Weight-lifting / bodyweight exercise advice for 60+


(John) #1

I’m looking for general advice / guidance / coaching on my approach to doing weight-lifting and bodyweight exercises for general fitness, strength improvement, and building muscle mass.

I just turned 61, weight about 280 (down from 320) and started back in with weights/bodyweight exercises about 2 months ago. At home I just have the floor and other other furniture and some dumbbell bars with assorted weight plates. At work there is a fitness room with free weights and a number of machines, though it is all self-serve with no instructor and no spotters.

I am trying to do more than just tone up - I’d like to build up some muscle mass so that as I continue to lose weight, I will have some muscles to fill out the loose skin that is sure to result if I keep up the weight loss and get near my goals of under 200 (180 is my real target) over the next two years.

I used to work out more often in my 20s and 30s, and even again a little in my early 50s, but I am really committed to making this an ongoing habit that I can stick to for a long time.

So I guess my questions revolve around specific exercises, weight-vs-reps, number of sets, cooldown periods, etc.

I’ve been doing a routine of doing 3 sets of each exercise, working up from 8 reps per set to 10, and when I can do 3x10 easily, I increase weight and drop back to 8 reps. 90 seconds between sets, sometimes a couple of minutes between exercises. Exception is situps - just a single set (currently up to 30 reps).

I’ve been doing slightly inclined bench press on a Smith machine (no spotter), seated medium-grip overhand lat pulldowns, standing dumbbell military press, standing dumbbell curls, flat dumbbell bench press, bent-over dumbbell rows.

Doesn’t sound like a lot of exercises, but when taking into account time between sets it eats up a good 45 minutes.

For legs, I try to do some bodyweight squats and decline calf raises (using a step), and bridges (3 reps held for 30 seconds) on between days, and I also try to get in a 2 to 3 mile walk 3 or 4 days a week.

I really just need to know if this is a good approach, or if there is something different needed for my age range. This is similar to what I used to do when younger. However these days I am noticing more aches and pains on the day after workouts than I used to. I don’t know if that means I am not yet toughened up and just need to keep working out, or if I am pushing too hard and need to slow down on the rate of weight increase. Like maybe work up to 3 set of 12 before adding weight.

Any comments appreciated. I should have your book in the mail in a few days so maybe everything I need to know will be in there.

** I am otherwise healthy for my age - no arthritis or heart condition - just overweight and been sedentary for too long.

(KetoQ) #2

Hi John –

I’m 55 and have been doing lots more weight training over the past 90 days, mostly motivated by similar reasons as you – to add muscle mass in the places where I thought I might be flabby because of my weight loss.

At first, I did “split training” – chest day, arm day, leg day etc. Now I’m doing a bodyweight squat challenge combined with a slight variation on the Stronglifts 5x5 workout https://stronglifts.com/5x5/#gref

Stronglifts might be a good program for you because it incorporates a lot of “compound” lifts that are effective in building muscle mass.

That said, my philosophy is that training on a consistent basis is more important than the actual specific training program, as I want to keep it interesting and fun and stay engaged so I keep going to the gym and sticking to my workouts. That’s why I do Stronglifts and add some other spot exercises I enjoy doing, or I think will target areas I want to improve.

Age itself should not be a limitation for weight training. Old injuries might be. For example, I have rotator cuff problems, so I stay away from overhead presses and other exercises that exert a lot of stress on my shoulders.

What you’re doing now sounds like a good start. I encourage you to research training programs and find something that sounds appealing to you that you’ll stick with and helps you achieve your goals.

Good luck,

(Katie) #3

Especially as we age, weight-bearing exercise is very important. I recommend squatting and deadlifting. Watch YouTube videos to learn proper form. Keto Savage is also a good resource.

(John) #4

Thanks for the link. I looked at that. I’ll have a hard time adhering to the 5x5 requirements due to lack of a Power Rack. I have no place in my house I could set up a home gym.

I have access to Olympic bars and plenty of weight plates at my work fitness room, but no spotter for bench and no squat rack. I do have access to a Smith machine but they say not to use it. Right now it is my only option for bench presses.

(Ken) #5

Whatever routine you do, you have to reach the stimulus level for growth and repair. The threshold is “The Burn” indicating you’re over the lactic acid threshold. If you want to go to max stimulation always push the last set to failure.

(Edith) #6

I jut bought “You Are Your Own Gym” by Mark Lauren. It is all body weight exercises using materials you can find in your own home, no equipment required. He has tons of different exercises and several different workouts in the book.

I just started with his basic workout. I can’t do all he wants yet but I’ll get there. I like it better than Strong Lifts. I couldn’t increase my weights as fast as that program wants.

I’m 52 by the way.

(Bob M) #7

Although I go to the gym, I do multiple body weight movements, such as L-sits:

Pushups, which I do flat, my toes on a bench, my arms on a bench, etc. Planks:

Bird dogs:

I’m sure more.

I can’t do bench presses (torn rotator cuffs), squats (bad back, rotator cuffs), any shoulder exercises at all. Instead, I’ll do the Farmer’s Walk:

Walking squats with dumbells, Romanian deadlifts with dumbells, etc.

I usually do the exercises to failure. I’ve split my body into two parts and work each part once per week, a la Body by Science.

(charlie3) #8

I was a dedicated hobby lifter back in the day and even have a very good home gym that waited 25 years for me to get interested again. The cost of ample and quality home gym equimpment will only pay for a few months of assisted living. It’s cheap.

Way back when my goal was to gain as fast as possible. Today the goal is to gain for as long as possible. I have no interest in injuries. I’d love to replace the 25 pounds of body fat recently shed with a like amount of muscle but so far, if it’s happening, it’s hard to detect. No matter, I benefit.

I do 3 whole body sessions a week. Lately that’s 2 sets of 12 exercises. If I happen to do the same number of reps in the second set as the fiirst I might do a third set for that exercise. I do a circuit style where I do 4 different exercises in succession, two rounds. I manage 24 total sets in about 45 minutes. I also do 80 minutes 5 days a week of brisk walking at +60% of max heart rate and 5 80 minute sessions on an old schwinn aridyne at 70-75% of max heart rate. I keep the walking brisk by playing a metronome beat over what ever content I’m listenting to. What ever “HIIT” training I get is confined to the resistance training.

Since May I’ve walked 2,525,767 steps, burned 103,805 calories, and covered 1,200 miles according to my step counter.

I turn 70 in a few weeks.

(Allan Misner) #9


Sorry for the delay in responding. But here are my thoughts:

The program you’re doing seems reasonable. If the bodyweight squats get too easy, do them with dumbbells (regular or goblet). Also, I’d add dumbbell or barbell rows to get more work on your middle back.

But, really, the program you’re doing is sound and you seem to be getting results (aka feeling it the next day). Give yourself the nutrition and rest you need to recover between workouts and keep pushing.

(KetoQ) #10

I’ve heard similar warnings about Smith machines, but I use them and will continue to until I have a experience that makes me rethink it.

Perhaps the Smith machine is not as effective as free weights, but so what. I consider myself a recreational lifter and will not be entering any competitions, so I don’t feel the need to optimize everything about my workouts.

Or, the argument is made that Smith machines can lead to injuries because it limits range of motion. A similar argument can be made for almost any other weight machine. I’ve used universal machines for over 40 years and have yet to injure myself. Bottom line, you have to listen and pay attention to your body.

Furthermore, serious weight lifters, who are into free weights big time, get injured training all the time. The truth is, you can injure yourself doing almost anything. You can even injure yourself doing absolutely nothing.

That said, I feel the Smith machine is a good aid for me. It might be for you as well. That’s for you to decide.

(Bob M) #11

Damn. (Or Darn, if you prefer that.) Impressive for any age.

(charlie3) #12

My stratagy is to go with high volume “aerobic” at the lower end of intensity, looking for an outstanding result but avoid over training, injury or burnout. So far it seems to be working. It helps that I can pass the time walking with online audio and text to speech of the great books. On the Airdyne I can watch videos while an app calls out my heart rate. What I’m doing is NOT as hard as it sounds. Nobody has to do the high intensity stuff. The research I’ve found says HIIT causes faster progress but after 3 months give or take steady state and HIIT end up at the same place BUT the HIIT promoters seem to only talk about VO2 Max and time saving. Those are not the only things that matter. I have not found a comparison of HIIT and conventional resistance training. May be we get all the HIIT we need from lifting.


I’m 50 and started back resistance training a month ago. So I’ve been doing a bit of reading around the subject and looked at High Intensity Training such as Body By Science and also Strong Lifts and High Frequency Training and so on. It seems there are three areas to consider, Intensity, Frequency and Volume. It seems impossible to do all three, some proper athletes may do two out of the three but it seems that as older people or beginners or having had a break from training it is probably best to choose one of these based on how we prefer to train then add in a bit of one of the others as we progress.
For example I was always under the impression that I needed to take each set to failure to make progress but it seems that that is not necessary and doing more volume i.e more sets but not to failure one can also make progress. So if I choose moderate volume i.e. a few sets per exercise and choose 3 X per week which would perhaps be medium frequency then as I progress then I could add in more sets or increase intensity gradually. Alternatively you could look at the total volume you do in a week over three sessions then half that volume per session but train 6 sessions per week this would be High Frequency Training with each session being relatively easy to do. Body By Science would have you train one set of a few exercises very intensely then take the rest of the week off.
This last month I’ve made the best gains ever after returning to the gym and the change I made was to concentrate on weights not cardio and eat more protein so nothing related to what I just wrote.
I do a split routine i.e. upper body one session then lower the next and try to get two upper and two lower session per week. If I don’t make it to the gym enough times around my work schedule then I’ll do a home routine at the weekend to make up for it.
I’m also experimenting with high frequency training on my calves and forearms i.e. daily high volume low intensity.
So what I’m trying to get at is train as you see fit, make sure you do a variety of lifts/exercises and increase gradually. If future progress slows, take a bit of a break and come back with a modified routine. Hope that makes sense.

(John) #14

Yeah - I was doing the “lift heavy, work to exhaustion on the last set” approach and while that may work well for the younger set, seems to have been a bad choice for me at 61. I apparently overdid it on the bench press, so now I have some tendinitis in my right elbow. I am going to have to lay off bench for a few weeks while it heals up, so I’ll shift my focus to other areas and revise my training approach to maybe go with more reps and lighter weights so that I don’t do that again.

I skipped my Friday workout session completely but will try again today but without the bench press. I may sub in flat flyes to at least keep the chest muscles engaged without the stress on the elbow.

I appreciate the advice. I’m trying to make it a lifelong habit so it needs to be something that I can keep doing without injuring myself, or making it so tiring or time consuming that I can’t stick with it.

(Candice) #15

I was listening to Peter Attia and he mentioned the importance of protecting joint health. Just throwing that in.

I’m naturally a cardio nut, but I don’t want to destroy joints with all that repetitive movement. Looking to get into weights more.

(Laurie) #16

I used to lift weights; in fact I got my instructor’s certificate (it was cheaper than hiring a personal trainer). My amateur opinion is this:

Most people don’t have perfect form. This puts strains on various parts of your body, e.g., internal organs, back, and–as you found out–tendons. As you age, you have more and more weak links in the chain, so something has to give and probably will.

I already paid the price. I no longer lift weights, other than the odd 2- or 5-pound dumbbell. Mostly I do cardio and bodyweight exercises, and exercises that target whole areas rather than specifics. So I’d prefer a hundred body-weight squats over low-rep leg extensions and deadlifts.

I’m not saying a 60+ person can’t do heavier exercises, but I wouldn’t advise it unless you have a world-class personal trainer who knows about old people stuff, or unless you’re prepared to do a lot of research about everything that could go wrong and how to avoid it. Good luck!

(Cindy Ward) #17

John, I started lifting weights when I was in college (53 now). I used to do the split routines, did BFL for a while, just lifting in all sorts of ways. I love to lift heavy, but I eventually realized that my joints were paying the price. I could still lift heavy in terms of muscle strength…IF my hands could hold the weight, wrists didn’t hurt, elbows were ok, etc.

Then I found a personal trainer who kicked butt. NOT with heavy weights. Everything was unstable work with free weights. For example, instead of standing on the floor doing dumbbell curls, we’d stand on a Bosu ball (flipped over so I was standing on the flat portion). Or a lunge was done with one foot on the Bosu. Push-ups were done holding the handles of the Bosu ball. Everything was dynamic, too. Doing squats by throwing a medicine ball against a wall (squat, raise up, throw the ball, catch the ball, squat with the ball, then throw as you stand).

This did a couple of things. One, it meant that we were using much lighter weights, so the joints didn’t give out. Two, it’s also extremely effective for core fitness (and balance), so no real need for sit-ups (which don’t really work…planks are better). Three, because everything has to tighten up for balance and stability, even when working a specific muscle group, it’s a better overall workout without needing to go heavy on weights.

Just something to think about! For example, if I’m doing tricep kick backs, or bent rows, I’ll use an exercise ball (not a bench) for my off hand. Working out with that trainer really made me re-think how I exercise. Even to this day (and I haven’t been working out consistently in over a year), I can hold a plank for quite a while!

(Bob M) #18

I’ve been lifting weights since about 1980, back when Arnold had just hit the scene and all my friends and I wanted to be him. I realized after a while that you needed (1) genetics; (2) genetics; (3) genetics; (4) drugs; (5) hard work to be a bodybuilder.

I think anything you do that stresses the body will improve your body. Anything. That’s why there are so many different ways to exercise, and why they all work.

For me, I’m currently doing weights to “failure” (can’t really go to failure, as that requires two people), using as heavy of a weight I can use to lift as slowly as I can, trying to get near 10 seconds down and 10 seconds up, sometimes holding this. If I find an exercise negatively affects me, I don’t do it. I can’t really do any throwing exercises, as I have one repaired torn rotator cuff and one that’s still torn.

I do a combination of machines and free weights. I also do HIIT, only about 15 minutes the days I’ve exercised with weights and about 20+ on Saturdays (no weights), then I go out into the cold for cold therapy.

I also split my body into legs one day, back and chest one day, but I work a body part only one day per week. This limits the amount of time each gets and limits the chances for injury.

So, you can still lift weights if you want, just modify what you do.

Since I’ve been doing this so long, I’ve seen ideas change over time. They went from high volume to low volume, more intense workouts. I agree with this, as I never really liked spending the time in the gym. I workout three days a week, intense, then take rests. I’ve done many long distance bike rides in the past, and I think that upping the intensity and reducing duration is better and fits into my schedule better. I’d rather be with my family.

I no longer stretch. After doing research on this area, and not stretching for the last few years, I’m not sure why I ever thought it was a good idea.

Anyway, there are many different styles of workouts, and it’s up to you to choose the one that fits your goals at the time. For me, lifting weights has the best stress relief by far. HIIT allows me further lower insulin, in a short time so I don’t get bored. Stress relief and lowering insulin is what I’m after.

(says mix it up! Let chaos reign!) #19

Correct. It’s like CICO, it’s “received wisdom,” with no actual basis in fact.

I was talking to an AFL fitness guy a few years ago (PhD in exercise physiology) who explained that he had the players do “functional stretching” by which he meant they went out and warmed up by doing what they’d do during a game - start small/soft and build it up. So kick over 10m to start with, then 20, then 30 and so on.

(Doug) #20

It was said that Arnold could gain a pound of muscle just by walking around the block. :smile: