How old is too old for strength training?
Much misinformation abounds about the benefits and risks of strength training, particularly for older adults. This article aims to dispel some of those myths.
Most people, especially inactive ones, get weaker every year of their lives, sometimes starting as early as their 20s. But with an effective strength-training program, one can, at the very least, maintain some strength year-to-year. This holds true for older adults who can continue to maintain a remarkably high level of strength. It’s not mysterious—it’s possible through simple progression and consistent work.
The process for getting stronger can be summed up as progressive overload. This means that you need to consistently and progressively increase the load you put your body through. This load increase comes from actual weight increases, the time under tension of the load, or the number of repetitions or sets you perform with the load (your workout volume). By simply increasing one of these three variables you’ll be well on your way to getting stronger.
The old anecdote of a farmer who wanted to get stronger serves as an example. As the story goes, the farmer had a newborn bull and he decided that every day he would pick up the baby bull and carry it from the barn to his house and back. Of course each day the bull grew a little heavier. The farmer, correspondingly, got stronger, until eventually he was carrying a full-grown bull.
This illustrates the point that just doing a little bit each day, and doing a little bit more each day, will lead to great strength gains. What trips up many people on the road to getting stronger is that they go too fast or are inconsistent in their training, which often results in injury.
Start Now, Gently
If you haven’t been strength training consistently you need to start out slowly and let your body acclimate. It’s important to stick with the same exercises or similar ones, especially if you’re a novice, so that your body doesn’t have to cope with too many variables at once. And by sticking to the same exercises, it will be easier for you to have an accurate representation of strength gains.
Recovery is another matter. Even though you can get stronger or maintain strength, your ability to recover decreases significantly with age. This is another reason why steady and slow progress is important. It may mean that you need two whole days of recovery between strength-training sessions, even though in your younger years you might have only needed one day.
The key to gaining strength as you age is patience. It’s OK if you need to adjust an exercise or take more rest days between sessions. Your improvement is determined by your ability to listen to your body and respond accordingly.
No matter what your age is, you can apply these principles to get stronger. It’s really simple, applied science.
Still skeptical about strength training actually working when you’re older? Three Masters swimmers who’ve been training with me for the past four years explain how it’s helped them. Each year they are still getting stronger!
- John started four years ago and decided to become a competitive Masters swimmer. “By working with Chris on swim-specific strength training, my finishes went from top 20 [nationally] up to top three or four. And then one year at long course nationals in Indianapolis, I had three first place finishes. The core and strength training that we do increases the strength in the water tremendously.” John says he has been surprised by “how hard [the strength training] is and how we can work through it and really strengthen ourselves over time. Whether you’re competing for Masters nationals or any kind of sport or just trying to live a healthy lifestyle, working out with Chris is a great way to go.”
- Ernie says, “I think all three of us have gotten faster over the last five years. We’re getting up there in age, but we’re getting faster. I definitely feel stronger in the water. Particularly in my sets in the water—I feel stronger in the back half of the sets, and I’m able to do repeats that I haven’t been able to do in the past.” In addition to swimming faster, adding strength training has helped keep Ernie motivated. “It adds a tremendous amount of variety to my swimming. It keeps me from getting stale. I look forward to the variety of the workouts each week, both the dryland and the water workouts.” All this added training has also taught Ernie that his limits may be further away than he realized. “I’ve learned I can go a little bit farther, push myself a little bit harder, and go a little bit faster than I ever thought I could.”
- Bernie says that adding strength training has resulted in “more mental confidence in the big national meets. Swimming-wise, my sprinting is a lot better in the back half. I don’t fade as I’ve gotten older these 4 years.” He’s also learned that he can do things he never thought he’d be able to do. “When I first started with Chris, I couldn’t do pushups, now I can do pushups and I think that’s translated into more confidence in the sets that I do.” And the fact that the strength training they’ve been engaging in typically doesn’t involve very heavy weights means he can do more. “On some of these workouts, we only do five to 10 pounds, so it’s not lifting heavy weights repetitively, so you can do a lot under a good coach with very little weight or no weight at all.”
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