Are you too old to get stronger?

Before we get started, I want to be clear. We’re really lucky at Upright Health. We have a lot of great personal training clients who are motivated to get stronger, more mobile, and more fit than others expect of them. We have clients in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s who have gradually built up the strength to do things they never thought possible.

For a lot of these “senior citizens” (or Upright Oldies around here), their options for strength training appear to be really limited before they come here. They look at group classes at gyms, and they find that the landscape only offers two things: (1) high intensity classes with a lot of sweating and grunting and yelling and a pretty high risk of injury and (2) “low impact” classes that promise fitness and good health – from sitting on your bum.

What’s unfortunate is that for most seniors, their perception of the risks and rewards of their options are VERY accurate and disheartening. The high intensity classes really are usually too hard for Upright Oldies. They carry a high risk of injury just by the nature of the activity: low fitness level + high reps + high fatigue = high risk of injury.

The “low impact” classes really are low impact. They use weights that are barely heavy enough to stimulate strength gains, and the classes generally do not include exercises that can greatly enhance mobility, independence, and confidence in daily life. Ask yourself: if a 60 year old woman wants to be able to walk up and down stairs better, how is sitting in a chair for an hour going to help build the strength to do that?

It won’t. It just won’t. In fact, it will likely make her hip muscles weaker, making it even harder for her to get up and down stairs safely.

So given these choices, seniors often believe that they are simply just too old to get stronger. It’s a belief that is toxic. It’s a belief that seniors need to work hard to get of their heads so that they can make progress!

This video talks in depth about some of these ideas and will hopefully help motivate a senior (or maybe just someone feeling a little over the hill) that you know needs a little pep talk.

The main point is this: you cannot get stronger unless you are doing things that are challenging. You need to be taking calculated risks to improve your body’s ability to do what you want it to do.

Think about children. As children grow, they are gradually expanding their abilities to do things. Babies have heads that are quite heavy relative to the strength of the muscles that should help stabilize the head. As the baby struggles with the weight of the head, muscles start to adapt to the demand. Over time, the muscles of the back of the neck get stronger and stronger and the baby’s able to control the weight of the head.

How does that translate for adults? Well, we aren’t on that same course as babies and children, unfortunately. We don’t get to grow and adapt as fast or as dramatically as kids, but the same basic principles are at play, and progress can be surprisingly fast.

You just need to make sure you’re doing things with good form and gradually progressing things. The good form part is where a lot of self-education or coaching comes in handy.

So let’s say you want to get better at picking things up off the floor without getting hurt. If today you find it difficult to pick up twenty pounds from the floor, try picking up only 10 pounds, but do it ten times. Two or three days later, see how fifteen pounds feels (ten times again). If you’re doing things with good form, you’re going to notice your body will have suddenly gotten noticeably stronger. That fifteen pounds may even feel easier than the 10 pounds you started with.

In another two to three days, bump the weight up to twenty pounds, and see how it feels. With careful progression, you’ll be well on your way to 100 pounds, believe it or not. That’s something we shoot for with all of our clients. You won’t turn into a huge meathead with enormous muscles (far from it). But you’ll have developed some competence and strength that will help protect you from random injury on a daily basis.

There are tons of other exercises that seniors can do to drastically improve their hip health, balance, and stability. You may find this video on balance to be helpful for some ideas:

Please feel free to share this post with someone you know who needs to see it and hear it. Weakness and disability shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion as you age!

The road to strength, mobility, and independence comes from persistent, consistent effort. Even though it’s tempting to believe, resting more and sitting on your butt is highly unlikely to help you get stronger – no matter what your age!



About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.