Is Weightlifting Safe in Older Adults?

In our last post, we talked about osteoporosis, and we got a flurry of questions about the safety of weight lifting in older adults. Awesome!

The myth that adults over 50 shouldn’t weight lift is incredibly prevalent; people are worried it will cause bones to break, or that it’s bad for the joints.

Both of those statements have been disproven in the last 30 years. Motion is lotion that will lubricate those joints, and weight is wonderful for your bones.

I mentioned in the last post that this doesn’t mean you should sprint straight for the gym and go for the heaviest weights; let’s talk about the subtle details of what it means that weight lifting is key to the health of adults over 50, and how to approach it safely.

One of my favorite trials on bone density is the LIFTMOR trial. I won’t make you all read it, but I will summarize the key points so you get the juice without having to dive into.

Twice a week, adults (both in estrogen and testosterone based bodies) over 50 participated in supervised weightlifting training at 80-85% of their 1 Rep Maximum (the heaviest weight they could safely lift in 1 rep) in the deadlift, back squat, overhead press, and jump-landing following a pull up for 8 months. The control group participated in “isometric” activity, where they resisted against an object that wasn’t moving to activate their muscles. At the end of the study, the weight lifting group actually had gains in bone mineral density, while the isometric group had losses.

I really want to emphasize three things.

  1. Most researchers expected weightlifting to slow down or even pause bone loss. The LIFTMOR trials indicate that you can regain up to 1% of bone mineral density in less than a year. That’s huge. All the medications, all the hormone replacement, with their complex side effects and uncertainty don’t often get as good results.

Twice a week supervised weightlifting did.

Were there any negative side effects? Remember, many of the medications for osteoporosis have toxic side effects, taxing the liver and kidneys, and can’t be taken long term. In the LIFTMOR trial, one individual had a minor “back strain,” that resolved within one week. I’ll take a small back strain over liver toxicity; one sounds a lot less expensive and lot less uncomfortable than the other.

  1. This was supervised exercise. Why does that matter? The fitness craze has exploded in the last 30 years, beginning with runners, but really expanding with Ketllebells, Crossfit and other heavy loading activities. Most of my clients over 50 didn’t grow up with gyms at every corner, and didn’t grow up with barbells, so these movements are novel. Training, periodization, balancing workouts, barbell workouts, olympic lifting; these are all fairly newly acquired pieces of knowledge to the fitness world.

In the LIFTMOR trials, every participant was coached on technique, so they know how to perform the lifts safely, using appropriate biomechanics, and train at a level and frequency that promotes strength without over-training, as well as balancing front-body vs. back-body exercises, core stability, and self-release techniques.

Especially if you’re new to weight training, to barbells, it’s really easy to get yourself injured; it doesn’t matter how old you are. I’ve seen 20 year olds at the gym pounding iron, with technique that’s sure fire to get them injured. But they’re metabolism recovers faster, so that injury shows up further down the line, and might not be as severe.

I always want to play the long game, so I’ll help you increase your weight slowly and steadily, in a way that will prevent muscle injury, but still promote bone health, which brings me to my third point. And, I’ll train you to understand the mechanics of the movement that will promote efficiency and reduce your risk of injury.

  1. You need to lift 80-85% 1 RM to promote bone remodeling, but that doesn’t mean you need to lift 300 lbs. For the adults in the LIFTMOR trial, they were working at their own maximum, not pushing heavy-heavy weights; it was the ratio to their own strength that mattered. So, when you’re training, it’s really important to safety identify your max, and use it to guide your conditioning and the weights you use.

And we haven’t even gotten to talking about how weightlifting can support your joints, your strength, your functional independence, your sleep, and your mood.

So, that’s a lot of words. What’s the big takeaway?

It is safe and important for older adults to weightlift, with certain parameters. To get the best results, older adults should participate in strength training with good technique and cueing 2x a week, working 80-85% of their 1 RM.

Which exercises are best for building that bone density? Ones that transfer load through your whole frame, so isolated bicep curls aren’t going to help strengthen the bones of your legs.

Top 5 Exercises for Building Bone Density

For each of these, aim for 4-5 sets of 5x reps, 2x a week.

  1. Deadlift: With the deadlift, make sure you’re moving from your hips, and your spine isn’t bending as you lift the weight. Check out our demo video on how to perform a deadlift here.

  2. Box Squat: Use this to prepare for deeper back squats. Place a box behind the squat rack, and lower your buttocks to it over 4-5 seconds. Rest your legs completely, keep your core engaged, and then rise in a quick explosive 1-2 second movement.

  3. Back Squat: Make sure the barbell is resting comfortably on your shoulders, and that you feel your glutes and quads engaged throughout the whole movement. Make sure your descent is slow, and position your feet a bit wider than your shoulders.

  4. Pull Up with Jump Landing: This one can be difficult, especially if you haven’t trained a pull up. The most important part is the jumping landing from the bar. If you don’t have an easy pull up, feel free to use a jump assist to get yourself to the bar, and when you release, focus on a solid, even landing on both feet.

  5. Overhead Press with Push Press Drop set: Using a barbell, or a lighter weight, keep a proud chest and bring the weight from resting on your front shoulders to fully overhead. Slowly control it up and down for 4-5 reps.

The push press drop set helps you keep training those arms, even as they fatigue. After 4-5 regular reps, you’ll transition to performing a push press. You’ll allow your knees and hips to bend slightly, and push through the legs as you extend your arms. This will help compete with the fatigue in your arms, and help with engaging load through the whole body.

4 regular reps + 4 push press.

Curious about how you can start your weight lifting journey safely? Contact us to schedule an appointment so we can start building your confidence in and out of the gym.

  1. Watson SL, Weeks BK, Weis LJ, Harding AT, Horan SA, Beck BR. High-Intensity Resistance and Impact Training Improves Bone Mineral Density and Physical Function in Postmenopausal Women With Osteopenia and Osteoporosis: The LIFTMOR Randomized Controlled Trial. J Bone Miner Res. 2018 Feb;33(2):211-220. doi: 10.1002/jbmr.3284. Epub 2017 Oct 4. Erratum in: J Bone Miner Res. 2019 Mar;34(3):572. PMID: 28975661.

  2. Harding AT, Weeks BK, Lambert C, Watson SL, Weis LJ, Beck BR. Effects of supervised high-intensity resistance and impact training or machine-based isometric training on regional bone geometry and strength in middle-aged and older men with low bone mass: The LIFTMOR-M semi-randomised controlled trial. Bone. 2020 Jul;136:115362. doi: 10.1016/j.bone.2020.115362. Epub 2020 Apr 11. PMID: 32289518.

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