As we get older we lose muscle mass and strength. We also lose bone density meaning falls and knocks can become much more serious and more difficult to recover from. This is why many older people are turning to resistance exercise to help prevent muscle tissue break down, maintain strength and improve their balance and joint mobility.
Some of the many benefits of strength training for older people particularly include:
- Reducing the symptoms of osteoarthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, back pain, and mental illness.
- Weight management
- Improving sleep quality
- Elevating your metabolism
There are a catalogue of great exercises that you can choose from but I’ve selected the following exercises because they target all the key areas, provide balance training, movement correction and can be adapted to make them appropriate for various levels of abilities.
1 Glute Bridges
The hips can become massively problematic as we age. They tend to become tighter and weaker which leads to all sorts of aches, pains and issues in other joints.
Glute Bridges are a phenomenal exercise to teach your body to rely on the glutes when you extend your hip and not just your lower back or hamstrings. The ability to move at your hips while keeping your spine rigid is imperative for preventing unnecessary pressure on the lower back.
How do do it:
- Lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground and your arms by your side.
- At the bottom of the movement, your knees will form a 90-degree angle, and your hips will form a 130-140-degree angle.
- Push through your heels, and raise your hips as high as possible without arching your lower back, feeling the movement mostly in the glutes.
- At the top of the movement, your hips will form a straight line from the knees to the shoulders.
- Perform 3 sets of 15-20 reps to get you started.
2 Step Ups
Stepping up and down off a high step is a skill that deteriorates as we progress through life. This is due to a combination of muscle strength deterioration, loss of balance, and coordination. This typically results in compensation by over using the calves, arms and momentum, instead of the correct muscles.
It’s an important skill to learn or relearn for older people in order to navigate stairs and uneven surfaces safely and unaided.
How do do it:
- Stand about 6 inches from the box or bench.
- Step up with your entire foot on the bench or box not just your toes (14 inch – 20 inch height is usually appropriate for the box or bench. It should reach just below your knee cap)
- Avoid leaning too far forward as you ascend.
- Try to use the working leg as much as possible and avoid using too much spring from your back leg.
- Return to the starting position in a slow, controlled way and avoid dropping without onto the floor.
- Avoid both feet touching the box at the top as this can allow “cheating” later on in the set by only completing 3/4 of the movement on the front leg.
- Aim for about 8-10 reps on each leg, 3 sets.
3 Dumbbell Rows
The shoulders are another area which can become an issue as we get older. A common trend is for the muscles in the back half of our bodies to become weaker and generally underused. This has a significant knock on effect for your shoulder mobility, overall posture and it’s important to address this.
When you perform this exercise it’s important to avoid using momentum. Instead, use your back muscles. Position your standing leg to ensure your hips are level and your torso is facing the floor.
How do do it:
- Put your left knee on the bench, lean forward, support yourself with your left hand.
- Position your right foot on the floor, grasp the dumbbell from the floor with your right hand (palm facing in). Brace your core and lift it off the ground to put tension on the back muscles.
- Pull the dumbbell up your side by bending at the elbow until it reaches your ribs.
- Lower the weight down until your arm is fully stretched.
- Repeat for reps on both sides.
- Aim for about 3 sets with 10-15 reps on each arm.
Squatting is one of the most useful movements we can perform as humans and it’s incredibly important to practice them regularly. As the old saying goes – “use it or lose it.”
Squats are as old as man himself. It’s an important movement pattern to maintain or reclaim if you’ve lost it. It’s crucial that you learn to distribute the weight between your hips, knees and ankles in order to maintain healthy joints.
How do do it:
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Where you point your toes depends upon where you feel most comfortable. Most people have a 30-degree angle.
- Stand tall, grip the ground with your feet, especially your big toe, little toe and heel.
- Hinge SLIGHTLY at the hips and descend by bending your knees.
- Maintain your bodyweight through the middle of your feet. DON’T LET YOUR HEELS COME OFF THE GROUND!
- Try to push your knees forward and get as low as you can without your back bending or your torso hinging over too far.
- Come back up again and squeeze your glutes at the top.
- Perform 3 sets with about 10-20 reps depending on your level of ability.
5 Hip Hinges / Deadlifts
It’s important to maintain strength in the posterior chain, especially as we get on in years. One of the most practical movements to strengthen this area are Hip Hinges or Deadlifts as they’re commonly known. A faulty or weak hip hinge movement pattern can cause all sorts of problems, including one of the most common ones – lower back aches.
There are numerous varieties of Hip Hinge / Deadlift which can be selected depending on your injury history, body mechanics, skill and confidence. No matter what type of deadlift is selected, the hamstrings, glutes, lower back muscles (erector spinae) lats, traps, rear delts and rhomboids will all be working to one degree or another.
The technique below is using a barbell. The weight will be dictated by your own level of skill, experience and strength.
How do do it:
- Begin by standing with a narrow stance and your feet pointed ahead.
- Ensure the barbell is over the middle of your feet.
- Brace your core and grip the barbell just outside knee width.
- Your shoulders should be higher than your hips and your hips should be higher than your knees.
- Ensure your head is in line with your neck and your neck in line with your spine.
- Engage your hamstrings, ensure your back is straight and push through your feet.
- Try to keep the bar close to your body. It should look like a straight line from the side view.
- When you reach the top, squeeze your glutes and bring your shoulder over the top of your hips.
- Begin to lower the bar by pushing your hips back slightly, using your hamstrings like the brakes on a car.
- As the bar passes your knees, bend your knees more until the plates reach the ground.
- Keep the weight heavy enough to feel the need for all the technique, but light enough to allow you to practice it safely.
- Aim for about 10-15 reps and 3 sets.
If you’re over 50 and you know you need to do something to maintain strength and independence as you get older, then you should definitely incorporate these exercises into your regular regime. Adjust them, adapt them and make them work for you and your anatomy.
Before completing any new exercise routine you should check with your doctor or physio. If you aren’t sure whether you’re ready or not you could complete this PAR-Q form here to check.