A Strength Training Blueprint for the Aging Athlete

The older athlete can and should strength train, as we’ve discussed here, which begs the question, how to do it?

Fortunately, there are evidence based guidelines that form a blue print for strength training in the aging athlete. For older adults, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends:

-2-3 sessions per week

-2-3 sets of 1-2 multijoint exercises per major muscle group (with 1.5 – 3 minutes of rest between sets)

-An intensity of 70-85% of 1 repetition maximum (% 1RM)

Of course, this is a rough frame work. A new strength trainee will likely see strength gains with a lower volume and intensity initially (i.e. fewer sets and/or session and a lower % 1RM). However, to continue to see strength gains we’ll have to increase the volume and intensity, since strength follows a “dose-response” relationship. This means that as you increase the intensity and volume of strength training, the strength gains will be larger. Of course, this only happens up to a point – we cannot infinitely add volume and intensity. An excess of volume and intensity could actually lead to decreased strength gains due to poor recovery from the training program. That sweet spot of volume and intensity is highly individualized and can really only be determined by strength training and assessing the athlete’s response.

Given the above parameters, let’s start with the exercises to build the program around. The fundamental strength exercises fall into six buckets of movement patterns:

  • Squat – bending at the knees and hips, such as the barbell squat, leg press, and lunge.
  • Deadlift – bending primarily at the hips, such as the deadlift and hip thrust.
  • Horizontal press – pressing straight out in front of the torso, such as the bench press and pushup.
  • Vertical press – pressing up overhead, such as the barbell and dumbbell “military” press.
  • Horizontal Pull – pulling from straight out in front of the torso, such as the barbell row and seated row machine.
  • Vertical pull – pulling from overhead, such as the pullup or the lat pull down.

To prescribe the intensity of these exercises we’ll gauge that by the number of repetitions in reserve, also known as “RIR”. The RIR of an exercise is the number of repetitions we have left in reserve or “left in the tank”. For example, if you can do a squat at given weight for a maximum of 12 reps, but only perform 10 reps, the intensity would be a 2 RIR, because you have 2 reps in reserve. If you did that squat for 12 reps, the intensity would be 0 RIR, because you have 0 reps in reserve.

RIR is useful because it helps us pick a weight for the day based on our actual strength levels that day. Strength varies day to day based on many factors such as sleep, nutrition, stress, etc. For example, do you think you would lift the same weight at 11 am after a good night of sleep and a solid breakfast versus at 11 pm after a long day of work when you skipped lunch and dinner? If we just try to force the same weight, we will likely over fatigue our body since we are not matching the exercise to our current strength level. Conversely, using RIR helps us take advantage of “good days” in the gym, by letting us lift more weight when we are especially recovered and energized.

There have been conversion charts developed which give a rough guideline to equate %1RM to RIR. My adaptation for the aging athlete is the general recommendation to:

-Perform 5-10 reps, with 4-2 RIR

For example, if you can do a deadlift 9 times at a certain weight and you want to stay at 4 RIR (4 reps left in the tank), you would perform 5 reps. At the other end if you can perform a bench press 12 times and you want to stay at 2 RIR (2 reps in reserve), you would perform 10 reps.

Of course this is not an exact science. We won’t always assess RIR with perfect accuracy and that is OK. Research suggests that over time a trainee gets better at estimating their RIR for an exercise.

To wrap up, here is a summary of the blue print of strength training for the aging athlete. Like with an athlete of ANY age, medical screening and adapting the training program based on their individual physiology and response to the program is vital.

Pick:

  1. Frequency: 2-3 sessions per week
  2. Volume: 2-3 sets per exercise
  3. Movement Pattern (1-2 exercises for each pattern, each session):
    • Squat
    • Deadlift
    • Horizontal Press
    • Horizontal Pull
    • Vertical Press
    • Vertical Pull
  4. Intensity: pick a weight that allows for 5-10 reps per set, leaving 2-4 reps in reserve on each set (choose a lower RIR for heavier weights, choose a higher RIR for lighter weights)

To create your strength training plan, reach out to me and we’ll create an adaptive strength plan customized to you, no matter your age.


References:

1. Fragala MS, Cadore EL, Dorgo S, et al. Resistance Training for Older Adults: Position Statement From the National Strength and Conditioning Association. J Strength Cond Res. 2019;33(8):2019-2052. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000003230

2. Helms ER, Cronin J, Storey A, Zourdos MC. Application of the Repetitions in Reserve-Based Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale for Resistance Training. Strength Cond J. 2016;38(4):42-49. doi:10.1519/SSC.0000000000000218

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