The 15-Minute Total-Body Chair Workout

By Lauren Bedosky |

Build strength in your arms, legs, core, and more without ever having to stand up.

woman sitting in a chair

In a perfect world, we’d all perform the ideal version of an exercise. And when it comes to many strength exercises, the ideal version is usually done while standing.

“It’s always best to do a workout standing if you can,” says Franklin Antoian, C.P.T., founder of iBodyFit.

That’s because standing strength exercises usually recruit more muscle groups than seated variations, Antoian explains. Plus, when you perform any exercise from a standing position, you put weight on your hips, legs, and spine. Experts call these weight-bearing exercises, and they’re critical to bone health as well as total-body function.

That said, standing exercises aren’t manageable—or safe—for everyone. And if that’s the case, the added benefits are cancelled out by increasing your risk of falls and injury, Antoian says. Plus, with the right routine, you can absolutely get an effective full-body strength workout while seated.

If you have balance problems, are recovering from an injury or surgery, or just feel more comfortable doing seated exercises, this total-body strength plan is for you. With just five exercises, you’ll challenge the muscles in your arms, shoulders, upper back, core, and legs—without ever having to stand up.

How the Total-Body Chair Workout Works

Do one set of each exercise below in order, resting 30 to 60 seconds between moves (or more if you need it). After the final exercise, rest one to two minutes, and repeat the full circuit again (two times total). Two rounds will take you about 15 minutes to complete.

As your strength and fitness improve, you can add a third or fourth round to the workout. Just be sure to rest for one to two full minutes between rounds, and take at least one day off between strength sessions to allow your muscles to recover.

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, balance issues, or injuries, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.

Chair Exercise #1: Shoulder Rotation

Do 15 to 20 reps

Sit tall in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Extend both arms straight out to your sides so they’re level with your shoulders, palms facing down. Bend your elbows 90 degrees so your fingers point straight ahead, palms still facing the floor.

To initiate the movement, raise your hands until your palms face forward and your arms create a goal post. Slowly lower your hands back down so your palms face the floor. That’s one rep. Do 15 to 20 reps total, keeping your upper arms lifted and in line with your shoulders the entire time. It helps to imagine your elbows are glued to an imaginary tabletop—they never raise or lower much as you rotate from your shoulders.

Form check: Make sure your shoulders are down and back as you rotate. Don’t let them creep up toward your ears.

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Chair Exercise #2: Shoulder Raise

Do 15 to 20 reps

Sit tall in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, arms hanging straight down at your sides. Slowly raise both arms out to the sides as high as you can without arching your lower back or letting your shoulders creep up toward your ears.

If you can, try to raise your arms all the way overhead, with fingers pointing toward the ceiling. If that’s uncomfortable, simple raise your arms as high as you can, ideally higher than your shoulders.

Slowly lower both arms back down to your sides and repeat. Do 15 to 20 reps total.

If that’s too easy: Hold light dumbbells or water bottles as you perform the movement.

Chair Exercise #3: Biceps Curl

Do 15 to 20 reps

Grab a pair of light dumbbells, and sit tall at the edge of a chair with your feet flat, hip-width apart. Hold a weight in each hand with arms at your sides and palms facing forward.

Keeping your torso stationary and elbows tucked close to your sides, bend your elbows (not your wrists) to curl the weights up to your shoulders. Pause, then slowly return to starting position. That’s one rep. Do 15 to 20 reps total.

If that’s too easy: Slow down each rep’s lowering phase, counting to four as you lower the dumbbells to your sides.

Chair Exercise #4: March

Do 15 to 20 reps

Sit at the front of your chair with knees bent and feet flat, holding onto the sides for balance. Brace your core and lift your right knee about six inches off the floor or as high as you can without rounding your back. Pause, and then lower and repeat with your left leg. That’s one rep. Continue alternating for 15 to 20 reps total.

If that’s too easy: Try doing this exercise with your eyes closed for a balance challenge.

Chair Exercise #5: Heel Tap

Do 15 to 20 reps

Sit tall in a chair with feet flat on the ground, holding the sides of the seat for support. Engage your core. Lift your right foot and extend the leg in front of you and slightly to the side, at about a 45-degree angle. Tap your right heel on the floor, then bring the right foot back to the starting position. Repeat the movement with your left foot. That’s one rep. Continue alternating for 15 to 20 reps total.

If that’s too easy: Let go of the chair to challenge your core.

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