Strength training is one of the best ways to improve bone strength to reduce fracture risk and prevent osteoporosis as you age.
Resistance training and weight bearing exercise are common prescriptions to improve bone mineral density, but evidence shows that optimal bone health comes from a very specific type of resistance training: heavy lifts that load the spine such as squats and deadlifts.
Strong bones don’t come from aerobic exercise on the elliptical, training with resistance bands, or a muscular endurance program.
A new case study of two competitive female senior powerlifters clarifies one type of training that does work to improve bone mineral density in women. One woman was a 48-year-old powerlifter whose primary lifts were the squat, bench press, and deadlift. She typically performed 70 percent of her training lifts near the maximum weight possible.
The second woman was 54 years old and also primarily trained the traditional powerlifts of squat, deadlift, and bench press, with approximately 75 percent of her lifts near maximal. Both participants had been lifting for over 30 years.
Bone scans showed that both subjects had bone mineral density that was significantly higher than norms for gender and age. Not only were the women’s bone density scores well above average, but they were also far above the average for women ages 20 to 29 who are considered to be at the peak of bone mineral density.
Researchers call the findings “vital” for both women and men, noting that duration and training intensity are the key to building bone. Training loads were consistently above the women’s bodyweight, and they trained consistently for over 30 years.
Of course, most resistance training programs for women use loads far lower than the 1 repetition maximum, and consistency is commonly a problem. A solution is to start resistance training in elementary or high school for both genders, and teach the traditional lifts, with the addition of Olympic lifts when appropriate.
Also, educating older men and women that heavy lifting (with proper coaching and technique) with the spine-loading lifts to improve bone strength is essential. Naturally, base levels of strength and muscle are necessary as well, along with structural balance, but the aim needs to be on training that works, not training that is easy.
Researchers write that “duration and intensity prescriptions need to be considerably enlarged for skeletal changes like those seen in this investigation to be observed.”
Walters, P., Jezequel, J., Grove, M. Case Study: Bone Mineral Density of Two Elite Senior Female Powerlifters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012.26(3), 867-72