You’ve heard that strength training is one of the best steps you can take to avoid age-related muscle loss. You want to get started with weightlifting — or to urge a parent or senior loved one to — but it’s intimidating. People get injured lifting weights if they don’t know what they’re doing, and injuries become a much bigger deal as you age.
How do you get the benefits you need from weightlifting without taking risks you can’t afford? See how, using these six expert strength training tips for seniors.
“Know that you can improve no matter how old you are,” says Joe Cannon, an exercise physiologist. In fact, a study involving people over 90 showed strength training can have significant results for participants. “Their balance improved and their walking speed doubled so much, they no longer needed canes and walkers,” Cannon explains.
Talk with a Senior Living Advisor
Our advisors help 300,000 families each year find the right senior care for their loved ones.
Strength training has results for seniors beyond just combating muscle loss. “Weight lifting, particularly for the female population (postmenopausal) can be extremely beneficial to combat bone density loss,” says Dr. Bianca Beldini of the Sundala Center for Wellness. For men, it can help combat testosterone decline. “Lifting weights can help to stimulate the release of testosterone, thus decreasing bone loss in men as they age,” she explains
As beneficial as strength training is, you should be careful when getting started. We interviewed a variety of experts on how seniors can reap the benefits of weight-lifting while staying safe and their tips include:
It’s tempting to skip that 5-10 minutes at the beginning and end of a workout — you have other things you’d rather be doing. But Jamie Hickey, a certified personal trainer at Truism Fitness, advises not to take this particular shortcut.
“Weightlifting puts a lot of strain on your body and you need to allow it to adjust to the demands you’re about to ask of it,” he explains. The warm-up and cool down, particularly stretching the main muscles you’re working that day, is how you do that.
“This will greatly help reduce injuries and help you not be as sore the next day,” Hickey adds.
Which brings us to our last tip: pay attention to what you feel. While some soreness is normal, “if you’ve got that stiff-legged Frankenstein walk the next day, you overdid it,” says Jeanette DePatie, founder of Everybody Can Exercise.
“You should never feel dizzy or light-headed,” adds Hickey. “Don’t work out if your joint is red, swollen or tender to the touch.”
“Exercise is intended to make you healthier and feel better mentally and physically, not the other way around,” he insists. Those are good words to live by for new weightlifters at any age.
If you haven’t worked out in a long time, “you may want to start with a low-resistance, weight-bearing exercise program first like dancing or walking,” says DePatie. “ This helps prepare your muscles for the oncoming work of a weight training program, helps maintain bone density, and will help you maintain or at least slow muscle loss.”
You can also start with strength-training exercises that don’t put too much pressure on your body and don’t require weights, such as:
You can start out just doing a few of these a time, or looking up modifications if you need them.
“Too many times I’ve seen older clients come in thinking that they’re going to start off where they were in their 20s and 30s,” says Hickey. That’s a recipe for injury. “Don’t be ashamed to just use the barbell or curl bar with no weights on it, I’ve even had people start off with PVC pipes just to get the movement down before we start using any kind of weight.”
If you experience pain while lifting, you should switch to lighter weights. Although “it’s normal to feel some soreness,” according to Andrew Mason of Tens Machine UK. As the muscles have a low resistance of weight, some of their tissue breaks down. As the muscles heal, they step by step increase in strength and size.
Don’t be ashamed to stick with the lightest weights to start and only move up when you’re comfortable and ready.
For seniors, this step is crucial. Says Hickey, “Any client I train above the age of 60 has to first receive clearance from his or her primary doctors.”
“You need to know about pre-existing conditions like arthritis and blood pressure… [because] you need to advise a fitness plan around these conditions.”
You’ll reduce the likelihood of injuring yourself or pushing yourself too hard if you have a conversation with your doctor about what risks to be aware of, and any limitations to factor into your strength-training regimen.
For anyone new to weightlifting, hiring a professional trainer is likely to be well worth the cost, as they can provide you specialized advice based on your particular needs and limitations. And they’ll make sure you have proper form, which reduces the risk of injury.
“If your budget doesn’t allow you to work with a trainer full time, that’s fine,” says DePatie of the program. “Get an introductory session with a trainer and learn how to use the machines. These require less supervision than free weights and they should be able to set you up with a basic beginner program.”
If even the cost of a gym membership worries you, she recommends looking into Silver Sneakers, a fitness program for seniors aged 65 and above. “You may be able to join for free.”
The best way to stay safe and reduce the risk of injury is to avoid pushing yourself. Listen to the health professionals in your life — both your doctor and a trainer — to learn how to stay within your limits.
Has weightlifting improved your or a senior loved one’s health? We’d like to hear your stories and any tips you may have in the comments below.