Effects of Aging
Strength and muscular power are important in maintaining functional
abilities to allow us to perform activities of daily living such
as carrying groceries, getting out of a chair, taking out the
trash, climbing stairs, etc.
Age related strength losses vary between sexes and muscle
group. Studies demonstrate muscular strength decreases by approximately
15% per decade in the sixth and seventh decade, and 30% thereafter.
The loss of strength and muscular power is largely brought
about by both a loss of smaller motor units and a loss of muscle
mass. A significant loss of muscle mass and strength occurs in
the sixth decade of life, with perhaps a more dramatic decrease
in women. This can be particularly problematic for women because
they have less muscle mass.
The loss of muscle mass can be a result of shrinking muscle
fibers (atrophy), loss of muscle fiber (sacropenia), or both
(Frontera et al 1988). This loss of muscle fibers results in
fewer type II muscle fibers, which would negatively affect muscular
A loss of functional ability begins earlier, by the age of
40, with the muscles' loss of maximal voluntary and speed of
contraction (Paasuke et al. 2000). The ability to produce a force
rapidly can decrease more than decrements in strength, particularly
at older ages.
Benefits of Weight Training
Weight training has
shown to be beneficial across every age group, including seniors
and even those with chronic illness. Some of the most noteworthy
benefits include decreased fear of falling and diminished age-related
declines in muscle mass, strength, and muscular power.
Resistance training can enhance muscle mass and function even
in 90 year old subjects (McComas 2005). Individuals over the
age of 90 have been shown to make significant strength gains
on a weight training program (Fiataron et al. 1990). Furthermore,
long term involvement in weight training appears to increase
absolute strength capabilities and slow down strength loss.
Muscular power improved significantly in the elderly (average
age of 77 years) when performing high velocity resistance training.
The largest power improvements were seen on leg press exercise,
performed with 60-70% of bodyweight. The power improvements were
associated with significant improvements in walking ability.
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).
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
When older adults begin a weight training program, the general
process is essentially the same for that of 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 (Rippetoe
and Kilgore, 2006).
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
The muscles' ability to produce a force rapidly, serves as
a protective mechanism when falling. One of the top causes of
injury in the elderly are falls, which sometimes leads to death.
For this reason, improving muscular power should be an important
training goal for the elderly.
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 diminished 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 to 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 with heavier weight (80%
of 1RM or higher) for greater strength gains with relatively
little risk of injury. Also see ACSM
Recommendations for Resistance Training Exercise.
As the population ages, masters competitions become more prevalent
in many sports. The strength sport, powerlifting, has a long
tradition of masters athletes winning in open competition. (Rippetoe
and Kilgore, 2006)
Master powerlifters over the age of 65 weight 180 lbs (81
kg) have squatted over 350 lbs (159 kg) (Harder 2000). At the
age of 72, Darrell Gallenberger deadlifted an impressive 396
lbs at the 2001 North Texas Senior Olympics (Times Record News,
Wichita Falls, TX, March 29, 2011).
However, even competitive weightlifters undergo a nonlinear
decline in strength with age (Meltzer 1994). Peak anaerobic power
in both power and endurance athletes decreases linearly at around
1% a year (Grassi et al. 1991).
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. Beyond 30 years of
age, a volume reduction of 5% per decade is suggested. (Rippetoe
and Kilgore, 2006)
Fleck SJ, Kreamer WJ (2007). Optimizing Strength Training.
Human Kinetics, 164-165. See book.
Hunter GR, Wetzstein CJ, McLafferty CL Jr, Zuckerman PA, Landers
KA, Bamman MM (2001). High-resistance versus variable-resistance
training in older adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 33(10):1759-64.
McComas AJ (2005) Skeletal muscle: Form and function. Human
Rippetoe M, Kilgore L (2006). Practical Programming for Strength
Training. The Aasgaard Company, 253-256.