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Weight Training for Middle-Aged and Older People

From: Dr. Gabe Mirkin’s Fitness and Health e-Zine
March 21, 2021

A review of 22 studies specifically on how to grow larger and stronger muscles found that the best way for untrained people to grow muscles is to use lighter weights with more repetitions. On the other hand, most trained athletes gained more strength by using heavier weights with fewer repetitions (Human Movement, July 23, 2020;21(4):18-29). You gain larger and stronger muscles by exercising against enough resistance to damage the muscle fibers and you can get the same muscle damage with resultant muscle growth from lifting lighter weights with more repetitions to failure as you can gain by lifting heavier weights with fewer repetitions for both novice women (Muscle Nerve, Jan 2015;51(1):92-101) and young vigorous men (J Appl Physiol, Jul 1, 2016;121(1):129-3). Lifting lighter weights with more repetitions reduces your chances of injuring yourself.

Why Everyone Should Lift Weights
After age 40, most people lose more than eight percent of their muscle size per decade and by age 70, the rate of muscle loss nearly doubles to 15 percent per decade, markedly increasing risk for disability and disease (Am J Epidemiol, 1998;147(8):755-763). A resistance exercise program can help to slow the loss of muscle fibers and improve mobility as people age (Physiol Rev, Jan 1, 2019;99(1):427-511). Lifting weights or using resistance training equipment will strengthen your skeletal muscles, help to prevent broken bones from falls, and make your heart stronger to reduce risk of heart failure. Aerobic activities such as running, walking, riding a bicycle, swimming or playing tennis will not prevent the loss of muscle strength and size that occurs with aging.

Virtually all middle-aged and older people should do some form of resistance exercise, since extensive data show that having weak arm and leg muscles:
• increases risk for diabetes, heart attacks and premature death (British Medical Journal, Sept 2009; J of Phys, Sept 2009)
• is associated with smaller and weaker upper and lower chambers of your heart (J Am Geriatr Soc, Dec 2019;67:2568-2573)
• predicts death in people who have chronic heart failure (Cardiology, March 25, 2019). Heart failure means that the heart became too weak to pump adequate amounts of oxygen to the brain.

How to Build Muscle Without Injuries
When middle-aged and older people start a weight lifting program, they often get injured, usually because they try to train like young people who pick the heaviest weight they can lift ten times in a row and do three sets of ten lifts. They feel sore for the next few days and when the soreness goes away, they lift heavy weights again, usually two or three times a week. This type of training almost always injures older novice weight lifters and ends their training program. The best way for middle-aged and older people to prevent injuries is to lift lighter weights.