There really is no disputing the fact that strength training is good for everyone. But when we think of “everyone,” we tend to leave out people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, as if there is no benefit to beginning a strength training regimen when one becomes too old to go to the club.
What should strength training for older populations look like? And what are some of the special considerations for pumping iron when one pushes into the fifth decade of life? I’m going to answer these questions with an eye toward people who have never worked out before.
If you’re older and you’ve decided to start lifting weights, understand that you’ll need to do weight-bearing exercise at least two days a week. In fact, for the first several months I wouldn’t advise you to do much more than that if you’re not currently active. Your aging body will need more recovery time in between workouts than someone who’s younger or someone who’s been working out for years. (And you’ll need no less than two days because getting stronger is a learning process that requires repetition.)
If you’re seeing a trainer, try establishing a Monday/Thursday or Tuesday/Friday split. You’re going to need those couple of days in between sessions to recover. A lot of times people will ask, “what about cardio?” If you’re older, one of the best things you can do in between lifting sessions is to walk for thirty minutes. The purpose of these walks isn’t to “burn more calories,” but to aid in your recovery from lifting sessions and to develop your cardiovascular capacity. Walk at a brisk pace twice a week in addition to your strength workouts and you’ll be happy with the way you feel. The great thing about walking is it’s a simple, low-impact exercise that you can do for the rest of your life.
People feel shame around the fact that they’re not already in great shape. So they avoid trying to get into shape because they feel like they already should be. Pretty vicious cycle, right? Well, it’s not too late, and there’s no reason for you to feel ashamed. Just be ready for the fact that it might take you longer than your 20-year-old nephew to pick up some of the basics.
You’ve been moving the way you move for five decades or more, and if one assumes that some of those movement patterns aren’t the most efficient, then it follows that you’re going to have to learn new movement patterns in order to lift weights safely. This can take time–and that’s okay.
The older my client is, the more time I spend on the most basic movements like squatting. It can take several weeks just to get someone to the point at which they’re ready to work hard. Again, that’s okay. The key here is patience and an understanding that learning how to move is at least half the reason one should lift weights. It’s not just about getting leaner or a number on the scale. Longterm quality of life hinges upon good movement, and you’ll neither learn how to move well on your couch nor sitting on a bicep curl machine. Stand up!
Chances are if you’ve never stepped foot in a gym by the time you’re 40, then it’s safe to say that working out isn’t your thing. So it’s likely that you’re not going to be familiar with a lot of the terminology of the gym. It’s relatively important for you to pay attention to the way people talk about the human body so that people around you (like personal trainers, doctors, chiropractors, etc.) can help you.
I had a client once tell me that they felt like an exercise was “pulling” on their leg. I had them immediately stop with the forceful concern of a parent who was watching their child head to a light socket with scissors.
“What’s wrong?” they asked.
“A pulling sensation is not good,” I said, “so we need to stop and evaluate what’s going on.”
“Well, maybe pulling isn’t the right word,” said my client. Turns out, by “pulling” my client actually meant “burning” or “difficult.” They were feeling the lunges in their quads just as they were supposed to be feeling them. But because they used terminology I associate with potential injury risk, I made them stop. This type of interaction happens a lot with people who aren’t accustomed to using or paying attention to their body.
You Can Do This
Don’t let the marketing around fitness fool you. This is for you too. I’ve never had an aging client tell me that strength training wasn’t worth it, even among those people who didn’t see a quick transformation in body composition. Just feeling better was worth the price of admission.
Aging doesn’t have to mean painful lower backs, using walkers to get around, and leaning on railings to get up and down from the toilet. It’s only that way in our culture because people stop moving. If you’re reading this I want you to know it’s not too late for you to avoid immobility and weakness. All you have to do is strap on the sneakers and be willing to learn.