We conducted a 12-wk resistance training program in elderly women [mean age 69 +/- 1.0 (SE) yr] to determine whether increases in muscle strength are associated with changes in cross-sectional fiber area of the vastus lateralis muscle. Twenty-seven healthy women were randomly assigned to either a control or exercise group. The program was satisfactorily completed and adequate biopsy material obtained from 6 controls and 13 exercisers. After initial testing of baseline maximal strength, exercisers began a training regimen consisting of seven exercises that stressed primary muscle groups of the lower extremities. No active intervention was prescribed for the controls. Increases in muscle strength of the exercising subjects were significant compared with baseline values (28-115%) in all muscle groups. No significant strength changes were observed in the controls. Cross-sectional area of type II muscle fibers significantly increased in the exercisers (20.1 +/- 6.8%, P = 0.02) compared with baseline. In contrast, no significant change in type II fiber area was observed in the controls. No significant changes in type I fiber area were found in either group. We conclude that a program of resistance exercise can be safely carried out by elderly women, such a program significantly increases muscle strength, and such gains are due, at least in part, to muscle hypertrophy.