Q&A: High Intensity Training for Seniors

This Q&A is a general response to several specific questions I’ve received through e-mail and comments on other posts regarding high intensity training for seniors.

Question:

Is high intensity strength training safe for seniors?

Answer:

Whether high intensity training is safe for any particular individual depends on their current health and physical condition. Certain conditions may increase the risk of injury. That being said, when properly performed using appropriate exercises high intensity strength training is safer and more beneficial for seniors than any other activity.

When an exercise is performed correctly using a slow, controlled speed of movement over an appropriate range of motion the level of force the body is exposed to is kept well within safe limits for even very frail subjects such as those with severe osteoporosis.

When breathing is done correctly, Val Salva’s maneuver and excessive gripping are avoided, and the head is kept above the remainder of the body during exercise blood pressure is maintained at a safe level.

In addition to being safer for your joints, high intensity strength training is also safer for the cardiovascular system than steady-state activities like jogging, cycling or using a stair climber or elliptical machine. The high intensity contractions that occur during resistance training enhance venous return which improves coronary artery blood flow (blood flow to the heart itself). Doug McGuff, MD explains this in detail in The Body by Science Question and Answer Book, and discusses an interesting study from the Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation that showed circuit strength training was safer than treadmill walking; “30 of the 42 subjects had one or more cardiovascular complication (arrhythmia, angina, ischemia, hypertension, hypotension) during the aerobic exercises as compared to only 1 subject with complications during resistive exercises.” (Daub WD, et al. Strength training early after myocardial infarction. J Cardiopulm Rehabil. Mar-Apr;18(2):145-52.)

Over the past two decades I have trained dozens of seniors including several in their seventies and eighties with a variety of medical conditions including several with severe spine conditions (and one middle-aged man with a grade-three spondylolisthesis) and not one has been injured doing high intensity training.

Ellington Darden, Drew Baye, Jim Flanagan

Ellington Darden (left) and Jim Flanagan (right) are both in their sixties and still stay in great physical condition with high intensity training.

Question:

How should high intensity training be performed by seniors?

Answer:

The same general principles that apply to athletes and bodybuilders apply to seniors, the only difference is that although everybody should always train as safely as possible seniors need to be especially cautious about which exercises they perform and how they perform them.  The following are a few general guidelines:

  1. Start out with just a few basic, multi-joint exercises working the major muscle groups. Perform only one work set of each exercise per workout. Some find their joints tolerate certain exercises better after a light warm up set, although for most this is unnecessary if proper form is used.
  2. Perform the exercises with only a light weight at first and focus on learning to move and reverse direction smoothly and breathe continuously.
  3. Be very conservative with repetition speed; take at least three seconds to lift and three seconds to lower the weight, reversing direction as smoothly as possible without bouncing, yanking, or jerking the weight. Pause for a second or two in the fully-contracted position on compound pulling exercises and simple exercises. If you’re moving slowly enough six to ten repetitions should take you around fifty to eighty seconds to complete.
  4. When you are able to perform ten or more repetitions of an exercise in good form, the next time you perform the exercise add five pounds or five percent more weight, whichever is less. It is common to recommend higher repetition ranges for seniors both because of the perceived increase in safety and because of the conversion of type II to type I muscle fibers with age, however a range of six to ten is fine when performed at a slow speed.
  5. As the exercises become more challenging you’ll start to experience elevated heart rate and breathing. At first, allow a minute or two between exercises for heart rate and breathing to return to normal before performing the next exercise. Over time as your conditioning improves gradually reduce the rest between exercises to improve the cardiovascular and metabolic effect.
  6. Train no more than three times a week the first few weeks while learning the exercises then cut back to training only twice a week. If your progress slows down reduce your frequency to once weekly. Some people may require even more recovery time/less frequent training than this. The amount of recovery time required between workouts increases with age and can vary considerably between individuals.
  7. It is normal for your muscles to burn, and for your breathing and heart rate to increase but if something hurts or if you begin to feel dizzy, nauseous, or faint or think you maybe starting to get a headache stop the exercise  immediately and carefully exit the machine or set down the weight.

Keep in mind these are only general guidelines. The specifics can vary significantly between individuals depending on age, genetic and environmental factors, current health, etc. The specific exercises and style of performance that is best for you may be different than what is appropriate for someone else. For more detailed guidelines read High Intensity Workouts.

Question:

My doctor told me not to lift a weight that is heavier than X, can I still do high intensity training?

Answer:

This depends on why your doctor made that recommendation. There may be a very good reason for it, or they might just be covering their ass.

Often, the advice to not lift more than some amount of weight is based on the assumption excessive weight is what causes injury during exercise. The real concern is not how much weight but how you attempt to move it. You can be injured lifting a very light weight if you do it in a careless or fast and jerky manner, however even a very heavy weight will not injure you if you attempt to lift it correctly and pay careful attention to form. If you follow the above advice to start with a light weight and only increase it when you are able to perform 10 or more repetitions in strict form you shouldn’t have any problems.

I trained an 85 year old man who started out only able to use a very light weight during pressing exercises due to shoulder problems. Within a year he was using nearly quadruple his starting weight on the chest and shoulder press and, more importantly to him, significantly increased the distance he could drive a golf ball.

Question:

I have a medical condition, can I still do high intensity training? Can high intensity training help?  What are the risks?

Answer:

I get a lot of questions from people with specific injuries and medical conditions asking if it is OK for them to do high intensity training. I am not a medical doctor and can not give you any kind of official clearance. Unless you are a one-on-one personal training or phone client who has signed a waiver I’m not going to give any specific advice related to training with any kind of medical condition either.

While I have no doubts about my ability to teach someone how to train safely, I have no control over how advice given out over the internet or by phone is implemented. If you aren’t sure about your health visit your doctor. Regular check ups will make you aware of any problems which might affect your ability to train safely. If you ask a doctor about exercise expect them to give very conservative recommendations, probably something “safe” like walking they figure you can’t hurt yourself doing and sue them over.

Question:

Can you recommend a trainer where I live?

Answer:

If I know and trust in the knowledge and competence of a trainer near where you live I will refer you to them. I do not, however, recommend just hiring any personal trainer because most of them have no idea what they’re doing and a lot of what I’ve seen personal trainers teaching seniors is an ineffective waste of time at best and dangerous at worst. Certifications are meaningless – most of what the major certifying organizations teach their trainers about exercise performance is utter nonsense.

I’ve directly observed personal trainers in several gyms and training studios who market themselves as specialists in “senior fitness” who had no idea what proper exercise form was or how to teach it, had their clients doing numerous ineffective and inappropriate things, and generally wasting their time and money. You would have a much better chance of getting it right on your own with just the general guidelines above than by hiring these “senior fitness specialists”.

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31 Responses to Q&A: High Intensity Training for Seniors

  1. Jeff October 31, 2010 at 9:31 pm #

    Awesome. Sent to my 68 year old Dad who is slow to adopt HIT. I think the comment about the 85 year old guy who is hitting his drives longer will help.

    thanks,

    jeff

    • Drew Baye October 31, 2010 at 9:54 pm #

      Jeff,

      If your father golfs a high intensity training program will help his performance and reduce his risk of injury while playing.

  2. Thomas October 31, 2010 at 11:15 pm #

    Drew-thanks for the article. Like I’ve said before, I train several seniors here in Arizona and they’re all doing very well with the HIT. They are all very excited about the continued progress they are seeing-and typically need a trainer to push them hard through their routine. It’s too bad more trainers don’t use this approach.

  3. Chris October 31, 2010 at 11:37 pm #

    I have a lady client that I train 1 time per week with 5 exercises who will turn one hundred and one Nov. 4!

    • Ben Tucker June 11, 2014 at 9:49 am #

      That is absolutely amazing! Thank you for sharing. If you’re the least bit mobile, you are never too old to strength train.

  4. Paul Verizzo November 1, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    While doing research on sarcopenia and resistance training, here comes your posting! (I had discovered you and your work a few days before.)

    I’m 64, I’ve never been into bodybuilding, weight training, or athletics generally. I’ve lost almost 100 pounds with a paleo diet and mountain bike riding. Then I discovered that I had NO upper body strength whatsoever. So, off into the research of what I can do.

    I bought Body by Science and read it a few times. I did internet research. Finally, I went to one of the city rec centers (read: free) and started figuring out the available machines and free weights. And then, in hindsight, I made a mistake…..to the good, I think.

    I didn’t find McGuff very clear on the exact protocol, so what I wound up doing and fine tuning is a single rep of 60-90 seconds, max or 90 degree contraction, to exhaustion as measured by “I can’t even wiggle this thing.” My breathing is intense and loud, and after the workout I feel like I’ve had a Near Death Experience.

    But, oy vey! I’ve gained 400% strength in five weeks on the horizontal row, other gains less but very good. My muscles are obviously flexing and popping as I move about now. My bike speeds have gone up.

    I can think of several reasons why this would be a good workout for seniors: It’s simple, no rep counting, no partners, no subjectivity (you do the goal time or you don’t), no joint injuries, once a week workout.

    Accepting that these goals are different from those of younger people and bodybuilders, am I missing anything to be concerned about?

    Since it seems every protocol needs a name, I’m calling it K.I.S.S.; Keep It Simple Seniors.

    PS, nice work and philosophies. Your idols and respected experts are the ones I’m learning to listen to, too.

    • Drew Baye November 1, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

      Paul,

      A single, very slow rep is fine as long as you breathe continuously. This is very similar to the “one minute chin ups” Ellington Darden, PhD recommends in some of his arm specialization routines.

    • Donnie Hunt June 12, 2014 at 9:27 pm #

      I do like the simplicity of this approach. Reminds me of John Little’s “Done In One”.

  5. Dennis Rogers November 1, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    Drew
    Great article, I have a few seniors that I train once a week. I have Medx for compound movements and Nautlus single joint leg machines.
    I am currently using a ‘hyper extension’ bench for back extensions,about 1/3 of the full range of motion. I found that it is easier to teach than varios forms of deadlift with free weights, but I do have a senior lady that gets a little light headed on this exercise,any thoughts on hyper extensions vs deadlifts w/ barbells or dumbells?

    • Drew Baye November 1, 2010 at 6:04 pm #

      Dennis,

      Assuming she’s breathing correctly and is only experiencing the lightheadedness on back extensions I recommend slowing down her positive speed, especially at the start of each rep, as well as instructing her not to go so low that her head is below the rest of the body. If this doesn’t help you may want to switch her to deadlifts if she doesn’t have any joint issues or conditions which would prevent her from performing them safely.

      If you start people out with a light weight and spend several workouts practicing form before gradually progressing the resistance most can learn to deadlift safely. I recommend getting an aluminum training bar (most weigh only 10 pounds and can be loaded up to 150) and a pair of 5 pound bumper plates which will allow you to have people learn to perform the exercise with as little as 20 pounds if necessary.

  6. Leo November 1, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

    Thank you very valuable.I am 75 training super slow with free weights for years and very happy with it.Also strong.

  7. Paul Verizzo November 1, 2010 at 9:30 pm #

    Oh yeah, I’m breathing like a grizzly is three feet behind me.

  8. Anthony Semone, PhD November 3, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    I’m certainly qualified to talk about HIT as both an old person, 72, and also as having been involved for the past 6 years in using HIT in my (now sold) studio to train people . Age poses absolutely no limitation. PERIOD, end of story. Those limitations that do exist are also those which come from conditions that afflict younger people, dementia probably excepted. If there are no limitations associated with compromised joint function, so long as the movement cycles are controlled, especially at the turn-arounds; and, so long as care is taken to teach the requisite degree of control using resistance levels and a movement cycle pace that allows you as the trainer to observe carefully for discrepancies in form and pace, then “have at it.” I’m so sick and tired of this Silver Sneaker shit that has populated gyms around our area: sarcopenia in – sarcopenia out. These folks look like I looked when I was doing marathons and ultra-marathons 30 years ago: muscularly wasted. Wow, when I think of the time I put into those efforts and thought I was “in shape,” well, I shudder. (Even so, and what was most compelling about those efforts, and why in retrospect I did it was the camaraderie amongst fellow runners).

    Anyways, hope this helps,

    tony

  9. overfiftylifter November 6, 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    Is it possible that a more moderate form of training may be more beneficial for those with cardiovascular conditions especially if resistance training is used as their primary form of exercise?

    Br J Sports Med 2009;43:615-618

    Effect of 12 weeks of moderate–intensity resistance training on arterial stiffness: a randomised controlled trial in women aged 32–59 years

    Abstract
    Background: Resistance training has been increasingly incorporated into the overall exercise programme because of its effect on muscle strength, functional capacity and osteoporosis. High-intensity resistance training increases arterial stiffness. However, the effect of moderate-intensity resistance training on arterial stiffness is unknown.

    Objective: To determine whether 12 weeks of moderate-intensity resistance training increases arterial stiffness in middle-aged women.

    Methods: 35 middle-aged women (age range 32 to 59 years) volunteered to participate. The subjects were randomly assigned to one of three groups: resistance training (RT) group, aerobic exercise training (AET) group or control group. The RT and AET groups performed 12 weeks of moderate-intensity resistance training or aerobic exercise training (two days/week).

    Results: In the RT group, one-repetition maximum strength significantly increased after the intervention. Interestingly, aortic (carotid–femoral) pulse wave velocity (PWV; an index of arterial stiffness), and peripheral (femoral–ankle) PWV did not change with moderate-intensity resistance training. In contrast, in the AET group, carotid–femoral PWV significantly decreased after the intervention. Resistance training and aerobic exercise training did not affect blood pressure.

    Conclusions: This study found that moderate-intensity resistance training did not increase arterial stiffness in middle-aged women, which may have great importance for health promotion with resistance training.

    • Drew Baye November 7, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

      At first training should always be more moderate; the goal when starting out is to learn and practice exercising correctly and maximize skill. As they become skilled in the movements, proper breathing, etc., intensity should be gradually increased, with progression dependent upon individual response.

      I’m not surprised arterial stiffness didn’t increase with moderately intense resistance training and it shouldn’t increase much more with higher intensity resistance training either. Although heart rate and stroke volume increase, the blood vessels supplying the working muscles dilate, so there shouldn’t be as much peripheral resistance.

  10. mac August 9, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    Would you please expound upon your statement in point #4, i.e.–that with age one type of muscle fiber converts to another. I do not believe that I’ve heard this previously. Thank you.

    • Drew Baye August 9, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

      Mac,

      Without strength training there will atrophy of both Type I and II fibers as we age, but mostly Type II, and there is some evidence some Type II fibers convert to Type I due to re-innervation by adjacent Type I fibers.

  11. mac August 13, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    Will proper HIT postpone or, at least, mitigate this retrogression?

    • Drew Baye August 13, 2011 at 11:24 am #

      Mac,

      Yes. Strength training will help maintain the larger, high threshold type IIB motor units as we age.

  12. Micheal March 8, 2014 at 3:40 am #

    Really excellent. I`m 42. I did bodybuilding. Now I want to restart. Is it possible to build muscle in this age ? Would you be kindly enough to guide me to achieve my goal (building muscle , a good physique). What should be my workout routine and diet plan ? Waiting for your advice.

    • Drew Baye March 17, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

      Michael,

      The older you get the more difficult it becomes to increase muscular strength and size, but it is still possible to do so. There are several workouts listed in the articles on this web site, and I have several books on the subject and am available for phone consultations if you need additional help.

  13. Randall June 8, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

    Awesome! Hadn’t seen this article. I have several clients over 70. Oldest is 85 and he is now able to get up off the floor using only his legs, and do at least 5 partial push ups when he could do none. Only a few months of training using HIT once a week!

    Here’s a other client who had the goal of Leg pressing 300 lbs. Now she’s up to 400+

    http://youtu.be/Z416HmET97k

    • Drew Baye June 8, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

      Randall,

      Thanks for sharing, these are great examples of what proper exercise can do.

  14. Jim June 8, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    I started a SuperSlow zone workout a bit over a year ago; I turn 60 this summer. Read McGuff’s Body by Science also. Nautilus leg press has gone from 150-315 in that time. Started out with 8 exercises, 3 minutes to failure then raise the weight; have evolved to 4-5 exercises 2 min to failure and am lengthening the interval. 7 days just isn’t enough to really recover (i pretty much beat myself to a pulp in the 10 minute workout.) My 81 year old mother is starting up and likes it, my 56 year old outrageously overweight brother is starting and making good gains. Next project is my dad, who has been doing weight circuits for many years but I don’t think he really progresses the weights. Nevertheless he is a disciplined exerciser. Any other references on people with heart disease and weights? (I’m a physician.)

    Thanks for what you do. Am excited to get your new book soon.

    • Drew Baye June 8, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

      Hey Jim,

      You’re welcome. The print books should ship early this week and I hope you like it.

      I recommend reading the article Cardiovascular Adaptations by Doug McGuff, MD, which discusses high intensity strength training and cardiovascular and metabolic adaptations, with references to several studies.

  15. Lou June 9, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    Drew: I love reading your comments and articles, no BS, no nonsense, yet full of interesting details. I will be 60 years old on my next birthday. Over the last several years I have trained off and on in an HIT style. Mind you that I am no “athlete”, not geneticaly gifted, have nothing to “brag about” in terms of physique, etc.

    However, that doesn’t mean I have not seen true benefits from training. I have been able to lose about 40 pounds of excess fat, although I still have another 20-30 before I look and feel the way I’d really like to. I have been earnestly trying to reduce, by way of a popular and safe/healthy widely known commercial program. No gimmicks or tricks, just concentrating on healthy eating in moderation, logging every morsel of food. This “plan” encourages regular exercise in addition to the daily routine of logging your food. I was doing just one HIT workout (of 5-6 exercises)per week, a la Body By Science. Almost every week I made progress, but I suspect I’d do even better if I could push myself to the extent Dr. Darden and McGuff and you emphasize. I think one probably really does need a trainer to get to that next level, (although plenty of people are doing it without one). Couple of things I have learned and I am sure you already can confirm these: We all gain muscle at our own rates, you have to be careful not to compare yourself to another. Frequency, too, is something that you have to monitor and find a schedule that leads to muscle building and not overtraining. About 7 months ago I was in high gear, really pushing it in my strength workouts, seeing steady gains(albeit modest ones)almost every week. Foolishly(to see if I could accelerate the fat loss process) I added in 30-60 minutes of hard aerobic exercise 2-3X’s per week. I’d finish my 5-6 exercises, then once a week I’d jump right onto an elliptical and go 100% full blast, and maintain a pace that was at the upper limits of my cardio zone. Wearing a Polar Heart Rate monitor I was able to see that I was at a high aerobic intensity. The other days I’d walk on a treadmill or bike for about 35 minutes at a more moderate pace. Well, one day I got off the machines and felt a twinge of pain in my lower back. Of course I ignored it, for the most part. I did back off a bit, but later that day while doing yard work, I suffered an agonizing electric shock type incident in my back. I was literally frozen in pain, unable to even take a step without real, frightening waves of pain. I took several months off to “recover” and have since gotten back to a more reasoned approach. My lesson learned was that you have to be aware of your strengths as well as your limitations. Osteoarthritis in the knees may be helped by strength training, but you still have the underlying problem. Not being genetically “gifted” is not a death sentence, but you have to accept that you may not have the same results as a “born athlete”. Oh, and the cardio is way overated. You have stressed that enough, but sometimes we get all worked up and forget the simple truths. A truly intense HIT workout works all the muscles, you just don’t need those other things. They are as much a security blanket as anything else. It may take me longer to get there than when I was 25, but I will get there.

    Lou

    • Drew Baye June 11, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

      Thanks Lou,

      You’re right, everybody responds to exercise at a different rate and to a different degree and it is important not to judge your progress against others.

      What you’re describing sounds like a back spasm, which can be caused by overuse. It is important to listen to your body and avoid movements or activities which cause pain (other than normal muscular burning due to exertion) to prevent injuries.

      When properly performed high intensity training will stimulate improvements in all general factors of functional ability, and it will do so more effectively, more safely, and more efficiently than any other activity recommended for the purpose. It is the only exercise you need (and if you want to get technical, the only thing that really qualifies as proper exercise).

  16. Robert Darby June 9, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

    Hi Drew sorry if I’m going off topic,just wanted to know have you trained anyone with Ankcholosing spondylitis and wanted to know what exercises you would recommend for someone with a kyphosis.I tend to do a general whole body routine with shin drag dead lifts as described by Dr Mcguff.Thanks Rob

    • Drew Baye June 11, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

      Robert,

      I haven’t trained anyone with ankylosing spondylitis but I have trained people who had vertebrae fused due to surgery who were able to maintain good posture with trunk extension and rotation and neck extension. These should help maintain mobility and improve posture. I also recommend performing pullovers. They won’t make your rib cage larger as many bodybuilders used to believe but they may help maintain rib cage mobility which can some times be reduced with ankylosing spondylitis.

  17. Bradley warlow June 11, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    Hi Drew,
    Are the 5 pound incremental increases every workout a reccomendation for beginning trainees only?

    • Drew Baye June 14, 2014 at 2:57 pm #

      Hey Bradley,

      Yes. More advanced trainees will need to increase weight in smaller increments as they approach the limits of their potential for muscular strength and progress gradually levels out.

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