Strength Training Reverses Aging: Benefits of Heavy Lifting After 50

Strength Training Reverses Aging: Benefits of Heavy Lifting After 50

If you were to ask what is the one thing missing from most people’s workouts, the answer would be heavy lifting. A lot of people shy away from heavy training because they find it intimidating, are scared of getting injured, or don’t know how to do it. Although these are valid concerns that have to be addressed for you to be successful with heavy weight training, it’s so enormously beneficial that everyone should learn how to do it.

Having a focus on lifting heavy is particularly important for an aging population because most exercise protocols geared at older adults are not intense enough to elicit the same level of benefits that a properly designed program can provide. Viewing people as incapable just because they have more years behind them is selling them short.

This doesn’t mean that every workout needs to be heavy or that you should put your joints at risk of injury. Rather, there are safe and effective ways of including heavy weight training that will give you worthwhile adaptations that you couldn’t achieve otherwise.

Here’s an example: In 1990, researchers at Tufts University had frail elderly nursing home patients ranging in age from 86 to 96 years old perform heavy lower body exercises on a weight machine that used an intensity of 80% of maximal. Results showed that the group improved leg strength by 175%, increased quadriceps muscle size by 9% and improved walking speed and balance by 48%.

Other studies since then have shown similar, if not greater, benefits for older adults of all ages. Besides getting stronger and more mobile, heavy weight training triggers a slew of powerful adaptations:

Stronger bones

Better balance and coordination

Increased brain—muscle connection

Lower inflammation

Less body fat

Increased muscle and connective tissue

Better joint function and less pain

Lower stress & improve hormone balance

What is it about heavy lifting that makes it so valuable?

Train All Your Beautiful Muscle

Every muscle is made up muscle fibers that are part of a motor unit that connects to a neuron in the brain. When you lift lighter loads, a small percentage of the motor units are stimulated, leaving portions of the muscle untrained. The heavier you lift, the more motor units are recruited and more muscle is trained. Heavy lifting requires nearly all your muscle fibers to contribute to the effort. Thus, the only way to ensure you are training as much muscle as possible and maximizing your physical ability is to include heavy training in your program.

Strengthen Your Bones

Heavy lifting is also the best way to get the greatest bone building effect. For example, one study found that the heavier the load lifted, the greater the osteogenic or bone building effect. The key is to load the spine with heavy loads.

Protect Your Joints

You don’t need to worry that heavy lifting will wear down your joints. Untrained joints aren’t equipped to handle heavy loads at random whereas heavy training allows you to move safely when navigating cumbersome loads such as putting a suitcase in the car, picking up a pet, or hoisting an air conditioner into a window. Heavy lifting will also build the connective tissue surrounding the joint and improve levels of synovial fluid, which has an anti-inflammatory effect on the joint, allowing for better function and less pain or arthritis.

Improve Your Heart

Interestingly, heavy lifting even benefits cardiovascular function, turning on protective genetic pathways that keep your heart healthy and your metabolism elevated, while balancing hormones that raise blood pressure and put stress on the arteries when constantly elevated. That said, if you have high blood pressure or any heart condition, it’s important to work with your doctor to determine the optimal exercise program and rate of progression.

Stimulate Your Brain

Studies show heavy weights activate portions of the brain that aren’t stimulated with lighter training programs if they go to failure. Additionally, heavy training may protect brain health, lowering risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

How To Include Heavy Lifting In Your Training:

Start Slowly. In the Tufts study mentioned at the beginning, subjects only trained one exercise and started with a light load that was 50% of the maximal amount they could lift. During the second week, they started with the heavy 80% load and progressed from there.

Build A Base. If you’re new to weight training, you don’t want to start with heavy training. Instead, focus on learning the exercises and developing motor patterns so that you can lift with correct technique. Training with lighter weights for more reps (in the 8 to 15 rep range) will stimulate muscle and connective tissue, while building base levels of strength to lay the ground work for safely incorporating heavy lifting.

Work With An Experienced Trainer. Weight training is a skill. If you wanted to learn a sport like tennis you’d probably take tennis lessons to learn the best ways to hold and swing your racket and move your feet, right? The same thing applies for weight training. Working with an experienced trainer or coach will help you learn proper technique, progress safely, overcome strength imbalances, and ensure you pick the best exercises for heavy training.

It’s Ok To Use Machines. Although I’m a big proponent of including appropriate free weight exercises, including one or two machine-based exercises is a great way to reap the benefits of heavy training without some of the risks. Good exercises to start upping the weights include leg press, hack squat, pulldowns, rows, and chest press.

Plan Your Workouts In Phases. The human body adapts quickly to training, meaning that variety will get you the best results. Heavy training is just one tool in your arsenal. For example, for the first 4-week period, you could develop a base, training lighter weights for 12 to 15 reps. The second 4-week period, increase your weights and lower your reps to 8 to 12 per set. For the next phase, include one or two heavy exercises in which you shoot for 5 to 7 reps per set.

Go To Failure With Lighter Loads. Studies show that you can get similar benefits in terms of muscle and strength if you train lighter loads to failure, or the point where you can’t lift the weight any more. For example, training 25 to 30 reps of a light load has been shown to produce similar physical benefits as lifting 8 to 12 reps with a moderately heavy load.

Challenge Yourself. Many people underestimate how much they can and should lift. Studies consistently show that compared to when working with a trainer, both men and women self-select weights that are not heavy enough to produce overload, meaning that they are wasting their time. It’s okay to set your sights high and work to see what you can achieve!


Ebben, W., et al. The optimal back squat load for potential osteogenesis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. 26(5):1232-7.

Fiatarone, M., et al. High-Intensity Strength Training for Nonagenarians. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1990. 263(22):3029-34.

Mazzetti, S., et al. The Influence of Direct Supervision of Resistance Training on Strength Performance. 200. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise. 32(6), 1175-1184).

McClaran, Steven. The Effectiveness of Personal Training on Changing Attitudes Towards Physical Activity. 2003. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2, 10-14.

Ratamess, N., et al. Self-selected Resistance Training Intensity in Healthy Women: The Influence of a Personal Trainer. 2008. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 22(1), 103-111.