Bodybuilding, Weight Lifting, and Weight Training for Seniors
By Donovan Baldwin
Before you go too far, let me explain that this is not going to be a how-to article, at least not in detail.
However, I do know that a lot of seniors wonder if bodybuilding and weight lifting are a good exercise choice for them. After all, we hear about, and I have written about seniors like Kelly Nelson and Morjorie Newlin who began "lifting weights" in their 50's and 70's respectively and wound up competing in bodybuilding contests...wearing bikinis and lookin' good I might add.
If they could do it, why not other seniors...like YOU for example?
Why not, indeed?
I myself am 68 years old as I write this, and I work out five times a week doing a split routine with dumbbells, walk several times a week for my cardio, and sometimes describe myself an amateur bodybuilder. I train for health and fitness and have no intention to compete with anybody at anything, if I can get away with it! I take no supplements other than a daily multivitamin.
However, I am really happy with the results I have achieved, and, even at my age, continue to progress as I exercise.
I have been exercising in one manner or another since I was 16...let's see...subtract six from four, carry the...what the heck...about 50 years. If you are reading THIS article, I believe that you are considering working out with weights for the first time in a long time, if not for the first time in your life. Also, I am going to assume that if you are reading this that you are a senior, or someone trying to gather information for a senior, and I will proceed with that thought in mind.
I am also going to assume that you are more concerned with being fit,
being healthy, and managing your weight than you are with competing or
using this to participate in extreme sports. That's another
area, and we are not going there today!
So, I've accused you of being old, ignorant, and out of shape...but you
have sense enough, and courage enough, to cause positive change to
happen. One out of four not only ain't bad, but having the
courage to change is high card in this game.
Before I go any farther, the good news is that training with weights is
easy. In fact, I don't understand why so many people go to so
much effort and expense to exercise other ways. I realize
that for many, weight training can seem pretty boring, but it is so
effective and so amenable to individual needs that it could be the
perfect health and fitness answer for many.
Let's clear up one misconception first. There are three
different areas that people tend to lump together weight
lifting, bodybuilding, and weight training. By the way, the
three areas I am going to talk about are going to be treated as if the
only way to perform them is with free weights, i.e. dumbbells and
barbells, but there are several all-in-one exercise machines and home
gyms, such as Bowflex and Total Gym, which can allow the exerciser to
perform many of the actions and exercises without using free weights.
Weight lifting is a competition, or style of exercise, where the major goal is to produce strength. It is weight training, but is
not generally done for health or fitness, although there are some
overlap points with other types of training. In the last few
years, weight lifters have learned that incorporating other types of
exercise in addition to pure strength training can help them in their
performance, but the thrust is still to "bulk up", i.e. increase muscle size, and get
strong. This is not what I am talking about. Weight
lifters tend to be big and beefy, and, in my experience, big and beefy is not always good for seniors.
Bodybuilding is another area that generally uses weight training, but
in a different manner. Bodybuilding as done today
incorporates more cardio training than in previous eras, and probably
produces a healthier body than weight lifting alone, but the relatively
extreme demands of bodybuilding competition require more concentration
on producing specific effects than on health and fitness per
se. The basic thrust of bodybuilding is to sculpt and mold
the body to certain aesthetic standards. Bodybuilders are not
as big, at least in some parts, but they train certain muscles and
muscle groups in such ways that they can sometimes seem
grotesque. They are generally not as strong as weight lifters
of equivalent size, but may be in better overall physical condition.
Weight training is exactly that...training your body by using weights (or other forms of progressive resistance such as the exercise machine mentioned above).
Training with weights has several advantages over calisthenics and body weight exercises, such as push-ups and chin-ups.
1. You can begin wherever you want in terms of resistance. While a push-up, for example, requires you to
start by trying to move your entire body weight, you can pick up a couple of one-pound dumbbells, or even a couple of soup cans to get
started. This is a great argument for seniors.
2. You can progress in several different manners. A term often heard is "progressive resistance" training or
exercise. Using weight training allows you to progress by increasing the weight you handle, doing more repetitions of the
exercise, doing more sets of repetitions, or by using a more difficult or muscle-specific form of the exercise. Another good
argument for seniors.
3. Little equipment and space is needed. Bowflex and Total Gym both claim "easy storage when not in use" as a valuable
asset of their all-in-one exercise machines. My dumbbells
will actually fit under my bed, and, although I have a whole room to
work out in, I only need an area about six feet by three feet....yeah,
about the size of a grave, I guess. I personally prefer to
have an exercise bench, as this makes certain exercises easier to
perform, but you can do without and still get a pretty decent full-body
4. There's not a lot to learn. There are six or
seven basic exercises; press, curl, bench press, rowing, squats, toe
raises (heel raises to some), and crunches. Just about
everything else is a variation of these, but, unless you are hoping to
compete in a bodybuilding event or weight lifting competition (and you
aren't, are you?) you can skip those.
Now, here's the secret that many people do not know, and the single
fact that makes so many people fail when they decide to start a weight
You are not in competition with anybody, not even yourself.
You are training your body to be better (healthier and fitter) than it
is now. Almost any exercising that you do in the future that
you are not doing now or have not been doing will accomplish that...AS
LONG AS YOU DO IT REGULARLY!!!!
Just for argument, let's say you start off with only a one-pound weight
in each hand and build yourself SLOWLY up to where you can do those
seven exercises I mentioned, and you are doing three sets of 10
repetitions each. I am not going to include the crunches
since you will probably not start using weights with those right away.
If you are doing the six exercises that use weights, in a single
workout you will move 360 lbs! It will probably take you
between 10 and 15 minutes to do that. In a week, exercising
on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, or whatever schedule works for you,
leaving a rest day between workouts and a two day rest at the end of
the week, you will have moved 1,080 lbs. That sounds like
exercise to me!
If you SLOWLY build yourself up to using two pound weights, you will be
moving 2,160 a week! More exercise, right?
When you increase weight, decrease repetitions. In other
words, if you are doing your exercises by doing three sets of ten
repetitions with one pound weights and move to two pound weights, drop
back to eight repetitions for a couple of weeks and then move to nine
repetitions, stay there a couple of weeks, move to ten reps...stay
there a couple of weeks and then move to three pounds, drop back to
eight repetitions and do it all again.
You see, most people are trying to compete with something or somebody,
even if it's just the person who wrote the exercise book they are
reading. They try to do too much too fast, particularly if
they are seniors, forgetting that when you exercise, you are causing
your body to ramp up all activities, organs, and systems in addition to
healing the muscle tissue that has been injured during exercise and
eliminating toxins that have been produced.
In time, as you train yourself to higher and higher levels of fitness
and health, and as you learn more about your body and exercise, maybe
you will choose to become a bodybuilder or weight lifter and enter some
competition or another. Training will take on a different
aspect at that time. For the moment, be content to realize
that weight training for seniors is an excellent way to get the
exercise your body needs.
One last thing to consider. In addition to strength training, you should
give some thought to cardio training as well. You can
incorporate cardio into a strength training program by using relatively
light weights and not resting much, if at all, between sets, moving
from exercise to exercise without taking a break. If you want
more strength, you will have to use heavier weights and rest a little
more. It's a good idea to plan a few walks, bike rides,
swims, or some other cardio activity three or four times a week to help
round out your fitness routine. Again, start small and
Always warm up before exercising. People confuse "warming up" with "stretching". Stretching is best done once you have
warmed up as the muscles will be warmer and looser then and you are less likely to experience injury. You can warm up by walking
around a little or by pushing and pulling lightly against walls,
doorways, or opposing muscles. Some bodybuilders will even warm up by doing their exercises first with very light weights and then
with the weight they actually intended to exercise with.
I hope this little article on weight training for seniors has been of help to you.
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