If there was a one single exercise I would recommend to seniors, it would be the squat. Squats improve your leg strength, mobility, balance and ability to move in one easy movement. So today we will talk about squats for seniors.
Squats are one of the most natural movement patters for humans. In many cultures squats are used for resting and doing your business in the bathroom, but unfortunately in the modern western world most people have actually forgotten how to perform the squat.
This is because we are taught to sit everywhere. In school, in the office, in the bathroom, in the car, in front of the computer or TV etc. The seats are always too high to require you to perform a full squat. All this sitting will make your muscles weak and joint immobile.
If you would have to perform several body weight squats every day for your life, like people have done for thousands of years, you would reduce your risk of having knee and back problems significantly and improve your health and fitness.
This is because our body is designed to perform the squat and doing them in full range of moment will keep your joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles strong and mobile. Squats also challenge your balance, stability and proprioception and are excellent for improving lower boy strength.
What is a squat
Because most people are so alienated from the movement pattern of the squat, I thought it would be good to talk about what exactly counts as a squat and what doesn’t.
A full squat is movement pattern where you sit down between your legs so that your heels remain flat on the ground and your hips drop below the level of your knees.
The bottom position of a squat can be passive (relaxed) or active. When you relax at the bottom of the squat your lower back will naturally round a bit as your pelvis tilts forward for full depth. This is perfectly safe with body weight and for resting if you are normal weight. This is not a safe position for your lower back if you lift any kind of load however.
The passive bottom position is what people in Asia use to rest while waiting for something and the same position is used by billions of people around the world while going to the bathroom. So it’s natural to say the least and perfectly safe. It will feel awkward at first if you are not use to it, because it requires quite a bit of mobility on your joints and ligaments to relax on this position.
In the active bottom position you will keep your back flat and hips active. You will not let your hips tilt in front. This will load your glutes and hamstrings and protect your lower back, allowing you to either lift a load or explode up to a jump. The active full squat is the secret to athletic performance because the pattern is used for producing explosive force in many sports.
There are variations of the squat like box squat, chair squat, back squat, front squat etc. but anything that doesn’t involve using your both legs and require you to drop your hips below your knees is not really a squat.
It’s very typical to see people doing partial squats at the gym or in exercise classes. Especially with seniors it seems typical that trainers don’t even try to teach people how to perform a full squat. This is counterproductive because it would likely be more beneficial to be able to perform a single full range of motion squat instead of a hundred partial squats.
Partial squats only make existing muscle imbalances caused by excessive sitting worse. The typical problems are inactive and weak hips, weak hamstrings, hip, knee and ankle mobility issues and overactive (but weak) quads. Partial squats reinforce the incorrect movement patterns and put especially your knee joints at risk due incorrect bio mechanics and muscle imbalances.
Correct squat technique
When you perform a squat correctly, you will activate all the major muscles groups of your legs, hips and core. These include the quadriceps muscles in front of your thighs, the hamstrings behind your thighs, the glutes, the calves and the muscle of the back and abdomen.
The key to a successful and correct squat is hip activation. Without proper hip activation you will perform the movement with your quads and by rounding your lower back.
If you can’t get to the bottom position of a squat without lifting your heels up, you likely don’t have active hips or you have very limited ankle mobility.
I know this because if you don’t use your hips actively, you will squat down by bringing your knees forward. Eventually your knees can’t travel forward anymore, so you have to raise your heels to get lower.
The problem with this approach is that it essentially two-thirds of your leg muscles are not active and your knees have to reach extreme position which is not good for them.
Instead it’s better to perform a squat by bringing your hips back. You keep the weight on your heels or mid foot and bring your hips back (by sticking your but back with neutral spine) and then start to lower them. You knees will only move slightly forward. You will at first feel like you will fall backwards so grab hold of something sturdy while trying this.
You can learn the correct squat pattern from by free training program you can download below and find here: Free weight training program.
Squat progression for seniors
So how should senior people progress with squats? Well the first and most important step is to learn the correct movement pattern from the program by doing assisted squats.
Assisted squats involve using a support to perform and learn the squat pattern. Assisted squats are performed by holding on to something sturdy in front of you for support.
This can be a table, a couch a kitchen sink or anything that can hold your weight leaning on it and that you can hold securely. The support has two functions, to offer a point of balance for learning the hip activation by bringing your hips back and to assist you in rising up from the bottom of the squat.
The key thing with assisted squats is to first learn the hip activation and then learn how to perform the movement pattern with as little support as possible. Eventually you should be able to lower down to a squat without really leaning on the support for balance and then get up without really assiting with your arms.
When you are able to perform 10 repetitions of the assisted squats, it’s time to add some chair squats to the workout.
Once you can handle the assisted squats, you can perform a several repetitions of chair squats after them to improve your strength.
The chair squat is performed by simply sitting on a chair (as low as you can find) using the movement pattern we learned with the assisted squats, pausing for a second and then getting up.
The chair serves the same purpose as the support in the assisted squats. It’s there for you to sit on so you won’t be afraid of falling on your behind. This is a natural fear when you try to perform a full squat with active hips and haven’t learned the pattern yet. When you have something to sit on, you tend to forget the fear.
You can do a little forward lean to assist with the get up, but try to keep the movement as fluent as possible. Once you can do a set of 10 of assisted squats followed by a set of 10 of chairs squats it’s time to start doing full squats.
At this point you should be able to perform at least couple perfect repetitions of the full squat with good balance and control. The full squat is just like the assisted squat or the chair squat, just without any form of support. It’s all you!
You perform the full squat with exactly the same technique we learned. Sit your hips back and bring them down while only slightly moving your arms forward. You can hold your arms in front of you for added balance.
Be careful at first to not lose balance and keep your hips active at the bottom. When your hips go below parallels with your knees, reverse the movement in a controlled manner and explode up. Remember to keep a tight core and squeeze your abs.
Do full squats in a progression of several sets. If you can perform 5 repetitions with good form, start with a three sets of 5. Add a repetition to each set or an additional set every workout. You can continue this kind of progression for several weeks.
Once you can perform 20 repetitions of full body weight squats with ease, it’s time to introduce external weights. If you are satisfied with your results at this point, there is no real need to keep on adding weight because you likely have already plenty of leg strength for health, so it’s more of a preference.
Firstly the added weight will naturally require more strength to perform a repetition. Additionally, you have to hold and support the weight with your upper body, increasing muscle activation significantly.
The added weight will also change your center of balance, depending on the placing of the weight. A goblet squat where you hold a dumbbell on front of your body requires a different movement pattern and balance than a barbell back squat where the bar is on your back.
The details of different weighted squats are out of the scope of this post, so if you want to learn about weighted squats, I will do a more comprehensive post in the future.
Put shortly, weighted squat allow you to load the squat in a progressive manner to achieve progressive overload over a long period of time, which is the key element of strength training. Barbells are the best tool for this because they allow very small increases and won’t run out of weight.
It’s possible to improve your barbell squat strength tremendously even for seniors:
I hope you enjoyed reading about this squat progression for seniors and will try it your self. You won’t be disappointed with the results, I promise you!
Squats are truly the perfect exercise for seniors. They challenge your leg strength, mobility and balance unlike any other single movement. They are also a very natural movement pattern that our body is designed to perform.
If you are not interested in strength training in any way, at least learn the proper way to perform a body weight squat and aim to do several of them every day. This way you will maintain a base level of leg strength that is vital for living and getting around independently.
If you are interested in strength training, I recommend you check out by free strength training program that includes the assisted squat and several other movements that train your upper body as well!
See you next time!