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.


  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
  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

Optimal Protein Intake for Fitness After 50

Optimizing resistance training is crucial for the aging athlete, but we can’t forget about optimizing nutrition, especially protein intake.

Why such an emphasis on protein?

Protein (along with sufficient overall caloric intake) is critical to maintain muscle mass and strength, especially as one ages. Unfortunately, up to 40% of older adults do not even consume the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of protein of 0.8 grams/kilogram bodyweight/day (1). Note that the RDA was originally created based on the needs of young men to merely prevent nutritional deficiency, not to promote optimal health, muscle mass, or strength. Further, older athletes need to manage protein intake more closely than younger athletes because of metabolic changes that promote “anabolic resistance”, which is a decreased muscle protein synthesis (MPS) response to resistance exercise and/or protein consumption. Consuming protein and resistance exercise activate MPS , however with age that MPS response is decreased (1). Fortunately, if we engage in resistance exercise and eat sufficient, well-dosed amounts of protein, we can optimize MPS leading to better muscle mass and strength gains (2).

How Much Protein?

Most research points towards a protein range of 1.2-2.0 g/kg/day for optimal muscle mass and strength in the older adult (1). To track daily protein intake, there are many methods but my preferred is to use the Hand Measure System. This method uses the palm of your hand to roughly equate to 25 g of protein. For example, for a 70 kg woman, to hit 1.2 g/kg/day they would need to consume at least 84 g of protein per day—equating to about 3-4 palms of protein per day. As a side note, most protein powder supplements provide between 20-30 g of protein per serving.

How Often?

While the net amount of protein per day is most important, research indicates that consuming at least 25-30 g per meal maximizes the MPS, as opposed to a more uneven distribution (2). For example, consuming 15 g at breakfast then 15 g at lunch would lead to a lower MPS response as compared to consuming 30 g at breakfast.

Type of Protein?

As long as the total amount of protein is sufficient, the exact type is of little importance. Animal and plant proteins both support muscle mass and strength development, as long as total protein and energy intake are sufficient. For example, research in athletes comparing whey and plant based proteins has found no significant differences in muscle gain, strength development or psychometric measures like perceptions of soreness or readiness to train (3), (4).

So to sum up:

-For optimal muscle mass and strength, older adults should consume 1.2-2.0 g protein/kg bodyweight per day

-Servings of protein should ideally be consumed in doses of at least 25 grams per meal, spread throughout the day

-“1 palm size portion” of protein roughly equals 25 grams of protein

-Animal and plant proteins are effective, as long as one consumes a sufficient amount of protein


  1. Baum JI, Kim IY, Wolfe RR. Protein Consumption and the Elderly: What Is the Optimal Level of Intake?. Nutrients. 2016;8(6):359. Published 2016 Jun 8. doi:10.3390/nu8060359
  2. Deer RR, Volpi E. Protein intake and muscle function in older adults. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2015;18(3):248-253. doi:10.1097/MCO.0000000000000162
  3. Joy JM, Lowery RP, Wilson JM, et al. The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutr J. 2013;12:86. Published 2013 Jun 20. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-12-86
  4. Banaszek A, Townsend JR, Bender D, Vantrease WC, Marshall AC, Johnson KD. The Effects of Whey vs. Pea Protein on Physical Adaptations Following 8-Weeks of High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): A Pilot Study. Sports (Basel). 2019;7(1):12. Published 2019 Jan 4. doi:10.3390/sports7010012

*This information is provided solely as general educational and informational purposes. Always consult your physician or health care provider before undertaking any changes in diet or physical activity.

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.


  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.


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

3 Myths About Aging Athletes

The terms “aging” and “athlete” almost seem like opposites. Sports and athletics are typically considered to be a young person’s game. Many of the recommendations around exercise for older adults focus on improving basic daily activities and reducing fall risk. This is clearly important for many older adults, however many aging adults still want to participate in sports and identify as athletes.  

Here we’ll look at a few common myths that hold back the aging athlete (also known as masters athletes).

  1. Aging athletes can’t improve their body composition (i.e. build muscle and lose fat)

A major concern in older adults is the development of sarcopenia, a loss in muscle mass. It is related to strength loss, disability, and morbidity in older adults (1). Starting around age 60, muscle mass decreases by up to 1.4 % per year. However, resistance training can slow this trend and for those who haven’t resistance trained before, they can actually build muscle mass (1). It must be stated, that an older athlete, likely will not build as much muscle mass as their younger self and it will happen more slowly. For example, a 40 year old male golfer will likely build more muscle mass, more quickly than the same golfer at age 80.

With regards to fat loss, research also demonstrates that the elderly can effectively decrease body fat levels (2). That being said, this should be monitored to ensure that as weight is lost, there is not a significant loss in muscle mass, since there is already a tendency towards muscle loss.

2.Aging athletes can’t build muscle strength

In sports, strength training is crucial for performance and reduction of injury risk (3). Similar to muscle mass, strength and power tend to decrease with age. It is estimated that strength decreases by up to 3.6 % per year, starting around age 60. Fortunately, research shows that masters athletes can still improve muscle strength and power. Even adults over 80 years old have shown the ability to get stronger (1). Still overall, the elderly athlete likely develops muscle strength and power at a slower rate and to a lesser extent than their younger counterparts. For example, a 30 year old female sprinter will likely develop more strength, at a faster rate than the same woman at age 70.

3. Aging athletes should only lift light weights

Due to fear of injury, many believe that older adults should only lift light weights, because lifting heavy weights is inherently dangerous. However, there is actually little evidence to support this claim. In a study examining powerlifters (who tend to use lift relatively heavy loads), there was no connection found between lifting loads greater than 85% of 1 repetition maximum (1 RM) and increased injury risk (4).

In fact, the National Strength and Conditioning Association actually recommends that older adults lift weights at a level of 70-85% of their 1 RM, because heavy loads tend to improve activation of type II muscle fibers, which help express maximal strength and power. Interestingly, lighter and moderate weights seem just as effective for building and preserving muscle mass.

Overall, older athletes can improve body composition, build muscle strength and power, and safely lift heavy weights. Of course, like with an athlete of ANY age, a training program should be tailored to their specific goals, values, training history, and medical history. Aging and athletics can go hand in hand – in the future we’ll look at more specific training considerations for masters athletes.  


  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. Tayrose GA, Beutel BG, Cardone DA, Sherman OH. The Masters Athlete: A Review of Current Exercise and Treatment Recommendations. Sports Health. 2015;7(3):270-276. doi:10.1177/1941738114548999
  3. Lauersen JB, Andersen TE, Andersen LB. Strength training as superior, dose-dependent and safe prevention of acute and overuse sports injuries: a systematic review, qualitative analysis and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2018;52(24):1557-1563. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2018-099078

How to Improve Home Exercise Adherence-Use Just the Right Amount of Equipment

One of the most common challenges in physical therapy practice is getting patients to actually do their exercises at home. As I’ve written about previously, we see about a 50% adherence rate to home exercises, despite the low cost and time commitments of most programs. 

It is easy for us to dismiss patients as being lazy or illogical for not being able to perform a few minutes of exercise. However, I see this often with people who are otherwise hard working and highly motivated in other areas of life. I have worked with lawyers who work 10+ hour days, yet struggle to perform 10 minutes of home exercises. 

One of the lowest hanging fruits to help patients perform exercises is our choice of equipment. The amount and type of equipment impacts how likely patients are to adhere to the program.

Here are a few common barriers and how to address them with your choice of equipment:

  • The need to setup or find equipment decreases adherence. For some patients, the act of having to find or setup equipment makes them less likely to actually perform exercises. This might seem ridiculous, but when adding a new behavior to someone’s life, small hurdles such as having to wrap a band around a doorknob, can prevent adherence. With these patients, we need to ask questions about when in the day they might have time to do exercises, where, etc. Then pick exercises that have minimal equipment setup needs. Rather than a band resisted row at a doorway, the patient could perform bent over reverse flies without weight. 
  • When the “busyness” of the day makes them forget about performing exercises. Some patients actually perform exercises once they remember, but they just get caught up in the demands of daily life. Here, equipment such as a band or dowel actually serves as a visual reminder.  For example, an office worker might have a red band by their keyboard which cues them to perform a few band pull aparts when they take breaks during the day.
  • When the patient wants exercises that look specific and technical. Patients come to physical therapists for our professional expertise. For certain personalities, if an exercise seems too simple it actually cheapens its value. For example, performing forward shoulder flexion (lifting your arms straight out front) can feel just like it sounds, just lifting your arms out in front of you. However, if we assign a patient a D2 band resisted diagonal (lifting out front at a slight angle with a resistance band) this feels more technical and specific. The context of exercise matters. 

The choice of equipment depends on the specific barrier and personality of the patient in front of you. Our expertise as doctors of physical therapy goes behind our clinical skills. Seemingly minor decisions, such as exercise equipment choice, play a key role in our patients feeling better and returning to the activities they love.