Today we will talk about free weight exercises for seniors. Free weight exercises are superior to weight machines in every aspect as they build full body strength, balance, coordination and mobility all at the same time.
Unfortunately they can be quite taxing on the joints and ligaments and require good mobility athletic ability, so seniors have to be careful when incorporating them.
But what exactly are “free weights” and free weight exercises? And why are they superior to weight machines and pretty much all other forms of resistance training?
Well let’s find out!
What are free weight exercises
Free weights refer to any kind of weight that is not attached to an artificial lever, pulley or a band like in exercise machines. This would include dumbbells, kettle bells and barbells and different kinds of barbell variations like safety bars and square bars.
In gym speak free weights are often thought to refer specifically to barbells as dumbbells and kettle bells have their own specific exercises but especially for seniors it’s good to include all of these as options for free weight training.
So free weight are any weight that is not connected to a mechanism. Naturally this follows that free weight exercises are exercises that use these free weights as a resistance.
Common free weight exercises include lower body exercises like squats and lunges, whole body movements like deadlifts and cleans and upper body exercises like bench press and row variations.
Free weights are used in the two weight training sports, power lifting and Olympic weightlifting. While they might seem very similar to a layman, they are actually quite different.
Powerlifting is all about maximum strength in three movements, all done with barbells: The squat, the deadlift and the bench press. The lifts can be slow if they are continuous. The competitor with the best combined weight wins the competition.
Olympic weightlifting is all about explosive power. Explosive power means the maximum strength you can transfer to the part within fractions of a second during the “second pull” to accelerate the bar upwards. In weightlifting there are no slow lifts and it emphasizes explosive strength, mobility and technique over maximum strength.
There are two movements in the Olympic weightlifting: the snatch and the clean and jerk. In the snatch the bar is lifted overhead in a single movement and in the clean and jerk the barbell is first cleaned from the ground to the shoulders. It is then jerked overhead to finish the move.
The reason these sports are relevant to our topic is that it helps to realize how much more training with free weight is actually researched than weight machines because of these two competitive sports.
Because free weights are used in competitive sports anything and everything about them has been researched and tried by sports science organizations. Free weights have been used for centuries and studied scientifically for decades for improving athletic performance and strength.
The other reason these sports are relevant to give a reference how strong a human being can become by training with free weights. Even junior women in both sports move barbells that weight several hundred pounds. The heavyweight elite men can squat and deadlift near or over 1000 lbs.
These kinds of weight are the result of decades of training and practically always the use of performance enhancing drugs and exceptional genetics. But even amateurs training with barbells drug free can achieve some pretty incredible weights. 500 lbs squats and deadlifts and 300 lbs bench presses aren’t that uncommon in average size male amateur power lifters.
This doesn’t mean a senior should aim for heavy weights but it just shows the potential free weights have for making our bodies stronger. Free weights improve the same attributes in seniors that they do in younger individuals. Let’s look what those attributes are and why free weights are superior to weight machines and other forms of resistance exercise (maybe excluding body weight training).
Why are free weights superior to machines
The first thing with free weight movements like squats, deadlifts and overhead press is that they work the whole body. Pretty much every sing muscle in your body has to be active and function in coordination, either to move the bar or to support the weight of the bar and transfer force.
This requires activating the core muscles in virtually all the free weight movements. The best thing about the movement patterns your learn are very functional. You build strength you can use in everyday life in things like carrying groceries, home improvement, moving furniture etc.
This whole body strength and coordination also improves your balance drastically as you have to learn how to balance the weights in addition to your own weight.
Doing complex free weight movements are very taxing on the central nervous system so they also improve you neural signaling efficiency. This is very good for muscle function and balance. Just remember to rest.
When done correctly, most free weight exercises use the whole range of motion of most joints and muscles. This both requires mobility and builds it. It’s one thing to be able to move your limbs to a certain position, when you have to produce force in those position it gets challenging. E.g. touching your toes is fairly easy to achieve to most people but lifting a barbell that weights more than your body weight from that position isn’t easy to most.
Free weights are also excellent for your bone strength. The stress that squatting, pulling and pressing a heavy barbell or dumbbells puts on the body is enough to make your bones grow stronger. Strength training is great for preventing osteoporosis.
Are free weight exercises safe for seniors?
Yes and no. If you have no joint problems and have good mobility they are safe when done with proper technique
The problem is that many seniors lack sufficient mobility especially in the hips and legs to do many of the exercises properly.
When free weight exercises are performed with poor mobility and poor form they can put huge stress on the involved joints and the spine. To make things worse, it’s very easy to do these exercises completely wrong while thinking you are doing things correctly.
This is why exercise machines are superior to most seniors and
When you go to any commercial gym, you will almost always see a person doing some free weight exercise completely wrong in a potentially hazardous way.
Deadlifts with a rounded back, shallow squats with caving knees, bench presses that don’t go even near the chest etc. And almost always way too much weight. This is a potential combination for disaster; a bulging disc or a torn rotator cuff or ACL.
This is why we would recommend using free weights only in the company of an experienced strength coach or personal trainer.
Kettle bell and dumbbell exercises are generally a bit easier to learn than barbell exercises as the weights are smaller and usually the center of gravity is lower.
Best free weight exercises for seniors
If you would like to try free weight exercises, these three movements are enough to train your whole body. If you are still in relatively good condition and have full mobility and strength in your shoulders, these are all suitable for a senior.
The bench press is probably the most iconic free weight exercise and known all around the world. The bench press is great for building upper body pushing strength and it activates most of your upper body but especially the chest (pectorals), front shoulders (deltoids) and the triceps of the arms.
The three most important things in this exercise are to never do it without a spotter or safety bars, always touch your chest on every rep and don’t point your elbows straight to the side put about 45 degree angle towards your feet.
The overhead press is actually a full body movement. It is a great exercise for building whole body strength, balance and stability. You simply lift the bar from your chest yo overhead while standing. This actually sounds easy but is very hard to do with proper form. This requires several things:
- You need flex your leg and core to create a stable platform to push against
- You need to activate your back muscles to lock your shoulder plates in correct position.
- You need to push the bar upwards in a straight line, never in front of you. This will feel like you are pushing it behind you at first.
- To push the bar up your head needs to be back, you need to move your head forward once you are past it with the bar. The timing needs to be right so you don’t hit your head with the bar.
- The movement has to end with straight arms lock out every time
- Never push with your feet to get the bar up, lower the weight if you need, the push press is a different exercise.
Hex bar deadlift
We don’t recommend regular deadlifts and squats for seniors because the posses a serious risk of back injury when done incorrectly. So does this next movement, but it’s much easier to achieve proper form with limited mobility and strength. We are talking about the Hex bar deadlift, also known as the trap bar deadlift.
In the hex bar deadlift you can start at a slightly higher range of motion than with the normal barbell deadlift. Because you don’t have to go around the bar with your shins and knees, you can use lifting mechanics more similar to the squat.
In essence the hex bar is a combination of the squat and the deadlift without the toughest points of either of the movements. The third thing is that it’s easier to maintain grip as the hex bar doesn’t want to roll out of your hands like a regular deadlift.
We hope you enjoyed reading about these free weight exercises for seniors. If you don’t have existing mobility or joint issues, free weight training done correctly can be supreme compared to machines. We encourage you to try it with the supervision of a trained specialist.
You can improve your strength, coordination, mobility, bone health and balance with just few movements done couple times a week. There is no better investment in your health than that. Just remember to be careful and take it easy and listen to your body.
If you wish to learn more about strength training for seniors, please bookmark this site and subscribe to our newsletter. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments section below!
We hope to see you next time and wish you enjoyable strength training sessions in the future!