Resistance Training for Older Adults: Part 3

This month we are going to build on previous posts by going into the specifics of how to build a strength training routine. Check out Part 1 and 2 first before diving into this one. To recap, resistance training at least 2 days per week is recommended by most top health organizations in the country. This recommendation is also directed specifically towards all adults, including individuals in their 70’s, 80’s, and up. In fact, research has shown that continued resistance training late into life is a safe and effective way to slow many of the normal effects of aging such as loss of strength, muscle mass, bone density, and cognitive function. It can also slow cardiovascular disease and lower your risk of all-cause mortality by around 20% (1,2).

Building Your Routine: Variables to Consider


  1. Frequency: For most adults, resistance training should be performed 2-3x per week.
  2. Intensity: Higher intensity resistance training will lead to greater improvements in strength and bone density. Beginners should start with light intensity and focus on good quality movement with the goal of building up intensity over the course of several months. Aim to reach a point when the difficulty of the movement is great enough, you cannot perform more than 8-10 repetitions before failure or losing form. Doing 3-4 sets of 6-8 repetitions at this resistance is a safe and effective amount of exercise. From here, you should be able to add resistance every few weeks as your body adapts to the stresses applied.
  3. Rest: Rest between sets is important to recover and replenish your body’s energy stores.  With lighter resistance, your body only needs 20-30 seconds of rest between sets. As intensity increases towards maximal effort, you should take up to 2 minutes of rest between sets.
  4. Volume: Think of this as the total amount of effort in a workout, or the product of the number of different exercises, sets, and repetitions. Volume should vary depending on your level, but here are some guidelines. Start with 4-6 exercises, 2-3 sets of each, and 10-20 repetitions. Work up to around 8 exercises, 3-4 sets of each.
  5. Progressive overload: As your body adapts to your new workload, the benefits will plateau unless you increase and vary the stimulus. By altering the above variables periodically (frequency, intensity, rest, volume) and adding 5-15% resistance every 1-2 weeks, you can ensure you will continue making progress.

Example Exercises

Now that you have an idea of how to structure your program, let’s talk about what movements to include. First, let’s go over 4 of the main compound movements humans perform regularly.

  1. Squat: Basically this is just sitting and standing from a chair. Try it without putting your weight in the chair, progress to no chair, and then add resistance.
  • Tips: keep even weight on both legs,  keep your knees in line with your hips and ankles, and look forward to help keep your back flat.
  • Why squat: squatting is a full body movement that we use daily, so getting strong in this pattern will help you with everyday tasks. Research has shown that squatting at a high intensity can be as effective to build core / abdominal strength as common core exercises like planks or sit-ups.
  1. Hinge: This one is a little harder for many people, but it is the most efficient way to lift something off the ground. Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Keep your back flat as you push your hips back and let your shoulders move forward toward the ground. Knees should be soft with a slight bend. Push the hips up and forward to stand.
  • Tips: this is a hip dominant movement, so let your hips lead by pushing hips back on the way down and forward on the way up. Your knees should not go forward over your toes and your back should stay flat throughout the movement.
  1. Press: This is any pushing movement with the upper body. Variations include push-ups, chest press, and overhead presses. 
  • Tips: always keep your wrist under your elbow to avoid a rotational force at the shoulder. When holding weight, the path of your hands should be vertical – push straight up and lower straight down. Push-ups from a countertop are a good starting point for many people if weights are unavailable.
  1. Pull: This is any upper body pulling movement such as rowing, pull-ups, or lat pulldowns. There are many variations depending on the equipment available.
  • Tips: Lead the movement by pinching your shoulder blades together (down and back) to use your shoulder blades as much as possible with these movements.

Putting it Together

To summarize, here are the main points to remember.

  • Train 2-3 times per week
  • Pick 4-8 exercises from the list above or others you have learned
  • Perform 2-4 sets of each exercise
  • Start with lower intensity and higher repetition: 15-20 reps of each
  • As you are stronger and more comfortable with the movements, increase your intensity
  • A good intensity goal is that you can only perform about 8 repetitions before you lose form or can’t complete the rep
  • Vary the intensity, duration, volume, and rest breaks periodically 
  • It’s always good to consult a personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, or physical therapist if you are unsure about how to perform these exercises, or how to safely increase the intensity



  1. Lichtenberg T, von Stengel S, Sieber C, Kemmler W. The Favorable Effects of a High-Intensity Resistance Training on Sarcopenia in Older Community-Dwelling Men with Osteosarcopenia: The Randomized Controlled FrOST Study. Clin Interv Aging. 2019;14:2173-2186. Published 2019 Dec 16. doi:10.2147/CIA.S225618
  2. Peterson MD, Rhea MR, Sen A, Gordon PM. Resistance exercise for muscular strength in older adults: a meta-analysis. Ageing Res Rev. 2010;9(3):226-237. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2010.03.004
  3. Law TD, Clark LA, Clark BC. Resistance Exercise to Prevent and Manage Sarcopenia and Dynapenia. Annu Rev Gerontol Geriatr. 2016;36(1):205-228. doi:10.1891/0198-8794.36.205
  4. Selye H. Stress and the general adaptation syndrome. Br Med J. 1950;1(4667):1383-1392. doi:10.1136/bmj.1.4667.1383
  5. van den Tillaar R, Saeterbakken AH. Comparison of Core Muscle Activation between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats. J Hum Kinet. 2018;62:43-53. Published 2018 Jun 13. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0176