Older boomers can remember a time when lifting weights for exercise was considered an exotic, if not slightly freaky, pastime practiced by a few burly fellows who spent a lot of time screaming and grimacing as they hoisted barbells packed with car tire-sized York 45-pound plates and even more time ecstatically gazing at their flexed deltoids and pectorals in the mirror afterward.
These days, however, pumping iron has become such a mundanely ubiquitous activity for midlife Americans of both enders that it's hard to walk through your local fitness club or Y without having some graying bodybuilder drop a dumbbell on your foot.
A recent survey of 4,000 members of Eons.com, a popular online community for boomers, found that 15 percent of them lifted weights, making it their second-favorite exercise activity after walking (48 percent). Dumbbells, barbells and weight machines were more than twice as popular as jogging, cycling or golf. And we're not just trying to look good (though we wouldn't mind that, of course). We've all read the articles about how strength training can help us maintain our bone density and increase our muscle mass, which in turn will burn calories at a higher rate and help keep our body weight under control. Research such as this 2000 study shows that our bodies are capable of making strength gains at a rate comparable to people much younger than us.
While many boomers are sold on the benefits of lifting, we're not necessarily going about it in the best way. A 2010 study found that the biggest increase in weight training-related injuries requiring medical treatment was among adults 45 and over. If you walk around any gym, it's not hard to figure out why. Too many boomers' strength-training regimens seem to be based on what they learned from their JV football coaches in the 1970s, when muscle-isolating, connective tissue-shredding exercises such as barbell bench presses and bent-over rowing were in vogue, and three sets of 10 reps with the heaviest possible weight was considered the scientific route to physical perfection.
Most of us clearly haven't kept up with the state-of-the-art in strength training, which now emphasizes utilizing multiple muscle groups in unison and develops the nervous system rather than just bulky biceps. (Here's a USA Today article, for example, on the balance-oriented ProBodX system developed by trainer Marv Marinovich and used by scores of professional athletes.)
"Rather than grunting and straining to lift heavy weights, you can grab something much lighter, but you have to lift it until you can't lift it anymore," says Stuart Phillips, associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University. "We're convinced that growing muscle means stimulating your muscle to make new muscle proteins, a process in the body that over time accumulates into bigger muscles."
In the study, subjects who lifted just 30 percent of the maximum weight they could handle--an amount that typically enabled them to do 24 reps--developed just as much muscle as counterparts who struggled with 90 percent of the maximum weight.
This is huge for boomers because it's a lot easier to maintain good form when using lighter weights, which could dramatically reduce exercise-related mishaps and cumulative injuries. (In fact, you don't necessarily even have to use any weight at all to build muscle. Here's another recently published study that found that rubber resistance tubing was just as effective in building strength as using weights.) A lot less grimacing and screaming are involved, for which your compatriots at the gym are likely to be thankful.