Weight Lifting? How Heavy with Osteoporosis or Osteopenia?

Weight Lifting? How Heavy with Osteoporosis or Osteopenia?

7# to 15# dumbbellsWeight lifting with bone loss? Whether you’re in the osteoporosis or low bone density range, commonly called osteopenia, a weight limit for free weights will sometimes be suggested when beginning a strength training program designed to strengthen bones.  In the past, the National Osteoporosis Foundation has recommended a conservative 10 pound limit with any bone loss because, for some people, simply bending over at the waist or taking 10 lb. turkey out of the oven can cause a fracture.

However, knowing that too many restrictions create too much fear and ultimately less physical activity, which causes more bone loss, the Too Fit to Fracture advisory panel (endorsed by the NOF) has given exercise guidelines depending on if a person has fractured or not. Check it out…it’s the latest advice from world renowned bone health experts, 2 years in the making, and worth the read. Note that these guidelines apply to anyone with bone loss, whether in the osteoporosis or osteopenia category.

Unless a person has had a fracture, Too Fit to Fracture recommends going by the national physical activity guidelines with the adaptations of not rounding the spine or twisting to the point of strain.

4# - 6# dumbbellsIn the US, these guidelines are 150 minutes of aerobic exercise, plus strength training 2 or more times a week, with 8-12 repetitions, using resistance bands, free weights, or body weight for resistance. It should be a progressive strength training program with increased resistance when the exercises are no longer challenging.

For those who’ve had a spinal fracture, the Too Fit to Fracture panel suggests seeing a qualified instructor (or a healthcare provider, certified personal trainer, or physical therapist). With fractures, it’s suggested to focus on good form and body alignment, rather than on how hard you are working, using resistance bands or body weight for resistance.

Still, you’re probably wondering how heavy a weight is safe for you! It’s one of those individual “consult with your healthcare provider” questions. I haven’t seen any specifics lately, even from the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

In my strength training exercise classes, I have participants consult with their healthcare provider for a weight limit. Unless they’ve had a fracture, they are usually told to listen to their body, not overdo it, and keep good body alignment. They use a wide range of free weights, from 0 to 25 pounds, depending on the exercise as well as their own individual risk factors and situation.Ankle weights It has worked well over the years to follow the safety precautions of keeping a neutral spine with no forward flexion or twisting to the point of strain.

Moving within those parameters while exercising helps my class participants maintain good body alignment throughout their day. American Bone Health has a fabulous downloadable exercise brochure called, Do It Right! And Prevent Fractures! 

Here are more Moving Safely articles from the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

Still have questions? Drop me a line about lifting weights in the “Comment” section below, then click “Post Comment.”

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Comments (Scroll to the bottom to leave your comment)

  1. susan breakiron-lowe says:

    Hello Susie! I was looking for some info on osteopenia and weightlifting/powerlifting. I have osteopenia and borderline for osteoporosis. I have been a Powerlifter since August 2015 and deadlift 130 lbs, bench press 62 lbs and squat 45/50 lbs. Is this too much? Should I limit the weight amount to a certain number? I told my doctor that I was a powerlifter and she said I was doing everything I am supposed to do to help my bone density but she did not specify a weight limit. After reading more info on the spinal column and weight bearing exercises, I am worried about compression fractures of the spine. I would like your take on this. I hope to hear from you soon. Thanks.

    • Susie Hathaway says:

      Hi Susan,

      Usually, it’s best to speak with your healthcare provider about exercise programs, but your doctor may not be familiar with power lifting, which can be very risky with bone loss. It’s the heavy barbells and quick, jerky moves that can put the spine at risk. There are many ways to strength train that are challenging and good for bones, and some only need small weights with body weight movements–back extensions, for example. Planks keep the spine in a neutral position, strengthening abdominal muscles without risk to the spine, as with crunches. There are many dumbbell moves, done with slow repetitions that help add intensity. Eliminating momentum in a lift makes your muscles work much harder. I completely acknowledge that slow strength training is not as exciting as power lifting, but nevertheless, will do the job in keeping your body and bones strong and slowing down bone loss.

      It would be so nice to have a set formula on how much weight is too much. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to accurately predict if a person will fracture or when, although in general, your risk is lower the younger you are. Some people with osteoporosis never have a fracture and some with low bone density (osteopenia) do. Actually, more people with low bone density fracture, simply because it’s a much bigger group.

      If you could get a referral from your doctor for a one-on-one appointment with a physical therapist who is also an athletic trainer (they can often be found at university hospitals where they work with their athletic teams), that would be ideal. You could review the exercises that you do with the PT and she or he could give you alternate moves that would be strengthening, yet safer.

      The precautions for movement with osteoporosis and low bone density are the same.
      • There shouldn’t be too much pressure on the spine, from above or from below. Large barbells could certainly qualify as too much pressure from above.
      • Don’t round forward with your spine, instead hinge back with the hips and keep a neutral spine. Physical therapists who give these precautions also advise not leaning forward with a heavy load, as in a dead lift.
      • Don’t twist or do deep side bends to the end range of movement or point of strain.
      • No crunches. Keep spine in contact with floor for all abdominal exercises.
      • Be careful during transitions. For example, keep a neutral spine while getting in and out of position with the bench press. Keep your spine in contact with the bench and don’t ever round your back.

      The following two resources will give you an idea of safe movement with bone loss. The exercises will seem tame to you, after power lifting, but know that you can always find ways to increase intensity and also stay safe.

      National Osteoporosis Foundation’s Moving Safely section at nof.org.
      Osteoporosis Canada’s Too Fit to Fracture program is excellent.

      All the best,

    • Helen says:

      Susan, I am 53, with osteopenia, I also have DOUBTS about the accuracy of dexa scan and whether they tell the whole story about bone health. I can deadlift 209 lbs, squat 120 and BP 115. I also do jumps twice a week from a 2.8 box because I know the impact is good for bones, I push my body to the max but with good form. So far I have had no fractures or injuries other than normal muscle fatigue. I think if we progress gradually and use good technique our bodies will continue to strengthen.

      • Susie Hathaway says:

        Good points, Helen! Yes, it’s always possible for our bodies to continue to strengthen, especially gradually with good technique. It’s excellent that you’re focusing on keeping good form. The National Osteoporosis Foundations stresses that even those with low bone density heed the safety precautions of keeping a neutral spine. Whether DXA scores are accurate is a subject that Dr. Lani addresses in her book, Dr. Lani’s No-Nonsense Bone Health Guide. http://amzn.to/2g1fS6p The technicians need to take great care in positioning to get an accurate reading. Also, one never knows if their peak bone mass was lower than “normal” because no one was getting DXA scans at age 30. But doing the best that we can and safely staying fit will sure help keep our bones strong and slow down bone loss now.
        Best wishes!

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