Weight Training for Special Populations

Older Adults

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Age or Inactivity?

We typically associate aging with multiple degenerative process include a loss of muscle mass, increased body fat, performance losses, reduced flexibility, etc. In fact, most of these processes are actually caused by a sedentary lifestyle rather than the actual aging process.

A reduction of activity level leads to a loss in muscle mass (atrophy) whereas lack of activity in older adult is compounded by a loss of muscle cells (sarcopenia). These losses of muscle consequently decreases metabolism since muscle burns a significant portion of the required calories. This results in an average increase in body fat of 2.5 to 3% per decade since most people don't generally compensate by reducing the amount of food they consume as their activity and muscle mass decrease over the years.

Further loss of muscle can compromise functional performance. Approximately 15% of performance capacity can be lost per decade with inactivity. The loss of muscle mass at an advanced age can also decrease proprioception balance and mobility.

The body's ability to quickly utilize information about its position in space to make instantaneous corrections is certainly important for athletic performance, but for the older adult, it becomes vital for safety. There appears to be a correlation between strength and balance in the elderly. For example, elderly (ages 67 to 97 years of age) who participated in a free weight program reported a decreased fear of falling in addition to increased functional performance (Brill, et. al. 1998).

Benefits of Weight Training

Weight training has shown to be beneficial across every age group, including seniors. It is highly effective in preventing all of these so called 'age-related' problems. Weight training restores and maintains muscle mass at any age. Even in 60-90 year-old individuals, weight training reduces the loss of muscle mass to less than 5% per decade.

Several studies have demonstrated that elderly subjects who were inactive but began weight training actually gained muscle mass, improved their strength, proprioception, and balance. These benefits were directly related the inclusion of leg weight exercises which resulted in improvements of lower body strength. Improvements in leg strength increase walking speeds in older subjects. A twelve week strength training program increased walking endurance by 38%, greater improvement as compared to a walking only program. Squats performed with progressive greater workloads can be beneficial for geriatrics.

Although, not as widely known, lifting weights alone can improve flexibility. Performing weight training exercises through a full range of motion serves as a dynamic stretch while increasing strength. For this reason, weight training can improve flexibility in older trainees, particularly for those with limited range-of-motion.

Osteoarthritis is a condition caused by degenerative changes in joints resulting in a loss of joint function. Those with arthritis typically reduce their activity in attempt to eliminate discomfort, which actually exacerbates this condition. In fact several studies have demonstrated that resistance training utilizing the musculature around the affected joint can significantly decrease pain and improve mobility of the arthritic joint. Some of these studies had even used squats to reduce knee pain.

Program Considerations

Adults older than 45 years of age should consult with a licensed health practitioner before engaging in a vigorous exercise program, particularly if they have certain medical concerns. Also see Exercise Readiness Questionnaire and Risk Classification Form.

When older adults begin a weight training program, the general process is essentially the same for that of a younger deconditioned novice. Most of the same rules apply with consideration of reduced recovery ability and initial physical condition of the trainee. The basic principles of adaptation will apply as long as the health of the individual remains intact. However, changes in the body's physiology occur that make the individual somewhat less adaptive to an exercise stimulus.

Exercise tolerance to a particular workout should be a major consideration when training as we age. When beginning a weight training program, intensity should be quite modest and the number of exercises and sets should be kept to a minimum to allow adequate adaptation and to prevent aversions to excessive efforts at this early stage. Participants can take several workouts to identify their beginning exercise resistances. See conservative method under identifying initial resistances.

People over 50 years of age commonly have joint and muscle discomfort after a heavy workout. Therefore, the frequency of intense workouts should be carefully programmed. See study summary on varying workloads in older adults. If joint pain or stiffness is still experienced, then the frequency of heavy loading day must be further reduced or the repetition training zones must be altered accordingly.

Since older individuals may have deminished ability to deal with increases in muscle and blood acidity, rest between sets should not be reduced quickly. Pay particular attention to adverse reactions such as nausea and dizziness when reducing length of rest periods in all participants, especially individuals over 50 years of age due to reduced buffering capacity.

The natural breath holding (Valsalva maneuver) during heavy lifts can result in an undue raise in blood pressure. This is a particular concern for those with cardiac problem, a family history of cardiac problems, or unstable left ventricular function. Older participants should be advised to avoid or minimize momentary breath holding during lifts. For this reason they should not be encouraged to train to complete failure, and if it should occur breath holding should be discouraged.

ACSM recommended a repetition range for individuals older than age 50-60 years of age or frail persons is 10 to 15 repetitions (see Suggested Repetition Ranges). Although more advanced and healthy older adults can perform lower repetition ranges for greater strength gains with relatively little risk of injury. Also see ACSM Recommendations for Resistance Training Exercise.

Masters Athletes

Masters athletes are a growing population. As the population ages, masters competitions become more prevalent in many sports. It's not unusual to see younger masters age-group athletes (35-45 years of age) just as well, if not better than much younger athletes in national and international competition. Powerlifting is one sport that has seen its fair share of masters athletes winning in the open competition. A middle-aged trainee can develop strength, power, and muscle as long as they have a sound training practices and proper attitude.

Joint pain and stiffness is often a concern for master athletes since it affects their ability to perform specific exercises in their training. Injury for the master athlete can be somewhat more detrimental since recovery from injury may take longer as one advances in age. See Dealing with Injury.

The recovery capacity of a masters athlete is generally less than their younger counterpart so periodization of training becomes even more important for the serious masters competitor. Periods of recovery should be longer and more pronounced than for younger athletes. When using undulating periodization models, the recovery microcycles should have a larger percentage of intensity reduction than for younger athletes, 10-15% rather than the 5% frequently used in OSFTSB (One Step Forward Training Stress Balance) models. The masters athlete is using the Hormone Fluctuation Model (HFM) should adapt the 8 week model with a smaller volume of training during the two weeks of maximal work. Beyond 30 years of age, a volume reduction of 5% per decade is suggested.


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