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 Strength Training: Strength Training For Older Adults  

These findings indicated that senior men and women experience similar body composition improvements as young and middle-aged adults in response to a basic program of strength and endurance exercise. It is interesting to note that the older exercisers replaced muscle at the same rate as the younger program participants.

In addition to body composition assessments, 785 of the study subjects had resting blood pressure readings taken before and after the eight-week exercise program. As presented in Table 2, all three age groups began with similar diastolic blood pressure readings (76.1 to 80.1 mm Hg). However, the systolic blood pressure readings were considerably higher for the 61 to 80 year olds (143.1 mm Hg) than for the 41 to 60 year olds (127.9 mm Hg) and 21 to 40 year olds (121.2 mm Hg).

Although all three age groups recorded significant reductions in resting blood pressure, the senior participants experienced the greatest improvement. Their diastolic blood pressure decreased 3.7 mm Hg, and their systolic blood pressure decreased 6.2 mm Hg. Perhaps most important, the older adult group began the exercise program with a systolic blood pressure above the hypertensive level (143 mm Hg), but ended within the normal systolic range (137 mm Hg).


Changes in resting blood pressure for the young, middle-aged and older program participants (N=785).

* Statistically significant change(p<.01)

Age Systolic BP Pre
(mm Hg)
Systolic BP Post
(mm Hg)
Systolic BP Change
(mm Hg)
Diastolic BP Pre
(mm Hg)
Diastolic BP Post
(mm Hg)
Diastolic BP Change
(mm Hg)

21-40years(n=238) 121.2 116.7 -4.5* 76.1 72.9 -3.2*
41-60 years(n=553) 127.9 125.4 -2.5* 79.0 76.6 -2.4*
61-80 years(n=341) 143.1 136.9 -6.2* 80.1 76.4 -3.7*

The results of this large-scale research study should be encouraging news for senior men and women. Consider the following key findings for the 341 older adults who completed the two-month strength training program.

1. Seniors can safely participate in well-designed and carefully-supervised programs of strength exercise, contingent upon their physician's approval.

2. Seniors can reduce their body weight and improve their body composition. The participants in this exercise program decreased their bodyweight by 1.7 pounds and improved their body composition by 2.0 percent.

3. Seniors can decrease their fat weight and increase their lean (muscle) weight. The subjects in this study lost 4.1 pounds of fat and added 2.4 pounds of muscle.

4. Seniors can reduce their resting blood pressure. The participants in this exercise program experienced a 3.7 mm Hg decrease in their diastolic blood pressure and a 6.2 mm Hg decrease in their systolic blood pressure.

5. Seniors can develop physically active lifestyles, even after decades of sedentary behavior. More than 90 percent of the study subjects continued to strength train after completing the exercise program.

It would appear that older adults have much to gain from strength exercise, including increased physical capacity, enhanced personal appearance, improved athletic performance, and reduced injury risk. However, many have limited time and energy to participate in a traditional strength training program. Fortunately, properly performed strength exercise requires a relatively small time commitment. For example, the significant improvements in body composition and muscle strength experienced by 1132 subjects in the Westcott and Guy (1996) study resulted from just two or three short training sessions per week.

Recommendations For Sensible Senior Strength Training
Several national organizations have developed guidelines for safe and effective strength training, including the YMCA of the USA (1987), the American College of Sport Medicine (1990), and the American Council On Exercise (1996). In general, all of these organizations promote the following program recommendations for adult strength exercise.

Training Exercises: The training guidelines call for one exercise for each of the major muscle groups. Table 3 presents standard machine and free weight exercises for the major muscles of the body.


Standard machine and free-weight exercises for the major muscles of the body.

Major Muscle Groups Machine Exercise Free-Weight Exercise

Quadriceps Leg Extension Dumbell Squat
Hamstrings Leg Curl Dumbell Squat
Pectoralis Major Chest Cross Dumbell Bench Press
Latissimus Dorsi Pullover Dumbell Bent Row
Deltoids Lateral Raise Dumbell Lateral Raise
Biceps Biceps Curl Dumbell Curl
Triceps Triceps Extension Dumbell Overhead Extension
Erector Spinae Low Back Extension Bodyweight Back Extension
Rectus Abdominis Abdominal Curl Bodyweight Trunk Curl
Neck Flexors/Extensors 4-Way Neck --------

If training time is really limited, one study (Westcott 1990) reported excellent results from just three multiple-muscle exercises. These were the leg press (quadriceps and hamstrings), bench press (pectoralis major, deltoids and triceps), and compound row (latissimus dorsi and biceps).

Training Frequency: Strength exercise may be productively performed two or three days per week. In terms of strength development, a recent study by DeMichele et al (1996) found two and three training sessions per week to be equally effective. With respect to body composition changes, subjects in the Westcott and Guy (1996) study who trained twice a week attained almost 90 percent as much improvement as subjects who trained three times a week.

Because two and three training sessions per week appear to produce similar muscular benefits, the exercise frequency factor may be a matter of personal preference and scheduling ability.

Training Sets: Single and multiple-set training protocols have proven effective for increasing muscle strength and mass in senior men and women (Frontera et al 1988, Fiatarone et al 1994, Nelson et al 1994, Campbell et al 1994, Westcott and Guy 1996, Westcott et al 1996). However, studies comparing one and three sets of exercise have found no significant developmental differences during the first few months of training (Starkey et al 1996, Westcott 1995). It is therefore suggested that seniors begin strength training with one properly-performed set of each exercise. This time-efficient approach to strength exercise is safe, effective and well-received by senior men and women.

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 About The Author
Wayne Westcott PhDWayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is strength training consultant for numerous national organizations, such as the American Council on Exercise, the......more
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