One thing we know about bone is that it responds to increased weight load by getting stronger. So the recent findings of an Australian bone clinic that studied women doing high-intensity resistance training really shouldn’t surprise us. But just look at these results!
What happens when older women weight lift?
The clinic studied 101 postmenopausal women with a T score below –1; 44 were classified as having osteoporosis and the remaining 57 were considered to have osteopenia. A bit more than one-fourth of them had already had a fracture.
The women were divided into two groups, experimental and control; they exercised twice a week for at least 8 and up to 12 months, but the kinds of exercise they did were different. For the control group, a low-intensity, home-based exercise regimen that emphasized balance and mobility, but not heavy weight loading, was used. They did lunges, calf raises, and stretches with no more than 3-kg weights in their hands — common types of exercises recommended for older women seeking to maintain fitness and bone strength.
The experimental group, on the other hand, underwent supervised, 30-minute sessions of high-intensity resistance training at 80–85% of the “1 rep max” weight — that being the weight they could only lift only once with maximum effort. The exercises included deadlift, overhead press, and back squat along with jumping chin-ups with drop landings. These types of exercises are not usually recommended for older women, and prior studies of weight-bearing exercise for bone mass improvement used moderate loads rather than high loads, as in this study.
The bigger the load, the stronger the bone
The study’s results were striking:
• The high-intensity group gained an average of 2.9% BMD in the lumbar spine, while the control group lost an average of 1.2%.
• The high-intensity group gained on average 0.3% BMD in the femoral neck, while the control group lost on average 1.9%.
• The high-intensity group gained 13.6% femoral neck cortical thickness, while the control group lost 6.3%.
Some of the individual outcomes were truly amazing. One 59-year-old-woman who trained for a total of 12 months saw an increase of 10.5% in the hip and 8.8% in the lumbar spine!
I just heard about even more record-breaking gains from “C.F.” — one of our clients. Motivated to find a way to reverse her ongoing bone loss, C.F. — a 67-year-old woman — combined our Better Bones, Better Body Program with supervised high-intensity strength training. In just 1.5 years she gained a whopping 21.5% in the neck of the hip, 10% the total hip and 5.6% in spine — moving her totally out of the osteoporosis category! Her doctor was so astonished she called me to ask what we were doing. This is a bone density gain that is unprecedented and you can take a look at the details of our client’s full program here.
The benefits of high-load weight lifting for older women
Given that we’ve known for years that bone responds to the load placed on it, why hasn’t high-load weight lifting ever been looked at before in women?
As the authors of this study point out, it’s a common misconception that women with low bone mass risk developing spinal fractures if they use heavy weights or free-weight exercises — but this study shows that isn’t true. Only one woman in the study had any sort of injury — a mild muscle strain in her lower back that probably occurred from an error in technique (which is very important in free-weight lifting) rather than the amount of weight she used. Keep in mind, these women were carefully taught the proper form for lifting and highly supervised. Should you try a high-intensity resistance program yourself, be sure to work with a qualified training.
What all this tells us is that even in women who are actively losing bone, high-intensity weight-bearing exercise offers more benefits in reversing the trend than low- or moderate-load weight-bearing exercise.
At the Center for Better Bones, we view exercise as an important part of a natural approach to building and strengthening bone. Learn about our Better Bones, Better Body Program to find out how you can start building serious bone naturally.
Watson SL, Weeks BK, Weis LJ, et al. High-intensity resistance and impact training improves bone mineral density and physical function in postmenopausal women with osteopenia and osteoporosis: The LIFTMOR Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research 2018; 33(2): 211–220. DOI: 10.1002/jbmr.3284