By Garrett Shomaker and Scott Theulen
You may know that we tend to lose strength as we get older, but did you know that between the ages of 50 and 80, you can lose up to 30% of your lean muscle mass (1)? This loss of muscle can lead to a decrease in balance and mobility, increased risk of falling, and a general decrease in quality of life (2). Many factors contribute to the loss of muscle mass as we age, including decreased brain activity, lower concentrations of hormones, and impaired protein metabolism. Sounds bad, right? Is there any way to slow down this loss and improve overall musculoskeletal health (muscle mass, bone density, balance, and joint health)?
Evidence shows that regular exercise can help to maintain lean muscle mass and joint mobility (3). But people often wonder: What kind of exercise is best?
One good option is resistance training (lifting weights or something similar). Research indicates that exercising with weight improves muscular strength and joint mobility more than performing the same exercises without weight (4). This raises another question: How much weight should you lift? Many people assume that to gain strength and muscle, you need to lift as heavy as you can. This often discourages people from using weighted exercises because they are worried about injuries—and this could be a valid concern.
Fortunately, recent research suggests that there might be an alternative. Some research from 2000 shows that lifting lighter weights at higher volumes can be just as effective as lifting heavy, and poses less risk of injury (5). But, this is just one example. To determine if other research supports these results more broadly, we systematically reviewed the evidence.
Examining the Evidence: Heavy vs. Light Strength Training
Our question was: Is it necessary for individuals over 60 to lift heavy weights, or is lighter weight, higher volume lifting also an effective way to maintain musculoskeletal health? To answer this question, we gathered and critically examined all the evidence on the topic (see “Review Methods” at the end of this article for details). We focused on scientific trials in which researchers tested different training programs, and after sifting through more than 100 trials, we found 13 that met the criteria for our analysis.
Nine of these studies suggest that lifting lighter weights for more repetitions can be just as effective as lifting heavy weight for fewer repetitions. Here is a good example:
Researchers at the University of Oklahoma examined the effects of two different weight lifting programs for six months on 25 early postmenopausal, estrogen-deficient women aged 41 to 60 (5). Half of the women followed a heavy weight program—using weights at 80% of their one repetition maximum (1RM) for three sets of eight repetitions. The other half followed a lower weight, high repetition program—using weight that was 40% of their 1RM for three sets of 16 repetitions. Both groups exercised three days a week using the same set of 12 exercises, which included a full body workout—leg press, seated rows, bicep curls, etc. After six months, the researchers found that both training groups had a 30-40% increase in lower body and hip strength, and the heavy lifting group had only a slightly greater increase in upper body strength (25% vs. 16% in the lighter weight group). However, the heavy lifting group also experienced a slight decrease (1%) in bone density. It’s possible that this is because more repetition means more stress on bones, which stimulates bone growth—but the researchers did not test this. In any case, this evidence shows that both high weight and high repetition weight lifting programs are similarly effective at improving overall muscular strength. And, importantly, if you look at the studies listed in the above table, you’ll see that most of them show the same thing (or at least similar results in favor of lighter weights, higher repetitions).
Although most evidence points towards lifting lighter weights, four of the studies we analyzed supported lifting heavy weights as a better choice. In one study (6), researchers in Greece compared the effects of two different lifting regimens for 12 weeks on 33 inactive subjects aged 60 to 74. Some of the volunteers followed a heavy weight training program (using weights at 80% of their 1RM for three sets of eight reps), and others followed a lighter weight program (using weights at 60% of their 1RM for three sets of 15 reps). Variables tested included 1RM for numerous exercises, as well as muscle growth and knee flexor torque (force the knee can exert when flexed). After 12 weeks, the heavy lifting group showed more improvement in muscle growth and strength. For example, the heavy group increased their latissimus pull-down 1RM by an average of 67%, while the lighter weight group only increased by 33%. Overall, this study indicates that heavier weights may be more effective for increasing muscular strength and growth.
Is There a Clear Answer?
This evidence leaves us with two conflicting conclusions, so it’s important to consider potential confounds. For example, most of the trials we found lasted 10 to 12 weeks, and the longest was only one year. As a result, the potential long-term negative effects of either type of weight lifting program are not clear. Also, all of these studies measured slightly different variables: some focused on muscular strength and growth, while others examined bone density and joint mobility. Nevertheless, almost all the studies involved inactive subjects between the ages of 60 and 80. They also followed a similar training outline: lifting two to three times per week with heavy weights at low volume or light weights at high volume, all with a similar mix of exercises. Therefore, we would argue that, on aggregate, the evidence is probably reliable—and that most of it does point towards lifting lighter weights at higher repetitions as a better choice for healthy aging.
Our analysis demonstrated that lifting light weights at high volume is an effective way to increase or maintain strength as you age. We found nine studies indicating this conclusion, and that light weight lifting allows for better form and decreases injury risk. The four studies that supported heavy lifting did suggest that it leads to larger increases in strength, but heavy lifting also increases strain on joints and (at least in some examples) can lead to a decrease in bone density. Therefore, if you’re trying to slow the effects of aging on your musculoskeletal health and prevent injury, at least for now it seems that light weight resistance training (with higher repetitions) is a good choice.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Garrett Shomaker and Scott Theulen are students in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder. This paper was peer reviewed by scientists at CU Boulder.
To come to this conclusion, the authors conducted a systematic review, in which they searched databases such as Google Scholar and PubMed (Google for biomedical studies). To ensure that the studies researched were relevant, they used these terms: (weight training OR resistance training OR strength training) AND (muscle mass OR balance OR joint health OR range of motion OR bone density). The authors also limited the studies to human trials and randomized control trials (variable introduced to patients and tested before and after with controls in place). They only included studies that focused on older subjects, lasted at least 10 weeks, and had a similar structure: using safe lifting practices, lifting two to three times a week, and a focus on heavy lifting (at least 75% 1RM for eight reps or less) and/or light lifting (less than 60% of 1RM for more than eight reps). After filtering the studies using these criteria, the authors came up with 13 studies. They then split up these studies into whether they supported heavy weight lifting as more effective at combating muscle/strength loss with aging (four studies) or supported lifting lighter weights (nine studies).
1. Lexell, Jan. Human Aging, Muscle Mass, and Fiber Type Composition. The Journals of Gerontology. 50, 11-16 (2016).
2. Kalyani, R. R., Corriere, M. & Ferrucci, L. Age-related and disease-related muscle loss: The effect of diabetes, obesity, and other diseases. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 2, 819–829 (2014).
3. Ochala, J., Lambertz, D., Van Hoecke, J. & Pousson, M. Effect of strength training on musculotendinous stiffness in elderly individuals. Eur. J. Appl. Physiol. 94, 126–133 (2005).
4. Unver, B., Bakirhan, S. & Karatosun, V. Does a weight-training exercise programme given to patients four or more years after total knee arthroplasty improve mobility: A randomized controlled trial. Arch. Gerontol. Geriatr. 64, 45–50 (2016).
5. Bemben, D. a, Fetters, N. L., Bemben, M. G., Nabavi, N. & Koh, E. T. Musculoskeletal responses to high- and low-intensity resistance training in early postmenopausal women. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 32, 1949–1957 (2000).
6. Kalapotharakos, V., Michalopoulos, M., Tokmakidis, S., Godolias, G. & Gourgoulis, V. Effects of A Heavy and A Moderate Resistance Training on Functional Performance in Older Adults. J. Strength Cond. Res. 19, 652–657 (2005).
7. Fred, H. L. More on weightlifting injuries. Tex. Heart Inst. J. 41, 453–4 (2014).
8. Flack, K. D. et al. Resistance exercise training and in vitro skeletal muscle oxidative capacity in older adults. Physiol. Rep. 4, e12849 (2016).
9. Andersen, T. R., Schmidt, J. F., Pedersen, M. T., Krustrup, P. & Bangsbo, J. The effects of 52 weeks of soccer or resistance training on body composition and muscle function in +65-year-old healthy males – A randomized controlled trial. PLoS One 11, 1–18 (2016).
10. Csapo, R. & Alegre, L. M. Effects of resistance training with moderate vs heavy loads on muscle mass and strength in the elderly: A meta-analysis. Scand. J. Med. Sci. Sport. 26, 995–1006 (2016).
11. Watson, S. L., Weeks, B. K., Weis, L. J., Horan, S. A. & Beck, B. R. Heavy resistance training is safe and improves bone, function, and stature in postmenopausal women with low to very low bone mass: novel early findings from the LIFTMOR trial. Osteoporos. Int. 26, 2889–2894 (2015).
12. Fernandez-Gonzalo, R. et al. Muscle, functional and cognitive adaptations after flywheel resistance training in stroke patients: a pilot randomized controlled trial. J. Neuroeng. Rehabil. 13, 37 (2016).
13. Janssen, I. et al. Skeletal muscle mass and distribution in 468 men and women aged 18 − 88 yr Skeletal muscle mass and distribution in 468 men and women aged 18 – 88 yr. J. Appl. Physiol. 81–88 (2000). doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a009520
14. Krist, L., Dimeo, F. & Keil, T. Can progressive resistance training twice a week improve mobility, muscle strength, and quality of life in very elderly nursing-home residents with impaired mobility? A pilot study. Clin. Interv. Aging 8, 443–448 (2013).
15. Seynnes, O. et al. Physiological and Functional Responses to Low-Moderate Versus High-Intensity Progressive Resistance Training in Frail Elders. 59, 503–509 (2004).
16. Strandberg, E. et al. Influence of Combined Resistance Training and Healthy Diet on Muscle Mass in Healthy Elderly Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J. Appl. Physiol. 1, jap.00066.2015 (2015).