There is a lot of confusion in the bodybuilding community regarding bodybuilding (or resistance training in general) for seniors. Most coaches will intuitively discourage older trainees from heavy training. The most common approach is to lower the weights with increasing age. Persons over 80 years are usually not advised to train at all (or only engage in light aerobic activities).
The reality, however, is quite different. While people with serious health problems must ALWAYS consult their physicians before participating in heavy training, there is no proof that such training is dangerous for people of any age.
On the contrary. Many scientific trials showed huge advantages of heavy resistance training for seniors over 70, 80 and even 90 years of age.
What is heavy resistance training?
Lifting weights heavier than 70% of 1RM (1-repetition maximum) is usually considered as heavy resistance training. Exercises using lower weights are commonly described as medium or low resistance training. It should be noted that exercising with lower weights (between 30% and 60% of 1RM) to exhaustion, especially if done slowly (limiting the oxygen availability in the muscle) can be considered equal to heavy resistance training for our purpose.
Until what age?
Several clinical trials subjected old and very old people to training with 80% of 1RM. The exercises were really heavy, like leg press and leg extensions and involving largest muscle groups, especially the quadriceps. Both men and women participated in such trials. This type of exercise proved to be both very effective and very safe for all age groups.
Danish trial by Caserotti and colleagues from 2008 subjected two groups of women to 12-week long 75-80% 1RM resistance training. In the first group there were women between 60 and 65 years of age while the second group was much older: 80 to 89 years. It is also interesting to notice that this was not a regular resistance training but explosive heavy resistance training – imagine Olympic weightlifters who also use speed as another factor in their training.
Both groups showed very significant improvements and no complications or health problems occurred during the trial. Similar trials have been conducted in other countries with consistent results: important improvements, no negative effects.
Can I start lifting weights in 70?
The simple answer is yes, you can, but you will not achieve the same health benefits as those lifting for many decades. You will improve your strength, muscle mass, your cardiovascular health. You will also strengthen your tendons and joints and probably increase your bone mineral density.
Some cardiovascular indicators are better in people with history of long-term exercising and they do not improve over shorter periods of time.
People lifting weights for decades also show extremely high bone mineral density, important especially in women over 50.
Cardiac patients and bodybuilding
Persons with every type of cardiovascular disease must consult their physician before attempting any form of resistance training. This is also true for people with high blood pressure. Having said that, scientific research shows that resistance training has multiple benefits and little risks for such persons.
In fact, resistance training (weight lifting) is often included in rehabilitation programs for clinically stable patients with heart disease.
Evaluation of 12 different studies by N.K. Wengler and colleagues from 1995 shows that even exercise with 80% of 1RM is not dangerous for patients with coronary disease.
Chest pain (angina), inability to breathe normally and arrhytmia are all warning signs that you should immediately stop your workout and seek medical attention.
High blood pressure
Many physicians discourage people with hypertension (high blood-pressure) from heavy resistance training.
The rationale goes like this: weightlifting (or any similar form of resistance training) induces significant temporary increase in blood pressure. The closer you get to your 1RM, the higher this increase in blood pressure is. This is because when we exercise a limited muscle, our heart rate increases thus increasing the pressure on blood vessel walls but the blood vessels do not expand except for those it the involved muscle.
However, measurements of blood pressure during resistance exercise do not consistently show very high values. If anything, this topic requires further study.
On the other hand, resistance exercise is known to lower the hypertension in long term, although other forms of exercise may be superior if your sole aim is lowering your blood pressure.