Am I Lifting Weights Too Often?

running out of time
Photo credit: galleryhip.com

I received a comment on a recent blog post suggesting that for my age, I’m working out too often.

I asked the reader to clarify what he meant, but since he hasn’t had the opportunity to respond yet, I started doing a little reading.

I remember one of Logan Franklin’s newsletters from Gray Iron Fitness describing this 71-year-old man’s current workout schedule:

I exercise six days a week, alternating one day of resistance training with one day of cardio. That may sound like a lot, especially for someone my age, but the workouts are concise and brief. For variety, I use a mixture of dumbbells, cables, resistance bands, bodyweight movements, and kettlebells.

On resistance training days, I warm-up with a few light calisthenics before beginning a workout; I also do a few minutes of relaxed stretching after completing it. The entire session takes roughly 35- to 40-minutes.

In terms of frequency and structure, Logan and I workout in a very similar way, hitting the gym six days a week and alternating resistance training days with cardio days. He’s at the gym a shorter duration than I am and he may not hit the level of intensity I do in my strength training lifts, but he’s also ten years older than I am.

That said, he’s been lifting pretty consistently since he was 15 years old, so he’s definitely got way more experience at this than I do.

But is there any confirmation about how much is too much? After all, opinions vary, and there just aren’t that many 71-year-olds writing about this topic.

For the answer, I turned to NerdFitness.com. First of all:

We hear this from 30 year olds and 60 year olds alike…and, like “I don’t have time,” it is a big fat lie! Even for the frail elderly, studies have shown that drastic results are possible in just 10 weeks of weightlifting (for both men and women in their 70s through their 90s). In fact, weight training has also been shown to delay Alzheimer’s and stave off dementia. So, if you think you might be “too old,” you’re probably the exact type of person that SHOULD be strength training!

So as I’ve said time and again, age is NOT a barrier (sorry for “shouting”) to lifting and lifting heavy.

And then there’s this:

The general rule of thumb is to wait 48 hours before working the same muscle group again.

For a basic strength program, working out 3-4 days a week is plenty. This is one of those situations where more is not necessarily better.

But…

Recovery is different for everyone depending on many different factors such as what the actual workout is, how old you are, your sleep quality, diet, and other recovery elements…

Logan Franklin at age 70.
Photo credit: senior-exercise-central.com

Unfortunately, Staci, who wrote this article, didn’t elaborate on how age affects recovery, although I can assume that because we older folks seem to heal more slowly than our younger counterparts, we probably need more recovery time as well.

But then again, Logan Franklin lifts every other day.

On the other hand, Paul Ingraham at PainScience.com produces various studies supporting the idea that strength training 2 or even just 1 day a week is as effective as training 3 days a week.

That said, as part of the conclusion of his article, he notes:

Bodybuilders and gym nuts, please try to bear in mind that most people aren’t interested in optimization/maximization of results, but in a balance of effort and reward. We all know that you would exert 50% more effort to get a 5% greater reward, and good for you. But most people have exactly the opposite priorities: we would love to sacrifice 5% of our results if it meant we could spend (!) 50% less time at the gym.

In other words, it’s not that spending the third day a week at the gym lifting makes absolutely no difference, it just may not add that much more to the first two days you did weightlifting that week.

Ingraham is writing to the average guy or gal who goes to the gym because it’s part of a healthy lifestyle, but they have no particular investment in “going the extra mile,” so to speak. They’ll set aside optimum results if it means not having to go to the gym as often.

But for those of us who want to see just how far we can (safely) push it, that third day a week lifting just might make the difference.

Ingraham goes on to say:

Do you already have a gym habit? Convinced you have to keep going every Monday, Thursday and Saturday? Horrified by my heretical article? Well, untwist your knickers: you can do whatever you want. The article simply presents evidence that is strongly suggestive that you might want to consider trying a lower frequency. It might work out. I’m not saying I “know” what’s best for you — I’m saying “here’s some intriguing evidence.” I didn’t do the experiments, okay? I just reported the results!

So Ingraham didn’t write the Bible or even the last word on strength training frequency. Take it for what it’s worth.

Finally…

Everyone is different! Genetic and medical factors can dramatically affect how we respond to training. (Possibly a lot. Neat reference for this *) The diminishing returns effect is an average. There will be “freaks” in every group: people who get better or worse results from much more or less frequent training. I have already gotten email from these people, at both extremes. You may be a unique and special flower … but remember that the average is the thing that matters.

strong old man
photo credit: ML Sinibaldi/CORBIS

Ingraham says that in his personal experience, a reduced frequency exercise program worked out really well, but there are a couple of things to consider. The first is that, based on my assessment of his photograph, he’s quite a bit younger than I am. Also, he says that although less frequent, his workouts were very intense, probably more intense than I would consider reasonable for me at my age.

And of course, the opinions of different medical and other professionals are highly variable, so there’s no hard and fast rule that gives a frequency per week you absolutely must stick to.

Even ElderGym.com, which seems to speak to people older than I am, says:

Try exercising at least 2 to 3 times per week with at least 48 hours between training sessions.

Of course, they probably aren’t thinking about the level of intensity I generate with each set given the weights I use, but I do lift 3 times per week with about 48 hours rest between lifting sessions.

Actually, the most helpful workout frequency suggestion for older lifters comes from ExRx.net:

People over 50 years of age commonly have joint and muscle discomfort after a heavy workout. Therefore, the frequency of intense workouts should be carefully programmed. See study summary on varying workloads in older adults. If joint pain or stiffness is still experienced, then the frequency of heavy loading day must be further reduced or the repetition training zones must be altered accordingly.

So, given that there is variability in each individual’s response to exercise relative to frequency, one way to gauge whether or not you’re working out too often, is to “listen” to your body. If you are too sore, stiff, or in pain, you’ve probably crossed the line.

However, the same article states…

ACSM recommended a repetition range for individuals older than age 50-60 years of age or frail persons is 10 to 15 repetitions (see Suggested Repetition Ranges). Although more advanced and healthy older adults can perform lower repetition ranges with heavier weight (80% of 1RM or higher) for greater strength gains with relatively little risk of injury

And when discussing Masters Athletes…

As the population ages, masters competitions become more prevalent in many sports. The strength sport, powerlifting, has a long tradition of masters athletes winning in open competition. (Rippetoe and Kilgore, 2006)

Master powerlifters over the age of 65 weight 180 lbs (81 kg) have squatted over 350 lbs (159 kg) (Harder 2000). At the age of 72, Darrell Gallenberger deadlifted an impressive 396 lbs at the 2001 North Texas Senior Olympics (Times Record News, Wichita Falls, TX, March 29, 2011).

That’s the good news. Here’s the rest:

However, even competitive weightlifters undergo a nonlinear decline in strength with age (Meltzer 1994). Peak anaerobic power in both power and endurance athletes decreases linearly at around 1% a year (Grassi et al. 1991).

The recovery capacity of a masters athlete is generally less than their younger counterpart, so periodization of training becomes even more important for the serious masters competitor. Periods of recovery should be longer and more pronounced than for younger athletes. When using undulating periodization models, the recovery microcycles should have a larger percentage of intensity reduction than for younger athletes, 10-15% rather than the 5% frequently used. Beyond 30 years of age, a volume reduction of 5% per decade is suggested. (Rippetoe and Kilgore, 2006)

Jimmie Espinoza age 70
Photo credit: mysanantonio.com

Okay, so even older strength among Master-level powerlifters doesn’t last forever, and admittedly, I’m nowhere near being a master of anything.

But going back to “listening” to my body, that seems to be the single most useful takeaway for now. As long as my body is tolerating the current frequency and intensity of my weightlifting routine, then I’ll stick with it. If things plateau or I start losing strength, I can reconfigure my workout to beat me up a little less.

Update: See how I’ve adapted my workout plan to just twice a week and am still gaining strength by reading Is Lifting Twice A Week Enough for a Senior Weightlifter?

Live each day as if your life had just begun.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Footnote

*Hubal et al. Variability in muscle size and strength gain after unilateral resistance training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2005. PubMed #15947721.

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17 thoughts on “Am I Lifting Weights Too Often?

  1. Wow, and yet another excellent post James. My workouts change frequently as you know and I am still searching for my nirvana workout. I don’t believe that it exists. Age is not a factor, it is our individual body’s that make the difference. You have to read your own body and know when it’s hungry for a tough workout and and when it demands rest. If you are working out frequently and not having any problems them just stay on track, but it you are experiencing certain problems like joint discomfort take a look at your diet or just take a break from time to time.

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  2. I don’t think the “experts” know. Like you said, everyone is different. But I do think if you’re used to exercising/lifting a lot/heavy, then you need to keep it up. Slacking off now might be the worst thing you can do. I’ve seen too many people who are super active between working and personal life, then they retire and don’t do a darn thing, and they deteriorate/age quickly. Or they’re avid gym goers but have a minor medical setback resulting in the inability to maintain their workouts, which in turn snowballs and causes their minor medical condition to become major.

    Keep doing what you’re doing, I say! 🙂

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  3. I am so amazed at how in-depth you get in all your topics….I say, I think you know what your doing for your body and know how the exercise effects your body and only you can decide if your doing to much or to little….you will know if you have pushed yourself to far…certainly your body will tell you that….my trainer, not that I am an expert at anything, always had me push to muscle fatigue, even had me push through the shaking, but I always had to take the next day off….I could exercise a different set of muscles but not the same as the day before….but that being said, I was and still am a light weight…there is all different ways of training for all different sets of circumstances…look at how the Olympic athletes push themselves every day of the year……I read where some of the track stars would wake up in the middle of the night to do sit ups and then go back to bed and then repeat this several times during the night…I believe its to each individual and for what goal you have in mind…I applaud you for asking for everyone’s opinion but in the end I believe it depends on the goals you have set for yourself and what you want to accomplish in the end…if it feels right, what your doing for yourself, then keep it up, your body will instruct you if it needs or desires a change…your not going to hurt yourself by exercising….your not a silly man, you will stop before that happens….again this is just my opinion… keep up the good work…you inspire me to start…just haven’t yet…LOL

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  4. @Billy: Of course your requirements are more specific than mine, but I’m constantly amazed at the amount of weight you lift and your dedication to being fit. Also, thanks for the “shout out” on your blog.

    Cheers.

    @PfeifferPhotography: I agree. I doubt I could make myself slack off. I almost feel “addicted” to my workouts, maybe because they are sometimes the only thing I have real control over in any given day.

    I’ve read about some pretty amazing older folks who are incredibly fit. They are a real motivation to follow in their footsteps and see just how far I can take my own journey.

    @New Journey: Thanks. I’m a professional writer and author, so I tend to be research oriented (even if, for the sake of this blogspot, the research is fueled by Google).

    If I can be an inspiration to you or to anyone, then this blog has accomplished its goal. I’m not blogging so much for myself, although writing is how I process my thoughts and feelings, but to show others that it’s possible to achieve a level of fitness that they may not have considered.

    Older people especially tend not to believe they can lift and stay fit into their 60s, 70s, and beyond. Also, women have been told repeatedly that if they lift and lift heavy, they’ll end up hurting themselves or looking like the Incredible Hulk. These things are not true and I want to break some stereotypes.

    The trick for me, and perhaps for you as well, is to know the difference between pushing to the limit and crossing it. I mildly injured my lower back some weeks ago and had to figure out a way to heal and work around the injury during healing.

    Fortunately, I recovered fairly quickly, but it taught me a good lesson about when to lift and when to rest.

    It would be hard for me to work with a trainer because I need to have control of my own process. I do like to consult with as many resources as I have available to me, but in the end, each of us is responsible for what we do, how we maintain ourselves, and how we treat others in this world.

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  5. Wow Thank you James!!! Excellent work and thanks for taking the time to do this research and share it here with us. As usual I am learning a lot from you!!!

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  6. Depending on your fitness level and how hard percentage wise you train you can train daily. You can even hit the same body part the next day to gain circulation. Check your strength level in a few workouts. Then add more sets and exercises. Go at your own pace.

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  7. You’ve ~ 10 yrs on me. I have been mulling over the frequency thing in my mind lately. Seems every time my DL gets to a certain KG, my lumbar forces a break.

    IMO, the closest thing to an ‘absolute’ is waiting 48 hours. Beyond that, I think you just have to listen to your body. I think you have to consider volume:BW ratio. So if you want your last set to be heavy, you may need to reduce the # of sets.

    But, like nearly everyone else, Ima no expert. But I know lotsa things that don’t work.

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  8. I wasted my 20’s, but have spent my 30’s to 70’s keeping fit, and think you can be in good shape at any age. I do think you need to mix strength training , aerobic fitness and stretching to maintain “overall” functionality. Age does involve a very subtle decline, quite different from a decline through neglect, in which you feel you are running as fast as ever, but are objectively slower, and you must accept this. But, hey the biggest lesson is how hugely you underestimate the possibilities of life after 50 when you are young. So, make sure you future proof your life financially, physically and socially.

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  9. First day I do one ramp up to 110% of my work load for bench press as warm up, then 8 reps, 4 sets of bench, chins, dips followed by 25 minute cardio (treadmill 2.5 mph). Wrap up with 4 cycles of 60lb bear complex just to maintain flexibility.

    Second day same warmup on leg press, followed by 4×8 for leg press and standing calve raise, then cardio and bear.

    Third day same warm up on shoulder press, followed by 4×8 for shoulder press, upright row, cardio and bear.

    Take day of rest, start again. Feel good after workourpts but kinda tired and sluggish in morning.

    70 years old……too much?

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    1. Hi Bob,

      I’m no expert, but at age 62, I find that lifting twice per week is sufficient and I’m making strength gains. Of course everybody’s different and there’s a genetic component to how we respond to working out, so you may be better built for what you do.

      As long as you feel okay, you’re probably doing what’s right for you, but listen to your body. If you start winding down too much, you might want to back off a bit.

      In addition to lifting twice per week, I do cardio three to four days a week, usually 30 or 35 minutes or so. I’ve found that much more than 40 minutes of cardio per session is actually counterproductive in the long run and may wear down rather than build up the cardiovascular system. I’ve had to split lifting vs. cardio days, because I’ve only got an hour or so in the gym, and my lifts take up pretty much all of that hour.

      Besides that, I have a routine of stretches I do for flexibility/mobility.

      Glad you’re still going strong at 70, Bob. Best to you, and keep in touch.

      If you have a medical insurance like mine that pays 100% for a “wellness” check up, you might want to see your doctor once a year just to see how things are ticking. My doctor is athletic. Loves his mountain bike, and he’s about seven years younger than I am. Whenever I see him, I tell him what I’m up to so he can tell me if I’m crazy or not. The only thing he’s said when I told him how hard I was pushing cardio is that it’s okay to rev up an old engine once in a while, just remember that it’s an old engine.

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  10. Enjoyed all the comments and guess I’m going against the grain a bit. Just turned 80 and have lifted off and on since my 20’s. Never for contests, just to stay fit. About three months ago started lifting the same routine every day. Some legs lifts and crunches and twists while still in bed and then to the workroom to do one set of each of the following: benchpresses with two 45 lb dbs…16 or 17 reps, 15 reps bent rowins @ 100 lb, 15 reps seated overhead presses, 35 lb dbs and 12 or so reps curls with the same dbs. Later in the day will do some squats. Got the routine from an article in one of my health newsletters. At this point just trying to maintain some muscle mass and stay healthy. Seem to be gaining some strength and maybe a tad of size. No aches or pains so far. I find doing it everyday, it becomes routine and easier to maintain. Takes about 20 minutes

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    1. Good for you, Larry. Glad to see you’re dedicated and disciplined. I’ve talked to some of the folks at my neighborhood gym who are in their 70s. They stick to the weight machines but pretty much lift every day they’re there, which is usually Monday through Friday. One of them told me does it just to keep moving.

      Keep up a good work. Just mentioning your story here or to anyone who’ll listen may inspire others to do the same.

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  11. I lifted weights in high school off and on..then started a bit in my 20’s..back at it in my early 40’s..now in my late 60’s and a lot of my contemporaries have given up and moved on to God’s waiting room..I am working on starting back up on the ol’ iron..I have to..my wife is much younger than me,,so far great health and no meds but need to cut back on the beer..

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    1. Hi Luis. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      What’s been killing my motivation lately is winter. We’ve had snow on the ground for over a month. It’s so dark so long in the morning, that trying to get up at 4 a.m. so I can be at the gym by 5 is murder. Got to keep forcing myself back into the gym. Once I’m up and moving, I’m fine, but getting out of bed is the most difficult part.

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