Many middle-aged and older people have started to lift weights, since extensive data show that lack of muscles increases risk for diabetes, heart attacks and premature death (British Medical Journal, September 2009; Journal of Physiology, September 2009). However, within the first few weeks of their new weight-lifting programs, most get injured and quit.
Often they get injured because they try to train like younger me, by picking the heaviest weight that they can lift ten times in a row, resting and repeating that set two more times. Then they feel sore for the next few days and when the soreness lessens, they lift heavy weights again, usually two or three times a week. This type of training almost always injures older novice weight lifters and ends their training program.
The safest way for most older men and women to start a program to gain strength and increase muscle size is to join a gym and try to use 15 to 20 Nautilus-type machines every day or every other day. On each machine they should pick the weight that they can lift and lower 10 times in a row comfortably, without straining or damaging their muscles (which would make their muscles feel sore on the next day). If they feel the least bit sore, they should take a day or days off until the soreness is gone. As they become stronger and the weights feel very easy for them, they should try to lift 15 times in a row, then perhaps 20 times. Only when they can lift that weight at least 20 times in a row and not feel sore the next morning, should they try to increase the resistance by going to the next heavier weight.
The key to this program is to avoid injuring their muscles by lifting weights in a single set and increasing the number of repetitions gradually so they do not cause next-day muscle soreness. They should not increase the weight (resistance) until they can lift a set of at least 20 daily and not feel sore the next day.
Before any older or out-of-shape person starts an exercise program, he or she should check with a physician to rule out serious problems that might be aggravated by weight lifting.
This program is for beginners and is intended to prevent injuries that plague older people when they first try to lift weights. It will not build very large muscles. It will, however, increase strength and provide the other benefits of a weight training program. After many months (injury-free) on this program, if a person wishes to build larger muscles, he or she can transition to a more traditional weight training program. See Strength Training Guidelines
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