Everything You Need to Know About Strength Training

By K. Aleisha Fetters |

Your guide to getting—and staying—strong through the years.

strength training for seniors

If your workout doesn’t include strength training, you’re missing out. Strength training helps ward off age-related muscle loss, keep your bones strong, promote mobility, prevent falls, and combat depression and cognitive decline.

But if you didn’t perform much strength training in your younger years (and even if you did), hitting the weight room now can be intimidating. Don’t sweat it! This guide will help you approach strength training in a safe, effective, and fun way that will keep you strong for life.

Strength Training: Master the Basics First

If you’re new to strength training, which is also referred to as resistance training, don’t stress about all the exercise equipment lining your gym floor. Instead, focus on performing exercises using your bodyweight so you can learn proper form and build a base level of strength before adding extra challenges to the mix, recommends Gavin McHale, a certified exercise physiologist based in Winnipeg. Doing so will reduce the risk of exercise injury while also allowing you to get better results from future workouts.

When performing basic bodyweight movements, work up to performing three sets of 10 to 15 reps, McHale says. When that starts feeling easy, it’s your cue to progress to weighted workouts.

Start with the smallest amount of weight available at your gym, and increase loads as you feel comfortable. Depending on the exercise you’re performing, resistance bands can also be great alternatives to traditional free weights like dumbbells. Try to perform three sets of eight to 12 reps, prioritizing good form above all else.

If you need help perfecting your form, ask your gym about working with a personal trainer, recommends Tiffany Chag, C.S.C.S., a strength coach at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. All exercisers, no matter their age, can benefit from some one-on-one lessons.

Aim to do strength training three to four days per week on nonconsecutive days. Your cardio workouts are great for those alternate days.

Keep in mind that this might take some easing into. “If you’ve never done resistance training before, keep day one short and sweet,” Chag says. “Aim for 10 to 15 minutes. Then see how you feel. If you’re sore afterward, wait until the soreness is gone before your next session.”

While muscle soreness isn’t a bad thing, exercise recovery tends to take longer as we get older. Giving your body ample time to recover from each workout will ensure you get the best benefits possible.

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The Best Strength Exercises for Older Adults

By strengthening the body’s largest muscle groups through functional movements, these exercises will translate to improved performance at everyday tasks such as climbing stairs, carrying groceries, and playing with your grandkids. As you become stronger, you’ll be able to increase the difficulty.

You can perform these exercises one of two ways:

  • Individually: Aim for three sets of 10 to 15 reps.
  • As a circuit: Do 10 to 15 reps of the first exercise, then the second exercise, and so on. Once you’ve completed all five exercises, that’s one round. Do three rounds total.

Ready to get started? Here’s how to perform each movement. As always, safety is key. The exercises here may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition, an injury, or balance issues, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.

Exercise #1: Squat

Squat

Stand tall with your feet shoulder- to hip-width apart. Hold your arms straight out in front of you at shoulder level, and brace your core. This is your starting position.

From here, push your hips back, and bend your knees to slowly lower your body into a squat, not letting your knees cave in as you do so. Pause, then push through your heels to slowly to return to starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for 10 to 15 reps.

Make it easier: Stand in front of a chair. Keeping your weight on your heels, bend your knees to slowly lower your body to the chair with control. As soon as your rear touches the seat, push through your heels to return to standing. Still too challenging? Check out more tips in our beginner’s guide to the squat.

Make it harder: Hold a dumbbell or medicine ball at your chest throughout the exercise.

Exercise #2: Incline Pushup

Wall Pushup

Stand facing a table, dresser, or wall. The taller the object or more upright you are, the easier the move. Place your hands on the surface or edge, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Move your feet back until you are at a comfortable angle, keeping your arms straight and perpendicular to your body.

Bend your elbows to slowly your chest toward the object, pause, and then press back up to straighten your arms. Keep your body straight throughout the entire movement, making sure to engage your abs and squeeze your rear. That’s one rep. Aim for 10 to 15 reps.

Make it harder: As you get stronger, reduce the incline. So if pushups using a wall start to feel easy, try them using a countertop. When that feels too easy, try them using a bench, and then finally the floor.

Exercise #3: Seated Row

Seated Row

Sit with your legs extended, and place the center of a resistance band securely behind the arches of your feet. If you’re using a long exercise band, you can loop it around your feet twice so that, when you hold the band, it’s taut. Grab the ends of the band with both hands, arms extended and palms facing each other.

Sitting tall, pull your shoulder blades down and back, and bend at the elbows to slowly pull the band toward your core. Drive your elbows straight back; do not let them flare to the sides. Slowly reverse the movement to return to starting position. That’s one rep. Aim for 10 to 15 reps.

Make it easier: If you can’t easily get down on the floor, try the seated row in a chair or the seated row machine.

Make it harder: If you want to try bent-over rows with dumbbells, talk to your doctor to make sure your lower back is healthy enough for the movement.

Exercise #4: Stationary Lunge

Lunge

Stand tall with your arms down at your sides. Step back with your right foot, placing your toes on the ground and keeping your heel lifted.

From this staggered stance, bend your front (left) knee to slowly lower your body as far as comfortable. Allow your back knee to bend as well until it hovers a few inches above the floor, but keep your weight pressed into your front heel. Draw your lower belly in, and lift your chest.

Pause, then press through your front foot to raise your body back to standing. That’s one rep. Aim for 10 to 15 reps on each side.

Make it easier: Place your hands on the back of a sturdy chair or a wall for support. Troublesome knees? You can lean forward slightly from the waist to reduce stress on your joints or check out more ways to make lunges easier on your knees.

Make it harder: Bodyweight lunges are plenty taxing for most older adults, but if you need an extra challenge, you can increase resistance by holding a small weight in each hand.

Exercise #5: Dead Bug

Dead Bug

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Raise your bent legs up so that your knees are stacked over your hips, keeping a 90-degree bend in your knees. Brace your core to press your low back into the floor; make sure to maintain this flat-back position throughout the entire exercise. With your palms facing each other, bring arms up to point toward the ceiling.

Straighten your left leg and bring it toward the floor (try not to let it touch). At the same time, bring your right arm back toward the floor (try not to let it touch). Pause, then bring your arm and leg back to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side with right leg and left arm extended. That’s one rep. Aim for 10 to 15 reps.

Make it easier: Keep your legs bent as you lower them toward the floor.

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