Articles | strength health

Strength and Aging: What My 100-year-old Father-in-law Showed Me

by Denis Finnegan EdD | June 28, 2023

lifter in the bottom of the squat

I have been a health enthusiast for decades and recently started barbell training. I also have recently experienced some musculoskeletal issues that required medical attention. My doctor’s first response was, “Stop training with barbells.” I did not care for this response, and will explain more on this later. However, this experience did raise the question about barbell training and the safety for seniors. I did some research and will summarize what I have learned.

Coincident with my medical issues, I have been able to spend some time with my elderly father-in-law. He is an amazing man. He is kind and caring. He served in WWII in the 10th Mountain Division. He always has a smile! I have known him for 20 years and he is consistently a great person. He is healthy but I have noticed he is slowing down, particularly these last couple of years. He cares for his wife who has limited mobility and dementia. Because of that he is house bound and no longer gets much exercise.

I have noticed it is harder for my father-in-law to get out of a chair or into a car. Recently we got him a walker to help him stabilize and now he walks a bit almost every day. It is clear to me that he has lost strength and his balance is shaky at times. I assume this is related to strength loss. Rippetoe and Baker discuss the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle, which is dependent on stress to cause change.[1] Unfortunately, my father-in-law’s current living situation is stressful – not all stresses produce a beneficial adaptation – and his body has adapted through atrophy. However, even after a couple of weeks of exercise, I see his walking improving, and he sets new goals for each walk. Yesterday, I saw him walking in the house carrying his cane, not using it – a clear sign of improvement. He also has improved spirits. What does this have to do with strength and aging? Short answer, everything!

A bit of background, for context: I am nearly 71 and have been committed to exercise most of my adult life. I am a retired U.S. Naval officer who spent 24 years in the submarine force. I am also an educator spending my career in military training, corporate education, and higher education. I am fascinated with learning and I strive to learn new things regularly. My son-in-law introduced me to the Starting Strength method 9 months ago. He is a strength and conditioning expert who has worked with the Navy Seals and is now working with the US Army on their fitness programs. Also, I recently started working with a Starting Strength Coach, and that has made all the difference in how I train.

Recently, my coach and I were talking about research on older folks and barbell training, and we concluded there is not much out there. I used the search term “weightlifting for seniors research study” to identify potential articles. I then focused on articles/studies by reputable institutions, universities, and government institutions. “Reputable” does not necessarily mean these studies are valid and reliable, statistically. Any researcher can choose a sample group that is biased in some way, or not study the experimental intervention long enough, or commit many other research errors. On the other hand, these researchers may have gleaned valuable information. The studies I found all have similar conclusions. One last caveat: I did not do a complete literature search, rather more a sample of current research.

Does strength training help older adults? Mayer, et al. concluded “Progressive strength training in the elderly is efficient, even with higher intensities, to reduce sarcopenia, and to retain motor function.”[2] This study set the stage for the importance of strength training by explaining the rate of muscle loss with aging. The authors conclude that muscle loss is fairly linear until the 6th decade of life, and then shows a nonlinear decline of as much as 30% in the 8th decade. The result of this, according to these authors: “Functional losses in strength and balance capacity, and increasing gait uncertainties are the result. The risk of acute problems owing to falls and injuries and chronic recurrent and degenerative illnesses rises.”[2]

I clearly see this decline in strength and balance in my father-in-law. His ability to pick up his feet has declined significantly, and he often trips on small objects. With coaching he is relearning to pick up his feet, and with practice he is getting stronger and able to do this for longer walks.

I must admit that when I first started to do the Starting Strength program, on my own, I was shocked to see how little weight I could press. I suspected that I was weaker but that was an understatement! I had been doing kettlebell training for some time. When I think back to my days in the Navy, and the arduous work we would do moving torpedoes, repairing torpedo tubes and many other hard jobs, I felt invincible and strong. My kettlebell training was with low weights and high reps, clearly not enough stress to facilitate a strength adaptation. Once I started using Starting Strength I began to see real strength gains. However, I suspected my technique was not ideal. Not until I got some coaching on the proper lifting technique did I see real progress and a feeling of strength coming back.

Mayer, et al. was a literature review of 1500 research studies, from which 33 were chosen. From these studies the researchers concluded that seniors should work with weight training 3-4 times per week and progress the weight being used. “Muscle mass can be increased through training at an intensity corresponding to 60% to 85% of the individual maximum voluntary strength. Improving the rate of force development requires training at a higher intensity (above 85%), in the elderly just as in younger persons.”[2]

In another article, Seguin and Nelson found: “Done regularly (e.g., 2 to 3 days per week), these exercises build muscle strength and muscle mass and preserve bone density, independence, and vitality with age. In addition, strength training also has the ability to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and the signs and symptoms of numerous chronic diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, and type-2 diabetes, while also improving sleep and reducing depression.[3]

What is intriguing about the Sequin and Nelson article is the comprehensiveness of the benefits of strength training. I would add there is a great psychological benefit. In my experience, it is clear how good I feel after a good training session. I feel stronger, more alive, and I look forward to the next training session. I am a few weeks into my second round of Novice Linear Progression – this time guided by a Starting Strength Coach – and my strength and confidence are improving. I am not worried about injuring myself, and seeing gains each session just plain feels good.

The seriousness of sarcopenia is laid out in an article titled “Strength training in elderly: An useful tool against sarcopenia.”[4] Here the authors argue that strength decline is a “public health problem.”[4] They argue that frail seniors often are given low intensity exercises, but resistance training is more effective. Remember that our bodies react to stress and adapt as the stress demands. There is a clear downward cycle like my father-in-law was experiencing. The stress of sitting all day and only walking around his small house was a stress that his body adapted to by becoming frail.

Why do we really want to get stronger? We want to continue to do things that make our life enjoyable and to stay independent as long as possible, which means living longer. “Older adults who strength trained at least twice a week had 46 percent lower odds of death for any reason than those who did not. They also had 41 percent lower odds of cardiac death and 19 percent lower odds of dying from cancer.”[5]

My personal strength journey is about getting stronger to allow me to do the things I enjoy. That may sound obvious, but I offer that I am an active guy and want to stay active for many years. I play golf nearly every day. I am an avid downhill skier and skied 25+ days this last winter. I cycle and scuba dive also. All of these require strength.

Here is positive proof of the benefit of strength training for me. I had been doing Starting Strength’s NLP about 3 months before ski season this last winter. My stamina and strength were significantly improved. I skied more mogul runs this past season than all the years prior and I did not have fatigued legs. I had more stamina than most of the guys in the ski club. It was an amazing difference.

The common sense of strength is what many folks miss in my opinion. Many accept the decline as part of the norm, not knowing and being willing to take action to arrest the decline. I live in a 55+ community and I am shocked how many guys are exhausted and need a nap after a round of golf – and we ride in golf carts. After golf, folks sit around and discuss their aches and pains. When I try to tell them that we can get stronger and feel better, they want no part of that discussion. The advantage of doing the “big lifts” is so clear to me. Balance, whole body involvement, awareness of your body in space are all real-world strength requirements.

Strength training, particularly the Starting Strength method, has helped me in many ways. It has engaged my desire to learn. Yesterday I trained and was paying attention to my form, and during rest periods watching others train. I have a cue card I made to help me with areas I need to improve. For example, a squat is not that complicated but there are key things you must do to get the most out of the lift and not injure yourself. I have read both of Rippetoe’s books multiple times and listened to each of his audio books (I am a slow learner). These books have a lot of content. I am clear that I need to study, practice, and get good coaching. The result is I have fewer aches and pains, greater endurance doing hard things, and I just feel stronger. Guys like to feel strong.

I must share a funny experience that I had recently at my SS affiliated gym. I went in and there were three women and I training during that time. One lady looked about my age and the other two were younger. I was shocked by the amount of weight they were squatting, far greater than me. I was almost embarrassed by the amount of weight I had on the bar compared to these strong ladies. I was to learn that they hold state records and have been training for some time. I came away from that experience with hope, after I got over my ego bruise.

One of the fascinating things in my mini-research review is the absence of any study that suggests strength training is harmful to older folks. The straightforward evidence is that everyone should do strength training. I did an additional search looking for evidence that weightlifting can be harmful to seniors and did not find a single article. That contrasts what many Doctors and Physical Therapists seem to believe.

A couple of months ago I developed some hip pain. I went to a sports orthopedic facility and saw the doctor who had treated me for ailments in the past. Without any diagnostic testing (MRI) he declared that I had a torn hip labrum and that I needed to stop doing squats. He told me to do leg presses! I laid off for a week and went back to squatting. I returned and told him the pain was diminishing, and he was still insistent that I should not do squats. I asked if we should do an MRI, and he begrudgingly agreed. The MRI showed no tears, some bursitis. I sent the MRI disc to the doctor and now he will not return my calls. I am pain free and starting to set some new PRs in the NLP. Clearly, he did not like my pushing back. I will not be seeing him again. There are clear instances when we should follow doctor’s advice, but we have a right and a responsibility to advocate for ourselves.

I am sure many folks would say that my 100-year-old father-in-law should take it easy. Well, that is not how you get to be 100 years old. He had always been active. He is now walking 5 days a week and setting new distance PRs, which he loves to tell people about. We are going to introduce some resistance training. He is motivated and just needs a little help to start training.

I had to learn that like my father-in-law I needed a little help with learning to train properly. I tried to learn the main lifts of the SS program and did learn a lot but learning and performing are quite different. I have only had a couple of coaching sessions and I am already much better at the lifts. My squat depth was well above parallel, as an example. I now can feel the proper depth and know this is making me stronger. All the other lifts had errors also. I am confident that through continued coaching, I will improve.

I am not suggesting there is no difference in how seniors should barbell train. On the contrary, as clearly laid out in Practical Programming for Strength Training 3rd Edition one must design a program based on individual factors.[1] In the Starting Strength method there is a focus on a three phased approach that includes stress, recovery, and adaptation.[6] One difference is recovery time for seniors. For example, we may need more recovery time, like 72 hours. This is just one example. A well-designed personal program is needed to see the best benefits and prevent injury. While I am new at this, having a Starting Strength coach allows for the proper execution of the program. I believe that I will see faster and better progress as the result of having a coach.

Strength and aging are connected significantly. Getting and staying strong has innumerable benefits, as the literature cited in this paper supports. And my practical experience demonstrates the effectiveness of strength training. I want to thank my coach, Cody Annino, and all the SSCs who have commented on my questions, and of course Mark Rippetoe for championing this effort!


  1. Rippetoe and Baker (2021). Practical Programming for Strength Training, 3rd Edition
  2. Mayer F, Scharhag-Rosenberger F, Carlsohn A, Cassel M, Müller S, Scharhag J. The intensity and effects of strength training in the elderly. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2011 May;108(21):359-64. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2011.0359. Epub 2011 May 27. PMID: 21691559; PMCID: PMC3117172.
  3. Seguin R, Nelson ME. The benefits of strength training for older adults. Am J Prev Med. 2003 Oct;25(3 Suppl 2):141-9. doi: 10.1016/s0749-3797(03)00177-6. PMID: 14552938.
  4. Cannataro R, Cione E, Bonilla DA, Cerullo G, Angelini F, D'Antona G. Strength training in elderly: An useful tool against sarcopenia. Front Sports Act Living. 2022 Jul 18;4:950949. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2022.950949. PMID: 35924210; PMCID: PMC9339797.
  5. Abbasi, Jenifer (2022). Strength training helps older adults live longer | Penn State University (
  6. Mark Rippetoe (2011). Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd edition.

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