Legend has it that, in Ancient Greece, Milo of Croton carried a newborn calf on his back until it was fully grown. This was the first record of progressive resistance training. Modern progressive resistance training has been largely shaped by seminal studies from Thomas DeLorme, who developed a resistance training program for rehabilitation of soldiers returning from the Second World War in the 1940s. DeLorme’s original experiment in 1945 consisted of performing ten repetitions for ten sets, such that the last set of ten repetitions was difficult to achieve. Three years later, DeLorme had discovered that it was just as effective and more time-efficient to perform three “progressively heavier” sets of ten repetitions. I would gamble that, 70 years later, most recreational gym-users still base their training program around three sets of ten repetitions.
It could be argued that older individuals are the group that would benefit most from resistance training, since losses in strength and muscle mass occurs more rapidly after the age of 50, particularly after menopause in women. But, unfortunately, only 15% of 45‒54 year-olds and 10% of over 55 year-olds regularly perform resistance training in Finland. Not only the amount of muscle is lost with age, but also our nervous system loses the ability to instruct the entire muscle to contract. Therefore, over 60 year-olds cannot even fully utilise their smaller muscle capacity.
Aging also affects how we fine-tune our movement: some nerves that control several muscle fibres die off, meaning that the remaining nerves must control a lot more muscle fibres. Imagine working in an office where you and two colleagues control ten computers. Suddenly, your two colleagues don’t come to work and you must control the ten computers by yourself now. You’d be overworked and more likely to make mistakes. Exactly the same thing happens in muscle, and it’s no wonder that over 70 year-olds have difficulty performing daily tasks and make mistakes such as falling. Luckily, resistance training can combat all these issues.
Our recent studies in over 65 year-olds have shown that training just one time per week is sufficient to improve many age-related changes. While two or three times per week may be better for increasing maximum strength, one time per week was just as effective in improving functioning, such as walking ability and dynamic balance. Finally, as an emerging field, resistance training seems to improve psychological well-being, but here there was an advantage to visiting the gym two times per week rather than just once.
Therefore, I would urge middle-aged and older individuals to think of resistance training as DeLorme intended it: as a great method of pre-habilitation and rehabilitation. From as little as one time (but preferably two times) per week, important maintenance of function can be achieved both physically and mentally.