How do Older Populations Respond to Resistance Training?

Let me start by saying this, I love training older populations.  Why? For a number of reasons.

  1. I can always learn something each session and gain valuable life information.
  2. The effects on quality of life as a result from resistance training can be dramatic. 

The ladder is why I coach.  Coaching provides me the vehicle to affect positive change and impact for a high number of individuals.  From a career standpoint there is nothing better than to see the impact on quality of life, from evidence based resistance training,  on my older clientele.

Recently I have read two solid research studies on how older populations respond to resistance training and I thought I would summarize and share what I have learned so you can better understand how strong of an impact resistance training can have for you as you age.

Paper # 1

Purpose

The authors of this paper were looking to see the prevalence of unresponsiveness in older men and women to create more lean muscle mass, muscle fibre size, strength, and physical function following a resistance training program.

Who was in this study?

Participants included healthy older men and women who were greater than 65 years old.  The participants had to be considered healthy and independent. They also had to have no history of structured exercise training for at least 5 years.

What did the resistance training program look like?

Participants took part in a 12 and 24 week training program.  110 individuals took part in the 12 week program while 85 of those people continued into the 24 week program.  The program consisted of 3 supervised training days a week that were supervised by professionals.  This program started with higher volume (reps and sets) and less intensity (how much weight you’re lifting as a percent of your 1 rep max for a given exercise), and progressed toward lower volumes and higher intensities as the program went on.

What measurables did they look at?

Participants were tested before the program, at the end of 12 weeks, and at the end of 24 weeks.  The participants tested for the following.

  • Strength via 1 RM leg press and 1 RM leg extension
  • Lean Body Mass (weight of muscles and other lean tissues in the body)
  • Muscle Fibre Size in type 1 (slow twitch) and type 2 (fast twitch)
  • Physical Function via chair rise time (how efficient can you get in and out of a chair.  In my opinion this is the most important measure as it is a good indicator of impact on daily living).  Participants had a number of reps to achieve for time.  Participants increased in physical function if time went down.

What were some of the notable results?

After 12 weeks

  • There was a significant increase in lean body mass of 0.9 kg.  Yes, that means in just 12 weeks the mean increase among the participants  was 2 pounds of muscle!
  • 1 RM leg press and 1 RM leg extension had a mean increase of 33 kg and 20 kg, respectfully,  from initial testing.
  • Chair-rise time dropped a mean 1.3 seconds from initial testing. 

After 24 weeks

  • There was a mean increase of lean body mass of 1.1 kg.
  • 1 RM leg press and 1 RM leg extension had a mean increase of 50 kg and 29 kg, respectfully,  from initial testing.  I don’t know about you……but I consider that a huge deal.
  • Chair-rise time dropped a mean 2.3 seconds from initial testing. 

Paper #2

Objectives: Similar to paper 1, this paper also looked at the prevalence of non responders in older populations, with a few main differences. The study was only women and compared the results of two different types of resistance training programs, one being higher volume and one being lower volume.

Who was in this study? The study consisted of 376 women.  In order to be eligible to participate in the study, the women had to be 60 or older, healthy with no conditions that could affect outcomes (attested to by physician), and had not participated in resistance training for at least a year.

What did the resistance training program look like?

The women were divided up into two training program groups, a low volume and a high volume group. The participants trained 2 times per week for 12 weeks. 1 session was lower body and 1 session was upper body.  There was a minimum 48 hours between bouts.  Sessions were monitored by 1 supervisor for every 5 participants.

What measurables did they look at?

Participants went through a series of tests pre and post program testing a range of different qualities.

  • Body Mass in kg
  • Waist circumference in cm
  • Strength via 1 RM bench press and 1 RM leg press
  • Physical function via chair stand test.  This test is simply how many times you can get in and out of a chair in 30 seconds.
  • Muscular endurance via 30- second bicep curl test.  This test measures how many times the participant could curl a 5 kg weight in 30 seconds.
  • Endurance via 6 minute walk test for distance.
  • Flexibility via Sit and Reach test measured in cm.  Sitting on the floor with your legs straight and feet pressed against a box, how far can you push the slider? (think about sitting with legs straight and together and trying to touch your toes.)

What were some of the notable results?

Both groups significantly decreased their waist circumference and there was no major difference between low and high volume groups.  It is worth noting that a decrease of at least 4 cm was seen in 242 participants (this is 64% of the study subjects!),  and was almost evenly divided between the two groups. Why is this important besides your pants fitting better? In other literature, a decrease of 4 cm has been linked to an increased life expectancy of 5 years! (3)

1 RM Leg Press ( lower body strength)

  • High volume initial was mean 13.31 kg post was 40.24 kg
  • Low Volume initial was mean 12.82 kg post was 38.12 kg

1 RM Bench Press ( upper body strength)

  • High volume initial was mean 9.97 kg post was 21.01 kg
  • Low volume initial was mean 10.14 kg post was 20.79 kg

Sit and Reach (flexibility)

  • High volume initial was mean 18.17 cm post was 28.07 cm
  • Low Volume initial was mean 18.00 cm post was 28.96 cm

30 second chair stand

  • High volume initial was mean 9.63 reps, post was 20.69 reps.
  • Low Volume initial was mean 9.44 reps, post was 20.74 reps.

What are my big takeaways from these two papers?

  1. There are no non-responders to resistance training in older populations.

 Remember, all the numbers I mentioned in the results section  is the average across all the participants.   Each person had different levels of responsiveness to resistance training.  There was a large number of variability in results between participants BUT every person improved at least one quality significantly in both studies.  The most interesting was in paper number 1, there was 1 subject who actually decreased from their initial tests in 1 RM strength, lean body mass, and fibre size but had BY FAR the most improvement in chair rise time.  The take away from that nugget? Even if you are not seeing improvements in the weight room or scale, you can still be significantly improving your life and that’s what it is all about!

  • More does not always mean better.

From paper #2 we can see that there are significant changes in the lower volume group as well as the higher volume group and there was not much difference between the two either.  These individuals were training only twice a week and saw marked changes across a number of qualities.  If your busy schedule has been stopping you from starting, let this be you sign to get started! I believe we can all carve out 2-3  hours a week to train.  If all you can commit to is a couple of days a week don’t sweat it, you’re going to improve and work towards your goals. 

  • Don’t be afraid to push yourself.

All of these participants were performing some decent intensity strength training sessions. As an example, in paper 2 all participants were training each set until ‘momentary failure’. Meaning they were using loads that by the end of the set they would not have been able to do more reps with good technique.  Note, this is different than failing on each set, before someone usually fails it means there were probably some technical breakdowns a few reps before (this is my opinion, not a reference).

  • Strength training is a great option for flexibility.

In paper 2 the absolute changes for the sit and reach test were incredible.  Direct stretching was not included in the participants program which means that this was most likely a result of getting stronger!  This makes sense when you think about it.  I want you to imagine a bridge with no support in the middle. If we make that bridge longer, the weaker the middle will get, and might collapse in the middle.  Well, if we think of a muscle in the same context, if a muscle is weak and lacks enough strength the best option would be to tighten and make itself shorter increasing its mechanical advantage.  If we get those muscles stronger, your muscle will feel more comfortable resting at  longer lengths which will mean more range of motion.  This is why I opt for strengthening as a better option for gaining more range of motion rather than just static stretching alone.

We’re all aging, and I don’t know about you, but I want to age with a high quality of life.  If this sounds like you, resistance training is a powerful way to keep or even regain some quality of life as you age.  I hope you have received value from reading this and if you did please share this with someone you know who can benefit from this as well! Take care, train hard and train safe.

References:

1. Churchward-Venne TA, Tieland M, Verdijk LB, Leenders M, Dirks ML and de Groot LC. There Are No Nonresponders to Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Older Men and Women. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2015 May 1;16(5):400-11.

2. Barbalho, M. D. S. M., Gentil, P., Izquierdo, M., Fisher, J., Steele, J., & Raiol, R. D. A. (2017). There are no no-responders to low or high resistance training volumes among older women. Experimental Gerontology99, 18–26. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2017.09.003  

3. Cerhan JR, Moore SC, Jacobs EJ, Kitahara CM, Rosenberg PS and Adami HO and. A pooled analysis of waist circumference and mortality in 650,000 adults. Mayo Clin Proc. 2014 Mar;89(3):335-45.

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