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Strength Training As We Age

Being strong is a lot like having money in the bank. Having money saved up helps you through tough times when you are out of work, pay for those emergency plane tickets to see your sick friend or relative, or like now, helps you prepare for and keep you comfortable in retirement. When you get sick, being stronger provides a greater buffer before becoming chronically ill; when you are the grandparent on duty it helps you keep up with your adorable/terrorising little grandkids; and when it’s time to tee off from the 1st hole or go for a hit of tennis, it increases your capacity to play, and reduces any pain, discomfort or tiredness you might experience.

What is strength?

Strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance. In layman’s terms, it is your ability to interact with the world and everything in it. If you don’t have the strength in your legs, you won’t be able to stand up from a chair. If you don’t have a strong back, carrying groceries in from the car or spending time in the garden doing some landscaping quickly becomes a distant memory. The weaker you get, the more you need to rely on other people to undertake these and other tasks for you. 

Why strength is so important?

When most people think of strength, images of muscle bound men and women in budgie smugglers or g-string bikinis, strutting around posing on stage often come to mind. That is a whole other world, and one that is beyond what will be covered here, suffice it to say, it requires a lot of “pharmaceutical” help to look that way. We are more concerned with health and the role strength plays in making and keeping you healthy. 

Firstly, it keeps your soft tissue healthy and reduces sarcopenia (muscle weakness). When you perform any physical task, your muscles produce a force which is transmitted through your tendons and then your bones and ligaments. If these forces are sufficiently stressful, it signals your body to increase the size and strength of all the structures involved. This has the added benefit of reducing the likelihood of sustaining an injury. This is because your body will be able to sustain greater levels of physical stress before reaching an injury threshold. The adage “strong people are harder to kill” rings true here. While on the topic of injuries, it would be remiss of me not to mention the likelihood of sustaining an injury while strength training. Having injuries and getting sick are part of life, I’m sorry, but there is nothing you can do about it. Sustaining minor injuries or niggles while strength training falls into that same category, it’s part of the deal. A review of athletes engaging in high volume, high intensity exercise (7 or more hours per week) revealed that they can expect 1 injury (sprains and strains mostly) per 434 hours of participation (1). For the average person following Australia’s physical activity guidelines, that equates to about 1 injury every 2.75 years, which is incredibly low. Fun fact, children’s soccer results in 1 injury per 16 hours (2).

Second, it helps to maintain and improve a number of other bodily systems. Your nerves become more efficient at conducting signals and your heart gets stronger too, increasing its ability to pump blood during strenuous physical activity (think wrestling grandkids up a flight of stairs while carrying the nappy bag). Your endocrine system (hormones) get a workout as well, which is particularly important for those with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Although strength training relies heavily on the ATP-PC energy system for energy production, anaerobic glycolysis contributes a significant proportion of the energy expended over a strength session. This results in more glucose being shuttled from the blood to the muscles, which in turn, results in better glucose tolerance and clearance, lowering your blood pressure and keeping your GP happy.

Ladies, I’ve got some unfortunate news; if you live long enough, you will almost certainly get osteoporosis. Gentlemen, although your chances are quite low, you can still have osteoporosis, so you’re not off the hook yet. Briefly, if you have osteoporosis, you have weak and brittle bones and this makes them susceptible to fractures and breaks. The combination of osteoporosis, sarcopenia and a fall can be lethal. How does strength training modify this?

Strength vs cardio?

“My Doctor said going for a walk is all I need to do.” Unfortunately that’s not the case and the reason is quite simple; humans are particularly good at walking. As an example, for me to burn off a can of coke, I would need to walk for almost 40 minutes at my normal walking pace (3). That isn’t to say walking is a waste of time, quite the opposite. Numerous studies have shown that walking for just 30 minutes per day interferes a significant risk reduction to all cause mortality by more than 10 % (in lay terms, you’re 10 % less likely to die prematurely) (4). 

The second limitation with walking is that it doesn’t put your joints through their full range of motion or load bearing capacity. Contrary to popular belief, you need to put some load through your joints to keep them healthy. When you walk, your body mass acts as the load that must be carried by your joints. If you increase the volume (a.k.a duration) that you walk, the stimulus that you are subjecting your body to will result in greater efficiency, that is, being able to walk at the same pace for longer. In order to increase the strength of the joint, you must gradually subject it to increasing intensity (a.k.a load). When you increase the load that a person must walk with you inadvertently modify their gait, the way they walk. And if you want more information on how bad this can be on your knees, hips and back, simply ask any soldier who has carried a pack. Walking makes you better at walking, being strong makes you better at everything. Not only are we able to create exercises that move your joints through full ranges of motion, but we can also load the joint with as much or as little weight as is needed in order to generate progress. We do this by creating exercises that mimic your activities of daily living (ADLs), most notably squats, presses and pulls. 

Activities of daily living

Our ability to squat dictates how mobile and independent you will be, as well as being a good predictor of your risk of having a fall (5). This is because the squat requires strength and flexibility through your ankles, knees, hips and back, as well as sufficient  coordination and balance to properly execute the movement. When you stand up from a seated position, your muscles are generating force which needs to be transmitted through each of these body segments. Your nervous system is firing on all cylinders, sending out electrical signals to almost every muscle in your body. Meanwhile, your heart is simultaneously dealing with the sudden drop in blood pressure that accompanies standing from a seated position, and the increase in blood pressure that results from muscle contraction. Everything you do that requires you to interact with the world while standing on your own two feet, is predicated on your ability to perform this movement. Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training is an excellent book that everyone interested in living a long, healthy life should read, as it covers this is significant detail. Exercises such as shoulder press and deadlifts, to name a few, also mimic ADLs and should be included in any strength program. 

What constitutes strength training for older adults?

By the book, 8–10 different exercises targeting large muscle groups performed for 1 set of 10–15 repetitions on 2 non-consecutive days per week. Experience from the field tells a different story. For most of my patients, I typically prescribe between 4–5 exercises, performed for 3 sets of 6–8 repetitions, on 3 non-consecutive days. This is because you likely have 100 other things that need doing (coffee catch-ups, doctor’s appointments, sharpening the mower blades, looking after the grandkids) such that any exercise program I provide needs to fit into your “supposed to be retiring, why am I this busy” lifestyle. There are physiological reasons as well, but a discussion on that goes beyond the scope of this piece.

Important things to consider

Ladies, you need to do some strength training. It won’t make you bulky, you won’t end up with shoulders as wide as Arnie. If you don’t believe me, watch this video of Cristina Iovu, a 53 kg woman performing the clean and jerk at 120 kg, while taking performance enhancing drugs.

Fellas, keep active when you retire. Your first year out of work may be one of your unhealthiest years if you let it. When you are working, both your body and your mind are occupied. Even if you don’t have a physically or mentally demanding job, you still need to get up and go to work, make yourself look presentable and socialise with a variety of people throughout the day. When you stop work, it can be tempting to sit on the porch and yell at the neighbour kids for walking across your lawn.

Remember, you’re not 21 anymore. If you haven’t kept up the physical activity over the years, start slow and build up. Spend 5–10 minutes warming up before any sort of exercise, and listen to your body; if it feels like you’re about to injure yourself or if an old injury just never seems to go away, get it checked out. Don’t be ashamed to wear knee sleeves or use hot/cold packs; old joints don’t get better with neglect and abuse, so look after them. 

This next paragraph could be a whole article by itself, but I will try to be concise. The older you get, the more difficult recovering from exercise and strenuous physical activity can be. It is in the recovery phase of your training, not the exercise session, that the improvements in your health are made. There are three critical components to a proper recovery; sleep, nutrition, and rest. Everyone “knows” you need eight hours of sleep a night, but what everyone doesn’t know is that more sleep does not equate to better sleep. Concerning nutrition, you know what to do, even though you don’t want to. Eat your veggies, lean protein, nuts and seeds; you know the drill. Australia has healthy eating guidelines which is a good starting point for general health, but if you want to see significant improvements you should consult a dietitian. Finally, rest. This doesn’t mean sitting on your backside watching daytime television, rather, avoiding the same or similar levels of physical stress as the exercise session for a period of 1-2 days. So if you go to the gym and lift weights today, tomorrow you should go for a walk/run/bike ride. Whilst it won’t kill you to do two days of weights in a row, it may well impact your ability to recover. There are ways we can program this so that you can go to the gym everyday, but I’m over my word limit already.

Remember, the purpose of strength training is to improve your physical capability. Thinking back to the first paragraph; if you never put any money aside during your working life, you can’t expect there to be a nice nest egg when you retire. Strength is the same, a little bit of consistent, hard work will pay nice dividends for you when you need it.

  1. Montalvo, A. M., Shaefer, H., Rodriguez, B., Li, T., Epnere, K., & Myer, G. D. (2017). Retrospective Injury Epidemiology and Risk Factors for Injury in CrossFit. Journal of sports science & medicine, 16(1), 53–59.
  2. Hamill, B. P. (1994). Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 8, 53–57.
  3. Di Pampero, P. E. (1986). The energy cost of human locomotion on land and water.International Journal of Sports Medicine, 7, 55–72.

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