Strength Training is for Everyone, Regardless of Age
By JD Fields, PT, DPT, OCS, Cert DN
AzOPT Glendale Clinic Manager and Doctor of Physical Therapy

Exercise is an important aspect of overall health and wellness. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends adults participate in at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise at least five days each week. However, most adults do not follow this recommendation. Furthermore, we should be participating in activities that maintain or improve STRENGTH at least twice in addition or within the week.

Strength training has significant health benefits. Let’s discuss some basic concepts of strength training and dive into more detail on its positive effects on our bodies.

Specifically, the ACSM guidelines for strength are to perform at least 2 non-consecutive days of training against resistance for at least one round of 8 to 12 repetitions for healthy adults and 10 to 15 repetitions for more frail adults. This should be done for each body region including chest, back, shoulders, front arm, back arm, abdominals, quads/front of leg focus, and hamstrings/back of leg focus. So, at least eight exercises at minimum to promote strength changes.

We usually associate strength training with the use of a barbell and weight plates.  In actuality, this can be done in a variety of ways including different types of weights, machines, as well as the use of body weight movements such as squats, lunges, pushups, sit ups, pull ups, steps and many more.

How do we affect strength? In order to maintain or gain strength, we need to progressively overload the muscle system being worked. We can lift ten pounds, we now need to lift this more times or lift 11 pounds to gradually increase the stress on the muscles and surrounding tissues. Want to get better or more efficient at certain tasks that requires strength? We need to practice those tasks with additional resistance to assist in using the overload principle.

If we do not use it, we lose it. Think about someone requiring their hands to off a toilet seat or someone not being able to get up from the floor after retrieving an item, or worse – falling down. Their muscular system is unable to produce enough force to lift our body weight against gravity. With strength training we can change that!

What are the effects of strength training besides just bigger muscles?

Stronger bones – putting more stress through bones fights effects of osteopenia/osteoporosis and decreases the chances of fractures.

Stronger tendons, ligaments and connective tissues – more strength training promotes the ability for our connective tissues to be more resistant to stress and injury.

Joint Protection – our muscles are our dynamic support to the joints. As normal wear and tear happens (arthritis), our muscle strength becomes even more important to assist in maintaining joint space and proper movement to reduce further progression of normal wear.

Weight Loss– strength training is a very large part of weight loss programs for all people. Cardio alone won’t do the trick.

Pain Modulation– getting muscles to work around an area of discomfort in many cases can assist in actually reducing pain around the area.

As a physical therapist, we hear all the time about how someone is too old to do some of these things. Aging does not mean we have to lose strength. You do not lose the ability to gain strength or reap the other benefits of strength training just because you age. Does it get harder due to other factors… yes! Does it require consistency…Yes!

The larger and thicker our muscles are creates more ability to produce force and strength. Check out the image to the right. On top is an MRI picture of a 40-year-old triathletes’ thigh. The dark grey areas are muscle tissue.  Below is an MRI of a 74-year-old’s thigh. Notice the incredible difference in the size of the muscle area. The area around the muscle of the 74 year old’s thigh is simply fat.  On the bottom is a 70-year-old triathletes’ thigh. It looks very similar to the 40-year old. So maybe losing strength is not so much about getting old but about not doing the same amount of activity and continuing to challenge ourselves!!!

Physical Therapists are in a great position to help you reach your goals with strength and conditioning, no matter what the circumstances. Whether it is after a surgery, nagging pain, or just inactivity, we have a great understanding of strength and conditioning principles to assist you.  We can help determine your baseline level for strength training exercise and work together to modify and build a plan that supports the benefits of strength training and gets you back to doing what you need and love to do – pain free!