By Erin Mahoney
Vice President of Education and Personal Trainer
International Sports Sciences Association
Strength training is important for everyone, regardless of age. Of course, a strength session will look different for your 75-year-old client as compared to your 25-year-old client, but working on strength is just as important, if not more so for seniors on your client list.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that all adults do some type of strength training that hits all the major muscle groups at least two times per week. If health or ability prevents two full sessions, the recommendation is that older adults should do as much strength training as their abilities allow.
Even for seniors with limitations, building strength is important and can improve quality of life. Work with your older clients to slowly add in and build up strength training. Focus on warming up, education, good form, breathing, and progressing safely.
Why is this essential?
The human body changes as we age, of course, and often in ways we don’t like. Even healthy, normal aging includes:
• A slower metabolism.
• Decreased muscle mass and strength.
• Increased body fat.
• Reduced bone density.
• Increased bone porosity.
• Stiffer joints.
• Slower reflexes and reaction times.
• Decreased aerobic capacity.
These are just some of the normal changes we experience with aging, but they don’t have to be extreme. One of the most important reasons to exercise at all, and specifically to include strength training, is to slow and minimize these changes.
Preventing bone fractures
Bone fractures and breaks are all too common in older adults because of loss of bone density and osteoporosis. While there can be other causes of osteoporosis, and it may need to be managed medically, there is plenty of evidence that exercise can improve bone density. Weight-bearing aerobic exercise and strength training increase density and reduce the risks of breaks.
Strength training increases muscle mass
By the age of 70, the average adult has lost 25% of muscle mass. And this is due mostly to disuse and inactivity. Any kind of exercise can reverse this loss and build muscle mass and strength, but weightlifting, strength training, and resistance training are best.
Improving functional movement
Increasing strength through training is essential for improving overall function. Older adults can gain more mobility, walk farther, and even reduce the need for assistive devices like canes and walkers with regular strength training.
Building strength also helps with all kinds of other functional movements, like sitting or getting in the bathtub. This in turn just makes life easier and opens up access to more activities.
Better body composition
Older adults, especially women, tend to gain more fat while they lose muscle mass. This puts them at risk for chronic illnesses. All kinds of exercise help to maintain good body composition, and strength training is an important component.
It’s never too late to get the benefits of exercise. Find out more about how regular exercise can prevent heart disease.
Strength training for seniors benefits mental health
Just as important as physical health in aging is mental health. Getting older can put you at risk for loneliness and social isolation, depression, and other mental health issues. Building strength, which increases mobility and function and improves overall health, boosts mood and overall quality of life.
Strength training safely
Safety should always be top of your mind, regardless of the age of your client. But seniors require extra caution. Many older clients who come to you may have little to no experience with training. Those who have trained in the past may want to push to do more than their current bodies can safely handle. It’s your job to guide them slowly through safe and progressive strength training.
Always start with an evaluation of your new client and find out any medical conditions or limitations they have. Assess flexibility and strength so you know where to start to be safe.
Phase 1 – Knowledge is power
For one to two weeks spend most of your time educating your client. This should include teaching good form and safety measures, for the gym and training sessions, but also in case they want to try the exercises at home. In addition to working on form for a variety of exercises, train your client how to breathe during each movement.
Phase 2 – Train don’t strain
Now you can get into a regular routine of strength training moves. Try to hit all the muscle groups in each session. A good goal is to get in one or two sets of each exercise for eight to 15 reps. Continue to work on form and practice breathing.
This is also the right time to work with your client on listening to their bodies. Talk about the difference between good pain from fatiguing muscles and bad pain, which may be joint pain or an injury. Don’t progress during this one- to two-week phase. Just get the routine in and focus on safety.
Phase 3 – Going strong
When you feel your client is educated enough in good form, breathing, and safety, and has mastered their current moves, you can start to change things up for greater gains. Vary the workout for each individual client and consider:
• Increasing weights.
• Adding more reps or sets.
• Adding in new moves.
• Modifying any exercises as needed.
Trying different types of strength training, like resistance bands or bodyweight exercises.
The best strength-training moves for seniors
Every client will be different, of course, and these exercises can be adapted to be easier or more challenging, depending on ability and safety concerns. Doing workouts sitting in a sturdy chair or standing with a chair for support is a great way to improve stability and safety. You may use a bench in the gym, but your client can use a chair to do these safely at home.
Squats, as trainers know, are powerful compound moves that strengthen so many important muscles. Squatting is also an important functional movement. Guide your senior clients to do squats with good form over a chair or bench.
Wall or chair push-ups
Another great compound movement is the push-up, but your older clients may not be able to do them. Depending on individual ability level, start with push-ups against a wall, the back of a chair, or against a low bench. You can then progress to knee or full push-ups if possible.
This is a good stability and core move that anyone can do. To do a deadbug, lie flat on the back on a mat with arms pointing up and legs up with knees bent. Lower the right leg and left arm down to the floor without touching it. Repeat with the other arm and leg. You can make this more challenging by keeping the legs straight.
Biceps curls and triceps extensions
Guide your client through good form with these two basic arm exercises. They can do the moves from a sitting position in a chair or on a bench for stability and safety. Start with no weights to guide form and slowly progress to light weights. You can also work their triceps by doing chair dips, as long as the chair is sturdy enough.
Arm raises and rows
These exercises to target the shoulders, chest, and back can also be done safely and easily from a seated position. Again, work on form and add weight only slowly. You can also have your clients do these exercises with resistance bands as opposed to dumbbells.
The hip bridge works the hips, glutes, hamstrings, and core. Lying on a mat with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, lift the hips up as high as possible. You can add a challenge to this one by having your clients keep one leg raised at a time.
Progression in strength training should be slower for your senior clients. You can adapt exercises your client is comfortable with to make them more challenging, add weights, and slowly add in new, more difficult moves. For instance, when your client has mastered the simple moves above you might want to try lunges, planks, crunches, and exercises with weight machines.
Working with senior clients can be so rewarding for a trainer. You can help an older adult regain function and enjoy a better quality of life. Just remember to be patient and to take progression more slowly than you would with younger clients, and both you and your senior clients will get a lot of benefits from these training sessions.
For more than 30 years, International Sports Sciences Association has provided certification programs by merging the gym experience with practical applied sciences and building trust to help people build their goals. To date it has trained more than 300,000 students and placed personal trainers across 92 countries.
Erin Mahoney is ISSA’s vice president education. She has authored and served as the chief editor for textbooks on personal training, sports performance, group fitness, and behavior and lifestyle change. She earned two masters degrees focusing on sport and exercise psychology and has more than 20 years of experience educating fitness professionals and helping clients get to their goals.