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 Strength Training for Older Adults 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Keeping Fit by . View all columns in series


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 (see Figure 1).

[Please insert Figure 1 about here.]

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.

For example, in the Westcott and Guy (1996) study, the 341 older adults added 2.4 pounds of muscle and lost 4.1 pounds of fat after two months of single-set strength training. Perhaps more important, 95 percent of the participants continued to strength train after completion of the exercise program. Of course, as the senior exercisers become better conditioned, they may perform additional training sets if they desire to do so.

Training Resistance
There is a range of training weightloads, generally between 60 to 90 percent of maximum resistance, that is productive for developing muscle size and strength. Weightloads below 60 percent of maximum are relatively light and provide less muscle building stimulus. Conversely, weightloads above 90 percent of maximum are relatively heavy and may present more injury risk.

For most practical purposes, training with 70 to 80 percent of maximum resistance represents a safe and effective weightload range. In fact, many of the studies with senior subjects have successfully used 70 to 80 percent of maximum resistance in their training programs (Frontera et al 1988, Nelson et al 1994, Fiatarone et al 1994, Westcott and Guy 1996). As these studies have reported no training-related injuries and high rates of muscle development, exercise weightloads between 70 and 80 percent of maximum resistance are recommended for senior strength training programs.

Training Repetitions
Research (Westcott 1995) indicates that most people can perform about 8 repetitions with 80 percent of their maximum resistance, and about 12 repetitions with 70 percent of their maximum resistance. This represents a moderate number of repetitions per set, and requires about 50 to 70 seconds of continuous training effort when performed at a moderate movement speed. The recommended number of training repetitions for senior exercisers is therefore between 8 and 12 repetitions per set.

Training Progression
Although it is not problematic to train with more than 12 repetitions, the key to muscle development is progressive increases in the exercise resistance. Therefore, it is advisable to add a little weight whenever 12 repetitions can be completed in proper form. The recommended training approach is to work with a given resistance until 12 repetitions are performed, then to raise the weightload by five percent or less. For most senior exercisers, this corresponds to about 2.5 to 5.0 pounds more weight, which in turn reduces the number of repetitions that can be completed. This double-progressive training system gradually increases the exercise demands and reduces the risk of doing too much, too soon.

Training Speed
There is general consensus that older adults should use controlled movement speeds when performing strength exercise. One study (Westcott 1994) showed excellent and almost equal strength gains for subjects training with four-second, six-second, and eight-second repetitions, indicating that there is a range of effective training speeds. Because six-second repetitions have a long and successful history, this repetition speed is recommended for senior exercisers. The preferred cadence is two seconds for the more demanding lifting phase (concentric muscle action), and four seconds for the less demanding lowering phase (eccentric muscle action).

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 About The Author
Wayne 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......moreWayne Westcott PhD
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