Powerlifting for Older Adults

What is Powerlifting?

Powerlifting is a sport that involves performing three weight lifting movements (Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift) during a competition. A competitor’s goal is to lift the maximum amount of weight for one repetition while maintaining strict technique. Three judges assess technique during each movement to maintain consistency among competitors. Powerlifting is essentially the ultimate test of full body power and strength.

 

The Common Misconception:

What is the first thought that comes to mind when you think of powerlifting?

Do you envision a muscle-bound man, maybe with the bulky physique of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or do you think of the current, sixty-seven year old, lower muscle mass version of Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Both answers are correct. The athletes at powerlifting competitions actually range in various degrees of age, gender, and body weight. At any given event, a spectator could witness any scope of variability among lifters. For example, one may see a 10- year-old female squatting close to 100 pounds or even an 88-year-old male breaking a world record. 

One of the most amazing, unknown, and not uncommon group of powerlifters is the older adult athlete. These individuals fight against the common age-related muscle and bone changes to achieve their individual health and wellness goals. Older adults tend to develop a decrease in muscle mass, a decrease in strength, and a decrease in bone density as a result of aging. However, these changes can be reversed through proper diet and exercise. The true evidence supporting the benefits of proper nutrition and exercise is backed by the unbelievable accomplishments and abundant participation of older powerlifters.

Although not all older powerlifters are world record holders, the popularity of overall participation by this group is astonishing. There are many powerlifting federations across the nation. One particular drug-tested powerlifting federation is the “USA Powerlifting (USAPL)". In just the USAPL alone, there were 185 men and women competing over the age of 65 in 2014. In 2013, one athlete between the age of 85-89 set an American record in the USAPL with a shocking 248lb squat, 160lb bench press, and a 331lb deadlift.

 

The Benefits of Powerlifting:

Decreases in muscle and strength are prevalent changes experienced during aging. Beginning at age 30, strength begins to decrease 10% every decade, and additionally, strength decreases 15% after age 60. These declines in strength can lead to accumulated deficits during older adulthood. The deficits that result from decreases in strength may include decreases in mobility and balance, potentially causing frailty and falls. Also, bone loss begins to increase 0.5% to 1.0% every year after age 30. Decreases in bone can result in susceptibility to fractures and decreases in mobility. However, there is great news! Exercise has been shown to hinder these strength and bone declines! While some may look at powerlifters and say they are lifting too much weight, this assumption may be misconstrued. Research has shown that optimal strength gains are achieved when performing weight lifting movements at 80% of a one-repetition-max. Simply put, optimal weight training should include performing movements on an individualized level that can be described as “hard” for that person. Experienced powerlifters typically train within these parameters while ensuring strict form to minimize injury and maximize safety. As a result of increasing strength, weight training decreases bone loss by forcing the body to adapt to the load (weight) being placed on it. 

Powerlifting can also improve an older adult’s self-esteem and self-image. The physical changes, including an athlete’s increase in muscle and decrease in fat, can improve their self-image. Also, working towards and achieving strength goals can give athletes a new sense of purpose, drive and achievement.

Overall, participation in powerlifting and weight training can produce immense muscle, bone, and mental health benefits during aging. The passion, desire, and motivation older adult powerlifters portray is truly inspiring.  

Age is just a number, don't let it define you!

 

 

References

Guccione, AA. Geriatric Physical Therapy. 3rd ed. St. Louis: Mosby; 2012.

(2014). USA Powerlifting. Retrieved from http://www.usapowerlifting.com/

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