By Chris Valuck, Wellness Director

strength training for seniorsExercise Resistance training, also known as weight training or strength training, incorporates exercises that build muscular strength and endurance of skeletal muscles (as opposed to cardiovascular exercise that develops heart muscle endurance). These terms include all types of resistance, whether you are using exercise bands/tubes, dumbbells, weight machines, milk jugs, soup cans, or even your own body weight (i.e. push-ups).

A couple of weight training questions that I am frequently asked are, “How much should I lift?” and “How many times should I lift it?” It seems like the answer should be simple, but it really isn’t because so many factors must be taken into account. A good strength training exercise prescription must include functional exercises that will help improve performing activities of daily life; exercises that take into consideration the individual’s goals, ability levels, orthopedic limitations, time constraints; and the list goes on.

The detail involved in this type of programming is too involved to fully discuss in this article. But I will clarify a few in an attempt to answer these two questions, assuming that the goal of the exerciser is muscular strength and endurance—which is the most common reason a person incorporates strength training into their exercise regime. Also, in the box below are evidence-based guidelines by The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), which is the most respected organization in the industry and considered to be the gold standard.

The biggest misconception regarding resistance training is that you must perform “3 sets of 12 reps” for each exercise or you will turn into a pumpkin. Not so! The “3 sets of 12” idea is just a guide. In fact, for an older population, just 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps may be more suitable. Research shows that the average adult will develop strength and endurance when they use a resistance that is challenging between 8-12 reps. The power lifter or bodybuilder who is only interested in strength might use a resistance so heavy that he cannot perform the exercise more than 2-6 reps and the exerciser interested only in endurance may use a load that is not challenging until 15+ reps are achieved. But because the average person would like muscular strength and endurance, we recommend a middle range of 8-12 repetitions (or 10-15 for an older or deconditioned population).

Once you determine the goal (i.e. muscular strength and endurance), then you determine the resistance required to safely challenge the muscle in that range, which in this case is 8-15 reps. The key word is “challenged.” This means not just doing the exercise 12 times, hopping to the next exercise, 12 times, and so on. It means that with each subsequent set, you should feel that the muscle is beginning to tire and you cannot safely do another. This is what we call momentary muscle fatigue, the point at which the muscle is being challenged to do more than it already can do on a daily basis. The result is increased strength over time. If you simply “count reps” and never challenge the muscle with a tiny bit more weight over time, you will not realize any strength gains, but simply remain where you are. I suppose that at least you can say you’re maintaining your current strength, but most people want to improve strength.

We’ve addressed repetitions and resistance, but now let’s look at sets, which are groups of repetitions. Most group fitness instructors and personal trainers work with the basic guide of “3-sets” of each exercise, providing that only one exercise is being performed for each major muscle group during the exercise session. Again, these exercises vary tremendously and can get very elaborate, but let’s just stick with the basic program which is three sets or less for each major muscle group.

If you choose to do three sets for a particular muscle group and you subscribe to the theory that each repetition should take some effort, then it stands to reason that you would not be able to do 12 repetitions in the second set and definitely not in the third if you are becoming increasingly, but safely, fatigued. More realistically, an effective workout session for any particular muscle group that consists of three sets would look more like this: 12 reps attained in the 1st set;  now a rest period because you should be a little bit tired. In the 2nd set you might only able to perform 10 or 11 reps, and in the 3rd set maybe only 8-9 reps. Is this making more sense?

The above theory is the hardest to convey to the exerciser, but it’s the most important if your goal is to increase strength and endurance. So, the next time you’re in one of the group fitness classes or using the Keiser equipment, ask yourself, “Am I just going through the motions, or am I safely challenging myself enough to make a difference?”

Begin with a 5-7 minute warm-up, consisting of continuous movement (i.e. walking or cycling).

Frequency: 2-3 days per week, working each major muscle group

Sets: Older Population: 1-2 sets of 10-15 rep of each exercise. Most Other Adults: 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps of each exercise.

 Weight lifted should be “challenging” but attainable within the repetition range.
 Rest 1-2 minutes between sets.  Allow a day of rest between strength-training sessions (48 hours).
 Work large muscles first (chest, back, legs); then smaller muscles (shoulders, arms).
 Use proper body alignment and maintain slow, controlled movement.
 Use proper breathing technique: exhale on exertion and never hold your breath.
 Gradual progression of greater resistance, and/or more repetitions per set, and/or increasing frequency is recommended as strength increases.

Pescatello, L., Arena, R., Riebe, D., & Thompson, P. (Eds.). (2014). ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (9th ed., p. 185). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.