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Strength training recommendations for older adults? They need more muscle!

Age is inevitable. We are in a society where we know that physical activity and a healthy diet can help stave off the signs of aging. So persons turn to the exercise guidelines to get an idea of what they should be doing for cardio and strength training. The current exercise guidelines set out by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), Canadian Society of Exercise Physiologists (CSEP) and the National Institute of Aging (NIA) are outdated and based on what was published in the literature up to 10 years ago. Research is only now starting to push the limits of intensity and weights used in older adults. Because of this, the research doesn’t exist to show if it is safe or feasible to push outside these boundaries. This research needs to be done and will be done over the next couple of years.

This is what the recommendations are for strength training in an older population (over the age of 60):

ACSM Guideline, published in 2009.

Frequency: At least 2 days/week
Intensity: Between moderate- (5–6) and vigorous- (7–8) intensity on a scale of 0 to 10.
Type: Progressive weight training program or weight bearing calisthenics (8–10 exercises involving the major muscle groups of 8–12 repetitions each), stair climbing, and other

The National Institute of Aging – from NIA website

2x/week – 30 minute sessions and recommends 10-15 reps starting with a 1-2 lb weight or no weight at all.

You cannot blame these organizations for this type of recommendation – it is based on what the current literature states. Reading papers on resistance training I see a very conservative approach to exercise. Exercise programs for older adults are focussing on resistance bands, very light weights (think soup can) or machines that target muscles in isolation instead of the way in which movement is performed in every day life.

The Intensity Scale 

The ACSM guideline uses a 0-10 scale that talks about the difficulty (or intensity) of the exercise you are performing. This scale is also known as the Rate of Perceived Exertion or RPE. The RPE scale is a GREAT tool for listening to your body on that current day and pushing to something challenging.

Moderate intensity is seen as a 5-6/10 on the RPE scale. High intensity or vigorous intensity is pushing the 7+/10 range on the scale. There are several ways for you to look at this scale

For one, if you are using low weight but higher repetitions, moderate intensity would mean that you probably have 3-5 more repetitions or reps left that you could have performed but didn’t. At vigorous intensity you have one maybe two if it was a good day before you would have been unable to complete the exercise. Being unable to complete the rep is called hitting failure (sounds bad doesn’t it?)

Another way of looking at intensity is basing it off of percentage of the maximum weight you can use on a particular exercise. A moderate intensity exercise, would be one that you can perform for 8-12 reps as the ACSM guideline recommends. A high or vigorous intensity exercise from this perspective would be a weight you could perform for 3-5 reps, maybe.

Recommendations for the 12-15 rep range is done often because of concerns for safety. As well, the research just simply hasn’t been done. Guidelines are based on the best available evidence. If it isn’t available, well then it isn’t included.

The Challenge 

Anecdotally, I have seen large improvements in persons who are working at a high intensity IMG_5986where they are using heavier
weights for fewer reps (3-5). As we get older, we lose muscle mass, muscular power, and muscular strength. The best method for gains in strength and power are high intensity strength programs. As we stress the body, we force it to adapt. Having the capacity to lift more weights, makes moving  submaximal weights around the house (including just your own body weight up
the stairs) easier. This is one of the tenets I am using to challenge the current guidelines to include RT at higher weight percentages.

Think Joey has trouble going up the stairs when he performs 30 lb KB step ups?

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