24 Apr 2024

The Taranaki gym encouraging older people to lift weights

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 24 April 2024

Taranaki seniors are showing it's never too late to summon strength, pulling off deadlifts and squats in a community gym group.

"A two-times-bodyweight deadlift, even within this demographic, is entirely achievable for most people if they really go down the rabbit hole of strength training," says Dane Carr, head coach at the Lion's Den Gym & Fitness Centre.

Image of members at Refit+ in Taranaki.

Photo: Dane Carr

From around the age of 30, muscle mass, bone density and tendon strength enter a "slow and steady decline", Carr tells Kathryn Ryan, and the only real way to counteract that is with resistance training.

In the past, weightlifting has been seen as only for those who are young or already fit, he says, but picking up barbells is the most efficient way to progressively strengthen a body of any age.

"It doesn't really matter when you start. You might not quite get as strong but you're gonna see all the same benefits and an increase in strength regardless of age.

"We've had members come in with early onset osteoporosis and things like that and after a year of training, that bone density is starting to pick back up.

"The biggest one that we see all the time is an older person comes in who can't move that well, struggles getting out of a chair and things like that, their knees hurt when they push the lawnmower. Six months to a year later, they're squatting all the way down. Their knee pain is no worse, if not better. They're able to do more.

"When you're performing a deadlift or a squat with some resistance, you're strengthening the musculature all the way from your feet to your head … you're training the body as one sort of synergistic machine so everything's getting stronger."

Any form of exercise involves risk, Carr says, and there are a lot of misconceptions about the dangers of resistance training.

The importance of perfect technique tends to get over-emphasised, he says, while the danger of increasing the weight you're lifting too quickly is under-emphasized.

"The human body has an amazing ability to adapt to whatever. We as humans exist all over the planet doing all sorts of variations of movements and exercise and daily tasks so the body will adapt. [The problem is] if you shock it too quickly.

"If you lift too heavy, too soon, do not take enough rest between sets do not take enough rest between sessions, that can slowly accumulate fatigue in your body, which could cause potential injury ... That it is extremely rare if you do a proper well-thought-out strength training program with adequate increases in weight."

The three primary exercises Carr teaches older people to build full-body strength are squats, standing presses and deadlifts, usually in that order.

"If you had knee surgery six months ago, you're not going to be necessarily squatting all the way down ... everyone will be doing their own variation."

Dane Carr - head coach at ions Den Gym in Taranaki

Dane Carr - head coach at ions Den Gym in Taranaki Photo: @domvilly

Back in 2018, when Carr started trying to attract older people to Lion's Den, he thought weightlifting would be a "hard sell" so at first offered a Pilates-style strength class.

"We did eight weeks of it. Earned their trust, got their buy-in. And then we just sort of naturally progress to start using some kettlebells and then barbells. From there, then just word spreads. And all their friends started coming along."

Lion's Den regulars now include women in the 60s and 70s who can pull off more-than-bodyweight deadlifts and half-bodyweight squats and one in her late 60s has lifted over 100 kilos.

"A two-times bodyweight deadlift, even within this demographic, is entirely achievable for most people if they really go down the rabbit hole of strength training ... These feats that sound very impressive most people can achieve if theyre just consistent and training for many years.

"If you can lift 60 kilos or 100 kilos or whatever off the floor, just think about how much easier going around and doing your day-to-day tasks in the garden, pushing the lawnmower, playing with your grandkids. That's what we're really achieving with strength. Strength is for everybody."

Carr doesn't understand why other gym trainers are apprehensive about working with older people.

"A lot of younger ones have this impression that they are super fragile [but] sometimes their bodies just need a bit more training to get that resilience back up.

"These are people who have lived lives. They've been through hard things. They've been through harder things because they've had more life experience than a lot of us young trainers have been through. So there was no doubt in my mind that this demographic of people had the right mentality to go and get stuck in if they wanted to."

To find other weights-based gym programmes tailored to older bodies, Carr recommends people seek out what's on offer in their local community.

"Strength training is becoming much more popular, socially acceptable and normal, and everybody's starting to see the benefits so it should be easier and easier to find within your communities."