Weightlifting Over 60: Gain with Just a Little Pain

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The best approach to weightlifting over 60 is not always for the faint of heart.

Weightlifting can increase blood pressure and spike the heart rate, especially for people in later years. It also can lead to severe joint pain and even injuries that may take months to heal, if ever.

But it also builds strength, bone density and muscle mass. It can even decrease average blood pressure over time if done correctly.

Many articles describe the best ways for weightlifting, but they often provide advice for younger people. Some of that advice is actually dangerous for older adults.

These expert articles often recommend that a person lift weights equal to 60 percent to 85 percent of their maximum weight -- also known as the one-repetition maximum or 1-RM -- that they can do in one lift.

That one lift might just be enough to cause a serious injury.

The bench press is one of the best exercises for triceps, chest and back.
The bench press is one of the best exercises for triceps, chest and back.

If you lift weights, how often do you lift?

  • Once a week
  • Twice a week
  • Three times a week
See results without voting

Three Weightlifting Goals

Most research and literature about weightlifting identifies three goals for the activity:

  1. Muscle mass
  2. Muscle strength
  3. Muscle endurance

For someone over the age of 60, muscle strength and endurance are especially important for higher quality of life. Muscle size matters more for appearance and ego satisfaction.

“Volume” is what impacts these three factors. Volume is the amount weight lifted one time X the number of repetitions in a set X the number of sets.

If someone did three sets of sitting bicep curls with 15 repetitions for each set using 20 pound weights for each arm (40 pounds together), the total volume or weight would be 1,800 pounds.

“Intensity” measures the amount of work that goes into a lift. It is a function of the amount of weight used.

The curling example above is a low-intensity set because it uses a large number of repetitions with a small amount of weight -- 45 reps with a pair of 20-pound dumbbells.

A high-intensity set might be 25 total reps with 35-pound dumbbells. The total weight lifted is nearly the same, but the amount of effort that goes into one lift is much greater.

The curl is popular for developing biceps and forearms. A seated curl puts less pressure on the spine and back muscles than a standing curl.
The curl is popular for developing biceps and forearms. A seated curl puts less pressure on the spine and back muscles than a standing curl.

As we get older, the risks from high-intensity workouts goes up. Weightlifting over 60 risk factors include:

  1. Spiking heart rate
  2. Elevated blood pressure
  3. Joint pain
  4. Muscle injury
  5. Internal bleeding

“A single bout of heavy lifting -- greater than 85 percent of your 1-rep max -- on compound exercises, such as the squat, leg press, bench, or deadlift, can lead to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke in men who are already at risk,” Mark Peterson, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of Michigan, says in Men’s Health magazine.

For these reasons, older weightlifters should focus more on low-intensity workouts for the sake of strength and endurance while leaving the high-intensity workouts to the younger crowd.

Four techniques make it easier for people over 60 to lift weights while minimizing pain and discomfort.

The overhead press (either standing or sitting with back support) is an excellent exercise for triceps and shoulders.
The overhead press (either standing or sitting with back support) is an excellent exercise for triceps and shoulders.

1 - Use Lighter Weights and Maximum Repetitions

A study by Stuart Phillips, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, tracked two groups of weightlifters. One repeatedly lifted only 30 percent of the maximum weight possible for them until their muscles were exhausted and the other lifted at 80 percent until exhaustion.

Both groups added similar amounts of muscle. Lifting lighter weights also builds muscular endurance, burns more calories and produces fewer injuries, Phillips said.

Lifting to exhaustion is key to building strength. Exhaustion should appear after 15 to 20 repetitions. If more than 20 repetitions is possible, add more weight, the professor also said.

But the Cooper Institute found that blood pressure reaches its highest point near muscle exhaustion. So hypertensive individuals need to judge when to stop before that point.

Two other factors contribute to achieving muscle exhaustion. One is the number of sets for each exercise, and the other is the number of exercises.

A 2010 meta study -- a study of multiple studies -- by J.W. Krieger, MD, found that two to three sets produced more muscle mass than one set. But four to six sets did not produce more mass than two to three.

A weightlifting program with light weights and many repetitions will produce lean muscle mass even for people in their 60s.
A weightlifting program with light weights and many repetitions will produce lean muscle mass even for people in their 60s.

2 - Lift 2-3 Times a Week

Multiple studies conflict with each other or whether there is an advantage to strength training more than once a week.

Some studies have found that lifting weights at least twice a week produces more strength and muscle mass than once a week. Studies disagree on whether three times a week provides more benefits.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends lifting twice a week.

But most of these studies focus on younger weightlifters. A few that have studied older people found that they need to lift weights more often -- two to three times a week is a common recommendation -- because they lose muscle mass and strength more quickly than younger people.

"Our data are the first to suggest that older adults require greater weekly maintenance dosing than younger individuals to maintain resistance-training-induced increases in muscle mass," study co-researcher and physiologist Marcas Bamman, PhD, of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, says in a press release.

3 - Control Blood Pressure While Lifting

Weightlifting causes a temporary spike in blood pressure. People with high blood pressure shouldn’t lift at all.

“You shouldn't lift weights if your blood pressure is uncontrolled — meaning it's higher than 180/110 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). If your blood pressure is higher than 160/100 mm Hg, check with your doctor before starting a weightlifting program to discuss any precautions or special considerations,” the Mayo Clinic says.

Several techniques will make it easier to control blood pressure while weightlifting.

  • Breath out as you lift the weight. Breath in as you release it.
  • Lift at a moderate pace. Lifting too slowly or too quickly increases blood pressure even more.
  • Pause in-between repetitions, such as every five of them, during a set of repetitions.
  • Pause in-between sets for long enough for your heart rate to decline. A common recommendation is 60 to 90 seconds.

“The more repetitions performed, the greater the blood pressure response. ... Peak values are reached at the end of a set to exhaustion even with light loads. For this reason, hypertensives should avoid sets to failure. When effort becomes maximal at the end of a set, blood pressure will be highest,” the Cooper Institute says.

The Institute also found that blood pressure increases with added sets if the rest between them is 30 to 60 seconds. But it did not increase much with rest of 90 seconds or more.

Consider using weightlifting machines and not free weights because they allow the weight to rest against the machine and not the body.

Anyone who experiences shortness of breath should immediately stop exercising. Shortness of breath later in the day or the next day may also show too much strain or excessively high blood pressure.

Beginning weightlifters over 60 should consider using light dumbbells when starting a new program.
Beginning weightlifters over 60 should consider using light dumbbells when starting a new program.

4 - Minimize Joint Pain, Muscle Injuries

Joint pain is one of the biggest challenges for people over 60 who lift weights.

Different joints deteriorate at different rates for different people over time from the aging process, heavy use, past injuries and other reasons.

In my experience, heavy weights with fewer repetitions are more likely to trigger joint pain than light weights with more repetitions.

The same is true for muscle injuries and internal bleeding from excessive strain.

Besides using lighter weights, it’s helpful to experiment with different repetitions for each exercise to find the point at which joint pain becomes more possible. In other words, 10 repetitions may be the maximum possible for one exercise while 50 may be possible for another.

Poor diets also add to joint pain. I am able to lift more today at 60 than I could at 50 without joint pain because of changes in my diet. An anti-inflammatory diet of tomatoes, olive oil, nuts, berries, fatty fish and green leafy vegetables may reduce the pain.

To minimize injuries, stretch before lifting. If just starting the program, use even lighter weights and add more in the weeks ahead.

Benefits of Weightlifting Over 60

Older adults who strength trained at least twice a week had a 46 percent lower chance of death for any reason than those who did not, according to researchers at Penn State and Columbia University.

They also had 41 percent lower odds of cardiac death and 19 percent lower odds of dying from cancer.

Strength training also is known for improving arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, obesity and back pain.

It can help people sleep better, reduce depression and increase emotional well-being.

Note to readers: Always consult a doctor before beginning any exercise program. The above article is not meant as medical advice and offers suggestions only for informational purposes.

© 2016 Scott Bateman

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