Regaining Strength After 50 Effectively
Do it the right way, and reap the benefits of getting stronger
There are a ton of benefits to regular strength training, especially for adults over 50. Aside from just feeling better, overall, strength training helps us combat the natural functional decline that comes with aging, which can lead to frailty, disability and falls.
If you haven’t done it in a while (or ever), though, it can be dangerous to jump into the latest trendy workout class or guess at which exercises you should do on your own. But don’t give up and head back to the couch! As an experienced trainer, I'd like to offer some tips to help you gain strength and improve physical function in your 50s, 60s and beyond:
It Makes Sense to Start Slowly
You’re all gung-ho to hit the weights so you can look like that movie star you admire, but doing every exercise you know the first time you go to the gym will make you much less likely to go back a second time. While some muscle soreness is a good sign that you’ve had a decent workout, you should never be so sore that you have trouble sitting, standing, walking or raising your arms overhead.
So, ease into this new habit a little. Pick four or five exercises (see “Prioritize Function,” below, for suggestions) and do just one or two sets using a medium weight (or weight setting on a machine) that you can lift 10 or 12 times with good form.
Go for Good Form
Speaking of form, the quickest way to injure yourself while strength training is by using bad form. Luckily, there are two simple things you can do to make sure this doesn’t happen.
First, you’ll need to learn what the proper form looks and feels like. The best way to do this is to hire a certified trainer for one or two sessions, or until you feel comfortable on your own.
The other thing to do is pay attention to your body. Even when using proper form, you can still get injured by lifting a weight that is too heavy, or by doing so many repetitions that you pass the point of fatigue. A trainer can help you determine your starting weight, sets and repetitions, but as you progress on your own, pay attention during each repetition and stop as soon as you notice a form break.
The Most Bang for Your Workout Buck
You have lots of good, important things to do with your time, so don’t waste it doing ineffective exercises in the gym. Instead, focus on the most beneficial types of strength exercises — those that work multiple muscle groups at once and mimic the activities of daily living.
If you’re wondering exactly which exercises will give you the most bang for your workout buck, these Fundamental Five are a good place to start (check out the links for instructions on how to do them correctly):
If you have a past injury or arthritis, or any other condition that makes you wince just reading that list of exercises, a trainer can show you modifications or substitute exercises that will still be highly beneficial and maximize your strength training minutes.
Increase Weights and Repetitions as You Progress
With consistent training, you’re bound to see some promising results early on. But in order to keep building strength, you’ll have to progressively increase the physical challenge every few weeks.
To start, you can do the same exercises at the same weight and just increase the number of sets or repetitions. But once you can do two or three sets of 15 repetitions with great form, it’s time to add some weight for that exercise.
A good rule of thumb is to only increase the weight by 10 percent (or the next available weight size) at a time. When increasing weight, drop the number of repetitions back down to where you started.
For bodyweight exercises, like pull-ups, squats or push-ups, you can increase the physical challenge by using less assistance (such as moving from your knees to your toes on push-ups), or by doing the repetitions slower.
Recovery Time Is Part of the Process
Another way to avoid injury and reap the maximum benefit from your workouts is to take time off. The physiological changes that make us stronger and add new muscle fibers don’t happen during exercise but afterward, during recovery. And, as we age, those physiological mechanisms move a little more slowly, so you might need an extra rest day each week, especially if you’ve recently increased weight, sets or repetitions.
At a minimum, take at least one day off between strength training days. It’s a great idea to do some cardio on those days, but don’t stress the muscles you’ve just worked. It’s also wise to take an entire week off from strength training every six to eight weeks. This allows the body to recover more completely, and you should find that you’re a bit stronger when you return to the gym after this layoff.
Get the Right Nutrition
As with any exercise program, good nutrition is important for gaining strength and muscle. But because muscle gain is weight gain, and weight gain can’t happen without a calorie surplus, you’ll need to eat a few more calories than normal. Just be sure it’s only a few, and that they are high-quality calories.
You’ll likely benefit from adding a little more lean protein to your diet, especially if you’re over 65. Even more important, though, is to focus on maximizing whole foods and reducing or eliminating processed, refined, empty-calorie foods.
An optimal diet for 50-plus adults who want to gain a bit of muscle should include lots of fresh vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruits, and may include some lean animal protein, too.
The final thing to remember is that for building strength and muscle, consistency is key. If you start slowly, progress smartly and stick with your program week after week, you’re bound to be impressed with your results. Who knows, you might even start to remind yourself of that movie star!