Build strength to age well! The benefits of progressive resistance training

The Bottom Line

  • Weight bearing exercise is the first line of defense against the loss of muscle mass that occurs with age.
  • Building strength can help you avoid falls and reduce the risk of loss of mobility, independence and quality of life.
  • High intensity progressive resistance strength training is one of the best ways to build leg strength and improve walking speed in older adults

You know exercise is important to your long-term health and well-being, and you probably know your routine should include some weight or strength training… but do you know why? In a nutshell: weight training strengthens muscles so they can support you through all your activities, throughout your lifespan. If you don’t build and maintain your muscles, there’s a good chance that at some point they’ll let you down – literally.

Weight bearing exercise is the first line of defense against the loss of muscle mass that occurs with age. Building strength can help you avoid falls and reduce the risk of losing your mobility, independence and quality of life (1). One approach recommended for older adults is “high intensity progressive resistance strength training.” That may sound intimidating but it really isn’t. It simply means gradually increasing the weight or resistance in order to challenge – and strengthen – muscles (2). You start with a weight that is difficult but doable and increase the weight as it becomes easier.

Progressive resistance strength training can be a safe and effective way for older adults to strengthen leg muscles, which is essential to avoiding falls and remaining active (3).

One systematic review analyzed the results of 21 studies to find out how high intensity progressive strength training compares to training at less intense levels (3). The studies focused on lower leg training, with workouts lasting from 45 to 90 minutes two to three times per week (participants were all aged 60 or above). Training programs lasted from eight to 52 weeks.

What the research tells us

Progressive resistance strength training performed at high intensity appears to be the most efficient way to strengthen leg muscles according to the review results. Training at a moderate intensity, but for a longer period of time (e.g. more “reps”) may also help improve flexibility and function (3).

High intensity progressive resistance strength training has also been found to be one of the best ways to improve gait – or walking – speed in older adults (4). That’s good to know as a slow walking pace is associated with a greater risk of falls, injuries and hospitalization (5). Improving your walking speed may mean a longer life and better health (6).

You may not be a body builder or a professional athlete seeking a trophy or gold medal. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to keep your muscles strong. Staying strong is important for everyone and scores an even more important prize: a better chance of enjoying a long, healthy and vigorous life.

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Author Details


  1. Rosendahl E, Gustafson Y, Nordin E et al. A randomized controlled trial of fall prevention by a high-intensity functional exercise program for older people living in residential care facilities. Aging Clin Exp Res. 2008; 20:67-75.
  2. Kraemer WJ, Adams K, Cafarelli E et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002; 34(2):364–380.
  3. Raymond MJ, Bramley-Tzerefos RE, Jeffs KJ et al. Systematic review of high-intensity progressive resistance strength training of the lower limb compared with other intensities of strength training in older adults. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2013; 94(8):1458-72. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2013.02.022
  4. Van Abbema R, De Greef M, Craje C et al. What type, or combination of exercise, can improve preferred gait speed in older adults? A meta-analysis. BMC Geriatr. 2015; 15:72. doi: 10.1186/s12877-0156-006109 
  5. Abellan van Kan G, Rolland Y, Andrieu S et al. Gait speed at usual pace as a predictor of adverse outcomes in community-dwelling older people an international academy on nutrition and aging (IANA) Task Force. J Nutr Health Aging. 2009; 13(10):881-9.
  6. Studenski S, Perera S, Patel K et al. Gait speed and survival in older adults. JAMA. 2011; 305(1):50-58. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.1923 

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.