiological variables such as muscular power and strength occur (Haff & Triplett, 2016).
Advancing age is associated with decreases in muscular strength, muscular power, muscular endurance, muscle mass, resting metabolic rate and overall physical function. Consequently, the effects of aging can result in older adults (i.e. 65 years +) having a greater risk of injury due to falls, loss of independence, and a reduction in their overall quality of life. And now for the good news: Regardless of age, the body’s musculoskeletal system has the ability to positively adapt to resistance training. With an appropriate resistance training program, older adults can see significant improvements in muscular strength, muscular power, muscle mass, and bone mineral density.
A properly designed resistance training program has been shown to improve mobility, performance in activities of daily living (ADL), assist in preserving independence, reduce the risk of injuries and falls, and improve the psychosocial well-being of older adults (Fragala et al., 2019).
So, what does a ‘properly designed resistance training program for older adults’ look like? How much is enough? How often should someone hit the weights? How heavy should they lift?
General recommendations for healthy older adults
Exercise selection: 8-10 different exercises that include all of the major muscle groups with multi-joint exercises (for example, chest press, rows, squats, and lunges). Think of all the muscles and joints involved in activities such as load carrying (i.e. your groceries) and climbing stairs!
Repetitions: 8-12 or 10-15; untrained older adults (i.e. beginners) are best to start to with a higher repetition range (i.e. 10-15) and then eventually progress to a lower repetition count of 8-12 with a higher relative resistance load.
Intensity: Begin at a lighter resistance level and over time slowly progress to 70-85% of 1 RM (repetition maximum; i.e. 1 RM being the heaviest resistance you can move/lift once). This level of intensity will reduce joint stress and prevent lifting to failure.
Sets: 1-3 sets per exercise per muscle group. Beginners can start out with 1 set and progress to 2-3 sets per workout.
Frequency: 2-3 days per week. It is ideal to have 48-72 hours rest between workouts (Haff & Triplett, 2016). For example, a weekly schedule for resistance training twice per week could be performed on Mon/Thurs, or a Mon/Wed/Fri split for training 3 times per week.
Additional Safety Recommendations
- Prior to a resistance training workout, participants should include a 5-10-minute, low-to-moderate-intensity warm-up. Aerobic activities such as walking/jogging, stationary cycling, and calisthenics are all acceptable forms of pre-lifting activity.
- Participants should avoid performing the Valsalva maneuver (i.e. forced exhalation against a closed glottis) during any lifting.
- All exercises should be performed within a pain-free range of motion.
- The level of resistance should be challenging within the repetition range of 8-12 and/or 10-15 reps, but does not overtax the musculoskeletal system.
- Medical clearance from a doctor is recommended before the commencement of a resistance training program to ensure it is safe to do so and does not contraindicate with any pre-existing medical condition(s).
What about Flexibility?
Similar to strength, as we age, we also tend to lose flexibility and range of motion around our joints. Older adults undergo a process called fibrosis, in which fibrous connective tissue replaces degenerating muscle fibers (Haff & Triplett, 2016). In spite of this, stretching exercises can positively affect connective tissues and improve flexibility, regardless of age. Furthermore, the incorporation of resistance training in conjunction with flexibility training and balance training can help reduce the risk of falls (resistance training on its own does not seem to be adequate) (Haff & Triplett, 2016). Therefore, older adults should also incorporate static stretching either before or after (or both!) each resistance training session. Stretching the muscle groups worked during the session (or about to be worked) is an easy way to ensure all of the major muscle groups are targeted (i.e. stretching the pectorals on the same day as performing the chest press, or stretching the quadriceps on the same day as performing squats or lunges, etc.,).
What about balance training?
As mentioned earlier, training an individual’s balance is important for fall prevention. To improve balance, one must train his or her balance. Just as a person needs to stretch to improve one’s flexibility or partake in aerobic exercise to improve one’s cardiorespiratory fitness, balance is no different. Older adults can incorporate balance training into their progressive resistance training programs by choose free-weights (i.e. dumbbells and Olympic bars) over machine-based exercises, changing the base-of-support from wide-to-narrow (e.g. feet close together rather than shoulder width apart, or standing on one-leg), and minimizing the use of hands for extra support. An example of challenging one’s balance would be to stand on one leg for 30 seconds with the eyes closed. Over time, the goal would be to minimize body sway, maintain an upright posture, and not have to touch the ground with the elevated foot.
Take Home Message
Older adults should be including a resistance training program into their exercise regimen along with aerobic exercise, flexibility training, and balance training. Just as principles of training have been established for youth and younger adult populations, older adults should also follow a progressive program that is based on each individual’s skill and fitness level. Aging does not have to equate to loss of independence, poor health, or disability. Being physically active to avoid becoming sedentary later in life will help you remain healthy and stay independent with fewer negative health consequences.
Haff, G., and Triplett, T. (2016). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, Fourth Edition. Champaign: Human Kinetics.
Fragala, MS. et al., (2019) Resistance Training for Older Adults: Position Statement From the National Strength and Conditioning Association. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 33(8)/2019-2052.