Reprinted from the South Shore Senior News February 2017 issue
By Dr. Wayne Westcott and Rita La Rosa Loud
Our preferred means for senior strength training is well-designed resistance machines, like the Nautilus equipment we use in our Quincy College Health and Fitness Center research programs. Of course, if you train at home you may not have access to resistance machines. Our second recommendation for safe and effective muscle development is strength training with hand-held weights called dumbbells. Dumbbells can be used in a number of exercises for your legs, upper body and arms. Because dumbbells come in one-pound increments, progression is simply to use the next heavier dumbbell set whenever 15 repetitions can be completed in good form.
However, many older adults do not like dumbbell training, perhaps because they are concerned about dropping them. If you would like to build a stronger musculoskeletal system but prefer a softer form of resistance, let me recommend resistance bands. Resistance bands are made of elastic material (or rubber tubing) that provides progressively greater resistance as you move the ends farther apart. That is, the more you stretch the band the more resistance your muscles must overcome. Resistance bands are ideal for pushing exercises (such as chest presses, shoulder presses, and leg squats) because our effective muscle strength increases throughout the pushing action, and thereby matches the increased resistance provided by the elastic material as it is stretched. Resistance bands also work reasonably well for pulling exercises (such as seated rows, pulldowns, and curls) making them productive strength training tools for most of your major muscle groups.
Resistance bands may be purchased at sporting good stores at very reasonable prices. They come in different colors that designate their resistance levels from lowest to highest with several intermediate values. Different exercises will require different resistance levels, depending on the size of the target muscle groups. For example, you will use more resistance for leg exercises and less resistance for arm exercises). The rule of thumb is to select a band that enables you to perform between 10 and 15 repetitions to the point of muscle fatigue. When you can complete 15 good repetitions, progress to the next higher resistance band.
For more advanced resistance band training, you may use both your standard exercise band and the next lower resistance band. Immediately after performing as many repetitions as you can (between 10 and 15) with your standard band, switch to the lighter band and complete a few more repetitions (typically between 5 and 10) to reach a deeper level of muscle fatigue and to achieve a better strength-building stimulus. As you will see, resistance band exercise can be a highly effective means for enhancing your muscular fitness and functional abilities.
Here are our five favorite resistance band exercises.
Leg Squat: Front thighs, rear thighs, hips
Seated Chest Press: Chest, rear arms
Seated Row: Upper back, front arms
Seated Press: Shoulders, rear arms
Standing Curl: Front arms, lower back
Recent Research Study
We recently conducted a resistance band research program with residents of a local apartment community in the Quincy area. The study participants performed 1 or 2 sets of 8 basic resistance band exercises, twice a week, for a period of 8 weeks, in an instructional class setting. Even with this minimal amount of training time they experienced remarkable results, including a 25% increase in muscle strength, almost a 1.5-pound increase in muscle mass, and almost a 3-pound decrease in fat weight. Therefore, program participants actually achieved a total body composition improvement of 4.5 pounds, as well as a major increase in muscular strength and physical capacity. Although we prefer machine and free-weight training, we recommend resistance band exercise as an effective and time-efficient means for enhancing physical fitness in home-based settings.
About the Authors
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D. is professor of Exercise Science at Quincy College. Rita La Rosa Loud, B.S. is director of the Community Health and Fitness Center at Quincy College.