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Why Strength Training Is The Best Anti-Ageing Exercise

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 04 December 2014
Hits: 12884

We have spoken about Strength Training For Older Adults many times before, and the value not to just to our muscles and bones but our overall health and well being. When we say exercise can slow the ageing process we are not necessarily talking about how you look, but more how you function in life. When an older adult comes to see me for the first time and in many cases are very stiff, lack confidence walking up and down stairs, balance is a huge problem and they are noticeably weak, and they feel as if it is too late. Some are on powerful medication with damaging side affects that are merely treating symptoms and speeding up their rate of disability. In many cases older adults are often treated by society as it is too late and an inevitable part of getting old. But it is very important to realize that it is NEVER TOO LATE and that older adults are not merely the sum of their chronic diseases. And they should never be treated as such. Nor should it be assumed that just because they are older they are going to have a whole bag of disease conditions. They may, but they might not. The most important part of understand about exercise is, its impact on "functional capacity" which is what I am going to talk about next. This article we are going to show you real life examples and give you proof of why we ALL should be using Functional Strength Training methods to live a healthier life.

Why We Don't All Age The Same

Why do some people in their 70's move so easily and still play golf and even run, yet other people of the same age are restricted to a walking frame or wheelchair?

 Is it due to bad luck or genetics that some people are chronically disabled early and some are not? In some cases it may be the case but very rarely. I have seen people in the 60's recover from spinal cord injuries and severe car accidents with partial paralysis be able to recover and complete push ups, lift 60kg deadlifts and walk up stairs unassisted with ease! It was not luck they recovered as they spent considerable time to rehabilitating their body by rebuilding their stability, strength and movement.

I have also seen people in their 60's with no previous injury or accident be placed in wheelchairs and barely able to get out of a chair! 

Every week I work with many people in our Lift For Life program who suffer with various problems like Multiple Sclerosis & Cancer to improve their ability to move in daily life. And even with serious disease and limitation you can make a big improvement to a person's strength and movement patterns. 

The big difference between the two situations just mentioned is, one was prepared to exercise and learn how to move and the other was relying on medication, surgery or physical intervention to "fix them". 

It is not bad luck that older people lose their functional movement, it comes back to the age old principle of "use it or lose it".

Here is a summary of what happens when we age and how two people of the same age can end up in completely different situations.

A slowing of neural firing speed, (the brains message to the nerves within muscles for movement) is the main thing for older adults to focus on. The consequence from lack of exercise is potentially a slower response time for the initiation of movement. This slower response time may put someone at risk of injury when put in a situation of danger.

A perfect example is in the case of a trip or a slip or when on a bus and you are standing up and it takes off quickly. When this occurs a very rapid response must occur so that the individual can adjust their centre of gravity, step forward, grab a stationary object, turn or tuck their body into a safer position for impact with the ground, etc. A slowed response which you would see with an older person who has not spent time developing skills of balance but also strength and as we will discuss later, power. The rate of declines vary greatly between person to person.

In addition, it is either the severity of these declines or the accumulation that makes the biggest impact. A severe decline in just one area can greatly impact function but severe declines are more than likely going to be due to a specific disease process.

The graph below (reference: Cody Sipe & Dan Ritchie) shows that two people may be similar in their functional capabilities at the same age and yet their aging trajectories are quite different.

  • The orange line demonstrates the typical trajectory which begins to decline rapidly after the physiological peak in mid-life and is very likely to result in the individual becoming disabled sometime in late life.
  • The blue line represents how an individual can slow down this deterioration (cannot stop it completely) thus maintaining high functional capacity and avoiding disability.

Clients like Laurie Ford are a prime example of this. Because of his commitment to training he is highly functional even at 79 years of age! He works out 2 times per week for an hour each time completing exercises like deadlifts, squats, lunges, push ups and even chin ups. He even uses sprint training intervals as part of his warm up routine! And outside of the gym he is as active as ever playing golf regularly and still sails competitively in the Melbourne to Hobart Yacht race every year! Make sure you watch the video below to see Laurie in action. It is incredible!

There is still some declines that occur because you cannot stop the aging process as you see with elite athletes. Athletes cannot maintain their same levels of performance and therefore performance declines each decade even though they continue to train. But do people understand the importance of function? I think this is an area that many people need to be educated in, including the health profession and personal trainers. The over use of machines, and exercises that are more or less useless to improving function are still the most common things you will see older adults perform. They are used for people deem them to be safer, but I would argue you are making people worse not better, so how can that be safe!

I would also encourage you to read our other articles about falls and stability below. 

Below is a good video to watch about functional training and the 7 key patterns of movement needed for ALL people to move well in life and also a great video showing some of our exercises and methods used to prevent falls.

The Most Important Question To Ask An Older Adult If They Are Not Sure If They Need To Exercise

When I talk to older people about the need to come and do some training with us, and they tell me they are too old, or they don’t need it, I ask them these questions.

Which of these two possible scenarios do you prefer?

  1. One, you live to 100 years but during the last 10 years you cannot care for yourself and must rely on family, aids, healthcare workers, etc?
  2. Or two, you may only live to 85 or 90 years BUT they are fully capable and healthy right up until the day that they die suddenly in their sleep?

I have never had anyone yet choose option #1. They always choose #2.

So one of our primary goals as Personal Trainers in Melbourne area is to maximize functional capacity and see if we can alter a person’s aging trajectory so that they can maintain optimal function and quality of life. The current method most people are told is to go for a 30 minute walk once a day? Although great to do, this will not make any significant difference at all. The key is to add muscle, but not the way that most people think of, like some muscle bound guy like Arnie getting squashed on a bench press. It is all about improving Function remember. These are exercises that mimic daily activities and for older adults will require certain levels of balance, coordination and even agility.

Watch the videos below for examples of how to do this.

Out of all the skills older adults lose the ability to move quickly is the first. I was surprised when I first read this and doubted it. But when I watched carefully the older adults moving I realized that this was in fact the case. This means we need to not only improve strength but also POWER!

Why Power Training Is Essential For Older Adults!

Yes, you read that correctly. And no, I am not going crazy. Power training is essential to the older adult.

The first image that comes in my head when I see the phrase “Power Training for older adults”, is an 80 year old guy performing an Olympic Weightlifting clean and jerk type exercise. But what you will learn is, that power is not always defined as some explosive athletic sporting movement, in many cases it is much simpler than you think and used often in daily life movements by everyone. Remember the bus example earlier!

We all know how important it is to maintain strength, and without a strength training program you will begin to show signs of muscle loss.

Recently, a lot of focus has been given to the importance of muscle power, as research has shown that power declines earlier and faster than muscle strength with advancing age. While muscle strength is essential to successfully completing many functional tasks in later life studies show that muscle power is even more important for many tasks such as stair-climbing and rising from a chair. Muscle, or mechanical, power is defined as the product of force and velocity (force multiplied by velocity). For muscles this equates to how quickly a muscle can generate force.

For older adults muscle power has been identified as a critical component for the performance of many functional tasks such as climbing stairs and rising from a chair as well as sporting events. Which you could argue muscle power is possibly much more important to functional task performance than muscle strength! Unfortunately, muscle power decreases even more rapidly than muscle strength with advancing age indicating that movement speed also decreases with advancing age. It has been suggested that this may be due to the preferential the weakening of fast-twitch (Type II) muscle fibres.

Many studies indicate that power training may be more advantageous in improving function than traditional strength training methods. High-velocity (power-specific) training also increases muscle power to a greater degree than traditional low-velocity strength training.

From the age 65 to age 89, our ability to produce power with our legs declines 3.5% per year. This is much faster than our rate of decline with strength, which is 1-2% per year. We also lose 8.3% of our anaerobic power per decade from age 20 to 70 which explains why we move much slower as we age. This is a double hit to our ability to move quickly, when we really need it to prevent a fall.

A study by Skelton, Kennedy and Rutherford (2002) found that women who fall have 24% less explosive power in their weaker limb than women who did not fall. They also noted that in older women who lived independently, poor lower limb explosive power combined with power differences between limbs may be a better predictor of future falls than the traditional measurements of strength.

(reference; Bending The Aging Curve)

What Are Good Power Exercises For The Older Adult?

As mentioned earlier, Power training often brings to mind images of Olympic power lifters completing snatches and clean-and-jerk movements with near-maximal weight. For the senior, power training is typically accomplished by performing the hardest phase of an exercise movements much more rapidly than normal, and then the easier phase at normal controlled speed. In order to make it easier I have put together a few everyday movements, and explain why we classify them as power movement and what exercises you would use to improve strength, as well as power and function.

Squats:

As already discussed the timing needed to go from a squat to standing is a relatively fast movement. Squats we perform everyday when we sit in a chair and stand up again. They also share the same relative timing as jumping. To stand up slowly is a deterioration in function. Have you ever seen a person get up slowly from a chair? It is hard work. Exercises in the gym like the squat will improve this. 

If you can get to a level where you can hold a weight while you do this exercise that is great as it will provide an overload to the nervous system and add more load to your bones forcing a rapid change. Performing this with great technique means you will also be teaching yourself to place safe loads through your joints and avoid serious injury and pain to your knees and hips! Due to our sedentary lifestyle we develop tight joints, poor posture and dysfunctional movement patterns that limit our ability to squat, leading to inevitable problems at the back and the knee.

If technique or joint pain is an issue it is best to start without the weight, or even leaning against a Swissball for assistance. However, your goal is to reach a level where you can hold a dumbbell or even a barbell and squat! For reaching this level of ability means that activities in life like getting out of a chair will be a breeze as your training ability exceeds your life demands. 

There are many versions of the squat you can use and you will find a ton of information on this here - 7 best squats for bulletproof knees

  

Deadlifts

This is not necessarily a power movement but it builds the foundation of strength to use power. Of all the exercises to really spend time to master this would arguably be the best. While the squat is a great exercise I would rank this as more important.

In the gym it is known as the deadlift but in life it is simply known as bending over. A good example of this in daily life is lifting shopping bags, a heavy bucket of water, or a pot plant. It doesn’t look like a leg exercise, but you need to use your legs and more specifically your hips to provide the bulk of the workload to SAFELY lift the object!

Not only does this strengthen the legs but the entire body and is a great way to prevent the hunched posture and dowagers hump associated with older adults. This movement is also closely linked to serious back injuries like bulging discs so it is vital you understand the technique required.

The first and most important objective of this exercise is to improve your technique on how to safely bend maintaining a neutral lumbar spine. We won’t even think about getting you to lift weight until you can prove you can bend correctly with no load!  

You can read more about the different versions of deadlifts here - Which Deadlift version is best for you?

Watch the video below of how to master the technique.

Step Up onto Box:

Step ups are a very difficult exercise for the older adult as it requires strength, balance and once again a fast explosive movement in order to be done efficiently and safely. This exercise is very similar to walking up stairs or needing to get up a big step! One of the most functional exercises we teach in our Personal Training lessons and also the one many older people fear! 

Now there is a stack more exercises you could use, this just gives you an example of some that are easily adapted and used in the gym. Using exercises to enhance balance, agility and the movement pattern of walking are critical and greatly enhance the function for the power movements. Walking itself can be one of the best exercises to enhance speed and power! I regularly use two assessments with older adults to measure their improvement and encourage them to do two critical things.

  • Walk with BIG STRIDES
  • Walk with FASTER STRIDES
  • These two things are what the older adult loses first when a lack of stability and strength starts to take over their body. By using exercises that force these skills upon them it helps to prevent the loss of this ability. 

    Below are two videos of the assessments I use to get this back.

    Medicine Ball Throws

    It is also one of the simplest and safest ways to teach power training and rotational power with people and because of that is also very underrated. Elite athletes in many sports are aware of the incredible benefits to using this piece of equipment and understand exactly why and how to use this to generate explosive power that cannot be replicated with barbells and dumbbells.

    The beauty of medicine balls is that they are great for beginners due to the loads being so light, and the risk of injury or disaster is greatly minimized in comparison to other power exercises like power cleans or box jumps. Plus they are great fun!

    Below are 2 versions of great power exercises using medicine balls and a great article with many other exercises you will find here - Why Medicine Ball Training Is So Great.

    Want More Proof That This Works?

    Read the story below of Roger from our Stronger For Longer program.

    "For some time I had been experiencing butt pain which was particularly severe when I drove my car. On top of this I had other issues but worst of all I was feeling very sluggish every time I rode my bike. Eventually I turned to Doctor Google and after some research concluded I had piriformis syndrome as did last months client of the month, in my case probably caused by years of driving with my wallet in my back pocket. I needed treatment and once again turned to google where after a refined search I was led to No Regrets gym in Mitcham, how good was that, I live in Blackburn.

    I had a chat with Nick who knew all about piriformis and he laid out an exercise program which he claimed would clear the pain but not be a cure, I believe there is no cure. I decided to go to the Stronger For Longer classes twice a week just to see if that helped. Within weeks my butt pain had gone but there were added benefits, I was fitter and stronger, I had more flexibility and was able to touch my toes something I haven’t done in a long time, I was flying on my bike and although I hadn’t lost any weight I was fitting into suits I hadn’t worn for years. Our instructors Elley and Dylan throw in a lot of variety which keep the workouts interesting and fun.

    Both understand our individual weaknesses and strengths and are able to run balanced sessions, but if I want extra laughs I just tune into the Thursday morning ladies – their chat is often hilarious! More recently I had scans on my hips and was advised I had significant arthritis. I asked the Doc what he was going to do about it and he said, “Nothing”, “Just take a pain killer if you are in pain but keep going to the gym, it’s the only thing that will help".

    I am now a gym junkie whether I like it or not!" - Roger Sowerby

     

    Do You Need More Help?

    There is obviously a lot of information and great exercises I have not included in this article and I do suggest to grab a copy of our latest report that covers everything you need to know about older adults health. This report provides you with detailed pictures, instructions of over 50 exercises and some excellent workouts and tests to use for measuring your improvement. Many of the exercise pictures shown in this report are of clients who in their 70’s and 80’s who currently train with us at No Regrets. We also feature several of their stories for you to see how they changed their life by adopting the methods explained in this report. I hope you enjoy reading this and it helps you to enjoy your golden years.

    CONCLUSION

    I hope you do believe me now when I say you can slow down the ageing process and do many things you enjoy right up into your 80’s. It is not easy and you can never stop for if you do your muscle loss and ability to move will be rapid. Clients featured in this article like Laurie Ford, Roger and also Frank are proof that amazing things can be achieved if you are given the right type of training and remain consistent enough to keep improving. It is never too late to start, so start now! If you would like to know more about Lift For Life and Stronger For Longer programs click the image below and I will be in touch within 24 hours to schedule a time for a free consultation and movement assessment.

    About The Author

    Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

    References:

    • Bending the Aging Curve -  Joseph Signorile
    • Movement - By Gray Cook
    • Functional Training for Sports - By Mike Boyle
    • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
    • Athletic Body Balance by Gray Cook
    • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
    • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
    • Back Pain Mechanic - by Stuart McGill
    • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
    • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
    • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
    • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
    • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
    • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek