Strength training at high versus low external resistance in older adults: effects on muscle volume, muscle strength, and force-velocity characteristics

Exp Gerontol. 2013 Nov;48(11):1351-61. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2013.08.010. Epub 2013 Aug 30.


Muscle adaptations can be induced by high-resistance exercise. Despite being potentially more suitable for older adults, low-resistance exercise protocols have been less investigated. We compared the effects of high- and low-resistance training on muscle volume, muscle strength, and force-velocity characteristics. Fifty-six older adults were randomly assigned to 12 weeks of leg press and leg extension training at either HIGH (2×10-15 repetitions at 80% of one repetition maximum (1RM)), LOW (1×80-100 repetitions at 20% of 1RM), or LOW+ (1×60 repetitions at 20% of 1RM, followed by 1×10-20 repetitions at 40% of 1RM). All protocols ended with muscle failure. Leg press and leg extension of 1RM were measured at baseline and post intervention and before the first training session in weeks 5 and 9. At baseline and post intervention, muscle volume (MV) was measured by CT-scan. A Biodex dynamometer evaluated knee extensor static peak torque in different knee angles (PT(stat90°), PT(stat120°), PT(stat150°)), dynamic peak torque at different speeds (PT(dyn60°s)(-1), PT(dyn180°s)(-1), PT(dyn240°s)(-1)), and speed of movement at 20% (S20), 40% (S40), and 60% (S60) of PTstat90°. HIGH and LOW+ resulted in greater improvements in 1RM strength than LOW (p<0.05). These differences were already apparent after week 5. Similar gains were found between groups in MV, PT(stat), PT(dyn60°s)(-1), and PT(dyn180°s)(-1). No changes were reported in speed of movement. HIGH tended to improve PT(dyn240°s)(-1) more than LOW or LOW+ (p=0.064). In conclusion, high- and low-resistance exercises ending with muscle failure may be similarly effective for hypertrophy. High-resistance training led to a higher increase in 1RM strength than low-resistance training (20% of 1RM), but this difference disappeared when using a mixed low-resistance protocol in which the resistance was intensified within a single exercise set (40% of 1RM). Our findings support the need for more research on low-resistance programs in older age, in particular long-term training studies and studies focusing on residual effects after training cessation.

Keywords: Elderly; Muscle fatigue; Muscle hypertrophy; Resistance training; Training load.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / pathology
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypertrophy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle Fatigue / physiology
  • Muscle Strength / physiology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Resistance Training / methods*
  • Torque