Today we are going to take a look at the best strength exercises for seniors. Improving and maintaining your strength is crucial for your health as you get older.
We have written a lot about the importance of strength training before and showed you how you can train all you body parts separately. Today we are going to focus on the most effective exercises and routines for building strength in seniors.
Let’s start by looking at what strength training actually is and how it works.
How strength training works
Strength training involves using a resistance to activate your muscles. The force you have to produce with your muscles to move that weight causes stress on the muscle.
When a muscle is stressed enough a series of metabolic and biological processes cause the muscle to adapt. The adaptation will happen through two mechanisms.
First is neural adaptation. You muscles consist of thousands of individual muscle cells that are controlled by your central nervous system. When you stress your muscles you neural signaling strength will improve and you can recruit more of your muscles cell simultaneously. Your neural system will also learn to move your muscles more efficiently in sequence to produce more force.
The second adaptation is increase in muscle mass. Each of the muscle cells use will slowly increase in size when they are stressed. This is because the stress damages them slightly and they will react to this by growing larger and storing more energy in the form of glycogen to protect them from future stress.
Many people have this misconception that strength training requires immense amounts of hard strenuous work to be effective. They have likely seen some strong young guy doing intense workouts in the gym or maybe a documentary of bodybuilders of professional weight lifters training.
It is true that building a bodybuilder physique or Olympic level weightlifter strength will require unthinkable amount of hard work but you have to remember these people are in many cases doing it for a profession and at top-level all strength athletes and bodybuilders are using performance enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids.
This is not something a casual gym goer or a senior looking to improve health and the functionality of their body needs to be concerned. Strength training that is goof for health doesn’t have to be that hard, many actually enjoy it and prefer it over typical cardiovascular exercise like jogging.
There is actually a large gap between doing just enough work to stress a muscle enough to cause adaptation and overexertion. In strength training more is definitely not better, especially for seniors.
The muscle can get only that much stronger from a single workout (an adaptation cycle). If a muscle is stressed beyond maximal adaptation potential, it will just take more time to recover from the workout.
This in turn will lead to longer period between workouts because your muscles will be sore and can’t function to their full potential. In seniors the capacity recover from workouts will be lower than in younger adults because of age related hormonal and metabolic changes. This is why you have to start light and progress slowly and consistently.
On the other hand, if the muscle is stressed too little, no adaptation will happen. You will just likely maintain your strength level.
So the trick is to stress the muscle just enough for adaptation to happen, without overexerting it, so you can do another workout couple days later. In the next workout you add the smallest increment in resistance possible or maybe a repetition or two to increase the stress and drive adaptation. This is called progression.
When you do this week after week, month after month and year after year, you will become much stronger than you could have imagined. It’s like climbing a mountain, you have to do it one step at a time.
To have the full health effects is usually enough for most seniors to do a progressive strength program for few months and then just maintain their acquired strength. A typical progressive strength training program requires you to do 3 moderate to high intensity full body workouts a week.
Fortunately it takes much less work to maintain muscle mass and strength that it does to build it. Unfortunately older adults have to work harder to maintain their muscles but usually a moderate intensity full body workout once or twice a week is enough for that.
Best strength exercises for seniors
The best strength exercises for seniors should be simple, effective, safe and affect as many muscles as possible. For the exercises we are going to recommend, you are going to likely need a gym membership as there will be couple exercises that require the use of machines.
For the adaptations we talked about in the previous chapter to happen, the exercises need to be easy to increase weight and repetitions for progression.
In case you want to workout at home or not use a gym, you can substitute the machine exercises with a body weight, dumbbell or kettlebell exercise that targets the same muscle groups. Don’t worry, we will show you the resources soon.
At the end of this post you will find simple instructions for planning an exercise routine. This will work with the substitute movements as well.
Leg press is the perfect lower body exercise for seniors. It is and isolated lower body exercise, unlike different forms of squats that many consider as the superior lower body exercise. It is true that free weight movements like squats are more effective for overall strength, muscle mass and athletic performance because they utilize the hold body and require you to keep balance.
There are couple big issues with squats for seniors however, especially untrained ones. Weighted squats require quite a bit of practice until you can perform them safely and effectively. They require very good mobility, balance and muscle coordination, something many seniors don’t have.
Not to mention it requires quite a bit of strength to perform a full range of motion squat, even with body weight or just the barbell. This kind of strength is also something most untrained seniors don’t have.
Lastly squats can be hard on the joints and back. Especially the knees and hips are at risk if you have mobility and strength imbalances. Squats are perfectly safe and can even improve knee pain when performed correctly, but most untrained seniors have some level of mobility issues that increase the likelihood of injury.
Squats put quite a bit of pressure on the lower back, especially if you have technique issues and finish a heavy squat with a “good morning” where your hips shoot up too fast and leave your lower back with all the work.
You should never perform heavy barbell squats if you have lower back issues. It’s much safer to perform body weight squats for functionality and do strength work with the leg press for your legs.
The leg press is the perfect exercise for untrained seniors for the same reason the squat isn’t. The leg press doesn’t require much practice and the range of motion can be adjusted according to your mobility. Since you are sitting the leg press doesn’t require balancing and the coordination required is minimal.
In the leg press few things are important to pay attention to. You have to adjust your foot stance to match your individual proportions. You should try what feels most natural and strong with minimal weight. The things you can vary are the width of your stance, how much your ankles are rotated outwards and how high or low at the sledge you place your feet.
Some people feel comfortable with a wider stance with their feet rotated outwards up to 30 degrees while some people prefer a narrower stance with their feet pointing straight forward. It all depend on your individual hip structure so try different variations and use the one that feel best in your knees and hips and allow the greatest range of motion. A good starting point would be stance you use for jumping.
The only other important thing to watch out for is your lower back. You lower back can’t raise off the bench under any circumstances. When this happens, you risk a lumbar spine disc injury. It’s always the result of running out of range of motion in your legs. When your ankles, knees or hips can’t bend anymore, the weight of the sledge will start to rotate your hips forward, forcing the of the bench if you allow this to happen.
To prevent this, you need know couple things. The first is to find the proper width for your stance that allows the most range of motion like we mentioned a second ago. The second is to place your feed around the center of the sledge platform. If your feet are too high, your hips will run out of range of motion, if they are too low your ankles will run out of range of motion.
The third is the fact that you might have to do less than full range of motion leg presses because your current mobility won’t allow doing the full ROM. This will improve as you improve your mobility and do more of the exercise.
The next extremely good strength exercise for seniors is the Romanian deadlift. It’s a bit more technical than leg press because it’s a free weight movement. It’s still relatively easy to perform if you know the right cues and very safe with moderate weights.
The Romanian deadlift is not actually a deadlift but it’s named that way because it resembles the conventional deadlift and shares some of the characteristics. A real deadlift requires the weight to be “dead” in the beginning of the lift. I.e. sitting still on the floor. The removes a component from the lift called the stretch reflex which allows you to lift more weight under certain conditions. That’s why a typical deadlift build brute strength from a dead stop unlike a squat, leg press or a Romanian deadlift.
In the Romanian deadlift you begin with the weight on your hips in front of you, standing up. You then lower the weight by hinging from the hips, you don’t squat the weight down but hinge. This is the most important part of the movement to recognize and everything else will become easy.
You then bring the weight down you legs, by hinging at the hips until you feel a good stretch at you hamstrings and then reverse the movement by pushing your hips forward. Your hips should never drop and the weight should never touch the ground unless you have extremely good mobility and flexibility in your hips and hamstrings.
So the Romanian deadlift (RDL in short) differs from a real deadlift in the fact that you don’t start from a dead stop at the ground but you lower the weight and get a stretch (and a stretch reflex) in your hamstrings instead. The movement pattern of hinging of the hips is the secret to lower body strength, power and athletic performance and no movement teaches is better than the RDL.
The RDL is superior to the conventional deadlift for seniors because you can effectively perform this exercise with small weights and it teaches the patter you need for doing regular deadlifts. If you haven’t learned to use your hips properly, you will mostly use your back and quads in the deadlift, which can lead to an injury.
The RDL activates all the large muscles of your posterior chain. These include your hamstrings, glutes and pretty much all the muscle of the back and the core. These are the largest and most powerful muscles of your body. You use these muscles to produce force when you walk, run, jump and to lift or push anything heavy.
Unfortunately many if not most people these days don’t even know how to use this muscles if they have no athletic background. Sitting too much and not knowing the proper movement patterns will cause the posterior chain muscles to weaken. A weak posterior chain can lead to a bad posture and to back and knee problems, which Romanian deadlifts can actually fix!
If you want to learn more about Romanian deadlift, check out this post about strengthening the hips.
Upper body strength exercises
For the upper body you will need to do two or three different exercises. Our recommendation is to do one horizontal pushing exercise that activates the pectorals as well as the anterior deltoids and triceps, one horizontal pulling exercise that activates the muscles of the upper back and the biceps and one exercise for the shoulders.
The exercises for the chest include the bench press, push-ups and different kinds of pressing machines in the gyms. In all honesty pressing strength is not that important for health and functionality in seniors so it doesn’t matter that much which you perform. We recommend you do the bench press because it will activate most of the upper body musculature. It requires some practice, so start light and don’t progress in weight until you feel comfortable with the barbell. You can find instructions for performing the exercise here.
For the back we recommend the lat pull down. It’s a simple upper back exercise that mimics the pull up. Most seniors can’t perform several pull ups with full range of motion so the lat pull is a better option. The lat pull down will activate the latissimus dorsi and the biceps as well as several smaller back muscles.
For the shoulders you should do lateral raises like shown in this shoulder exercise tutorial.
Simple free exercise routine for seniors
To get started with your strength training we are going to show you a super simple exercises routine that should take you around half an hour to perform. You should do this routine at least twice a week but three times would be perfect in the start until you have gained some serious strength.
Firstly we will be performing a full body split. This means you will do exercises for the whole body in the same workout. The exercises we will be performing are the ones we showed you before, in this exact order:
- Romanian deadlift
- Bench press (or another press)
- Leg press
- Lat pull down (or another pull)
- Lateral raises
You will start your workout with a short warm up like doing 5 minutes on the stationary bike and some slight stretches.
Every exercise will be performed in at least two warm up sets and at least one work set. The warm up sets prepare you for the work set and the work set is what you should aim to improve in every workout.
You will be aiming to perform 10 repetitions on your work set. If you can perform 10 repetitions, you will add the smallest increment of weight possible in the next workout. The warm up weight don’t have to be full 10 repetitions, do enough to feel some real resistance but don’t wear your muscles down, leave that to the work set.
So the workout would look something like this:
- Romanian deadlift: 10 x barbell (45 lbs), 5 x 55lbs, 9 x 65 lbs (aim for 10 reps next time)
- Bench press: 5 x barbell (45 lbs), 5 x 55lbs, 10 x 60 lbs (add weight next time)
- Leg press: 10 x 45 lbs, 10 x 60 lbs, 8 x 90 lbs (aim for 10 reps next time)
- Lat pull down: 10 x 20 lbs, 8 x 30 lbs, 10 x 40 lbs (add weight next time)
- Lateral raises: 10 x 5lbs, 10 x 10 lbs, 6 x 15 lbs.
You will achieve a natural sustainable progression by increasing the reps or weight in every workout. In time, you can also add workload by implementing another work set for each movement. The warm up sets and weights in the example workout are just examples, you can do less or more if you feel like it. You should start with something that you can perform for 10 reps quite comfortably as your first work set to avoid getting too sore.
If you do get sore after your first workouts, don’t get discouraged, your muscles will adapt and you won’t get sore after couple weeks of regular strength training.
We hope you enjoyed our tips for the best strength exercises for seniors. Building and maintaining strength and muscles mass is very important as you get older. Having good strength can prevent all sorts of metabolic illnesses and protect you from things like falling and injuries.
A strong body will also allow you to keep active and move independently longer than a weak body will. Muscle strength has even been shown to correlate with all cause mortality so this is really important stuff for your health as you grow older.
If you have any questions about the exercises or strength training in general, please ask in the comments section below and we will do our best to provide you with an educated answer.
Strength training doesn’t have to grueling and exhausting. When done right it’s very effective, enjoyable and even fun. It’s wise to start very light and add resistance incrementally, this way your body will have enough time to adapt without getting too sore.
If you enjoy reading about strength training and health tips for seniors, please bookmark our site and join our newsletter.
See you next time!