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Strength training for 'aging' adults

If we spend most of our lives declining in strength, how are some senior citizens able to complete marathons and perform other demanding physical tasks? One of the answers is strength training.

News flash: we are all aging! By the time we reach our thirties, we all begin to lose peak strength by approximately 10 percent per decade, increasing to 15-30 percent per decade by our sixties. Knowing that we are in a strength decline for roughly 75% of our lives, how is it that there are some 70, 80 and even 90-year olds running marathons, winning strength competitions and retaining the strength and power of their earlier years?  

We all have the ability to continually gain strength, power, and improve our cardiovascular performance. Just like younger adults, aging adults should pick up the weights and engage in strength training types of workouts on a regular basis—2-3 times per week. There is a common fear of injury or misconception that aging muscles will not respond, however, these are just that—unfounded misconceptions.

Using the appropriate weight training intensities at 8-15 repetitions, where the 8th to 15th repetition is completed pain-free, with proper form and is unable to be lifted again due to true muscle fatigue, will result in strength gains. Most importantly, choosing the appropriate type of exercise to improve/maintain functioning is best.

For example, completing squats while holding free weights, a barbell with weights, a medicine ball, etc., is a better exercise for maintaining sit-to-stand strength than a seated knee extension machine. Functional strengthening is more effective in improving daily tasks than traditional strength training; this is also easier and more convenient to complete since it requires body weight resistance without a lot of fancy gym equipment. Other examples of functional strengthening exercises include repeated trunk curl ups (holding weights as needed), lunges, single leg squats or single leg lunges in different movement planes, push-ups, and step-ups/step downs forward/laterally. All of these can be progressed with adding more weight, depth of movement, ankle weights, holding weights, adding step height, etc.

Focus on controlling all exercises with smooth, slowed movements is also key. Often times, when the focus is on completing a certain number of repetitions, people rush to get to the last rep. Momentum generated from rushing reps will make the exercises ineffective, sloppy and risk injury. Keep all reps to at least 2-4 seconds through the entire range of motion available. Further, there is evidence that just one set of 8-15 is just as effective as multiple sets. You will get more out of your strengthening routine if you do multiple types of different exercises to target a specific muscle group than many sets of the same exercise.

An ideal workout routine is to walk briskly for 5-10 minutes before strength training, then complete 30-45 minutes of varied functional strength training exercises, followed by 10 minutes of stretching. Warm-ups are important to stimulate adequate blood flow through the body and to allow the heart to respond to the higher physical demands. Stretching of various muscle groups is important to keep adequate range of motion and tissue length; stretches should be held one minute in each position to allow the elastic properties of the muscle to take effect.

Resting time between exercises should be as brief as possible (less than one minute) to effectively fatigue the muscles and maintain an elevated heart rate training zone. Also keep in mind that adequate rest, sleep, hydration, and nutrition between work-outs is needed for the body to repair on "off" days. As always, consult a professional for specific guidance on initiating a safe exercise routine, education on proper form, to address any health concerns or if you experience any pain, lightheadedness or other symptoms.

We all want to be strong, independent and fully functioning adults as we age into our 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. Strength training is one proven way to achieve this goal.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.