I am asked often whether an over fifties person should prioritize volume or intensity in their strength training. In answering this question it's crucial to address a common issue with high-volume workouts for the older population: the significant, and sudden drop-off in force production as a set progresses leading to form breakdown and potential injury. This concern reinforces my stance as a strength coach that older adults should prioritize intensity (i.e. weight) in their training, specifically limiting the maximum number of repetitions to ensure safety and effectiveness. This is regardless of whether they are starting out with strength training, or are strength training regularly and consistently.
When training with high volume, i.e., performing a large number of repetitions, there's an increased risk of fatigue through the set, which can compromise form. As fatigue sets in, the ability to maintain proper technique diminishes, raising the risk of injury. This risk is particularly relevant for individuals over 50, who might also be dealing with age-related changes such as reduced joint flexibility and longer recovery times.
In contrast, focusing on intensity with a controlled number of repetitions can mitigate these risks. In my training approach, I recommend a maximum of five repetitions per set. This cap helps maintain a high level of force production throughout the set, ensuring that each repetition is performed with optimal form. Good form is paramount for effective strength training, as it not only maximizes the benefits of each exercise but also significantly reduces the likelihood of injury.
For working sets, the target is typically to achieve three sets of five repetitions with good form. This structure allows for a high-intensity workout that challenges the muscles sufficiently without overtaxing them. The key is to select weights or resistance levels that make completing these sets challenging yet achievable while maintaining impeccable form. This weight will be different for every single person, and you should never compare yourself to anybody else. This approach aligns with the principles of progressive overload, gradually increasing the challenge to the muscles over time to stimulate growth and strength improvements.
By limiting the number of repetitions and focusing on high-intensity sets, individuals over 50 can engage in strength training that is both safe and effective. This method not only encourages muscle maintenance and growth but also respects the body's limitations and recovery needs.
My assertion is backed up by two example studies:
Additionally, I spoke with fitness expert Tyler Holmes, founder of MovingForwards, and he states "while high volume routines may be better for younger people, it's better for over 50s to keep volume relatively low and prioritize intensity".
So in my opinion, when considering "volume vs intensity for the over fifties", it's clear to me that prioritizing intensity with a limited number of repetitions is a more effective and safer approach. This strategy ensures force production remains high, form stays intact, and the risk of injury is minimized.
As always, individuals should consult with fitness professionals to tailor their training regimen to their specific needs, capabilities, and health conditions, ensuring a safe and productive strength training journey.