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Is It Ever Too Late to Build Bone Power?

Updated on August 26, 2019
Lorra Garrick profile image

Former ACE-certified personal trainer Lorra Garrick has trained men & women for fat loss, muscle building, more strength and more fitness.

When people work out they usually think about burning fat and/or toning or building muscle. Few think about bone health, let alone bone power. But is it ever too late to build bone power?

Stronger Bones at Any Age

If you can walk into a gym or walk into your home’s exercise room, then you can build bone strength even if you’re over 75.

Weight bearing exercise accomplishes this because in order to move against resistance, muscles must contract. Contracting muscles, which are attached to bones by tendons, pull on bones. This pulling forces the bone to become stronger and denser, in “anticipation” for the next pulling (weight bearing) activity.

What do you think should bone building exercise should consist of?

  • Strength training (lifting weights)
  • Flexibility training
  • Reaction-speed drills
  • Balance routines

Though all four types of exercise are important for overall fitness, the one that’s relevant to building bone power is strength training.

The hot gimmick today among many personal trainers is to put their older clients through a balance-based workout session.

Problems with Balance-Based Exercise

A few balance drills tossed into a weight workout are great, but a workout session for an older person should not be focused on balance stunts.

Focusing on balance, before developing the more important strength training, flexibility training and reaction-speed drills, will not deliver the goods. For bone to become stronger it must be loaded along its length, such as during squats while holding a kettlebell to one’s chest.

A squat loads bone in a linear way, down the spine, hips and legs. However, that kettlebell needs to be heavy enough to induce an increase in bone density. However, novices must start out with just their body weight, and then gradually progress with increasingly heavy weights (kettlebell, dumbbells, heavy ball, barbell). The goal is to “work out heavy” rather than stick to that little 2 kg kettlebell.

The older adult is better off trading the funky seated balancing drills on one of those big bouncy balls for squats.

This assumes that the older person has not been diagnosed with a knee problem that his or her doctor believes would be made worse by squats. Plus, squatting for exercise need not be done deeply (full squat) for effectiveness. The half-squat will do. This is when the thighs are parallel to the floor.

Half squat with only one's body weight.
Half squat with only one's body weight.
Squats with dumbbells.
Squats with dumbbells. | Source

Develop Base Strength and Power First

Strength Training with Weights

Heavy weight workouts build strength and power, but also (believe it or not) improve flexibility. A stronger, more limber leg is a more stable leg, which means a lower risk of falling. Strength training should also include the upper body.

As for what a “heavy” weight is, it’s a load that one can do for eight to 12 repetitions, but not more – due to a failure of the muscle to perform after a certain point.

Most older adults set the load light enough to do up to 20 reps. An 8-12 rep max is perfectly safe. What’s not safe is incorrect form – which I’ve seen many older people doing for all sorts of exercises with many repetitions.

Velocity Training

This is reaction-speed training. Why is speed and reaction so important for the older, non-athletic adult? Because when an elderly person falls and breaks a hip, this does not happen in slow motion. The person needs to react fast enough to intercept the fall – but if the fall is not stopped, the person needs strong bones to prevent a fracture.

Unlike with strength training, one can use light weights for velocity routines, as long as the repetitions are done quickly and with good form.

Getting Started with Building Bone Power even in Old Age

Strength Training

Novices should start with machines: leg press, leg extension, leg curl, chest press, overhead press, seated row, lat pull-down.

Leg Press
Leg Press
Leg Extension
Leg Extension | Source
Leg Curl
Leg Curl | Source
Lat Pull-down
Lat Pull-down

As for squats, start out with bodyweight only, working up the ability to do these without holding onto anything and getting the thighs to parallel with the floor.

Velocity Training

Dumbbells, along with machines, can be used for speed routines. Keep the rep range between eight and 12.

Plyometrics

This means jumping exercises. Few people, whether young or old, do jumping exercises other than jump rope and jumping jacks. But jump rope and jumping jacks are endurance-based, not power-based. A beginner or “out of shape” older man or woman may find they have zero endurance for jumping rope and jumping jacks.

But there’s good news: You do not need to do these to build bone strength. Building strength and power does not require endurance exercise.

Plyometrics refers specifically to the type of jumping exercise that can’t be sustained, such as jumping onto a 12-inch exercise stool, then jumping off. You do not have to immediately repeat. You can take 20 seconds in between jumps, but make sure that every single jump is your best effort.

An older person about to jump onto an exercise box.
An older person about to jump onto an exercise box.

How to Do Plyometrics

Older beginners need to progress mindfully, rather than get ahead of themselves.

Simply raise up onto your toes and then let your body weight fall back down so that the heel strikes the floor. Essentially this is a calf raise. To a de-conditioned person, this seemingly simple movement will have a training effect and prepare the body for more forces later.

The next phase is to step up and down on a 12-inch stool. If this is too difficult, a bottom staircase step can be used. This second phase has the element of balance and coordination. The goal is to do the stepping without holding onto anything.

Once phase II is mastered (you’ve worked your way up to a 12-inch height, give or take), you’re ready for actual jumping. But start slightly, even if only a few inches off the floor. Over time, increase your airborne height.

Do eight to 12 repetitions for all three phases, focusing on power. It’s better to do eight of your highest jumps onto the stool or box, with half a minute in between, rather than eight rushed, sloppy jumps that are not at your peak height.

Frequency of Exercise

  • Strength training + speed-reaction drills: two to three times/week
  • 45-60 minutes per session
  • One session should be devoted just to the lower body.
  • Never do two strength training days in a row.
  • Plyometrics can be done nearly every day, two to three sets, but minimally twice/week.

Doesn’t aerobic exercise also strengthen bones?

Great cardio for bone building is step aerobics, very brisk walking and jogging. If you use a treadmill, do NOT hold on, as this will eliminate the weight bearing effect and encourage your body to become dependent upon external objects for balance.

For more information on the science behind all of this, here is a research report by Stengel et al.

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