Weight Training Builds Senior Muscle

“The miracle effect of weight training is that it actually slows muscle tissue loss associated with aging. In fact, it is even possible to regain some muscle that has been lost.“1 In this article I'll share some of my best experience gathered and proven along my path in the fitness industry over the past 24 years, and backed up by current clients above 80 and 90 years old who do bi-weekly resistance training and stretching with me.

Cardiovascular training and stretching have their place in a balanced fitness plan. But it is progressive resistance exercise that builds muscle, allowing us to stay younger, active, and independent for as long as possible. Folks, nothing else comes close to being as effective for seniors particularly!
According to the Oxford Journals of Gerontology, “Sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass and strength with age, is becoming recognized as a major cause of disability and morbidity in the elderly population. Sarcopenia is part of normal aging and does not require a disease to occur, although muscle wasting is accelerated by chronic diseases. Sarcopenia is thought to have multiple causes, although the relative importance of each is not clear. Neurological, metabolic, hormonal, nutritional, and physical-activity-related changes with age are likely to contribute to the loss of muscle mass. In this review, we discuss current concepts of the pathogenesis, treatment, and prevention of sarcopenia.“2 It is from the Greek, meaning “poverty of flesh.“

“The prevalence of clinically significant sarcopenia is estimated to range from 8.8% in young old women to 17.5% in old men. Persons who are obese and sarcopenic (the “fat frail“) have worse outcomes than those who are sarcopenic and non-obese. There is a disproportionate atrophy of type IIa muscle fibers with aging. There is also evidence of an age-related decrease in the synthesis rate of myosin heavy chain proteins, the major anabolic protein. Motor units innervating muscle decline with aging, and there is increased irregularity of muscle unit firing. There are indications that cytokines-especially interleukin-1ß, tumor necrosis factor-a, and interleukin-6-play a role in the pathogenesis of sarcopenia. Similarly, the decline in anabolic hormones-namely, testosterone, dehydroepiandrosterone growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor-I-is also implicated in the sarcopenic process. Decreased physical activity with aging appears to be the key factor involved in producing sarcopenia. An increased research emphasis on the factors involved in the pathogenesis of sarcopenia is needed.“2

What does all this medical expression really mean to those of us making our living as Fitness Experts?

My experience over the past 24 years with some 4,200 clients is that usually inactive men and women over age 30 slowly lose muscle tissue every year. At about age 50 this loss of muscle (and strength and endurance) starts happening faster. And after age 65, sarcopenia tendencies accelerates even more. It is what we see in frail, elderly people who are bent over from a combination of osteoporosis and sarcopenia. Please don't let this happen to your clients. Get them on the weights!

Age will take its toll, of course but a poor diet and ongoing sedentary lifestyle will greatly accelerate the decline. Exercising with weights applies the brakes. In fact, with proper nutrition and this kind of training, muscle will not only be retained, some that has been lost can be rebuilt. It is the safest natural prescription there is for anti-aging. Put another way, barbells and dumbbells are the antidote to sarcopenia.

In my personal exeprience, at 60, Doctor visits over the past 5 years show my bone density has increased! 'Bet it's from the power-lifting I do at least 3 times a week.

Lifting weights is popular today with people of all ages, but it is not new. Progressive resistance exercise supposedly began in southern Italy in about 500 B.C. according to my history resources. Here's a story I remember from Mrs. Adams 10th grade History class. A man named Milo decided to shoulder a small calf and carry it the length of the stadium at Olympia. He continued carrying it regularly until it was full grown. As the animal got heavier, Milo got progressively stronger. True or not, the story illustrates my point effectively pertaining to weight training.

While lifting barbells and dumbbells is the most common form of this kind of training, bodyweight exercises, Pilates, resistance bands, kettlebells, sandbags, and various fitness machines and devices can also be used to provide progressive resistance. Even water aerobics, though classified as cardiovascular, is really a form of resistance training. All of these forms of exercise can be applied to senior clients if you're competent in their disciplines and have been certified accordingly. Have all senior beginners first have a physical examination and discuss with their doctor their plan for a fitness weight training program. If some activities or exercises should for any reason be restricted, you want to know about it before beginning a program or that's called stupid on your part. Doing too much too soon or using improper lifting techniques can lead to setbacks, or something more serious.

Resistance exercise is great but be smart with your seniors and use age appropriate training and always proper form. If your senior client gets hurt training with you they will have a much longer healing time and will never come back! A proven “best practice“ for my older clients entails the following workouts at two 45 – 60 minute sessions per week.

1. Stretch… stretch and stretch! Have your senior clients do overhead stretches for arms, back, delts and chest prior to any resistance training. I tell them “if your rib cage is stretching the other muscles are too.“ Once they're properly stretched work either upper body with core or lower body with core. At the next session cover the other muscle groups. Stay with lighter weights and nothing less than 10 reps with 2 – 4 sets. I've found it of paramount importance to not over work seniors! I have dismissed several Trainer types while a Fitness manager in southern California for this incredibly ignorant practice. Over the last 24 years I've followed this practice with around 700 folks, over 70 years old, showing a pattern of added strength and improved flexibility, which after all, is what seniors need most.
2. Appeal to your senior clients that they must adjust their diets towards less sugar and more protein intake. My experience has proven this may times over if diets are not seriously discussed there is little useable muscle gain particularly in the legs and back muscles. I direct my senior workouts towards legs, back and core strengthening. Why? These muscles do the supporting, rotating and reaching necessary for senior lifestyles to improve.
Due to my being over booked somewhat, I recently referred 3 ladies to what I thought was a competent Trainer to find out later they'd been put into “Boot Camp“ type workouts and suffered sore hamstrings and back aches. I was more than mildly upset and immediately took all three ladies back into my care and training in the above methods. Their sore “hammies“ healed with some foam roller application and stretching drills. They're happy to be working with me again and have referred 2 other clients to me. Get my point fitness folks?

Lastly Trainers, these seniors have most of the “disposable“ income in America and can afford those of us who are high-level Professional Trainers. My experience has also proven that my senior client wouldn't think of going to another Trainer staying with me faithfully for years and ensuring my job security. I say this; “the Golden Years“ should be valued by we Fitness Professionals as golden to our incomes? Treat your clients like gold and they will repay you over and over again! You absolutely need to be known in your community as “catering“ to seniors!

1. www.senior-exercise-central.com
2. Oxford Journals of Gerontology
3. (J Lab Clin Med 2001;137:231-43)


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.
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