Why Seniors Need to Get to the Gym Part 3 (of 4)


Larry F. Waldman, Ph.D., ABPP
Psychologist/Senior Fitness Specialist

Weight Training

Weight training, also referred to as resistance training, strength training, or weight lifting, is important because it builds muscle and increases bone density. Weight lifting is critical for seniors because it retards and even reverses the typical progressive loss of muscle mass (and corresponding strength) with age, noted in Part 1. Slowing or preventing the decline of bone density, especially in women, also will decrease the likelihood of a fracture following a fall or turned ankle. Finally, research clearly notes that bigger muscles burn more calories, which further helps to maintain a healthy weight.

Training Schedule

It is recommended that seniors engage in a full body resistance workout at least twice per week; three times per week is ideal. If you lift only once per week you are likely to feel sore much of the time and your progress will be very, very slow. If you train more than three times per week, you may not give your body sufficient time to recover and rebuild after the previous workout. Elite fit seniors can lift four times per week. In any case, there should be at least a “resistance-free day” between any two full-body workouts. You may certainly engage in an aerobic experience before weight training on the same day or on a rest day with no lifting.

Ab (stomach) training can and should be done every time you exercise, whether you are doing weight lifting or not, or just doing aerobics or stretching. You can’t over train your abs.

Body builders are in the gym five to seven times per week—sometimes twice per day. They work a separate muscle group or two each day, usually two or three times per week—again with sufficient time for that muscle group to recover between workouts.

“Full Body”

A “full body” resistance workout should include these five muscle groups: legs (thighs, hamstring, and calves), back, chest, arms (biceps and triceps), and abs. The routine should generally follow this (above) sequence, as you want to work larger muscles before smaller ones.
There are multiple ways to work these five muscle groups: machines, cable machines, free weights (barbells and dumbbells), or your own weight (push-ups, pull-ups, planks and crunches, for example). A trainer, or possibly a friend experienced in weight lifting, could help with designing an effective workout routine.


Machines are most comfortable to use and changing the weights is easy (just place the pin in another hole), which make them a favorite among many resistance trainers. However, machines do not make you control and balance the weight, unlike free weights. The other concern with machines is they are typically used with both legs or arms. In this manner some individuals are unknowingly strengthening their preferred arm or leg, which is likely doing most of the work, which can cause a muscle imbalance in their body. When possible, use machines single-armed or single-legged to avoid this issue. You might even consider doing an additional set with your non-preferred arm or leg.

As noted with regard to aerobic training, do not do the same exercises with the same equipment every workout. Your body will adjust to that program and progress will be slowed. It is possible to work a particular muscle group many ways. For example: on the first day of the week of weight training you could use primarily machines; on the second day of resistance work you could use primarily cable machines; and on the final day of weight lifting that week you could use primarily free weights and your body weight. With this kind of routine your body cannot adjust to the same routine and will respond to the different exercises with more growth.

Posture and Breathing

It is essential that weight training is conducted with proper form. Improper posture and jerking the weights could do more harm than good. A trainer (or possibly an experienced friend) would be very helpful to coach your form while training. Once you have learned the proper form you can train on your own—or continue with a trainer who will continually coach you and vary your routine.

It is also important to breathe properly when weight training. The goal is to oxygenate your muscles—and your brain. Generally, exhale on the power move and inhale on the weight return. Think of it as trying to move the weight by blowing at it (exhaling). Do not hold your breath during resistance work, as you will not get the full benefit of the exercise.

Reps and Sets

Weight training for seniors should involve lighter weights, more “reps” and more “sets.” Reps refer to how many times you lift a weight in a certain exercise and sets is the number of times you do that particular exercise. For most seniors, especially those new to resistance work, two sets of 15-20 reps of an exercise, with good form of course, would be fine. Three sets of an exercise would also work—but no more.

Once you can do 17-20 reps of an exercise (with proper form) the weight on the machine should be increased one plate or five to 10 pounds should be added to your free weight. This increase in weight should cause your reps for that exercise to go down to 10-12. If you maintain your exercise schedule, soon you will be adding more weight to all your exercises.

Since there are five muscle groups to be worked and there are two to three machines used for each group, you can expect to use about 10-15 machines in a full body resistance workout. This could take 30-45 minutes. It is currently recommended that you rest no more than 90 seconds between sets and move quickly from one machine to the next, to make weight training as much of an aerobic exercise as possible. Studies have shown that seniors, men and women, in assisted living facilities who became involved in regular resistance training increased their strength by 50% in 16 weeks.

Author's Bio: 

Larry F. Waldman, Ph.D., ABPP is a licensed psychologist who practiced in Phoenix for 45 years. He worked with children, adolescents, parents, adults, and couples. He also provided forensic consultations in the areas of family law, personal injury, and estate planning. He speaks professionally on marriage, parenting, private practice development, psychotherapy, and wellness to laypersons, educators, corporations, attorneys, chiropractors, and fellow mental health professionals. He teaches graduate courses for the Educational Psychology Department of Ottawa University. He also is a certified senior fitness specialist. He is the author of “Who’s Raising Whom? A Parent’s Guide to Effective Child Discipline;” “Coping with Your Adolescent;” “How Come I Love Him but Can’t Live with Him? Making Your Marriage Work Better;” “The Graduate Course You Never Had: How to Develop, Manage, and Market a Flourishing Private Practice—With and Without Managed Care;” “Too Busy Earning a Living to Make Your Fortune? Discover the Psychology of Achieving Your Life Goals;” and “Overcoming Your Negotiaphobia: Negotiating Your Way Through Life.” His contact information is: 602-418-8161; email--LarryWaldmanPhD@cox.net; website--TopPhoenixPsychologist.com.