Resistance Training and the Older Adult

Resistance Training and the Older Adult

From the American College of Sports Medicine, Comments and Position Statements

This article has some plain English and some sciencey stuff. Give it a try if you don’t usually like the longer, data-filled articles. The bits in quotes are directly from the article, written for the American College of Sports Medicine by Darryn S. Willoughby, Ph.D., CSCS, FACSM. I have included a few of my own comments in parentheses. Italics and bold type are also my additions. And, yes, I have used most of the ideas outlined here and adapted them for old pet rehabilitation–RehabDeb.

Great Dane, Miss Moneypenny, Taking a Break From Old Pet Rehabilitation
Great Dane, Miss Moneypenny, Taking a Break After Exercise Program

Benefits of Resistance Training in Older Adults –

“The health benefits of appropriately prescribed long-term (more than 12 weeks) resistance training in older adults–ages 65 and older–are well known. They include improvements in muscle strength and endurance; other possible health benefits include increase in muscle mass, which translates into improvements in functional capacity. In addition, increased weight bearing with resistance training is considered beneficial in improving bone density and combating the effects of osteoporosis.”

(Rehabdeb note: the above is basically true for other mammals as well.)

Appropriate Programs for Function –

“Achieving appropriate levels of function is very important for older adults so they are able to carry out most of the daily living skills necessary to lead independent lives. Due to the fact that muscle wasting (sarcopenia) and weakness, exacerbated by physical inactivity, is prevalent in the aging population, more emphasis has been placed on developing resistance-training programs for older adults. When developing resistance-training programs for this group, important components to consider are the various training-related variables: frequency, duration, exercises, sets, intensity, repetitions, and progression.”

Orthopedic Issues and Resistance Training –

“Older adults often have orthopedic issues that contraindicate resistance training of the affected joint(s). Older adults are also at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and in many cases have even been diagnosed with it. Therefore, it is critical that the older adult receive prior approval from their physician before participating in resistance training.

It should be noted that proper supervision of the individual’s resistance-training program, including any testing procedures, by an appropriately trained exercise professional, is highly recommended. It should also be noted that performing maximum strength testing in many older adults is not recommended. Therefore, when strength testing is appropriate, sub-maximum testing protocols for estimating maximum strength are recommended.”

Frequency –  

“Exercise may be categorized as either multi-joint, meaning more than one joint is dynamically involved to perform the exercise (e.g., bench press, shoulder press, leg press), or uni-joint, meaning only one joint is dynamically involved (e.g., bicep curls, triceps extensions, leg extensions). In the older adult, the resistance-training program should focus primarily on multi-joint exercises. Uni-joint exercises are not discouraged entirely but should not make up the majority of exercises within the training program.

If a person is performing both multi-joint and uni-joint exercises for a particular muscle group, it is recommended that the multi-joint exercise(s) be performed before the uni-joint exercise. Additionally, within each resistance-training workout, larger muscle groups (i.e., legs, back, and chest) should be worked before smaller muscle groups (i.e., arms and shoulders).”

Equipment for Humans –

Additionally, machines are recommended over free weights (i.e., barbells and dumbbells) due to skill-related and safety factors. As the individual progresses, they can use free-weight exercises appropriate for their level of skill, training status and functional capacity.

(Rehabdeb note: I design some programs using weights for pets. Otherwise, we don’t have weight machines, per se, in veterinary rehabilitation. There are some standard tools and equipment recommended in veterinary rehabilitation programs. Most practitioners use those tools before building a good foundation. They are also often troublesome for a client to use successfully at home. Veterinary rehab clinicians often use a water treadmill when other work would be more effective. It really helps a practitioner to know functional recovery at the professional human sports level.)

Muscle Groups –

“Traditionally, muscle groups are classified as the following: 1) chest, 2) shoulders, 3) arms, 4) back, 5) abdomen, and 6) legs. Specifically, the chest group contains the pectoral muscles, the shoulder group contains the deltoid, rotator cuff, scapular stabilizers and trapezius muscles, the arm group contains the biceps, triceps, and forearm muscles, the back group contains the latissimus dorsi of the upper back and the erector muscles of the lower back, the abdomen group contains the rectus abdominis, oblique, and intercostals muscles, and the leg group contains the hip (gluteals), thigh (quadriceps), and hamstring muscles.

In the older adult, it is important to attempt to incorporate all six of these muscle groups into the comprehensive resistance-training program.”

(Rehabdeb note: same for other animals ^^. A practitioner with enough experience in program design and implementation can design programs for you. You may use my programs at home with your pet to meet the goals in this statement paper.)

How Much Exercise for Benefits?

“It has been recommended that one to two exercises per muscle group is normally adequate. Noteworthy here is to understand that by employing primarily multi-joint exercises in the resistance training program one may actually exercise more than one muscle group or specific muscle per exercise.

For example, in performing the leg press exercise the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles are all involved and, in many cases, this could eliminate the need to perform any uni-joint exercises for those particular muscles.

Studies have shown improvements in muscle strength employing ranges of one to three sets of each exercise during the training program.”

Some Human-Based Guidelines –

“Based on current guidelines, it would be recommended that the individual start with one set of each exercise and, depending on individual need, possibly progress up to no more than three sets when the fitness professional deems it appropriate. It should be noted, however, that an average of two sets of each exercise would be beneficial for most individuals. To avoid excess fatigue, a two-to-three minute rest period between sets and exercises is recommended.”

(Rehabdeb note: I have based my basic programs and my advanced pet rehab work on principles of sport science recovery. I also incorporate advanced human surgical recovery plans and exercise science program design.  Often I need to merge elements of neuroscience and neurology. Veterinary medicine plays the part of diagnosis, prescribing medication, and oversight of cases in collaboration with a professional rehabilitation specialist. I design programs taking into account the busy status of most people’s lives. I plan for practical application of physical recovery principles, and timing of work for best recovery.)

Intensity of Work –

“Intensity refers to the amount of weight being lifted, and is a critical component of the resistance-training program, considered by many fitness professionals to be the most important training-related variable for inducing improvements in muscle strength and function.

In other words, the more weight lifted, the more strength gained. Even though this may not always be the case, the importance of intensity in facilitating strength improvements is well documented.

Intensity is often expressed as a percentage of the maximum amount of weight that can be lifted for a given exercise (1RM). For example, if someone who has a maximum effort of 100 pounds on the bench press exercise performs a set with 80 pounds, they would be training at 1RM of 80%. Studies have suggested that older individuals are able to tolerate higher intensities of exercise, up to 85%.

However, research has also shown intensities ranging from 65%-75% of maximum to significantly increase muscle strength. Therefore, in order to increase strength while simultaneously decreasing the risk of musculoskeletal injury that often accompanies higher intensities of resistance training, a low-intensity to moderate-intensity range of 65%-75% is recommended.”

(Rehabdeb note: So, for example, this is why I don’t recommend hill repeats for your knee or hip injury pet only 2 weeks into a foundation program. I have seen this recommendation on discharge instructions. If a person doesn’t have experience with program design and lots of implementation, they often push too much too fast.)

Repetitions –

“Repetitions (reps) refer to the number of times an individual performs a complete movement of a given exercise. There is an inverse relationship between intensity and repetitions, indicating that as the intensity increases the repetitions should decrease.

Based on previous research, a rep continuum has been established that demonstrates the number of repetitions possible at a given relative intensity. For example, an intensity of 60% relates to 16-20 reps, 65% = 14-15 reps, 70% = 12-13 reps, 75% = 10-11 reps, 80% = 8-9 reps, 85% = 6-7 reps, 90% = 4-5 reps, 95% = 2-3 reps, and 100% = 1 rep.”

(Rehabdeb note: it might be obvious that this recommendation is specifically for humans. This information is based in large part on specific observation of and verbal feedback from human subjects. The research is based on many other measurements, though, as well. I’d love to do the work on determining rep protocol for pets, specific for breeds and species. Nonetheless, the information should be helpful to you if you are an exercise scientist.)

“In view of the previously mentioned recommendations for an intensity of 65%-75% of maximum, this would suggest that for each training exercise the individual perform an adequate amount of weight that would allow for 10-15 reps. In the event that no initial strength testing was performed, simply through trial-and-error an individual could determine appropriate training loads that would allow them to perform only 10-15 reps. They could then be sure of training at 65%-75% of maximum effort.”

(Rehabdeb note: I have designed my broad foundation-building program, as well as my specific programs, to allow for info like that above.)

Continued Improvement Needs Work –

“In order to continually enjoy improvements in strength and functional capacity, it is important to consistently incorporate progression and variation into the resistance-training program.

Progressing and varying one’s program commonly involves incorporating the overload principle.

The overload principle involves making adjustments to the training variables of the resistance-training program such as frequency, duration, exercises for each muscle group, number of exercise for each muscle group, sets and repetitions.

In terms of adjustment, normally the overload principle involves making increases to these variables. For example, making progressive increases in intensity has been shown to be important in increasing muscle strength. In terms of the rate of progression, one should consider attempting to progress their resistance-training program on a monthly basis. However, it should be noted that increasing the intensity in some older adults may be contraindicated due to orthopedic and/or other medical limitations. As a result, making adjustments in other training variables would be recommended.”

(Rehabdeb note: I work to change the nature of veterinary rehabilitation to better instruct practitioners. It is important to incorporate principles specifically noted in the last section, above, into a veterinary physical rehabilitation program.)

Thanks for reading and for looking for solid help for your pet-


Paper published August, 2009 and originally posted on my website around that time. My comments updated May 16, 2018


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