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Strength training for seniors

It’s never too late to start strength training! Arguably, the older you are the more you have to gain from regular resistance training.

The benefits of strength training

There are so many benefits to older adults participating in strength training. Some of these include:

  • Increasing muscular strength and endurance.
    • Resistance training is a highly effective way to combat muscle mass reductions associated with ageing (sarcopenia) or inactivity (i.e. a sedentary lifestyle).
  • Increasing bone density (increasing the strength of bones).
    • Resistance training is a highly effective way to combat decreasing bone density associated with ageing or with chronic conditions, such as osteoporosis.
  • Increasing the strength of ligaments and tendons.
  • Improving cardiovascular health (e.g. decreasing blood pressure).
  • Reducing the risk of falls through increased strength, better balance and greater coordination.
  • Improving functional ability to undertake everyday tasks, such as shopping, preparing food or cleaning.
  • Improving posture and gait.
  • Increasing metabolic rate and improving body composition (increasing muscle, reducing fat).
  • Alleviating the effects of chronic conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.
  • Increasing social engagement, which can help to combat loneliness and social isolation.
  • Prolonging the ability to live independently.
  • Increasing self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • Improving overall quality of life.

Programming considerations for older adults

The foundation of many strength training programs will be compound exercises. Compound exercises involve multiple joints and work more than one muscle group. For example, compound exercises could include: seated rows, squats and assisted pull-ups.

Weight machines, that is cable and pulley systems with weight stacks, are highly suited to resistance training for older adults, as the participant is better supported throughout the exercise movements (compared to free weights).

Free weight exercises can still be included and indeed will be beneficial in most cases, as these exercises will have positive impacts on stabiliser muscles and balance control. However, this should be evaluated according to each participant (e.g. their current balance control and the impact of any chronic conditions). Examples of useful exercises include bicep curls and front raises (both isolation exercises), which are safe and easy to perform for the majority of participants.

Some isolation exercises, such as weighted leg curls on a machine, should usually be avoided due to the particularly high impact that they can have on the isolated joints. For example, in the case of weighted leg curls on a machine, the knee joints can be more vulnerable to injury.

Repetitions, resistance, duration and frequency

For most participants, it’s important to start at a light resistance level. This will usually mean lighter weights at a higher repetition range, which could be as high as 20 repetitions. Over time, the resistance can be gradually increased and the repetitions can come down towards a range of 8 to 12 repetitions.

Training sessions will usually need to be at least 45 minutes in duration to ensure there’s sufficient time for warming up before and cooling down after the main training component. Many people find that one hour is optimal.

For most participants, two to three training sessions per week is ideal. There should be at least one day of recovery between training sessions. For example, a participant might do strength training on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week.

The importance of warming up and cooling down

Every training session should begin with a warm up and finish with a cool down.

Conducting a warm up prior to the main strength training component is important for reducing the risk of injury and ensuring that participants get the most out of their training session. The warm up prepares the cardiovascular system by raising body temperature and increasing blood flow to muscles.

The warm up is also a good opportunity to include some balance and functional mobility exercises.

The cool down component gives the body a smoother transition from exercise back to a state of rest. Cooling down allows for a more gradual return to pre-exercise heart rate and blood pressure. Stopping suddenly with no cool down could cause some participants to feel faint or even pass out.

Balance training

Fall-related injuries are a leading cause of hospitalisation for older adults. For this reason, ideally strength training should be paired with balance training.

Balance training programs should be structured around fundamental activities that are known to be effective for maintaining or improving the balance of older adults.

The principal elements should include:

  • Static positions that challenge a person’s ability to maintain their balance (e.g. standing on one leg); and
  • dynamic movements that challenge a person’s ability to maintain their balance (e.g. walking forward ‘heel-to-toe’ along a designated line).

As noted previously, free weight exercises will have greater overall benefits for improving balance than weight machines. However, this may not be an option for some participants (e.g. those with very poor balance control at high risk of falling).

Article image credit: IvanRibeiro, Flickr.

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Fitness Instructor and qualified cook. Passionate about strength training and healthy eating.

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