Strength training is a top priority as you get older because it can help prevent many of the physical problems people encounter with aging. Consider the following benefits of strength training on your health and well being as you age:
Strength training improves balance and coordination, reducing your risk of falling and fracturing a bone.
Although all forms of weight bearing exercise can reduce bone loss, strength training can actually increase bone mineral density, stopping osteoporosis in its tracks.
Lifting weights prevents age-related muscle loss (known as sarcopenia) that puts aging adults at risk of numerous diseases, including diabetes, frailty, and chronic pain from osteoarthritis.
Many people accept fat gain, especially around the abdominal area, as inevitable with aging. In fact, strength training can restore metabolic function and help prevent age-related fat gain, while maintaining muscle and preserving your metabolic rate.
Strength training has numerous cognitive benefits and can preserve brain function as you get older, improving memory, learning, and executive function. It may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders.
Strength training reduces risk of cancer risk by improving estrogen metabolism and enhancing immune function, thereby lowering inflammation.
Strength training improves hormone balance, which pays off in lower cortisol (the stress hormone) and higher growth hormone (for healthier skin, hair, and nails). For women, menopause symptoms are minimized, whereas for men, the effects of andropause are reduced.
With all these benefits at your fingertips, there’s no doubt you are ready to get started!
The good news is that people over 40 can use all the basic training parameters recommended for younger individuals. There is no need to shy away from free weights or avoid heavier lifting as long as you remember that training loads are always relative to your own abilities, so “heavy” will be a manageable amount that you can lift for a few reps.
Including heavy lifting is particularly important for older adults because most exercise protocols geared at older adults are not intense enough to elicit the same level of benefits that a properly designed program can provide. That said, you need to learn proper technique before embarking on any training program, but especially one that includes heavy lifting. This can be done by working with an experienced trainer or learning from someone well versed in biomechanics and training technique.
To help you get started, here are seven steps to consider when beginning a strength training program for healthy aging:
Step 1: Choose Functional Exercises
Strength training can help keep you lean and looking good, but it also needs to have practical benefits so that you move and feel better when you’re cruising around in your daily life. That’s why the best training programs incorporate multi-joint “functional” exercises that have the greatest carry over to movements we do in daily life. They also target the greatest amount of muscle at a time.
For the lower body, examples of multi-joint exercises are squats or step-ups that use the hip, knee, and ankle joints all at once. They mimic daily life motions as well: Squats are important for getting in and out of a chair or picking something up off the ground, while step-ups help you maintain stair-climbing ability and avoid knee pain.
For the upper body, presses, pull-downs, and rows are multi-joint, engaging the elbow and shoulder. Chest presses are important for helping you get up off the ground if you fall, and they come in handy when getting out of bed as well. Pull-downs are similar to the motion you’d use when getting a heavy suitcase or box off a high shelf.
Single joint exercises are also important because they allow you to train weak links and perform “pre-habilitation” exercises that are geared at injury prevention. Examples include back extension, hamstring curls, leg raises, calf raises, biceps and triceps exercises, and internal and external rotation for the shoulders.
Step 2: Vary Your Intensity
Intensity refers to how heavy the weight you are lifting is. Intensity is always relative to the individual. This means that if you are training with weights in the 75 percent range, you are lifting weights that are 75 percent of the maximal amount you can lift. If you can squat 100 pounds one time, you should be lifting 75 pounds for 9 to 11 reps.
An important principle of strength training is to vary your training intensity to ensure that you keep getting stronger. This is typically done by alternating between phases in which you train lighter loads for more reps and heavier weights geared at improving strength (generally with fewer reps per set).
So, you might start with a phase in which you train 8 to 15 reps for 2 to 4 sets with weights that are between 60 and 80 percent of your max. After 4 to 6 weeks, increase your weights and decrease your reps to the 5 to 8 range for 2 to 4 sets with intensity in the 80 to 90 percent range.
A simple way to ensure your weights are correct is to let the reps dictate the load. This means that if you are supposed to do 5 to 8 reps, your weight needs to be light enough that you can complete at least 5 reps, but you should be near failure by the 8th repetition and unable to complete any more reps. One important point about failure: We are talking about “technical failure,” which occurs right before your form begins to break down and you can no longer complete any more reps safely. Avoid pushing yourself beyond technical failure because this can increase injury risk.
Step 3: Keep Training Sessions Short & Sweet
Long workouts leave a lot to be desired and research shows they are unnecessary as long as you hit the gym floor with a plan. By applying focus and effort, you can get a good workout done in 45 to 60 minutes including warm-up and cool-down. Longer workouts lead to a drop in training intensity—basically, people aren’t able to perform quality work for longer than an hour and they end up wasting their time. The key is to have your exercises and weights written out in advance so that you know exactly what you need to do and can exert all your energy into execution.
Step 4: Train 2 to 4 Days A Week
When it comes to frequency, studies show that you’re going to get best results from training 2 to 4 times a week. Although not optimal, as little as one day a week of strength training can improve strength, muscle, and physical function. If you’re anxious about making the time commitment, start with 2 days a week to establish a habit and work up from there.
Step 5: Use Active Rest Periods
You’ve probably noticed the people who sit on the machines playing on their phones in between sets. This is a bad habit because it monopolizes the machine, distracts your attention, and often leads to overly long workouts. Rest periods are an important training variable and when they are too long or too short, results are compromised.
Instead, you want to time your rest periods so make sure you are applying the correct stimulus to get the physiological adaptations you desire. Initially, rest periods can be in the 2- to 3-minute range to allow for complete recovery. Once you get a base level of conditioning, shorter rest periods can be used to save time. Ideally, rest periods should be active—stretching or walking accelerates recovery, while also having cardiovascular benefits compared to sitting or lying down.
Step 6: Use An Extended Warm-Up
Aging bodies often require a slightly longer warm-up period that incorporates a general warm-up to raise heart rate and get the body going and then a specific warm-up in which you perform dynamic stretching and other movements that mimic the exercises you intend to train in your workout.
For example, you could start by cycling, walking, or doing body weight exercises for 10 minutes to prime your muscles and raise body temperature followed by 3 to 5 dynamic coordination exercises (also called dynamic stretching), such as high knees, heel grabs, lunges, step-ups, band walk, or overhead squats.
Step 7: Individualize Your Workout
Everyone is different, with unique exercise background, diverse genetics, and personal history of injury or pain. Individualizing your workouts is critical because it will ensure you are training in a way that you enjoy, makes you stronger and more active, and enhances the quality of your life.
For some people, this means shorter, more frequent workouts, but for others, two longer sessions a week are all they can manage. Group training works great for people who like the competition or social aspect, whereas people who like to go into their own world during training will enjoy the solitude of lifting alone. The key is to experiment until you find a training protocol that works for you.
It’s also important to know that if you’re completely new to exercise, you want to start slow and develop your baseline strength. For example, if you’re learning to squat or do lunges, you will want to begin with just your body weight, learning to lower and raise your body with proper technique and without pain. As you gain strength, you can add weight and start using intensity to ensure you continue to progress by challenging your muscles.
Don’t be afraid of working up to lift heavy weights. One of the problems with many exercise protocols geared at older individuals is that are not intense enough to elicit the same level of benefits that a properly designed program can provide. Studies show that even nursing home patients can benefit from “heavy” lifting. A groundbreaking study from Tufts University found that frail elderly nursing home patients ranging in age from 86 to 96 years old increased leg strength by 175 percent, increased quadriceps muscle size by 9 percent and improved walking speed and balance by 48% after training at an intensity of 80 percent of maximal.
Final Words: You should finish this article knowing that strength training is an incredible tool that gives you back considerably more in terms of health and performance than the effort required. Your task is threefold:
Enjoy the training process
And start today!