Strength Training: You’re Not “Too Old!”En Español (Spanish Version)
If you think you are “too old” to do strength training exercises, think again! With proper guidance and support, you can benefit from a program of regular strength-training exercises.
Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle and strength and decreased quality of muscle tissue often seen in older adults. Although many questions remain about muscle loss and aging, one thing is certain: strength-training exercises can help reduce these effects. Even very small changes in muscle size can make a big difference in strength, especially in people who have already lost a lot of muscle.
According to the North American Spine Society, strength training can provide the following benefits in older adults:
- Better balance and, consequently, reduced risk of falls
- Quicker responses, which may also play a role in preventing falls
Reduced risk of
(thinning of the bones)
- Improved quality of life
- Improved mental alertness
You can increase your strength by regularly using any of the following:
One of the best ways to increase strength is by lifting or pushing weights and gradually increasing the amount of weight you use. You can use the hand and ankle weights sold in sporting-goods stores, or you can use things like emptied milk jugs filled with sand or water, or socks filled with beans and tied shut at the ends.
- Strength-training equipment
You can find such machines at a fitness center or purchase your own.
- A resistance band
It looks like a giant rubber band, and stretching it helps build muscle.
The National Institute on Aging recommends the following tips on how much and how often you should do strength-training exercises:
- Exercise all of your major muscle groups at least twice a week.
- Do not do strength exercises of the same muscle group two days in a row.
- Depending on your condition, you might need to start out using as little as one or two pounds of weight, or no weight at all.
- Use a minimum of weight the first week, then gradually add weight. Starting out with weights that are too heavy can cause injuries.
- When doing a strength exercise, do 10-15 repetitions in a row.
- Take three seconds to lift or push a weight into place; hold the position for one second, and take another three seconds to lower the weight. Do not let the weight drop; lowering it slowly is very important.
- Gradually increase the amount of weight to benefit from strength exercises. Once you can do two sets of 10-15 repititions, then you can increase the amount of weight on your next session.
- It should feel somewhere between hard and very hard for you to lift or push the weight. It should not feel very, very hard. If you cannot lift or push a weight eight times in a row, it is too heavy for you. Reduce the amount of weight. If you can lift a weight more than 15 times in a row, it is too light for you. Increase the amount of weight. Do not increase more than 5% for all upper body and 10% for lower body exercises.
- Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist before engaging in a new exercise program.
- Breathe normally while exercising. Holding your breath (known as Valsalva maneuver) while straining can cause your blood pressure to go up. This is especially true for people with cardiovascular disease.
- If you have had a hip repair or replacement, check with your surgeon before doing lower-body exercises.
- Avoid jerking or thrusting weights into position. This can cause injuries. Use smooth, steady movements.
- Avoid "locking" the joints in your arms and legs in a tightly straightened position.
- Breathe out as you lift or push, and breathe in as you relax.
- Muscle soreness lasting up to a few days and slight fatigue are normal after muscle-building exercises, but exhaustion, sore joints, and unpleasant muscle pulling are not. The latter symptoms may mean you are overdoing it.
- None of the exercises you do should cause pain. The range within which you move your arms and legs should never hurt.
Strength exercises can can help increase your strength when performed on a regular basis. Here are some examples from the National Institute of Aging:
- Wrist Curl
- Side Arm Raise
- Arm Curl
- Front Arm Raise
- Chair Stand
- Toe Stand
- Knee Curl
- Side Leg Raise
- Leg Straightening
- Back Leg Raise
This exercise strengthens the wrists.
Put your forearm on the arm of a chair. Your hand should be over the edge.
Hold the weight with your palm facing upward.
Bend your wrist up and down.
Do this10-15 times.
Repeat with the other hand.Do this 10-15 more times with each hand.
This exercise strengthens shoulder muscles.
Sit in an armless chair with your back supported by the back of chair.Keep feet flat on floor, even with your shoulders.Hold hand weights straight down at your sides, with palms facing inward.Raise both arms to side, shoulder height.Hold the position for one second.Slowly lower arms to sides. Pause.Repeat 10-15 times.Rest; then do another set of 10-15 repetitions.
This strengthens muscles in abdomen and thighs. Your goal is to do this exercise without using your hands as you become stronger.
Sit toward front of chair, knees bent, feet flat on floor.Cross your hands over your chest and lean back in half-reclining position. Keep your back and shoulders straight throughout exercise.Raise upper body forward until sitting upright, using hands as little as possible (or not at all, if you can). Your back should no longer lean against pillows.Extend your arms outward so they are parallel to the floor. Slowly stand up, using hands as little as possible.Slowly sit back down. Pause.Repeat 10-15 times.Rest; then do another set of 10-15 repetitions.
strengthens upper-arm muscles.
Stand with your feet even with your shoulders.Keep feet flat on floor even with your shoulders.Hold hand weights straight down at your sides, with palms facing forward.Slowly bend one elbow, lifting weight toward chest. (Rotate palm to face shoulder while lifting weight.)Hold position for one second.Slowly lower arm to starting position. Pause.Repeat with other arm.Alternate arms until you have done 10-15 repetitions with each arm.Rest; then do another set of 10-15 alternating repetitions.
The heel raise strengthens ankle and calf muscles. You can use ankle weights for this exercise if you are able.
Stand straight, feet flat on floor, holding onto a table or chair for balance.Slowly stand on tiptoe, as high as possible.Hold position for one second.Slowly lower heels all the way back down. Pause.Do the exercise 10-15 times.Rest; then do another set of 10-15 repetitions.
As you become stronger, do the exercise standing on one leg only, alternating legs for a total of 10-15 times on each leg. Rest; then do another set of 10-15 alternating repetitions.
Strengthens muscles in back of thigh. You can use ankle weights for this exercise if you are able.
Stand straight holding onto a table or chair for balance.Slowly bend knee as far as possible. Don't move your upper leg at all; bend your knee only.Hold position for one second.Slowly lower foot all the way back down. Pause.Repeat with other leg.Alternate legs until you have done 10-15 repetitions with each leg.Rest; then do another set of 10-15 alternating repetitions.
To make this exercise more effective try performing slight hip extension (see below) with the involved leg first from this position, then try knee flexion.
Front Arm Raise
Strengthens shoulder muscles.
Stand with your feet shoulder width apartHold hand weights straight down at your sides, with palms facing backward.Raise both arms in front of you to shoulder height. Do not turn your wrist.Hold position for one second.Slowly lower arms. Pause.Repeat 10-15 times.Rest; then do another set of 10-15 repetitions.
Strengthens muscles in front of thigh and shin. You can use ankle weights for this exercise if you are able.
Sit in chair. Only the balls of your feet and your toes should rest on the floor. Put a rolled towel under knees, if needed, to lift your feet. Rest your hands on your thighs or on the sides of the chair.Slowly extend one leg in front of you as straight as possible.Flex foot to point toes toward head.Hold position for 1–2 seconds.Slowly lower leg back down. Pause.Repeat with other leg.Alternate legs until you have done 10-15 repetitions with each leg.Rest; then do another set of 10-15 alternating repetitions.
Back Leg Raise
Hip extension strengthens buttock and lower-back muscles. You can use ankle weights for this exercise if you are able.
Stand 12-18 inches from a table or chair, feet slightly apart.Hold onto a table or chair for balance.Slowly lift one leg straight backwards without bending your knee, pointing your toes, or bending your upper body any farther forward.Hold position for one second.Slowly lower leg. Pause.Repeat with other leg.Alternate legs until you have done 10-15 repetitions with each leg.Rest; then do another set of 10-15 alternating repetitions.
Side Leg Raise
strengthens muscles at sides of hips and thighs. Use ankle weights, if you are ready.
Stand straight, directly behind table or chair, feet slightly apart.Hold onto a table or chair for balance.Slowly lift one leg 6-12 inches out to side. Keep your back and both legs straight. Don't point your toes outward; keep them facing forward.Hold position for one second.Slowly lower leg. Pause.Repeat with other leg.Alternate legs until you have done 10-15 repetitions with each leg.Rest; then do another set of 10-15 alternating repetitions.
50-plus Fitness Association
National Institute on Aging
Canadian Association of Family Physicians
Canadian Public Health
Exercise & Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging.
National Institute on Aging website. Available at:
http://www.nia.nih.gov/sites/default/files/exercise_guide.pdf. Updated June 14, 2012. Accessed January 24, 2013.
Functional decline in the elderly. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated January 13, 2013. Accessed January 24, 2013.
Strength training for the elderly. North American Spine Society Know Your Back website. Available at: http://www.knowyourback.org/Pages/BackPainPrevention/Exercise/StrengthTrainingElderly.aspx. Accessed January 24, 2013.
Last Reviewed January 2013