Our back musculature is what keeps us upright and in good posture. Back strength can diminish fast as we get older. Today we will look at the best back strengthening exercises for the elderly.
Weak back muscles can cause many problems with posture, back pain, arm strength and general mobility and functioning.
It’s typical our posture hunches over as we get older, especially if we do a lot of sitting. There can be structural age related changes in the spine but in many cases it’s weak back muscles that allows this to happen.
That’s why it’s important to have strong muscles in your back. It can save your from a lot of back pain and mobility issues as you grow older. A strong back will improve the quality of your life and improve your ability to function on your own.
Why is back strength important for seniors
One of the most common health complaints in the elderly is back pain. Lower back pain is very common in all adults but especially seniors are prone to upper back pain as well.
Strong back musculature is paramount for good posture and good posture is paramount for healthy spine. Weak back muscles can cause posture issues that make you susceptible to spinal problems like disc degeneration and bulging, which can cause sciatica and nerve issues.
Strong back muscles also help with leg and core strength and balance as the lower back muscles are responsible for transferring force between your legs and upper body.
The upper back muscles are responsible for maintaining good posture in your thoracic spine and they are much responsible for your arm strength. Any time you pull something (starting a lawn mower for example) with your arms, you are actually using the large muscles of your upper back.
If you are not very active and sit a lot, the large muscles and especially the smaller muscles of the spine can wither and become atrophied. This will hunch your posture and make you prone to back pain and injuries.
Older women are in the greatest risk of having weak backs if they don’t take care of their back strength. This is because men in general carry more muscle mass, especially in the upper back, and thus can stand to lose more muscle before running into trouble.
So now that we know why the strength of our back is so important as we get older it’s time to look at the muscles of the back!
Muscles of the back
The muscles of the back can be divided in to lower and upper back muscles. There are a lot of muscles in the back so we are going to keep this introduction pretty simple.
Lower back muscles: Lower back muscles are important for keeping your posture correct and aligning your spine. They are also extremely important for transferring force between your lower and upper body.
If you don’t have sufficient strength in your legs or have not learned the correct lifting form, it’s easy to strain your lower back when lifting something heavy. This is because the large back muscles and spine are very strong when they are contracted isometrically to transfer force, but they are weak when you round your back and use the lower back muscles to lift the weight instead of your legs. This is what the saying, lift with your legs means.
The back musculature consists of large superficial muscles like the erector spinae, the large muscles that run along your spine on both sides of your back. These large muscles are responsible for doing all the hard work during lifting and activity. These however are rarely the reason for lower back pain however.
Below the large muscles are couple layer of deeper muscles that function to support your spine, core and posture. When you pull your back, it’s usually one of these small muscles that suffer an injury. Even a small tear can result in a severe spasm of the surrounding muscles.
These deep muscles are so close to the nerve roots of the spine, that any scar tissue or just spasm can cause chronic pain even after the injury has healed.
To avoid these tears it important to keep your back strong. Strengthening these small muscles happens when you do back exercises and other activities with correct posture.
Upper back muscles:
The upper back muscles are the largest muscles of the upper body. On the surface the two main muscles are the Latissimus dorsi or lats for short and the Trapetzius or traps for short.
The lats run across you back all the way from lower back to your shoulders. Their main function is moving your upper back backwards but since they are such a large muscle that cover the whole back they also contribute to spinal flexion with the erector spinae.
The other large muscle of the upper back is the Trapezius. It runs from the mid back to over your shoulders and neck.
Traps are responsible for three important functions:
- Supporting the weight of the arm and raising the shoulder
- Retracting the scapula, e.g. bringing your shoulders back; a middle region (transverse), which retracts the scapula;
- Pulling your shoulders back and down.
The deeper muscles of the upper back include the rhomboids, teres minor and major and several smaller muscles that connect to the scapula, clavicle and neck.
Now that we have a general understanding of the musculature of the back it’s time to look at exercise to train the muscles!
Lower back exercises for seniors
Kettle Bell Deadlift
Probably the best overall back exercise there is the deadlift. The deadlift can be done with a barbell, dumbbells or a kettle bell. Don’t let the name scare you. It refers to the weight being dead still on the ground when you begin the movement.
The barbell deadlift in general is not the best option for older people as the minimal load in the correct position is usually over 100 lbs. Many senior men might able to lift this for a repetition or two but the risk of injury on an untrained senior person is too great. If you know how to safely deadlift heavy barbells as a senior, you won’t probably be reading about strength training tips on the internet anyways.
The best option for seniors is the kettle bell deadlift. It provides enough resistance to improve the strength of your back muscle and the handle is at a proper height compared to dumbbells.
The important things with this movement are:
- Hinge at the hip
- Keep a neutral (straight) back
- Always start from dead stop. That’s why it’s called a deadlift. The weight is dead.
The deadlift is so great because it uses all of your back muscles and it does it in a functional way. When you learn proper deadlift form you learn how to pick up heavy things like groceries, luggage and grand children in a safe manner. Using your hips and legs for force and the back to transfer that force to your arms.
You don’t necessarily need other back exercises besides the deadlift.
You can buy a single heavy kettle bell that you can do few repetitions with safely. You can do few sets every couple of days and every week add one repetition to each set.
So your routine could be done with a 35 lbs kettle bell for example:
- Week 1: 3 sets of 3 repetitions three times a week
- Week 2: 3 sets of 4 repetitions three times a week
- Week 3: 3 sets of 5 repetitions three times a week
- Week 20: 4 sets of 20 repetitions four times a week
As you can see you can change any of the variables. The important thing is to try to do a bit more every week and not to rush it. Strength improves slowly over time. The progression will slower the older you are.
Back extension is a great exercise you can do anywhere without equipment. It can be hard for some seniors with mobility issues and if you have a bit of belly. Try it for yourself, if it feels good it’s a very good exercise for strengthening the lower back:
Upper back exercises for elderly
The upper back muscles are mainly responsible for pulling your arms down and back. That’s why variations of rows and pull downs are best exercises for the upper back.
For elders it’s definitely the easiest to train the upper back at the gym with machines that use these muscles. The most important movements are the lat pull and the seated row.
The lat pull simulates the pull-up, which most seniors can’t perform. It allows you to adjust the weight according to your strength.
The seated rows build horizontal strength in contrast to the lat pull. It’s important to have strong muscles in both directions to not develop imbalances.
The kettle bell row is a great upper back movement you can do at home like the kettle bell deadlift. You might need a lighter kettle bell than you use for the deadlift, as the muscle of the upper back are much weaker than the legs and lower back.
This can be done with dumbbells as well. If you decide to use the same kettle bell as with the deadlift, please be very careful. You can probably use it once you build strength but injury risk is high in the beginning.
We hope you enjoyed these back exercise tips for the elderly. If you have any questions or suggestions or just want to chat about strength training, don’t hesitate to drop a comment below. We promise to answer as soon as possible.
Having a strong back is very important for pain free life and active life style as we get older. That’s why it’s important for you to take good care of your back strength. We here at Elder Strength want you to enjoy training your body!
Getting fit doesn’t have to be a chore. It’s a great way to find more about yourself and it’s also a great way to meet new people. That’s why we always encourage seniors to go to the gym or join group classes and courses when possible!
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