It’s easy enough to go for a walk or bike ride without professional instruction, but figuring out the weight training landscape can be a challenge. How much weight should you lift? How many repetitions and sets are best to help you achieve your goals?
Although it’s tempting to skip it altogether, many documented benefits of weight training after 50 make it a good idea to stick with it. Otherwise you risk losing muscle (called sarcopenia) as you age, for one. This slows your metabolism (muscle burns calories at rest) and increases risk of falls.
Plus, upon turning 50, women in particular have key health concerns, making exercise as important, if not more so, than in previous years, says Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala.
“At mid-life, a woman’s risk of heart disease parallels that of men. Also, hormonal changes can rapidly incite the deterioration of bone density, an increase in belly fat, and the loss of calorie-burning muscle tissue,” she says. Weight training helps with strengthening bones, adding muscle and therefore burning fat.
Of course, men also benefit. A study by Harvard School of Public Health showed that healthy men who worked out with weights for 20 minutes daily experienced less of an increase in age-related belly fat compared with men who spent the same amount of time doing aerobic activities.
Here are the most common questions about weight training at mid-life and how to get started. Seek exercise instruction from qualified, credentialed instructors for personal recommendations. (The following advice pertains to healthy adults without any medical conditions. Check with your health care provider before starting any new activity or exercise program.)
1. How much weight should I use?
Determining the amount of weight you should lift depends on the number of repetitions you can do properly, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines. In general, you want to work with a weight you can lift properly for eight to 15 reps, says Irv Rubenstein, PhD, exercise physiologist and founder of S.T.E.P.S., a science-based fitness facility in Nashville, Tenn.
“An exception may be rehab exercises (for instance, those “prescribed” by a physical therapist to alleviate a particular problem),” he says. “And many folks over 60 do not like to strain, and that’s okay.” Rubenstein suggests building reps up to 20 or so until you’re comfortable, and then gradually increasing the resistance and again building up the number of reps.
2. How many sets and reps are best?
Traditional weight training for optimal strength goals involves three to five sets of eight to 12 reps, but “that’s a rare goal for boomers,” Rubenstein says. Plus, spine and knee problems can occur when working with heavy resistance. A safer and more practical idea is to do a variety of exercises and multiple sets that engage the same muscles, Rubenstein says.
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“For example, instead of three sets of straight biceps curls, do a set or two of pulldowns (which targets back muscles and biceps), then do a set of biceps curls with a squat or lunge,” he says. So a total of three sets of exercises targeting the same basic set of muscles for eight to 15 reps works best for most people.
3. How often should I weight train? Can I work out on back-to-back days?
Beginners benefit from twice-a-week training, at least for the first month or two, Rubenstein says. “After that, three to four times a week can be done if the goals warrant it.”
Weight training workouts usually require a day’s rest in between to allow muscles to recover; the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends allowing 48 to 72 hours of recovery time between exercise sessions. However, if you want to train daily, spread out the muscle groups and body parts on different days, Rubenstein says. For example, do a chest workout one day and arms another, etc.
4. How do I know when it’s time to increase resistance?
Again, it depends on your needs, Rubenstein says. “In general, once you can lift a weight properly without pain 15 to 20 times you can add weight.”
Increase weight for larger muscle groups, such as legs, 10 percent at a time but only raise resistance five percent for smaller muscles, like arms and shoulders.
5. What’s best: tubing, dumbbells, kettlebells or other resistance?
Any of these modalities work, as long as the resistance is appropriate for the muscle groups and the person’s ability to control it, Rubenstein says.
For example, a dumbbell chest press (lying on your back, pushing weights overhead) works the same muscles as a tubing chest press (you stand, fitness tubing anchored in a door hinge, and press handles in towards the center) but the tubing version may be easier to control for novices. Try a few different resistance methods to find one that suits you best.
You will likley need training first for a type of workout you’ve never done before. For instance, no one should just start swinging kettlebells without understanding the control that’s required for them to be effective. Also, if the last time you lifted was in 1979, you should seek out instruction.
6. Any other tips I need to know?
Stretching should be done only after muscles are warmed up or at the end of your weight workout. Foam rolling also benefits muscles after and before a workout to ease muscle soreness and speed recovery.