Strength Training For Seniors: Why It Is Important and How To Implement It

Strength training is one of the most important behavioural interventions seniors can make to both improve quality of life and decrease risk of all cause mortality. In this article I will define what strength training is, why it is so important for seniors and how to implement it into your schedule.

10 min read
Sean Klein
Written by
Sean Klein
Published on
12/02/24
Last updated
12/02/24
In This Resource
  • What Is Strength Training
  • Why Strength Training Is So Important for Seniors
  • Sarcopenia
  • Falls
  • Falls
  • Bone Mineral Density
  • Resistance Training and All Cause Mortality
  • What Special Requirements Do Seniors Need
  • Mobility Considerations
  • Strength Considerations
  • Technical Complexity
  • Patience, Patience, Patience
  • How Can Seniors Implement Resistance Training
  • Build A Habit
  • Learn The Skills
  • Pick A Programme
  • References

What Is Strength Training

Before we go any further and discuss the how and why of strength training for seniors I think it is important to define the activity itself. Strength training is a misleading name, although it does improve strength, it also improves a great deal other positive adaptations. I prefer to call the activity of lifting weights or bodyweight, resistance training. This is a good description of the actual behaviour, we move our bodies against resistance in order to create adaptations, one key adaptation being strength. As noted above, resistance training can be done with any form of resistance, bodyweight, resistance bands, free weights etc. Throughout this article I will use both strength training and resistance training inter changeable.

Why Strength Training Is So Important for Seniors

Strength training is important for everyone, as you can read in our article “ why you should be doing resistance training ” which is based on a meta analysis that is titled “ resistance training is medicine ”. If it is important for everyone, then why is it even more important for elderly individuals as part of maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle as we age.

Sarcopenia

Sarcopenia is the name for the process of age related muscle loss. From the age of 40 muscle mass starts to decline a few percentage points per year. From the around the age of 65 this turns from a few percentage points to a more dramatic loss of muscle mass year on year. Resistance training is the most effective way to maintain this muscle mass.

Let’s not forget how crucial muscle is for living a healthy and active life. If you want to keep using the stairs, you need muscle, you want to keep doing city trips with 10,000 + steps a day, you will need muscle, the same goes for so many daily activities that we take for granted when we are younger. Once sarcopenia (muscle loss) compounds year on year then it gets harder and harder to perform these kinds of everyday tasks.

Resistance training really can be the difference between having a high quality of life in your 70s and 80s and not. This is a pretty amazing door that resistance training opens and it should not be underestimated the power of this behaviour.

Falls

Falls

Resistance training is not only important for combatting sarcopenia through maintaining muscle mass loss. It is also crucial for another physical adaptation, stability. Our bodies are very effective at keeping us balanced an upright, but as we age we often lose this ability and become more susceptible to falls. Falls may not sound like an issue to many of us, but they are actually a very dangerous occurence for seniors. A fall can be the beginning of a spiral downwards that can be hard to prevent once it has started. Let’s say an elderly individual takes a bad fall and needs an operation on their hip. The mixture of low levels of muscle mass and a severe injury can make recovery extremely difficult, which dramatically lowers all kinds of physical activity. Lower levels of physical activity results in accelerated muscle loss, which leads to lower levels of physical activity. This highlights the important of building stability throughout the entire body to prevent the risk of falls as a senior.

Bone Mineral Density

Bone mineral density is built during puberty and then remains roughly fixed until it begins to worsen as we become elderly. Bone mineral density declines for a large number of reasons , making it hard to define the age it starts precisely.

Although it can be difficult to increase bone mineral density with resistance training, what we can do is prevent the loss of bone mineral density. Through maintaining bone mineral density we add another layer of protection against serious injuries. Imagine an elderly person does have a fall, they are much less likely to suffer from a severe injury if they have good levels of bone mineral density and high levels of muscle mass than if they didn’t.

Resistance Training and All Cause Mortality

Resistance training has been shown to reduce the risk of all cause mortality by 15% . If this isn’t motivating then not much else will be. This includes a reduced cardiovascular disease mortality by 19% and cancer mortality by 14%. There was not a strong dose response either, it was non-linear, meaning one to two sessions per week can have a huge effect on overall health.

Resistance training has been shown to reduce the risk of all cause mortality by 15% . If this isn’t motivating then not much else will be. This includes a reduced cardiovascular disease mortality by 19% and cancer mortality by 14%. There was not a strong dose response either, it was non-linear, meaning one to two sessions per week can have a huge effect on overall health.

What Special Requirements Do Seniors Need

Training Seniors is like training another other individual, they need to be assessed individually to see where they are at. That being said, there are some trends when it comes to training elderly individuals that can help you make good training decisions for yourself or your clients.

Mobility Considerations

Elderly individuals who have been sedentary for a great deal of time will likely have large deficits in terms of mobility (their ability to move a joint through its full range of motion with stability). This means that the exercises given to elderly individuals will need to take their specific restrictions into account. Exercise selection is crucial when programming for elderly individuals as providing exercises that they are capable of performing with restricted ranges of motion can be difficult. I have provided an example bellow of what a squatting movement might look for a mobile individuals vs someone which very restricted mobility in the hips.

Elderly individuals who have been sedentary for a great deal of time will likely have large deficits in terms of mobility (their ability to move a joint through its full range of motion with stability). This means that the exercises given to elderly individuals will need to take their specific restrictions into account. Exercise selection is crucial when programming for elderly individuals as providing exercises that they are capable of performing with restricted ranges of motion can be difficult. I have provided an example bellow of what a squatting movement might look for a mobile individuals vs someone which very restricted mobility in the hips.

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Strength Considerations

Elderly individuals who have lost a great deal of muscle mass due to sarcopenia will have very reduced levels of strength. When a client has very low levels of strength the exercises provided need to match their current capabilities. For an example, I may put a bear crawl into a warm up with a beginner who is 18 and active. But this exercise will be far too challenging for an elderly person who is also a beginner, so I would try a top of press up hold instead (this is just an example, not all individuals would be capable of a top of press up hold either). The same consideration needs to be taken into account on all exercise selection.

Technical Complexity

Elderly individuals who have lost a great deal of muscle mass due to sarcopenia will have very reduced levels of strength. When a client has very low levels of strength the exercises provided need to match their current capabilities. For an example, I may put a bear crawl into a warm up with a beginner who is 18 and active. But this exercise will be far too challenging for an elderly person who is also a beginner, so I would try a top of press up hold instead (this is just an example, not all individuals would be capable of a top of press up hold either). The same consideration needs to be taken into account on all exercise selection.

When an individual is lacking both in strength and mobility, using highly technical movements is not a good starting point. Keep the exercises simple, so that they can create adaptation but do not put the individual at risk of injury. This is why weight machines are excellent for elderly individuals as they are the simplest form of resistance training.

Patience, Patience, Patience

Starting resistance training as an elderly individual can be a very daunting task. Yes, it would have been much better if you started 20 years ago, but you’re starting now and that is the important thing. Learning new skills and getting strong at an older age is a challenge, but it certainly can be done. With the clear evidence seen in the current science on how important resistance training is for elderly individuals it should be easy to motivate yourself to get moving.

How Can Seniors Implement Resistance Training

So we understand the what and the why, but how can elderly individuals add resistance training into their schedule, what do they need to do?

Build A Habit

Commit to moving your body against resistance 1-2 times a week. This will have an enormous impact on your health, just one to two hours a week. This is the most difficult and the most important step, once the habit is formed, the hardest pat is done. At this stage, what you do isn’t as important as showing up for your new habit.

Learn The Skills

Resistance training is made up of movement patterns that you will need to learn. These include the hinge, squat, horizontal pull/push, vertical pull/push and a variety of core movements. Learning these can be done through teaching yourself using the internet or getting a coach until you feel like you can move well enough. Teaching yourself can be very challenging, so if you can afford to, get someone to teach you.

Pick A Programme

Building your own programme can be very challenging when you’re new to resistance training. I suggest finding a training programme that aligns with your current abilities and something you believe will be effective. Try and avoid very generic training programme where everyone is prescribed the same workouts. Our application is perfect for seniors, especially because the training difficulty can be so easily altered. If you have any questions about our training programme or anything strength and conditioning related feel free to reach out to sean@programme.app.

References

  • Demontiero O, Vidal C, Duque G. Aging and bone loss: new insights for the clinician. Ther Adv Musculoskelet Dis. 2012 Apr;4(2):61-76. doi: 10.1177/1759720X11430858. PMID: 22870496; PMCID: PMC3383520.
  • Massini DA, Nedog FH, de Oliveira TP, Almeida TAF, Santana CAA, Neiva CM, Macedo AG, Castro EA, Espada MC, Santos FJ, Pessôa Filho DM. The Effect of Resistance Training on Bone Mineral Density in Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Healthcare (Basel). 2022 Jun 17;10(6):1129. doi: 10.3390/healthcare10061129. PMID: 35742181; PMCID: PMC9222380.
  • Shailendra P, Baldock KL, Li LSK, Bennie JA, Boyle T. Resistance Training and Mortality Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Am J Prev Med. 2022 Aug;63(2):277-285. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2022.03.020. Epub 2022 May 20. PMID: 35599175.
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    This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.

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