Your Guide to Strength Training Over Age 50

Gym instructor helping a senior woman do strengthening exercises with weights during an exercise session

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Weight lifting may very well be the fountain of youth. Research shows resistance training exercise not only improves muscle strength, metabolism, and balance, it reduces signs of aging at the cellular level as well, helping you to look and feel years younger.

The benefits of strength workouts are indisputable, but getting started after age 50 may present a few challenges—especially if you have a history of back, hip, knee, or other joint pain. Before getting started on a new exercise routine, consult with your doctor. 

The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends older adults perform strength training exercises 2 to 3 days a week. Focus on working all of the major muscle groups, including arms, legs, shoulders, and trunk with a goal of lifting a weight just heavy enough to achieve 10 to 15 repetitions before the muscles become fatigued.

Strength training isn't limited to free weights or machines. You can also use water, your body weight, or elastic bands for resistance.

Adults age 50 and older may also find it helpful to start by seeing a physical therapist help increase range of motion and strength in any stiff, painful joints, and consider taking a few sessions with a personal trainer to ensure you are lifting correctly to avoid injury.

Weight Training vs. Aerobics

Most older individuals are well aware that they need regular aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming, or running, to strengthen their heart and lungs and tone their bodies, but many ignore weight training or resistance training.

Strength training is the only type of exercise that can substantially slow and even reverse the declines in muscle mass, bone density, and strength that were once considered inevitable consequences of aging.

Older adults who have been sedentary for a while will benefit from establishing a strength training routine before beginning a walking program or other aerobic activity. Research shows people over the age of 50 who are inactive are at a higher risk of falls because their muscle tone is weak, flexibility is often limited, and balance may be precarious.

To reduce the risk of falls and injury when starting out, begin by strengthening large muscle groups including legs, arms, and trunk muscles for 3 to 4 weeks of at least twice weekly weight training sessions before incorporating long walks or other aerobic exercises.

For active adults, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 20 to 30 minutes of weight training two to three times a week, 20 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity 3 to 5 days a week, and stretching exercises at least twice a week.

Strength training isn't limited to free weights or machines. You can also achieve the benefits of using water, your body weight, or elastic bands for resistance.

Discomfort vs. Pain

While no pain, no gain may be a mantra in the weight room, you shouldn't actually experience pain while lifting weights. Some discomfort is to be expected as you work the muscle to fatigue. When muscles are challenged by resistance, tissue breakdown occurs. It's normal to feel some soreness the day after a workout as the muscle fibers heal and become stronger.

If you feel joint or nerve pain, or are putting a tremendous amount of strain on any part of the body, you're probably going overboard and can harm yourself. Strains, sprains, and tissue damage can take weeks or even months to heal, so preventing injury should be the top priority.

Stop lifting immediately if you feel a sharp pain in the muscle or pain in a joint. If the discomfort is severe and does not resolve with rest, see your doctor.

Additional Benefits

In general, as people grow older, muscle fibers shrink in number and in size (atrophy) and become less sensitive to messages from the central nervous system. This contributes to a decrease in strength, balance, and coordination. Fortunately, beginning a strength training exercise routine after the age of 50 can halt these declines and boost health in a number of ways:

Reverse Aging

Although there is no question that people start to experience at least some degree of muscle atrophy after age 40, the extent to which this occurs depends on a number of factors, including genetics, diet, smoking and alcohol use, and—most importantly—physical activity level.

Research shows inactivity is responsible for the majority of age-associated muscle loss, and resistance exercise can reverse much of this by increasing the size of shrunken muscle fibers.

Strengthen Bones

Weight training increases bone mass, which lowers the risk of developing osteoporosis and fractures. Strength training adds more weight to the skeleton by building muscle, which stimulates the bones to strengthen and grow.

Ease Joint Pain

Proper strength training doesn't apply stress directly to joints and is ideal for people with arthritis. In fact, rheumatologists with the Arthritis Foundation recommends weight training for patients with arthritis. Although exercise cannot reverse arthritic changes, lifting weights helps alleviate symptoms by strengthening the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that surround joints.

Better Quality of Life

Resistance exercise can also help older adults live independently by giving them the strength they need to perform everyday tasks. There is even evidence that resistance exercise can help people sleep better and can improve the mood of mildly to moderately depressed individuals.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Fragala MS, Cadore EL, Dorgo S, et al. Resistance Training for Older Adults: Position Statement From the National Strength and Conditioning Association. J Strength Cond Res. 2019;33(8):2019-2052. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000003230

  3. Emilio EJ, Hita-Contreras F, Jiménez-Lara PM, Latorre-Román P, Martínez-Amat A. The association of flexibility, balance, and lumbar strength with balance ability: risk of falls in older adultsJ Sports Sci Med. 2014;13(2):349–357.

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

  5. Mechling H, Netz, Y. Aging and inactivity—capitalizing on the protective effect of planned physical activity in old age. Eur Rev Aging Phys Act. 2009;6:89.

  6. Arthritis Foundation. Free Weights.

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.