Heavy weightlifting programs centered around old-school exercises like deadlifts, snatches, barbell squats, the bench press and military press are popping up in gyms everywhere these days, and for good reason: studies show that this type of training is highly effective for building strength and power. That can translate to more functional independence over the long term.
As with any form of exercise, however, the benefits also come with some risk, and those risks increase as we age.
To find out whether heavy lifting is safe for adults 50 and over, we dove into the research and asked a top strength expert. Read on to find out whether high-intensity resistance training is right for you.
The Heavy Lifting Protocol
High-intensity resistance training involves lifting very heavy weights, kettle bells or sand bags for multiple sets of only a few repetitions, with relatively long rest periods between sets. A typical workout might include one to three exercises, each performed for three to five sets with a weight so heavy you can only perform between one and five repetitions per set with perfect form.
The quickest way to sustain a potentially debilitating injury is to lift heavy weights the wrong way — this is not the time to rely on YouTube videos.
With heavy lifting, a rest period of two to five minutes between sets is usually necessary. This means there’s a lot of sitting around between sets compared to other resistance training formats, but because the number of exercises is limited and the number of repetitions is low, the total workout time is about the same as with most moderate-weight/high-rep or circuit-type routines. The results you can get from that same amount of time, however, can be significantly better with heavy lifting.
The Benefits of Going Heavy
To get an idea of why heavy weightlifting has become so popular, Next Avenue contacted Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist and faculty instructor at two universities and the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Comana explained in an email that heavy lifting is the most effective way to build strength because it produces so much muscle force with each repetition. While lifting moderate or light weights for more repetitions can build muscle size and/or improve muscular endurance, research shows that they don’t build strength as well as heavy lifting does.
“There may also be potentially greater improvements to bone mineral densities,” Comana added, and one study found that high-intensity strength training had favorable outcomes for individuals living with Parkinson’s disease.
Another benefit is that heavy lifting routines are normally comprised of compound exercises, which work more than one muscle group at a time and replicate the body movements we use in everyday life. Training those movements translates to better overall functional strength.
Managing the Risks
With greater potential gains come greater potential risks, however. Under a heavy load, a misstep or break in form could result in a serious and long-lasting injury. But the good news is that for most individuals — regardless of age — heavy lifts can be done safely, as long as a few guidelines are followed:
Be Generally Healthy to Begin With Those with musculoskeletal disorders (such as osteoporosis or arthritis), acute or chronic injuries, or high blood pressure will need to start with a low-intensity fitness program to reach a baseline level of health and fitness before beginning a higher-intensity resistance training program. Do this under the direction of a physician and/or physical therapist.
Work With a Coach or Trainer to Learn Proper Form This can’t be stressed enough. The quickest way to sustain a potentially debilitating injury is to lift heavy weights the wrong way — this is not the time to rely on YouTube videos. The best way to avoid an injury is to be thoroughly screened by a certified fitness professional to identify and correct any issues before you ever pick up a heavy weight.
Start Light and Add Weight Gradually This is important even for those who have a long history of weight training. Lifting heavy weights for one to five repetitions taxes the body in a very different way than even lifting moderately heavy weights for six to eight repetitions. It’s crucial that you give your body time to adapt to these demands, all the while focusing on perfect form for every repetition. Your trainer can help you determine the right starting point and the proper rate of progress for each exercise.
Honor the Rest Day As we age, it takes us longer to recover from intense workouts. Returning to the gym for another lifting session before your body has fully recovered puts you at risk for injury and actually inhibits the strength and power gains you’re after. For this reason, it’s important to take at least one, and probably two full days off between weight training sessions. Doing some light or moderate cardiovascular exercise or balance and flexibility work, such as yoga, on the intervening days is fine. But for the best results, you should take one or two days per week off completely.
“We have always treated the older or aging groups as ‘China dolls’ and I believe we should stop doing so,” Comana said. With the proper guidance and the right program, there’s no reason why individuals over 50 shouldn’t be lifting heavier weights.
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