How Should Seniors Exercise?
Nobody doesn’t need to be strong. Strength is the most fundamental fitness attribute, forming the foundation for all others. Strength is the basis for power, agility, speed, endurance, and balance. These are the capacities that allow us to meet the demands of our life and our environment.
So, everybody needs strength, which means everybody needs strength training. But nobody needs strength training more than seniors. Why? Because of all the arenas of life that demand fitness, aging is the most brutal of all. The aging process, if uncontested, is characterized by the steady loss of muscle tissue and strength, of balance and stamina, of bone density and resistance to illness and injury. Strength training preserves all of these vital tissues and capacities, which is why physicians and scientists increasingly recognize it as absolutely essential. Strength training transforms the aging adult into an athlete of aging – the Masters Athlete.
The Masters Athlete
Now, you might think that strength training for seniors would be completely different from training for younger people. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our work with Masters Athletes has shown us that the best results are realized when we put seniors on a program that is as close AS POSSIBLE to the programs we use in younger athletes. When we put a young person on a strength training program, we use barbell exercises–squats, presses, bench presses, and deadlifts, and we train these movements in a linear progression, a program in which we add weight to the bar at every training session.
What’s the ideal program for Masters Athlete, say aged 70? Well, it’s barbell exercises: squats, presses, bench presses, and deadlifts, trained in a linear progression. The closer we can keep seniors to a standard program with standard exercises, the better results we get. Using this approach with seniors is safe, productive and powerful.
Variability in Exercise Selection
Of course, in practice, things can get a little more complicated. There’s going to be a lot more variability in an older population than a younger one, because these people have lived long and different lives, with more time for their diverse experiences and genetics to manifest as different abilities and disabilities, different strengths and weaknesses.
So while we try to keep seniors as close to standard exercise selection and programming as possible, modifications are often required. Here are some of the most common modifications we encounter in practice.
First, we will often have to modify which exercises to use for seniors. Many can perform the standard barbell exercises, but some have limitations in mobility and strength that won’t permit this, at least at the start. The most common examples would be the squat and the press. Some seniors are simply too weak to perform a barbell squat at the beginning. But by using leg presses, assisted chair stands, and other substitute exercises, along with the deadlift or one of its variants, we can get most seniors strong enough, with time, to perform loaded barbell squats.
Some seniors simply lack the shoulder mobility to perform the standing overhead press safely and productively. In many cases, these athletes become bench press specialists, with the use of dumbell presses, t-bar presses, or standing barbell curls in place of the press.
Some older athletes will also have trouble with the bench press due to mobility limitations, upper back curvature or kyphosis, or other issues. But there are many modifications we can use to make the bench accessible to virtually any older athlete.
Almost everybody can deadlift. Some Masters need to train with rack pulls, elevated deadlifts, or other variants. Some will transition to standard deadlifts, but we can almost always make this movement pattern stronger.
Conservative Loading is Essential
Second, the absolute load on the bar and the rate of progression will both tend to be lower for Masters. Older people require more judicious loading and progression than their more juvenile and less-deserving counterparts. But the overriding principle of linear progression–adding weight to the bar at every workout–still holds true, and Masters, like younger lifters, can double, triple or even quadruple their strength during a well-conducted linear progression.
Third, Masters can make progress with decreased frequency. Older athletes tend to have less recovery capacity. Many can train three times a week, but we also observe excellent progress and improved recovery on decreased frequency programs. We’ve seen many, many seniors make astounding progress on two-day-a-week novice programs.
Programming for the Masters Athlete
Fourth, the transition from Novice to Intermediate programming for Masters tends to happen on a different timeline. Some Masters who make tremendous progress in the novice phase will peter out more quickly and require an earlier transition to intermediate programming. Others will have a much longer, slower novice phase, requiring significantly more time to max out their linear progression than they would have a few decades ago. And many seniors never really leave the novice phase at all. Because of the vagaries of life, old age, and intermittent interruptions in training due to illness or life events, they make progress, require a reset, and then make progress again, indefinitely.
And this suggests a final distinction that I would like to emphasize–Masters require much more individualized attention to every aspect of their training than younger athletes. So it’s even more important for Masters to work with a qualified coach who knows how to tailor exercise selection, programming, recovery, nutrition and all the other relevant factors to safe, productive, and enjoyable training.
This is a big area, and we’re just scratching the surface. We have an entire book on this subject, The Barbell Prescription, written by myself and Andy Baker, which examines in detail how these principles can be put into practice for any Masters Athlete of any age. And we hope you’ll take a look at the Greysteel YouTube Channel, where we present videos about healthy aging and the use of strength training for Masters.