• Too Timid: The Reality of Training Older Adults
    Learn how the right approach to resistance training can slow the progression of sarcopenia - the loss of skeletal muscle mass - in older adults.
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  • too_timidWhat is Sarcopenia?
    Sarcopenia is the gradual loss of muscle tissue that occurs due to normal aging. Although the process of sarcopenia is inevitable, the rate at which it occurs can be attenuated. It appears that after age 50, the effects of sarcopenia are even more significant.

    Adults between the ages of 50-80 years old can lose up to eight times more muscle mass than is lost in the previous 30 years (1). Resistance training has proven effective in decreasing the rate of sarcopenia, especially if it is implemented in the correct manner.

    Although elderly adults might appear different than a 25-year old fitness enthusiast, there are no age-specific reasons why these adults should not use resistance training to improve muscle function, strength, and power. Personal trainers may shy away from working with elderly adults because of “fear more than anything,” says physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS®) Jaynie Bjornara. Fitness professionals are often “too careful in treating [elderly adults] like they’re going to break.”

    Moving Forward with Progression
    As with any properly designed strength and conditioning program, progression is arguably the most important aspect. This means gradually increasing load and intensity for each client, regardless of age. Bjornara’s top three guidelines for training the elderly population are as follows:
    1. Use bodyweight and free weights whenever possible and avoid overuse of machine-based training modalities. 
    2. Increase the load appropriately. Self-selected loads are typically too low, ranging from 38-55% of 1-repetition maximum (1RM). Aim for 60-80% 1RM. 
    3. Combine power and strength exercises. Specifically, lower body power exercises should focus on rapid, concentric movements. 
    Keeping workouts “light” and erring on the side of “conservative” is not necessarily the best approach. Any notion that an elderly person needs to be trained differently than a younger adult is simply not the case. Contraindications for resistance exercise should be based on health status, not age.

    When Bjornara was asked if there are specific contraindications for elderly clients’ resistance training programs she responded, “Bottom line, if it is a healthy elderly person with nothing severe … you can work [elderly persons] out in a way that you probably don’t think you could. You need to progress them like any adult and you need to challenge them.”

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    About the Author:

    Derek Grabert, MS, CSCS,*D

    Derek Grabert, MS, CSCS,*D is an Education Content Coordinator for the NSCA. He holds a master's degree in nutrition and has experience as a university instructor for human nutrition, anatomy, and physiology classes. He has coached high school athletes, special populations clients, and general fitness enthusiasts on the health benefits of strength training, aerobic training, and the integration of proper nutrition.


    1. Hunter, GR, McCarthy, JP, and Bamman, MM. Effects of resistance training on older adults. Sports Med 34(5): 329-348, 2004.

  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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      Very good article for basic strength training information. Wayne Westcott, PhD is a well known authority of strength training research too. Thank you.

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      Good content for an all-important topic. It is functional however to continue including machine weights in a population for whom bone density is a high priority. Safely fatiguing muscles that will prevent bone losses around hip and spine require 10more» repetition to fatigue load. In a free weight environment that isn't tolerated by most even apparently healthy older adults.
      It's also important to include nutrition as a part of the strength training exercise prescription. With the inadequate protein intake of many older adults exercise together with aging can be a double catabolic environment.
      Last though heavy loads are important for bone density and power is proven to have more bone benefit than slow controlled movement, lighter loads and greater repetition is also valuable if the goal in older adults is gait training.
      Specificity and function are about each individual you're working with and any exercise is functional for someone depending on where they lie on the continuum at the moment.«less

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