If you are looking to get in to strength training and lifting weights in older age, you might be new to the benefits of strength training for seniors. Read on to find out why strength training is the next best thing to a fountain of youth!
We’re going to let you on a little secret. Strength training is one of the best things one can do to keep their body functional and healthy. There is this common misconception that old age automatically means a frail and weak body and disabilities.
It’s understandable a teenager might think like this but surprisingly many middle-aged people think that old age frailty is inevitable and the is no point to fight against it.
When in reality the science and firsthand experiences of thousands of people all around the world say otherwise. For most people it’s actually possible to stay strong, mobile and limber to the 70s, 80s or even 90s.
Make no mistake, aging is inevitable, but there is a lot you can do to avoid losing your ability to move and function independently in your everyday life.
In essence the strength of your body is what allows you the freedom to go where you want, when you want, and participate in activities you like.
If you let your body deteriorate, you can lose that freedom and it’s much harder or impossible to get it back instead of simply never letting it go.
Strength training, other exercise and a healthy diet can be the dividing line between spending the last two decades of your life on this plane on a wheelchair and hospital bed instead of walking freely living your life to the fullest.
There are of course no guarantees in life and aging can bring many ailments and diseases with it. In many cases exercise can help the symptoms of them as well.
Having a strong body is always beneficial and will increase your odds of living disease-free life in older age. It’s up to you to tip the scales one way or another.
Here’s a great informational video about strength training for seniors by Barbell Logic (embedded YouTube link, ElderStrength does not own this content):
In this article we will discuss briefly the benefits of strength training for seniors. We will also look at the risks of strength training and define what strength training actually is. Without further ado, let’s get started with that!
What is strength training
We should start our discussion about benefits of strength training by defining what exactly is strength training as the term can be confusing to people new to the subject.
Strength training is any form of exercise that specifically aims to improve muscular strength. Where strength is the amount of force that can be produced by the muscle or muscle group in question. I.e. how much weight you can lift on a certain muscle group.
Components of strength
Strength consists of three components: Muscular, neural and skill.
When you train in a way that aims to increase the strength of a muscle group, you will perform resistance exercises on that muscle group that will cause a stress on the muscles.
If this stress is sufficient it will lead in to an overload situation. An overload situation will cause a muscle to adapt to stress if it’s given enough time and energy to recover.
The muscular adaptation will cause an increase in the size of your muscle cells as they will store more energy to be able to better respond to the demand of force production. This is what we see as muscle mass. Muscle mass increases the amount of force a single muscle fiber can produce, think of it as the worker.
The neural adaptation will increase how hard the muscle can be activated at will. This will make the individual muscle fibers of the muscle work more efficiently and in better coordination and more muscle fibers can be recruited, resulting in greater force production (6). You can think of the neural component of strength as the supervisor. It tells the muscle cells, the workers, to do their work (contract).
Skill based strength adaptations are actually neural as well but more oriented with coordination. Strength is a skill in the sense that the more you do a certain exercise, the better your whole nervous system will become at performing the said exercise.
This includes everything from concentration to breathing and moving the resistance in an optimal path for maximal efficiency. Think of the skill component as the rules for working.
In strength training the weight, load or machine your lifting and moving is referred to as resistance. This why strength training is also called resistance training or weight training.
It’s very important to recognize that strength adaptations only happen at sufficient resistance levels. This varies depending on the muscle group, individual and training experience.
In general strength adaptation only happen with loads that allow you to do 1 to 20 repetitions before failure. After that the exercise becomes more endurance based and will lead to sub optimal strength adaptations.
Key element of strength training is progression. This is what drives continuous adaptation and muscle growth. In essence when you lift a certain weight for a certain amount of repetitions and rest enough for your body to adapt, you will be able to lift just a little bit more the next time. This is what adaptation is.
To keep the adaptations happening, you will need to progressively increase the resistance or amount of work you do. So you either add weight or repetitions.
When you do this for several weeks, months or year, your progression will accumulate into significant increases in strength. For example someone might increase their bench press from 20 kg to 80 kg within a year.
Typically strength training is done several times a week with rest days between each training sessions to allow recovery of the muscles. Recovery is as important as the training because this when the adaptations happen.
A muscle that is repeatedly subjected to stress and not let to recover will actually get smaller and lose strength so recovery is something that you can’t escape if you want to get stronger. Three things that dictate recovery are time, energy (calories) and sleep.
To recover from strength training optimally, you need to wait enough long time before stressing the same muscle group again and sleep and eat enough food for the adaptations to happen.
This is especially important for older adults as our ability to recover from strenuous exercise diminishes as we age. So it’s a fine line between training just enough to cause adaptations without overdoing it and never recovering enough.
To sum up what strength training is: Exercise that aims to improve strength by lifting a load in the 1 to 20 repetition range and then recovering enough before training again.
What strength training in general isn’t
There are a lot of misconceptions to what strength training involves.
Strength training ins’t: Doing a random set of exercises with small weights to “tone” instead of become “bulky” or doing endurance work like cycling or running and thinking it will simultaneously make legs significantly stronger (in all fairness they will to a point).
The whole concept of small weights = toning and large weights = bulk is a nonsense concept that has been spread by health mags since forever. There are only two things that will affect how your muscles will appear: amount of muscle mass and amount of body fat.
Lifting weights can increase your muscle mass but in most seniors and especially in senior women the strength adaptations will be mostly neural and skill based and the increase in muscle mass will be very modest. This is actually the case for most people who do strength training without steroids.
Some people who have very good genetics can build significant amounts of muscle mass when young, but most bulging bodybuilders you see are on steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (they are very common in the fitness industry).
There really is no need for anyone to fear they will end up looking “too big” or “manly” or like the Hulk no matter how hard they train. That just doesn’t happen in the real world to normal folks.
If you want a “toned” and muscular look, it all comes down to body fat. You need to lose body fat to make the muscles more visible. While this is generally considered a favorable look it’s not something you should necessarily try to achieve especially in older age.
For health it’s much more important to be lean enough to be considered normal weight or even slightly overweight for seniors as body weight can protect you from old age frailty and muscle loss known as sarcopenia. If you have significant belly fat however, it’s important to lose that, as visceral fat is associated with several metabolic disorders and heart disease.
Significant fat loss at older age is never recommended if you are not obese. It will likely cause loss of muscle mass even if you do strength training and thus make your body weaker.
Significant fat loss can also lead to sagging skin problems which are naturally exacerbated in older individual as the skin loses elasticity as we age. So be warned, your fat loss efforts can lead in to unwanted results.
Defining seniors and “older people”
Another topic we should discuss quickly is the definition of seniors, “older people” or the elderly which we will refer to several times in this post.
First of all, there is no set age for being a senior or older. Strength training wise, if we have to set an age that somewhat significantly divides the population into “young” and “old” in terms of how their bodies react to strength training it would be around 50 years old.
But just like we said, that is not a set age. One individual might recover faster and react better to strength training even in their sixties compared to someone else in their forties. That’s just the way it goes.
What is certain that your individual ability to recover and adapt diminishes as you age. Your general health, activity levels, previous strength training and many other factors affect the age where you might consider yourself a senior in the physical sense.
The main thing is that you don’t have to be in a wheelchair of have a walking stick to be considered a senior but you can’t really consider someone in their thirties or (for most) forties a senior either, even if they feel like one.
For example a 50-year-old person who hasn’t done strenuous exercise for decades and works as a desk jockey will likely respond better to a strength program designed for seniors instead of a strength program designed for young athletes.
However, most people in their fifties are NOT considered seniors, “old people” or “the elderly” these days by other standards as they shouldn’t be.
A 30-year-old will most certainly respond better to the young athletes program, even though they might find it bit exhausting on the long run.
So in general there is a different “old age” for physical fitness as there is for cognitive function or social standards.
Safety of strength training for older people
As with all exercise, there are inherent risks involved with strength training. Generally speaking most forms of strength training are on the safer side of all form of exercise in terms of overuse injuries, strains and falls.
When exercises are performed with poor mobility or near maximal loads the risks are real however. The rules are significantly different for someone going to the gym to improve health and someone competing in Olympic weight lifting, power lifting or strong man competitions.
Typically, average gym goers injure themselves while performing exercises with poor form, or trying to lift way too much, way too soon or disregarding recovery. If you perform the exercises with good form and sub maximal loads and rest enough, strength training is very safe and will make your body more resilient to other forms of injuries.
Athletes competing in strength sports typically injure themselves in contest or training while pushing the limits of their body to achieve maximal performance. They take a calculated risk for the sake of winning, just like in any other sport. Because of the extreme weights in many cases they injuries can be quite bad but In most cases the athletes are able to recover and continue training or at least m.
For seniors the main priority should be in correct execution of the exercises and in recovery. This is because for older individuals the main priority of strength training should be improving and maintaining health and mobility while for younger people the main priority might be sports performance, overall athleticism, competition and physical appearance.
Most of the health benefits of strength training can be achieved with less work than is required for optimal strength and muscle mass gain. As you increase the frequency and intensity of exercise to push your limits for maximal strength gain, the risk of injury increases. Striving for optimal strength gains will also increase your overall stress levels, which might compromise your overall health.
This is something you don’t want to do in older age. It’s always wise to stay on the safe side because recovering from injuries is much slower in older age and in worst case scenario can leave you bed ridden for extended periods of them. Which is the exact opposite of we are trying to achieve with strength training.
But rest assured, if you take the time to learn the exercises properly, rest enough between training sessions and avoid training with maximum weights, strength training is perfectly safe. Much safer than running and many ball games for example.
Benefits of strength training
So what exactly are the benefits of strength training and why is strength training necessary for older people? The greatest benefits of strength training are the strength gains that allow your skeleton and joint function as nature intended. But that’s not all! Strength training has several other beneficial effects on your health.
Strength training has been shown to help and in some cases cure many chronic joint and spine issues like shoulder, neck and back pain. This is because many times these issues are caused by weak and immobile muscles.
The first and most obvious benefit of strength training is the increase in muscular strength. When done right, resistance training can increase the strength and work capacity of your whole body in seniors just like in younger people.
Besides making lifting and carrying objects easier, strength has many important everyday functions. Everything you do from getting out of the bed, walking to the store, sitting on the toilet, reaching to the to self, etc. all become easier when you are stronger.
Age-related muscle and strength loss, known as sarcopenia, will gradually diminish your strength to the point that one by one everyday tasks become impossible. Strength training will prevent this from happening (1).
The fact that you can carry and move relatively heavy objects safely and effortlessly is just an added bonus. The stronger you are, the easier simple physical tasks will feel and they will actually stress you less.
Balance is a skill that is dependent on your strength. To improve and maintain balance you need to both practice the skill and maintain strength.
Especially the strength of your legs and core are crucial for seniors for maintaining balance during sudden compromises of balance like slipping or stumbling. The stronger your legs are, the faster you can move them into a position where balance can be maintained. (2)
Also the stronger you are, the further away that position is. So strength gives you more leeway to re-establish balance when it’s compromised.
Injuries suffered from falls are one of the leading causes of hospitalization for seniors, so you should do everything in your power to maintain a good balance. Strength and balance training with diverse exercises and activities are your best bet.
Due to hormonal changes and the general trend of a less active lifestyle as we age our bone health deteriorates just like our muscle mass. Both male and female sex hormones are important factors in bone strength and as these tend to diminish as we age, we are more prone to loss of bone mass also known as osteoporosis.
Strength training has been shown to be an effective way to improve bone strength and density (4). This is because just like our muscles, our bones, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissue adapt to the stress of lifting heavy loads.
Besides strength training bones react very well to exercises that cause impacts as the forces of the impact cause the bone to grow stronger. The problem with high-impact exercise like jogging and running at an older age is that it can be tough on the joint. Our joints unfortunately many times have a bit shorter shelf-life than the rest of our body.
Especially knees are prone to abrasion and inflammation that can prevent high impact exercise for seniors. Fortunately, strength training can still usually be performed safely and pain-free and many times it can even fix joint pains by strengthening the tissues surrounding the joint and fixing possible muscle imbalances.
Function and mobility
Just like balance, your ability to move around, be it walking, cycling, jogging, crouching, jumping, stepping or crawling is dependent on your strength. Without enough strength, you can’t perform these simple movement patterns that allow you to move your body in space.
The full functioning of your arms and legs is dependent on the strength of the muscles as well. Strength training with a full range of motion will improve the mobility of your limbs which allows you to retain the full functioning of your arms and legs as you age.
Resistance training will improve metabolism in several ways. Firstly it increases your heart rate and naturally burns some calories while you are lifting the weights.
The true magic happens after that, however. As you damage your muscles with the training, your body starts a set of processes to recover from the damage induced by the workout. This will increase heart rate and metabolism after the workout as well, which will increase the number of calories you burn.
The most beneficial effects happen because of the hormonal and metabolic changes the strength training will induce. Your body will secrete growth and steroid hormones that allow the tissues to recover and repair. This will also lead your muscles cells to store more energy and your fat cells to release energy. A real win-win situation.
The benefits of strength training on posture are well-established and obvious when you think about it. Our posture is defined by our skeletal structure and the muscle that keep the skeleton upright. Strength training can improve both aspects of that equation.
The weak muscle can’t support the weight of your body properly and this will lead to bad posture and dysfunctional joints. It’s also possible some of your muscles are relatively strong because of your day-to-day activities but the opposing muscle groups can be weak because they are not being used enough. This can pull you even more out of posture.
Many studies (7) have shown the benefits of strength training on posture and skeletal functioning. The large muscles of the back, legs, abdomen, and the deep core muscles are responsible for keeping your spine upright as you walk.
It’s normal for your posture to hunch over a bit as you age because the spine compresses a bit with time. But without strong muscles the postural changes can be much more extreme.
As if the physical benefits of strength training weren’t good enough, it can also help with cognition and mental health.
Several studies have established the link between better cognitive functioning, memory and mental health with exercise. This applies to both resistance training and aerobic exercise. We can attest from experience that no matter how bad day you have had, you will usually feel better after a good workout!
Since your mobility, physical functioning and even cognition are all dependent on the physical strength of your body, strength actually equals independence.
As you get older, many day to day tasks and chores become more challenging to complete as your physical strength deteriorates. Going to the store and carrying the groceries can become an insurmountable task. As can cleaning the gutters and taking care of the house.
Even lighter tasks like cleaning, cooking, and moving around in your apartment can become difficult as age related strength loss advances. Strength training can prevent this strength loss in many cases almost completely. It’s not a guarantee that you will retain your independence in old age but it improves the changes significantly.
Exercise, including lifting weight has been shown to reduce several markers of aging like telomere length and blood sugar and lipid levels. We will look at this more extensively in the next chapter.
Regular strength training has been shown to improve and maintain heart health almost as well as regular aerobic exercise. As you progress with strength training the metabolic stress of each training sessions increases. Usually in the beginning you will barely break a sweat but will get sore muscles.
After a while you will be able to lift weight that require serious effort from your whole body. This will increase heart rate both during the exercise and after it. You will sweat but fortunately your muscles will adapt to the exercise and there won’t be significant pain anymore.
Chronic pain and arthritis
Strength training has been shown to be beneficial in many cases for chronic lower back pain when done in the supervision of a physical therapist.
Many office workers and people who sit a lot suffer from chronic neck and shoulder pain. Strengthening the muscle of the upper back, neck and shoulder is one of the best ways to reduce this kind of pain.
Joint pain in knees, shoulders and arms can also benefit from making the tissues surrounding the joint stronger with resistance training.
Even pain and inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis can be treated with strength training (5) .
These benefits are only a scratch of the surface. In essence strength training, along with other forms of exercise will keep your body healthy and functional. It can’t prevent or stop actual diseases and disorders but in many cases it can help with the symptoms.
Can strength training reverse the aging process?
So does exercise slow down the aging process? Well, as much as we would love to state that it does, the answer is of course no. Nothing (at least currently known) will reverse the aging process.
But there are things that can slow down the aging process and strength training and exercise are among those. Several studies have shown the benefits of strength training on reducing markers of aging like telomere length and markers of metabolic diseases.
This study (3) concluded:
“In observational studies, higher levels of physical activity or exercise are related to longer telomere lengths in various populations, and athletes tend to have longer telomere lengths than non-athletes. This relationship is particularly evident in older individuals, suggesting a role of physical activity in combating the typical age-induced decrements in telomere length.”
The current understanding is that the telomeres are our cellular clocks for aging. The shorter they become, the less time our body has left.
This study (1) concluded that:
“Laboratory-based studies showed that 20 to 30 minutes of strength (resistance) training, 2 to 3 times per week, has positive effects on risk factors for cardiovascular disorders, cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis.”
So as you can see, while nothing can really stop the aging process, exercise and strength training definitely seems to slow it down. The headlines in health magazines stating “HIIT is anti aging” or “Weight training for healthy aging” might be right on the money.
At what age should I stop lifting heavy weights?
So is there an age when you should stop doing strength training? No, not really. Of course if you have medical factors that require you to stop strength training or your physician recommends you stop resistance training, you need to do so.
But as long as you are relatively healthy, it doesn’t matter how old you are to perform strength training. Check out this great video by Fariz Aliyev of a 90 year old gentleman performing a legit 130kg deadlift in a powerlifting meet (Embedded YouTube link, Elder Strength does not own the content):
We hope you enjoyed reading about the benefits of strength training for seniors. It definitely seems lifting weights for older adults is a beneficial activity.
It’s never too late to get started with strength training but the sooner you start the better. A good base built at a younger age will require less work as you grow older.
It’s very important to start slowly and learn the basics before progressing to more challenging weights. Strength training is safe for most seniors and older individuals but it’s always wise to consult your physician to rule out any contraindications for strength training. It’s also wise to consult a physical therapist or a certified personal trainer before starting a strength training routine to ensure you are performing the movements correctly to avoid injury and get the full benefit.
If you want to learn more about strength training, browse through our free strength training resources and subscribe to our newsletter. We would also appreciate if you share this important message in social media as well, the more people learn about the importance of strength training, the better.
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Keep strong and see you next time!
1. Frank Mayer, Prof. Dr. med., Friederike Scharhag-Rosenberger, Dr. phil. Anja Carlsohn, Dr. rer. nat., Michael Cassel, Dr. med., Steffen Müller, Dr. phil., and Jürgen Scharhag, PD Dr. med. The Intensity and Effects of Strength Training in the Elderly. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2011 May; 108(21): 359–364
2. Orr R, Raymond J, Fiatarone Singh M. Efficacy of progressive resistance training on balance performance in older adults. A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Sports Med. 2008;38:317–343
3. Oncotarget. 2017 Jul 4; 8(27): 45008–45019. Physical activity and telomere length: Impact of aging and potential mechanisms of action.
4. Martyn St, James M, Carroll S. High-intensity resistance training and postmenopausal bone loss: a meta-analysis. Osteoporosis Int. 2006;17:1225–1240.
5. Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2004 Mar;16(2):132-7. Effectiveness and safety of strength training in rheumatoid arthritis.
6.Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1988 Oct;20(5 Suppl):S135-45. Neural adaptation to resistance training
7.J Phys Ther Sci. 2015 Jun; 27(6): 1791–1794. Effect of an exercise program for posture correction on musculoskeletal pain