Should Older Adults Only Lift Light Weights?

Many exercise programs for older adults recommend lifting light weights, for high reps. But is this really the best recommendation?

To answer that question we first need to ask, why are we training? For older adults, we should prioritize strength (the ability to produce high amounts of force) and hypertrophy (an increase in muscle mass). As discussed here, these qualities tend to decrease with age, so resistance training should develop and maintain them.

How we develop strength and hypertrophy depends on the weight of the load and the number of reps performed.

Broadly speaking, we can classify loads as heavy (5-10 reps), moderate (10-20 reps), and light (20-30 reps) [1].

So what loads maximize strength?

Research indicates that maximal strength comes from lifting heavier loads [2]. This makes sense as the ability to produce high amounts of force is a skill that our nervous system needs to practice. So lifting heavier loads in the 5-10 rep range is ideal for maximizing top end strength. Interestingly, research shows, that we don’t have to go all the way to muscle failure to maximize strength and it actually might produce worse strength gains if you take sets to failure [3].

Next, what loads maximize hypertrophy?

Unlike strength, hypertrophy can be achieved well with a wide variety of rep ranges from 5-30 reps. However, hypertrophy requires getting closer to muscle failure, especially with higher rep sets [3]. For example, if you perform a biceps curl for 30 reps, it should be sufficiently heavy that you can only perform 31 or 32 reps total i.e. only having 1-2 repetitions in reserve.

So, should older adults lift heavy or light weights?

The answer is both, since both strength and muscle mass are important.

When deciding the weight/reps of an exercise we need to consider:

  1. How fatiguing the lift is: Generally compound, barbell lifts, such as barbell squats and deadlifts, are more fatiguing because they involve many muscle groups and require more spinal stabilization. If an exercise is more fatiguing it should be done for heavier loads. On the other hand, single joint exercises, such as a biceps curl, use few muscle groups and place little stability demands on the spine. Similarly, machine based exercises don’t require much spinal stabilization, so are not as fatiguing. These less fatiguing exercises should be done for lighter loads.

So, for compound, barbell lifts we should focus on heavier loads. At the other end of the spectrum, single joint and/or machine based lifts should be done at lighter loads.

2. How much technique is needed for the lift: Compound, free weight lifts such as squats, deadlifts and bench presses, require more technique and coordination to perform well. On the other hand, single joint exercises and/or machine based exercises require little technique to execute correctly.

If a lift requires more attention to technique we should perform it at lower rep ranges (with heavier loads). Conversely, if a lift requires less focus on technique, we should pick higher rep ranges (with lighter loads).

Finally, let’s get into recommendations for specific exercises. Note, these are general recommendations to serve as a starting point.

ExerciseRecommended Reps
Barbell deadlifts & squats5-10
Pullups & chin ups*5-10
Barbell presses (bench & overhead)5-10
Compound dumbbell lifts (bench press, overhead press, row)**10-20
Lunges & split squats**10-20
“Simple” squat variants (e.g. goblet squat)*10-20
Compound machine (e.g. leg press, chest press)***10-20
Single joint-free weight or machine (e.g. bicep curl)10-30

Finding your optimal weight/rep combination for a given exercise takes experimentation, ideally with a coach to guide that process.

A few notes on some of these recommendations:

*Pullups and chin-ups require some degree of technique and also demand more spinal stabilization than a machine exercise, like a lat pull down. Similarly, squat variants, like goblet squats, require less technique than a barbell squat, as well as, are difficult to load with heavy weights i.e. it is cumbersome to hold up a heavy dumbbell.

**Compound dumbbell lifts and lunges/split squats are more unstable then barbell lifts, so are difficult to load with heavy weights.

***Compound machine lifts are not technically demanding, but they are somewhat fatiguing since many muscle groups are being used at once.

References:

  1. https://renaissanceperiodization.com/chest-training-tips-hypertrophy/
  2. Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2017;31(12):3508-3523. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28834797/
  3. Vieira AF, Umpierre D, Teodoro JL, et al. Effects of Resistance Training Performed to Failure or Not to Failure on Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Power Output: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2021;35(4):1165-1175. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000003936 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33555822/

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