Updated: Aug 15, 2022
If there is one part of the population that benefits from lifting weights the most, it has to be the elderly.
Let's clarify and soberly analyze the current state of affairs of fitness for people aged over 60: Doctors will tell you to go for your daily walk, swim a bit, do your yoga classes, and just "take it easy". Gyms have nothing on offer that would make it more appealing for the elderly to train regularly - especially for strength. And good old "conventional wisdom" is telling us that lifting heavy will instantly break an older person's body and ought to be avoided at all costs.
Part of finding what is the BEST solution for a given problem is figuring out first of all the needs of the situation, and subsequently the processes with its underlying mechanisms that we want to follow. In this case:
What makes the elderly predisposed to various health risks, and how can we make sure those risks are mitigated or even eliminated?
The aging process comes with several unavoidable, yet managable challenges:
- A significant reduction in muscles mass (i.e. sarcopenia) which is a trigger for other chronic diseases
- A loss in bone mineral density and thus an increased risk of osteoporosis
- A decline in rejuvenation hormones such as a testosterone, DHEA, growth hormone, and IGF-1, which accelerates aging
- A reduction in cognitive functioning and less vigour to accomplish tasks
- An overall increase in mortality risk from all causes
Which of the above challenges are addressed by common practice, common recommendations (from doctors), and the rather uncommon common sense?
Yet such limited practices are being recommended elderly when their needs are the exact opposite of what these practices are teaching.
Why is strength training by far the superior option to choose for the elderly?
Because strength training is the ONLY modality which over many decades has shown to
- Increase bone mineral density
- Increase muscle mass and prevent sarcopenia
- Increase connective tissue strength
- Prevent or better manage arthritis
- Provide physical independence long-term
- Reduce risk of mortality from all causes
There are three key elements which are essential to consider for the elderly in strength training:
INTENSITY. VOLUME. RECOVERY.
Needless to say, these elements are crucial for anyone wanting to develop their strength. However, their importance is even higher when training the elderly.
Referred to as the amount of weight used in a given exercise, this is the MOST important element for the older lifter. Strength as an expression of lifting heavy equals longevity. Strength is what the elderly need the most. They don't need cardio, they don't need "flexibility", they don't need "balance" allegedly developed by standing on a bosu ball. They need to have the highest chance of improving their ability to carry out essential daily tasks with greater ease- something which only strength training can enhance in the long run.
The higher the weight an older person can lift, the stronger their nervous system and muscles get. This builds the foundation for physical independence, a life full of vitality, a stronger skeleton, bigger engine, and - a more abled body.
How do we meet the criteria of intensity?
Sets of 10 or 12 don't make the elderly stronger. Heavy singles, triples and fives do.
The lower the reps an older person uses, the more weight they can lift. This is not rocket science, but an often neglected concept which has bypassed fitness for the elderly for decades.
One of the most common mistakes older trainees make is that they perform too many reps, sets and exercises in their workouts with medium or light weight. Three sets of ten to fifteen reps with five or six exercises adds up to a high amount of volume. Done three times a week, over several months and years, the net effect is a high amount of cortisol release, a lot of muscle damage caused by eccentric contractions, and frequent episodes of soreness due to the high variation in exercises and damage to muscle fibers. The bottom line is an inability to get stronger long-term - which brings us to the last but not least important training consideration for the elderly.
A high amount of training volume performed by an older person impairs their ability to recover efficiently. A 20 year old testosterone-loaded gentleman can beat himself up with high reps, frequent workouts, and a ton of exercises - while having no issues to recover from them quickly. An older person does not have this ability. Their capacity to release and use the hormonal processes required to heal and get ready again for the next workout is reduced. In other terms: keeping it short and simple is key for older lifters. Heavy triples don't make them sore. Tens and twelves over multiple sets do.
Recovery from workouts is also closely tied to the amount of sessions an older lifter performs in a given week. There is nothing wrong with training 3x/week in the first 2-3 months to get the strength numbers up quickly. However, once this period finishes, I recommend older lifters to train 2x/week. This gives them the chance to recover sufficiently between workouts, and it does not add a bunch of volume to their training.
Below is a rationale for why the elderly should train the major barbell lifts:
Maintaining leg strength for walking, stair stepping, and getting around
Strengthening the low back to reduce and/or prevent pain
Strengthening the trunk to be able to hold postures
Developing strong bones in the hip and femur to prevent serious damage from potential falls
Increasing thickness of the cartilage around the disks in the spine
Bending forward and down to pick up things off the floor
Increasing cartilage thickness on the disks in the spine
Developing grip strength to carry things, items, their pets as well as grandchildren with greater ease
Reaching for items, lifting things up
Developing bone strength in the upper arm, lower arm, and wrist
Creating a healthier shoulder joint by working all the structures that support it - including the rotator cuff
Increasing abdominal strength for better back control
Being able to push mentally to get the bar above their head
Developing arm strength for easier carrying of shopping bags
Developing stronger wrists to catch themselves in case of a fall
Increasing strength in the upper back to suppert the discs and bony structures of the thoracic spine
Improving pressing strength by making antagonist muscles stronger
Developing shoulder stability through making biceps and lats stronger.
A simple, clear, and logical strength training program is the ticket for a longer life and better daily functioning in the elderly.
Prioritizing intensity, excellent form, and low reps is what reaps the most rewards for the physical demands of the elderly.
The earlier they start, the better. By no means is it ever too late.