Dumbbells vs. Barbells for Senior Citizens

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Contrary to the all-too-prevalent belief, senior citizens are not too old to work out with weights and it is not too late to glean the benefits of strength training. In older adults, strength training can increase muscle strength by 25 to 100 percent. It also increases bone density, reducing the damaging effects of osteoporosis, improving your ability to perform daily activities and lowering your risk of falling. Use barbells or dumbbells, called free weights, to perform dozens of exercises that work all the major muscles. Which type of free weight you choose will depend on your current fitness level and goals.

Carry the Weight of the World

  • Barbells are long bars designed to be held with both hands. They are available in fixed or adjustable weights. Fixed barbells weigh from 20 to 120 pounds, typically in 5-pound increments. Adjustable barbells hold weight plates to achieve the desired resistance. A standard barbell is 5 to 6 feet long and weighs 15 to 30 pounds with no additional weight plates. An Olympic barbell is 7 feet long and weighs 45 pounds with no additional plates.

A Load Off

  • Designed to be held in one hand, dumbbells are shorter and lighter than barbells, and are available in fixed or adjustable types. A standard, unloaded dumbbell handle is 12 to 15 inches long and weighs 2 to 7 pounds. Add weight plates to achieve the desired resistance. Fixed dumbbells range from 1 to 150 pounds, in 3- to 5-pound increments.

A Weight Off Your Shoulders

  • Holding two dumbbells, one in each hand, makes it more difficult to control and balance the weight than holding a barbell, which you grasp with both hands. However, because dumbbells are available in lighter weights, they are usually more appropriate for beginner and older exercisers. As you grow stronger, you can gradually advance to barbells for large-muscle, compound movements, such as squats, chest presses and rows. However, an Olympic barbell may be too heavy and unwieldy for older exercisers. A fixed barbell or a standard, unloaded barbell would be a safer choice.

Throw Around Some Weight...Carefully

  • Especially for older exercisers, training with free weights has a higher risk of injury than training with machines because your range of motion is not restricted to a set path. Start with very light weights and learn the proper technique for each exercise before increasing the resistance. For older adults, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends two to four sets of 10 to 15 repetitions for each exercise. Choose exercises that work all the major muscles, including your chest, back, arms, legs and core muscles. Consult a physician before you start an exercise program.

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