Upgrade Your Workout
Forty years ago, Exercise Scientists challenged the status quo by suggesting older adults engage in high-intensity Strength Training. Up until then, Strength Training Programs often used light household objects like soup cans, etc. While there's nothing wrong with soup cans, they aren't heavy enough to strengthen muscles, leaving Scientists to believe that Strength Training didn't work for older adults. However, research on aging from Bill Evans, Ph.D., Chief of the Human Physiology Laboratory at Tufts University, set the stage for a new era in Strength Training.
In his book BIOMARKERS, Ten Keys to Prolonging Vitality, Dr. Evans writes, "One of the most enduring myths of aging is that as we grow older, we lose the capacity to enlarge and strengthen our muscles. This myth has been aided and abetted by research studies designed by scientists with low expectations of their older test subjects. These researchers did not push their older subjects. Instead, they had them Strength Training at minimal intensities. Today, Dr. Evans is a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Geriatrics at Duke University Medical Center. Given it's been 30 years since BIOMARKERS was published, I decided to contact Dr. Evans and ask if he still recommends high-intensity Strength Training for older adults. He responded by saying, "As you know – I recommend the use of high-intensity Strength Training for older adults that could result in muscle failure."  Muscle failure is when you cannot complete a full repetition with proper form and speed.
In the early 2000s, the American College of Sports Medicine published their first Strength Training Prescription in the seventh edition of their Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Not surprisingly, the Prescription recommended training to muscle failure, which Scientists describe as volitional fatigue. Evidence supporting high-intensity Strength Training continued to grow over the next two decades. In 2011, Fisher et al. published a comprehensive review article entitled Evidence-Based Resistance Training Guidelines. The report offers a set of scientifically rigorous Strength Training Guidelines to provide logical, evidence-based Strength Training advice. These authors state the evidence suggests adults should be encouraged to train to muscle failure as this approach maximizes muscle fiber recruitment and gains in strength and power. A 2017 paper published in BioMed Central authored by dozens of researchers from academic centers worldwide reported that exercise (including Strength Training) lowers the risk for chronic disease and all-cause mortality (death rate from all causes of death). These authors argue that a greater emphasis is placed on High-Intensity Strength Training as a type of exercise to improve public health.
A Mayo Clinic Proceedings study reinforces this position stating the outcome is more important than the behavior. In other words, the strength you gain is more important than the workout itself. Translated, this means if your training isn't making you stronger, you're not maximizing the health benefits. Many adults mistakenly believe that going through the paces (i.e., checking the Strength Training box) provides health benefits! According to these researchers and others, health benefits decrease when training intensity is lower. The Mayo Clinic Proceedings study found that meeting the guidelines (Strength Training weekly) but not getting stronger didn't lower mortality rates. However, meeting the guidelines (Strength Training weekly) and becoming significantly stronger reduced all-cause mortality by 72%. These data support the author's position that public health guidelines include clear instructions regarding high levels of effort when Strength Training.
At MEDFITNESS, we measure improvements in strength with our Progress Report, which tracks strength gains on three exercises (Leg Press, Chest Press, and Compound Row). These exercises provide a measure of total-body strength. The MEDFITNESS standard is to increase total-body strength by at least 40 percent within 12 months. After two or more years of consistent High-Intensity Strength Training, your primary goal is to maintain the strength and functional health benefits you've gained. If you've taken an extended layoff, strive to regain the strength you lost while you weren't Strength Training. Scientists describe this as a dip because decreases in strength compromise your health. While benefiting from muscle failure might seem counterintuitive, it's a necessary ingredient for maximizing strength. Our muscles respond to High-Intensity Strength Training by becoming stronger, healthier, and more injury resistant. An important question to ask yourself is, "Am I challenging myself to reach muscle failure on every exercise? While it may be uncomfortable, the benefits far outweigh the effort!
1. Evans, J., Rosenberg, I., Thompson, J., 1991. Biomarkers, Ten Keys to Prolong Vitality, Fireside, New York, New York.
2. Email Subject; Muscle Failure Question. Sent by Bill Evans, Ph.D. on Thursday, September 9, 2021, 08:14 PM CTD.
3. Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. American College of Sports Medicine., Seventh Edition, 2006.
4. Medicina Sportiva Med Sport 15 (3): 147-162, 2011 DOI: 10.2478/v10036-011-0025-x Copyright © 2011 Medicina Sportiva, Review Article 147 Evidence-Based Resistance Training Recommendations.
5. Steele et al. BMC Public Health (2017) 17:300 DOI 10.1186/s12889-017-4209-8.
6. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015;91:166-74.