Getting Started With Resistance Training

As I mentioned in previous posts, resistance training is vital to preserve muscle and bone mass as we age, and it also helps keep our metabolisms from slowing down with age quite so much. I’ve already discussed ways to make it enjoyable, and promised there to give a short program that hits the high notes. So here we go. Before I start let me reiterate I am amateur, these are just tips that have worked well for me. For a good intro to strength training, I recommend Strength Training Past 50 by Dr. Wayne Westcott and Thomas Baechle.

If you like strength training, bear with me, we’ll get to that next. For the purposes of maintaining muscle mass with age and other health benefits of resistance training, a single set of each exercise is sufficient, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine [1]. It is controversial whether more sets are needed for other purposes such as optimally building muscle mass, but one set is fine for health. The minimum movements for the upper body are a horizontal pull (like a rowing machine), a horizontal push (like pushups or benchpress), a vertical pull (like pullups or a pulldown machine), a vertical push (the vertical press), an abdominal movement like crunches, and a back strengthener like the “good morning” exercise (bowing from the waist and straightening up). One set of 8 reps is a good start. The resistance should be high enough that getting to 8 is challenging. Add more reps as they get easier, when you get to 12 you should add more resistance and drop back to 8 reps [1]. The equipment or free weights to do these are found in any gym. Or you can do them at home:

The pushes are easy with minimal equipment, just the floor for pushups (from the knees when just starting out, from the feet with straight legs when you get stronger). Or you can use a bench to do bench presses with dumbbells, or even lie on your back on the floor and do bench presses with dumbbells with a slightly restricted range of motion.

The vertical push can be done seated or standing with dumbbells:

Pullups can be done with a pullup bar (you can get one that hangs from a doorway). If you are not strong enough yet, you can use pullup assist bands, and gradually reduce the amount of assist as you get stronger. Alternatively you can use resistance bands attached to an eye bolt in a stud high on a wall (mine are in the garage) to do a pulldown.

Resistance bands also work great, mounted lower on the wall, for the rowing motion. Or you can do one side at a time with dumbbells: get on all fours or lean on a bench, and make the rowing motion with the dumbbell in your right hand, then switch sides:

An alternative to crunches and “good mornings”, that also provides a leg and arm workout, is double poling with weights and resistance bands. Start upright, raise the arms forward to at least head height. Then crouch down as you swing the weights vigorously back. Then stand upright and swing the weights vigorously to head height. This gets more of a workout for the front shoulder muscles and biceps because they are fighting gravity more. You can balance this out by doing the same motion but using resistance bands mounted to an eyebolt high in the wall. As you crouch down and swing the arms back, you are pull the bands vigorously down and back. As you stand back up and swing the arms up, the bands are giving you some assistance. So this uses more of the abs, triceps, lats, and rear shoulder muscles. This is an inexpensive alternative to Concept2’s excellent ski erg machine (which I now have access to at the gym- I love the smooth action and long range of motion). If you want inspiration for this exercise, you can find videos on the web of cross country skiers double-poling in a sprint finish, or on the ski erg.

All of the above can be completed in less than 10 minutes if you stick to one set (which is plenty for general health) [1], and twice a week should be plenty. This is the “taking a pill version” of resistance training, but at least the pill is as small as possible. An alternative is to break it up as part of your NEAT (moving throughout the day). It’s a good idea to have a timer remind you to take a break from sitting once in a while. A couple of days a week, when you get some of your reminders, instead of going for a walk, do a resistance movement.

 Another approach to resistance training is to try to make it fun by taking a group class. My local “Y” has a “functional fitness for 50+” class that uses weights with ‘50s music. You can also use exercise machines like ellipticals with arms, or the Schwinn Airdyne or Rogue Assault Airbike with arm action.

You really also need a squat or leg press type movement to keep your legs strong. I omitted that because you can accomplish the same thing as part of your higher intensity training, such as going fast up stairs, discussed in an upcoming post. I get a good “fast twitch muscle fiber” workout for my legs with “on-bike strength training” (pedaling uphill in a high gear), and sprint training on my bike. When I recently visited a real gym instead of my garage, I also did single leg presses with the leg press machine. This is not to brag but to demonstrate that the on-bike strength training must have been effective, because that was all I had been doing for leg strength for years: when I went to the gym I could readily do the full weight stack (400 lbs.) when using both legs on that machine. I had to go to single leg presses to make it challenging.

I also should point out that I have come to enjoy resistance training and now do more than this minimum amount, and you may find that is the case for you over time.

Resistance Training- If You Like It

If you like resistance training, then I’m going to assume you know plenty about it and you don’t need any advice on technique, sets, and reps. But an important issue that arises is that lots of people that like resistance training don’t like aerobics. The good news is you don’t have to do any. I’d still recommend movement breaks to avoid sitting too much, and other ways to sneak activity into activities of daily living like stairs instead of elevators. That is already providing some aerobics. But you can also kill three birds with one stone doing resistance training, if you do it as high intensity interval training. It is then a combination of resistance training, high intensity training, and aerobics, in one highly time efficient package. Circuit training was probably the earliest version of this. Early studies showed this did not have enough cardio benefits, but that was because it was not done at a high enough intensity. A similar type of training has recently been made famous by CrossFit, they call it “metcon” (short for metabolic conditioning). And no one can accuse CrossFitters of not working out with enough intensity.


  1. American College Of Sports Medicine, “The recommended quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness and flexibility in healthy adults”, Med. Sci. Sports Exerc, 1998

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