“When I was young I always wondered if old people could do two things: 1. Bend over and touch their toes and 2. have sex.” – Lew Hollander

I was lucky enough to spend Thanksgiving 2013 with the world’s oldest Ironman, Lew Hollander.

Just last October, Lew finished Kona, the legendary end-of-season Ironman race in Kona, Hawaii, at 82-years-old! He became the oldest person EVER to finish an Ironman.

When do you lose the competitive spirit?

NEVER.  You do lose some quickness, agility, range of motion, and a reduction in maximal output (due to the reduced ability of the mitochondria to facilitate the ATP, Kreb cycle). We still have good long-term endurance even though the maximal output is diminished. – Lew Hollander

Lew has a unique philosophy on life, health and fitness (he also writes children’s books). I will have to discuss this later in another blog post.

Today, I want to begin the discussion of senior fitness, specifically high intensity weight training and the benefits it holds for the senior athlete.

This blog post and the next in this series describing a simple senior workout are adapted from one of my favorite books on the topic of body building: Body by Science.

High Intensity Weight Training for Seniors

On the subject of exercise requirements, senior citizens need to let go of the idea that somehow they’re different from the rest of the population because of their age.

Being older doesn’t change much of anything on that front.

All the physiological mechanisms necessary for the human body to produce a physiological adaptation to the exercise stimulus remain intact through every stage of life.

The only meaningful difference that pertains from a physiological standpoint with regard to older people versus younger people is that the older population has had more time for the deconditioning process to do its damage.

They have dug a deeper decompensatory hole, metabolically speaking, than the average younger person who is embarking on a resistance-training program.

Consider the physiological constitution of the average thirty-five-year old man who has never trained with weights.

He is right at the threshold where he will spontaneously start to lose a significant amount of lean mass unless an appropriate muscle-strengthening stimulus intervenes.

A similar situation occurred with the average seventy-year-old man when he was thirty-five – but has continued unchecked for the ensuing thirty-live years.

The senior citizen is starting from a point of worsened muscular condition because he has allowed the process of degradation (or atrophy) of his muscular system to take place without remedy for a much longer time.

Nevertheless, for both individuals, the remedy and the physiological mechanism that needs to be engaged to reverse the process of atrophy are the same.

The precautions that need to be taken in training are also the same for any member of the population—though with seniors, strict adherence is essential.

This mandates that seniors perform biomechanically correct exercise through a full range of motion that is tolerated by the body.

Also, the exercise must be done in a way that properly tracks muscle and joint function. Most important, any exercise must be performed in a manner that properly controls the forces brought to bear on muscles, joints, and connective tissues so that the chances of injury are obviated as much as possible.

Again, all of the guidelines that apply to younger people and exercise also apply to seniors, only more so.

In general, the only time it’s necessary to modify a given training program is when a client (and this again applies across the board) has an injury or a condition such as arthritis that might call for limiting the range of motion initially. This might mean changing the machine setup to a minor extent, but in terms of how we apply the exercise protocol, there is not (nor should there be) any difference.


The benefits attainable from strength training are even more compelling for senior citizens than for others, just by virtue of the fact that seniors have so much more that they can gain back.

In case after case, when a proper training stimulus is applied to the physiology of elderly people, the rate at which they strengthen is astounding. It doesn’t take a lot of stimulus for them to get back to a normal baseline, because their muscles have, in effect, been lying dormant, desperate for a stimulus to awaken and reactivate them.

It is not uncommon to see a doubling of strength (yes, a 100 percent increase) in as little as six to twelve weeks.

This is the metabolic equivalent of “coming back from the dead” in terms of how much a person’s body—and vitality—can change.

Studies have revealed that, for seniors, a proper strength-training program can produce the following changes in the muscle and in the health benefits that attend having more muscle:

  • Regained muscle strength and function
  • Increased muscle strength and muscle size in senior men and women, including nursing home residents
  • Enhanced walking endurance
  • Reduced body fat levels
  • Increased metabolic rate
  • Reduced resting blood pressure
  • Improved blood lipid profiles
  • Increased gastrointestinal transit speed
  • Alleviated low-back pain
  • Increased bone mineral density
  • Eased arthritic discomfort
  • Relieved depression
  • Improved coronary performance


Another important consideration for seniors is that muscle regulates body temperature.

The body is supposed to maintain an internal temperature of 98.6 degrees, but as people lose muscle over the years, they also lose the heat that muscle provides. As a result, they tend to become more vulnerable to both hot and cold, which causes unhealthful fluctuations in body temperature.

This condition can be a serious problem with elderly people, particularly it they become sick.

Doctors know that most people who get pneumonia or a urinary tract infection will develop a fever, but not elderly patients. More often than not, the elderly patient under such circumstances is hypothermic.

The reason is that muscle generates considerable heat, because the metabolic activity of the body, as with all energy activity that is governed by thermodynamics, is exothermic, meaning that it produces heat.

In a car, for instance, the engine produces significant amounts of heat. That’s why car manufacturers install radiators. Remember the first law of thermodynamics, which says, in effect, that you can’t get something for nothing.

Energy always has to be inputted into the system.

The second law of thermodynamics says, in effect, that you can never break even.

This means that as energy is being converted, it is always wasted external to the system. This is precisely how body heat is produced; it is the product of the mechanical inefficiency of energy consumed by muscle tissue.

If your body doesn’t have an adequate supply of muscle tissue, you will not produce enough heat so that the excess can be used to maintain your body’s temperature.

Most people don’t realize how vulnerable elderly people are to hypothermia. An elderly person who happens to slip and fall in the shower and is not discovered for several hours is as likely to die from hypothermia as from any other consequence of the fall.

The Ideal Training Program for Seniors

Muscle, we repeat, is a vital protective tissue for the elderly population.

The more of it, the better. The dozen-plus benefits listed in the preceding section are not so much direct effects of strength training as they are indirect effects that evolve as the body produces or restores more muscle.

  • In the case of arthritis, an arthritic joint is going to move more efficiently if a strong muscle is controlling it, rather than a weak muscle.
  • With regard to osteoporosis, studies show a benefit from strength training among seniors when the weight is significant: 75 to 80 percent of a subject’s one-rep maximum. Anything less than this will probably be insufficient load to stimulate the body to make changes in bone mineral density.

With senior citizens, as with everyone else, a proper strength-training program must use a meaningful load and attempts should always be made to progress that load as the trainee’s strength increases over time.

This is why the approach of most fitness professionals to treat senior citizens as though they were pieces of fine porcelain is detrimental.

Yes, caution must be exercised with the senior trainee.

Care must be taken in the way the exercise is administered, such as in the control of movement speed and the diminishing of momentum, so that forces into joints are controlled—but this is true of all trainees.

Trainees and trainers can’t be namby-pamby about selecting weights or allowing tor exertion of energy. If a “toned-down” approach is employed, the roster of benefits either will be diminished or will not be forthcoming’ at all.


Strength training is the best preventive medicine in which a human being can engage.

In many instances, senior citizens are being medicated to improve those listed biomarkers of health, never having been told that it is fully within their power to achieve these same effects through proper resistance training.

Many of the metabolic benefits that increase in tandem with an increase in muscle can obviate the need tor the medications that seniors commonly ingest to treat the symptoms of such complications as high (or low) blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.

Seniors (or anyone else) who engage in a proper strength-training program and who are on medication to treat the symptoms of such conditions as diabetes should be closely monitored, as their medication may well have to be reduced.

If, for instance, a senior with non-insulin-dependent diabetes is prescribed oral hypoglycemics, when the glycogen mobilization cascade occurs during workouts, insulin sensitivity will improve significantly along with gains in strength and muscle mass.

The consequence of dosing an oral hypoglycemic agent that is just adequate for the senior at one point is that six to twelve weeks into a strength-training program, the improvement in insulin sensitivity may cause the blood sugar to fall too low.

A similar situation exists tor blood pressure medication.

Strength training produces more muscle mass—and more growth of vascular tissue to support it.

As a trainee generates more blood vessels to supply the newly growing muscle, the vascular bed total volume enlarges, and the peripheral vascular resistance will start to decrease.

So, for trainees who take blood pressure medicine or antihypertensives, the dose that was just adequately controlling their blood pressure is now making them hypotensive and lightheaded.

Strength training is in itself “strong medicine” that stimulates the body to produce powerful results.



Above and beyond all of the previously described benefits that a proper strength-training program affords is the opportunity tor senior citizens to reclaim their independence and liberty.

A recent study conducted by physiologist Wayne Wescott took nonambulatory seniors from a nursing home and had them participate in a brief workout involving one set of six different exercises for a fourteen-week period.

The average age of the subjects was eighty-eight and a half.

At the end of the study, the seniors had averaged

  • a four-pound gain in muscle
  • a three-pound loss of fat
  • an increase in strength of more than 80 percent in their lower-body musculature
  • and an increase in strength of almost 40 percent in their upper-body musculature.
  • They improved their hip and shoulder flexibility by an average of 50 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
  • More important, at the end of the study, many of the formerly wheelchair-bound subjects were able to walk again!

“They were out of their wheelchairs and no longer required around the- clock nursing.”‘

The ability to get around and do things for oneself defines independence, particularly in old age.

Engaging in a brief and basic strength-training program can restore to seniors a measure of independence and dignity that they had enjoyed m earlier years but that had gradually diminished as they allowed their muscles to atrophy.

It can be a brand-new lease on life.

You’ve probably seen the television commercials for electric wheelchairs and scooters targeted to seniors as a means of expanding their mobility.

These devices are fine as far as they go, but they can never restore lost mobility.

They may allow people access to more location options than they would otherwise have, but many routine activities still will require outside assistance.

Having to constantly depend on the kindness of others puts people in a vulnerable position, physically as well as psychologically.

Today’s elderly people in particular belong to a generation accustomed to being active. So, typically, as soon as they regain the capability to be active, they become active again.

It is not necessary for seniors to be on a “walking program” or on a treadmill or exercise bike for them to get sufficient levels of activity.

When senior citizens become stronger, their activity levels will rise as a matter of course. From a cosmetic perspective, everything improves, including their appearance, their posture, their demeanor, and their skin tone. As the senior’s level of muscle mass increases, everything else tracks along with it.

In my next blog post I will detail an ideal 3-5 exercise workout protocol for the senior weight trainer. So stay tuned!



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