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