Strength Training for Older Adults. It’s never too late!

What is strength training?

Strength training exercises are meant to apply resistance to your muscles in order to make them work harder. By working harder than they are used to, they get stronger. Muscle fibers grow and adapt in response to their workload. This means that in order for strength training to be effective, it should be done at least 3 times per week, so that your muscles are subjected to that workload fairly regularly. 

As starting any new activity can be a challenge, even if you commit to 1-2 times per week initially, as you get more comfortable with the workout, you can grow that time to 3 or more times. It’s better to do start with a little bit, rather than not at all!

It is best to work your muscles a bit harder than they would work in average, daily activities, so that they will have greater endurance for daily tasks. Also, if there happens to be a specific task you have to do one day that you are not used to doing, they will be better equipped to handle it. E.g. moving boxes and furniture, shoveling snow, picking up grandkids when they visit, etc. 

Kettlebells at Physio clinic in Oakville

I am already fairly active, isn’t that keeping my muscles strong?

Unless you are a personal trainer, an athlete, or have a job that requires you to do plenty of heavy lifting, your daily activities usually pose a very minimal challenge to your muscles. Since they are something you do often, you are already adapted to them. This means that they do not make you stronger. 

Activities like walking a lot, or going up and down the stairs are great, but do not really count as working out your muscles.

Walking a lot can be good cardio, and anything that keeps you moving is healthy for your body. But unless those walks are challenging you and feel like a workout, they are not making your muscles stronger. Stairs can be a good workout, but considering we only go up and down a few times throughout the day to get something, they are not nearly enough to stimulate your muscles to grow stronger. In addition your muscles will be good at stairs but not necessarily other activities.

Why is strength training important?

Strength training is always a great way to stay healthy and fit at any age (as long as it’s the appropriate level of resistance and performed with appropriate form), even if your goal is not weight loss or having bigger muscles. 

As we get older, we actually lose muscle mass a lot faster.

The ratio of new muscle being grown versus old muscle being lost begins to be on the losing side… Additionally, we may have other health issues, and we also don’t heal as quickly from injuries as we used to. This all means that activities that used to be easier when we were younger, are becoming more of a challenge. 

Strength training can make the difference between being independent versus needing someone’s help for groceries, cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn, or even getting dressed and bathing.

If you are unable to get up from sitting without pushing off with your arms, or if you are not able to get down to or up from the floor, then this is a sign your muscles are likely too weak.

Strength training and appropriate age?

As mentioned above, strength training can be appropriate at all ages, but the difference is the type of exercises, the resistance amount being used, and the ultimate goal for training. 

  • For an athlete, it is to improve their performance. 
  • For someone who has a desk job, maybe it’s because they want to stay fit, be active, or look a certain way. (Especially as our metabolism slows down from what it was in our teens and early 20s…)
  • For someone who is older, maybe it’s so they can maintain or improve their quality of life, their functional abilities, and their independence!

I don’t want to get really big muscles, so I should not use weights for strengthening…

Strength training will not result in bigger looking muscles (hypertrophy), except maybe better definition of the muscles (looking a bit more toned) unless you are using really heavy weights and doing it quite often. This is why most people who go to the gym don’t look like Olympic weightlifters. It takes a lot of work to get to that point!

Snow shovel showing Oakville Physio and massage clinic

How do you strength train?

You can use weights, exercise resistance bands, machines at the gym, or even your own body weight as resistance. 

Usually, you would perform the exercise in a repetitive manner, e.g. 10 repetitions in one set. Then either change to another exercise and come back to the first one later, or repeat a second set after a short break (approximately 30 seconds). For greater effectiveness, perform at least 2 sets of that exercise.

If you are looking to build strength: use greater resistance (greater effort) for less repetitions per set. E.g. 6-8 repetitions / set. To make sure you are using appropriate resistance, think of it this way: 

  • it should be easy for the first couple of repetitions 
  • it should get progressively harder with continuous repetitions 
  • finishing a set should still be doable
  • if you are not able to maintain correct form (i.e. posture) throughout the exercise, then it may be too much resistance

If you are looking to build endurance: use lesser resistance (lesser effort) for more repetitions per set. E.g. 15-20 repetitions / set, or “to fatigue” which is to say, you start to feel tired and the muscle may feel a bit of a burn, so that it gets harder to complete each consecutive repetition.

Is strength training the same as cardio?

While a more vigorous workout may get your heart rate going, strength and cardio training are different things. Cardio exercises (speed walking, running, swimming, cycling) primarily improve your cardiovascular system, meaning they make your muscles more efficient at using the oxygen in your blood, and your blood becomes more efficient at storing and delivering that oxygen. This is why high-level runners (or swimmers, cyclists, etc.) still need to add strength training to their regimen, so they can have the muscle strength and endurance necessary for the high-level performance of these activities. 

Check out our Senior’s Exercise Class every Wednesday morning 10-11AM!

If you are a senior, feel you are quite deconditioned, having trouble with function and daily tasks, unsure where to start, or want someone to guide you through the basics, then this might be the class for you! It is a 5 to 1 ratio and run by one of our awesome Physiotherapists!. Give us a call, send us an email, or ask the front desk for further info! (905)-582-9700.