It’s true: The age of bodybuilding, strength training, Crossfit, and overall “meatheads” is upon us. To most people, when you think of this, you think of your typical college aged male and female well into a person’s 40s, which, of course, it appears that for this age group, resistance training is becoming more and more common. What about those in their 50s-60s and up, though? Is it good for them to complete some sort of resistance training regimen? Yes, it is! No matter the age, some sort of resistance training should be a part of your workout plan.
As the aging process begins, sarcopenia begins to take effect. Sarcopenia is the ”loss of muscle tissue as a natural part of the aging process” (thanks, Google). Sarcopenia may involve an increase in intramuscular adipose (fat) and connective tissue as well as an overall decrease in contractile units and lean muscle mass (what makes your muscle work). It is safe to say that both muscle quantity and muscle quality can contribute to the changes older adults may experience in regards to their muscle. Something that may combat this is strength and resistance training.1
While it is known that with consistent resistance training an increase in muscle mass is seen, there still lacks a larger amount of studies that focus specifically on the benefits for an older adult who actively strength trains. Many studies show that in younger subjects, a significant change in cross-sectional area of the thigh muscle can be seen after as little as 3-4 weeks (9-12 sessions) of resistance training. There are a few studies out there that show muscle hypertrophy can occur in older adults after a range of 6-16 weeks of resistance training. One specific study focused on the vastus lateralis muscle and demonstrated a 42% increase in muscle strength as well as 7-8% increase in cross-sectional area (as measured by MRI and ultrasound) after a resistance training program lasting 9-10 weeks (18-20 sessions).2 These studies give us an indication that muscle hypertrophy and the accumulation of strength may take longer in older adults when they begin resistance training, but it is still worth it!! Building this muscle can help to support and protect your joints, which in return can take some of the pressure distribution to help decrease pain caused by arthritic changes. This all being said, there is still plenty of room for more research to be done so we can see all of the effects over time.
While older adults are reminded to incorporate some sort of resistance/strength training, cardio, and balance work, studies have also discussed a consideration of power training in those of all age groups. Walking and jogging assists with maintaining aerobic fitness, Yoga or Tai Chi (or other functional balance program) assists with improving strength and balance with slow and controlled movements, and resistance training helps to maintain and increase the current amount of muscle a person has. Resistance training at a normal speed is certainly beneficial as discussed previously, but training at a higher speed and focusing on one’s power (amount of work produced per unit of time) has the potential ability to decrease one’s risk of falls. Just think about it! The reflexes required to prevent one from falling don’t occur slow, they are quick! When this happens (for example, your quad quickly extends your knee to prevent it from buckling), this is triggering your muscle to react at a quick speed. By adding a focus on power (with low impact for joints, if possible), one can focus on functional movements that can prevent those unwanted and unexpected falls!3
Everyone is very different, so no matter your age, you should make sure to consult a physician prior to completing a resistance program. There are many conditions out there that may limit what you want to do in the gym, and it is extremely important to be aware of these especially prior to a heavier-resistance training program. For example, many people utilize the Valsalva maneuver during heavy lifts. If you have a cardiovascular condition, holding your breath while trying to lift a little more is NOT going to be good for you (really, it’s not great for anyone, but that’s another story…)
If you already know you don’t have any medical conditions, but you have a chronic injury/can’t figure out why your body part is hurting – go see a physical therapist! In many states now, you are able to see a physical therapist without a physician’s referral. They can check you out there and get you on the right path to prevent further injuries.
Until next time,
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1) Scanlon, T. C., Fragala, M. S., Stout, J. R., Emerson, N. S., Beyer, K. S., Oliveira, L. P., & Hoffman, J. R. (2014). Muscle architecture and strength: Adaptations to short‐term resistance training in older adults. Muscle & nerve,49(4), 584-592.
2) Lixandrão, M. E., Damas, F., Chacon-Mikahil, M. P., Cavaglieri, C. R., Ugrinowitsch, C., Bottaro, M., … & Libardi, C. A. (2016). Time Course of Resistance Training–Induced Muscle Hypertrophy in the Elderly. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 30(1), 159-163.
3) Wallerstein, L. F., Tricoli, V., Barroso, R., Rodacki, A. L., Russo, L., Aihara, A. Y., … & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2012). Effects of strength and power training on neuromuscular variables in older adults. Journal of aging and physical activity, 20(2), 171-85.