By now, it is well established that strength training is important to maintain muscle mass and strength as we get older. By engaging in weight training, we slow down the age-related decline in physical function that otherwise can be quite debilitating and dangerous.
What’s the best type of strength training for the elderly in order to maintain a strong body and even improve physical function? Traditional resistance training with exercises like the squat, bench press, and lat pulldown, or “functional training” involving multiplanar movements and exercises with more mobility, like farmer’s walk, medicine ball throws, and elastic band exercises?
A new study divided 45 elderly women into 3 groups. The first group engaged in functional training, and the second performed traditional resistance training. The third group acted as control, stretching and relaxing instead of exercising. The study lasted 12 weeks, and during this time, the participants engaged in 3 50-minute workouts (or stretching/relaxation sessions) per week.
The Training Program
Before and after the training part of the study, the researchers assessed the strength and endurance of the women. They tested their maximum trunk flexor strength, rate of flexor force development, trunk extensor maximal strength, trunk extensor rate of force development, and the endurance of their trunk flexors and extensors.
After 12 weeks of training, the group that engaged in functional training showed improvements in all of the above variables. Traditional strength training only improved 3 of the 6 variables: the rate of force development of trunk flexors and extensors, plus the endurance of the trunk flexors.
This suggests that while traditional strength training is a good choice to improve physical function in the elderly, it might not be optimal on its own. A well-designed training program should also include exercises that involve more movement, velocity, and stability-based training, to make sure all aspects of functional fitness are covered.