Occasionally we receive questions from both, personal trainers working with women in their 60s and 70s, and from women in their 60s and 70s themselves, asking about the types of modifications older women should be making to their workouts to stay strong, healthy, and safe.
I have to admit that as I was thinking about this question, I tried to think of the age I would consider to be an “older woman,” but the closer I get to 50 years old, the harder it is to attach an age to that term. I know quite a number of “older women” women whose strength, energy, appearance, and attitude belie their years!
For women, maintaining strength as we age is the key to overall health and happiness. For instance, as a Cochrane review of 121 previous studies shows, progressive resistance training not only improves muscle strength, it improves their ability to perform tasks ranging from walking and climbing steps to bathing and preparing meals. It also reduces pain in people with osteoarthritis, according to the review. Even though peak bone mass occurs in our 30s, performing weight-bearing exercise in our older years can help preserve existing bone mass.
So, what should workouts look like for older women? As with so many things, the answer to this question is, “It depends.” In all seriousness, though, the need for modifications to exercise choice and intensity for women older than 60 years of age, or even approaching 70 or 80, will be highly dependent on a number of factors.
After all, although aging is often marked by many declines in physical fitness (including decreases in muscle mass, balance, flexibility, gait speed, endurance, metabolic rate, and continence, and increases in body weight, fat, and difficulties performing daily activities) women who have maintained an active lifestyle throughout their 30s, 40s, and 50s may not experience these problems. Or, if they do, they often experience them to a lesser degree than do other women who were less active in their younger years.
Women who have maintained an active lifestyle throughout the years may have been able to preserve muscle mass and keep body weight and composition within a healthy range while maintaining endurance to participate in activities they enjoy. For instance, I have some clients who have continued to participate in competitive sports and active leisure activities well into their 70s with very little need for exercise modifications. However, for an older woman who was not regularly active in her younger years, and is starting to exercise now, more modifications may be needed. Symptoms of decreased strength that both trainers and clients themselves should look for include osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, a history of falling, autoimmune diseases, a poor range of motion, and unhealthy vital signs.
Fitness levels vary so much in women of all ages that it is really difficult to use age as an indicator of needed modifications to exercise. As a physical therapist, I tend to see women who are dealing with illness or injury, so to help answer this question, I checked in with a colleague who trains women in a wide age range on a daily basis in a fitness setting.
Lori Crock, RKC Team Leader, is the owner of Move Strong Kettlebells in Columbus, Ohio. She teaches group classes using RKC kettlebell methods, MovNat, bodyweight skills, calisthenics, and TRX suspension trainers. She recently turned 54 but, in her own words, “still feels like she’s in her 20s.” She trains five to six days per week and lifts just as heavy as (if not heavier than) most female athletes half her age. Additionally, she focuses on mobility, performing the splits, pistol squats, handstands, and skin-the-cat. Lori likes to make the point that age is not a limiting factor in her training, and says, “Older adults are not fragile; fragility occurs when we stop challenging our bodies to move well and move strong with appropriate training programs.” Everything from genetics, to athletic past, to current lifestyle, to willingness to try new things all impact strength, she says.
In this photo Lori is teaching her client, Ann, who is in her early 60s, to invert on the rings!
Members of Move Strong Kettlebells include men and women of all ages and fitness levels. 20-year-olds and 60-year-olds train side by side in the same classes under Lori’s care. Programming includes equal parts strength and mobility.
That’s right. For all ages, joint mobility and muscular flexibility are a high priority. ”How people move determines my approach to strength training with them,” she says. ”For example, if we are doing squats, more mobile and stable movers might squat with one or two kettlebells in the rack position, or even overhead. Air squats or kettlebell goblet squats are more appropriate for someone with mobility issues. The barbell Zercher squat is awesome for all levels when weighted appropriately. If someone has knee issues, the airborne lunge is a great alternative as it is more glute- and hamstring-dominant. My clients range from women in their 20s who are working on squat form, to women in their 60s with a beautiful, deep squat form. Mature athletes often take more time to advance in technique and with heavier weight—they are also more cautious and more concerned about preventing injury, which is a good thing!”
It isn’t just exercise that might need to be adapted with age, however. As we get older, the recovery process changes. “Sometimes more rest is needed between challenging sets, whether strength or HIIT. It is not hard to do this, even in a group setting,” Lori says. “My mature athletes typically strength train three to four times per week. Many also do yoga and go walking regularly, which I highly recommend, as it helps them become more mobile, in turn helping them train stronger.”
While Lori typically makes modifications to programming based on an athlete’s movement quality rather than age, some of her mature athletes use lighter weights than their younger counterparts do and sometimes take a little more rest between sets.
Meanwhile, no matter their age, clients never train with pain. “If a client complains of pain, we stop and adjust. We don’t train with pain. I refer people to a good clinician who is SFMA (Selective Functional Movement Assessment) certified and knows our training methods. We carefully train around arthritic joints. We never go to failure with an athlete of any age. A prior knee issue for some means no high-impact jumping or sprinting, and meticulous form is required on squats. That being said, all of my over-60 clients jump on soft boxes, 12 to 18 inches high.”
If a client has a history of heart disease, Lori will speak with his or her physician or surgeon for clearance to exercise. For the mature athletes, cardiovascular training, with ballistic kettlebell skills—such as snatches, swings, and cleans, for example—can be challenging, but also quite beneficial. “I have two athletes preparing for the RKC snatch test. My over-50s and -60s train along with them, and they love it,” Lori says. “Of course, they aren’t worried about doing 100 snatches in five minutes, and they can rest at any point, but they do 100. Their technique is beautiful, and I am so proud of their strength and determination. If someone, of any age, is having an ‘off’ day, we modify to 100 single-arm swings instead.”
When Lori encounters a client who is resistant to performing the necessary modifications themselves, she advises them to “put the bell down and go lighter” or to listen to their body. Sometimes she raises the floor for their deadlifts or reminds them that a PR doesn’t have to mean lifting more weight. It can also mean using better technique or quicker recovery. However, Lori also sometimes has to encourage older clients to challenge themselves at a level to which she knows they are capable. Sometimes a heavier weight is appropriate, and she has to convince the client to try it.
In the end, no matter what your or your client’s age is, we all need to work to the edge of our ability in order to improve. The key is finding that edge.
Thanks again to Lori Crock, RKC Team Leader, PCC, FMS-II, MCT-II, USAW-I, TRX-II, and owner of Move Strong Kettlebells, for her help with this article.