How should I do strength training exercises if I am an older adult?

F. Michael Gloth, III
Geriatric Medicine
Improving muscle mass and working on body definition and tone usually involves some resistance or lifting heavier weights. Although some people use weights they can lift a maximum of 10 times, older adults should use a weight that can be lifted 10-20 times, with caution about maintaining form and avoiding strain that can lead to imbalance or instability. You will get far better results by maintaining good posture and overall form than if you use a particular amount of weight or number of repetitions as a target.

Good posture refers to keeping your back straight and shoulders back. Focus on the targeted muscle groups. If your back starts to get out of alignment, or you start to sway or jerk to move the weight, then you've reached your maximum and you should end that set. Not only will your strength and muscle mass improve more rapidly by maintaining good form and posture, but you will minimize your risk of injury as well.

These types of exercises usually involve free weights or exercise equipment for resistance training. The specific exercises you select will depend on the area(s) you most want to emphasize. For example, if your goal is better shoulder definition, you might focus on military presses, bench presses, or calisthenics such as push-ups.
Fit at Fifty and Beyond: A Balanced Exercise and Nutrition Program (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

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Fit at Fifty and Beyond: A Balanced Exercise and Nutrition Program (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

As people reach their fifties, the body’s metabolism slows. Without a change in eating or exercise habits, it’s common to put on weight and become less able to perform routine physical...

Older adults experience physiological changes and degeneration with age. A well-designed resistance training program can slow the changes and improve muscle strength, fiber recruitment, muscle size, and overall functional capacity. When performing strength training you should follow some general guidelines:             

  • Wear appropriate attire when using selectorized equipment.
  • Do not start joint movement at angles that are beyond normal ROM when using selectorized equipment. 
    • Encourage deliberate breathing to avoid rapid increases in blood pressure.
    • Perform short, initial sets of exercise with little to no weight.
    • Perform exercises with proper technique and avoid compensation of other body parts.
    • Perform 1-3 sets of 8-20 repetitions, 3-5 days per week.
    • Begin strength training by performing exercises with lower weight and higher reps and slowly progressing to higher intensity exercise.

    As an older adult, your strength training program should last no longer then 20-30 minutes using seated machine to start. Later you can progress to standing exercises.  

    Avoid heavy lifting and high repetitions and you want to stay in a pain free range of motion. Remembering that a burning sensation in the muscle is normal when lifting weights and pain is not. Protect your joints and ligaments by limiting the range of motion. Most machines can be adjusted.

    Your set up or acute variables will range from 1-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions. You will have anywhere from 8-10 exercises, lifting in a slow controlled tempo of 4-2-2, 2-3 days per week.  

    Audrey K. Chun, MD
    Geriatric Medicine
    As an older adult, your strength training routine should work all the major muscle groups -- your legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms. Muscles are strengthened by progressively increasing the weight you lift over time, so keep in mind that when you reach a point where you can easily perform the repetitions, it's time to increase the amount of weight at your next exercise session.

    Aim to do three sets of 10 repetitions -- a repetition is one complete movement of an activity, such as lifting a weight -- each, two to three times a week with a rest day in between each session.

    Take three seconds to lift or push a weight into place, hold the position for one second, and take another three seconds to slowly return to the starting position. Keep your motion controlled and avoid jerking or thrusting movements. Don't allow your joints to lock or hold your breath while performing strength exercises -= exhale as you lift or push a weight and inhale as you relax.

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    Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.