Strength Training for Seniors: The Benefits of Lifting Weights

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Exercise is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, especially as we age. Strength training in particular has many health benefits, and is an important part of exercise to help seniors maintain proper health, balance, mobility and more.

What is Strength Training?

As we age, the body has to work harder to move around, go places and do things that once might have been easy. However, strength training is a great way to combat aging as it strengthens your muscles, maintains mobility and boosts balance. As a cornerstone to many great exercise routines, strength training training yields significant health benefits, especially for seniors, given that our lifestyles may often become more sedentary as we age. 

So, what is strength training? In short, it is a style of exercise that makes you flex your muscles. Through such contractions, when properly performed, this form of physical exercise bears a number of positive health effects, working to improve strength, endurance, size of skeletal muscles and bone density. Just like muscles, bones naturally get weaker as we age. When working out, the goal is to “stay strong.” These exercises put weight on bones and muscles throughout the body to maintain mobility and prevent future injuries.

At its basis, strength training commonly uses the technique of progressive weight training,  adding weight in small increments to increase resistance and the amount of effort your muscles use to complete the exercise. However beginning without any weights at all is a great way to start, especially if you have not used weights in a while. Start low, and use one or two pound weights to get your training started without injury

When it comes to exercise equipment, there is a wide variety of equipment that can be used for strength training. Free weights are perhaps the best example, although far from the only one. From free weights to cables, each piece of equipment serves a different purpose to target different muscle groups throughout your body. This way, you can get a complete body workout or focus on one or two muscle groups each time you exercise.

It is important to note that  strength training is helpful when “properly” performed, however as this type of exercise often involves weights, selecting the appropriate amount of resistance and focusing on form is crucial to avoiding injury.  To start, be sure to use low weights and gradually work your way up if you feel comfortable, while also focusing on correct form for each exercise to avoid injury. Before conducting these exercises, consult with your primary care physician to see if strength training is a good option for you. 

Why Strength Training for Seniors is Beneficial?

Throughout our lives, exercise plays a significant role in overall health, mobility and mental wellness.. When we exercise, the body releases endorphins which cause us to feel clear-minded, mentally-fit and less stressed, contributing to many aspects of our overall health in a positive way.

As we age, however, exercise grows more and more important as an integral part of our daily life, helping us to maintain our overall health and strength. For seniors in particular, exercise is linked to helping to reduce risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease and more. 

When it comes to exercise for seniors, strength training is especially important for seniors to incorporate in their routine in order to  maintain strength and mobility, rather than building it as we do when we’re younger. As our bodies age, so do the tendons and muscles that help us move about our daily life. Muscles and tendons deteriorate over time, and the deterioration can be expedited if one leads a sedentary, inactive lifestyle.

In addition to the physical benefits such as muscle, bone and tendon strength, strength training has also been shown to result in many mental health benefits, including combating depression in seniors. Exercise is a natural way to destress, and no matter how tough or easy the workout, we almost always feel good after getting some physical exercise.

Strength training leads into a number of other benefits that general exercise contributes to as well. Strength training helps seniors stay sharp and works to improve and maintain independence. Strength training also greatly improves sleep quality, another important aspect of mental health. 

Overall, the verdict is that strength training for seniors yields a number of benefits ranging from better mobility to improved mental health. No matter your skill level, weight training for seniors becomes more and more of a staple as we age. The most important part, of course, is ensuring that you perform the correct exercises with the correct form.

Since weight training exercises for seniors may often use heavy weights or equipment, understanding what exercises are best for you is the first step in any good workout routine. With proper form and practice, you will be able to avoid injury while weight training to get the best workout possible.

What are the Best Strength Training Exercises for Seniors?

Now that we have covered  some of the many benefits of weight training for seniors, the next step is learning what strength training exercises are best for seniors, why you should do them and how to perform them properly.

Weight training exercises typically focus on one or two muscle groups at a time. This means there are a number of exercises focused on certain muscle groups, leaving you with a lot of exercises to choose from.

It may seem overwhelming, but for the basics, there are some muscle groups and exercises seniors should commit to first instead of jumping right in. This way, we can focus on the muscle groups that are most important for functionality and mobility in seniors while avoiding injury.

So, what are the best strength training exercises for seniors? Let’s start with looking at what muscles and tendons seniors should be working out as a starting point.

The first area where seniors should consider implementing strength training is the legs. Undoubtedly your greatest asset for mobility, your legs, should be a major focus area when it comes to weight training. Luckily, there are plenty of weight training exercises that seniors may perform with or without weights, either in the comfort of your home or at a local gym.

As they are your largest muscle group, your legs keep you moving in everyday life, so it’s important that you make the effort to keep them moving and strong for improved strength, mobility and functional independence. The legs are essential for balance, and there are many balance exercises you can do to improve it.

Next, let’s talk about your arms. Your arms are made up of many muscle groups, including your biceps, triceps and shoulders. There are many different ways of exercising each of these muscle groups, but all are equally important in helping you maintain upper-body strength and mobility. Luckily, there are many easy upper body exercises you can do to maintain strength.

Our arms are a very intricate part of our body. They have many joints, tendons and muscles that are crucial for everyday functionality. Weight training for seniors should include any exercise that helps strengthen your arms, whether it be bicep curls, arm raises or rows, there are plenty of exercises to work your arms.

Lastly, back and hip weight training is another staple for seniors. When it comes to mobility, few areas equal in importance to the way that your hips and back do. The good thing is that many leg and arm exercises work your back to some degree, while your hips require an exercise that is a bit more focused.

Again, the importance of safety when it comes to strength training for seniors can’t be overstated. Before beginning any of these exercises, or any weight training exercise for that matter, make sure you select a weight that works for you. It should be heavy enough that it ensures you’re working your muscles the right way. Also, do not be afraid to ask for help! 

If you are working out at a gym, their staff is trained to help people of all ages with their exercise. Gym employees and trainers can show you proper form with free weights and machines. They can also help you determine what weight is best to start out with for you. When in doubt, ask a staff member for help.

Now that we’ve gone over the most important areas of strength training for seniors, what might some of these exercises actually look like?

Examples of Strength Training Exercise for Seniors

*REMINDER: ALL these exercises can be completed WITHOUT WEIGHTS.*

Dumbbell Shoulder Squats

Starting with legs, dumbbell squats are great leg and hip exercises for seniors that will strengthen muscles and tendons in your hips, hamstrings and glutes. This makes for a great exercise that improves balance prevents falls.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Begin by picking up your dumbbells, and stand tall with your feet at a shoulder-width’s distance apart. 
  • Next, rest the dumbbells on your shoulders with the dumbbells and your elbows pointing forward.

If you are not using dumbbells, hold your arms out straight in front of you. Or, if it is easier, place your right hand over your chest and on your left shoulder, and then place your left hand over your right arm on your right shoulder.

  • Now that you’re settled in your starting position, brace your core and push your hips back, bend your knees and slowly lower your body into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Pause for a second, then slowly lift yourself through your heels to return to the starting position. Nice work! You just completed the first rep, now repeat this same exercise 10 to 15 more times.

*Note: For those who wish to have more support, placing a chair behind you as you do this exercise may help with your form and the intensity of the workout 

Forward Lunge

Now let’s do another leg workout that works your hips as well. The forward lunge is a bodyweight exercise that will work all of your legs, primarily focusing on your upper leg muscles like the quadriceps and hamstrings.

Here’s how you do it: 

  • Start by standing tall with your arms down at your sides with your dumbbells in hand. 
  • Step back with your right foot, placing your toes on the ground with your heel lifted. 

If you choose not to use dumbbells, simply let your arms rest down by your sides, maintaining the same starting position.

Next, slowly bend your left knee forward as far as is comfortable for you. Allow your knee to bend until it is a few inches above the floor, but be sure to keep your weight pressed into your front heel. Draw your lower belly in, and lift your chest. 

  • After a quick pause, lift your body back up by pressing through your front foot until your standing again. 
  • Repeat this exercise 10 to 15 times, being sure to alternate feet in the process.

This is a great exercise for balance, check out some more exercises for better balance to incorporate into your routine.

Front Raises

For this exercise, your primary piece of exercise equipment will, once again, be dumbbells. Before starting, be sure to choose a weight that feels comfortable until you feel you can work your way up to heavier weights. However, it is ok not to use weights for this exercise.

This fundamental weight training exercise is a great way to strengthen your back, shoulders and arms. Here’s how to get started:

  • First, stand with your feet at a shoulder-width’s distance apart. Ensure that your back is straight and that your feet are firmly planted on the floor. 
  • Hold the dumbbells in front of you, holding them horizontally across your thighs. Be sure that you have a tight grip on the weights and that your palms are facing your thighs. 
  • For those not using weights, simply place your hands on your thighs so that your palms are facing inward.

Next, lift the weights or your arms upward, inhaling as you raise the weights with your arms straight out and palms facing down. Pause when your arms are parallel to the floor and slowly lower them back down to the starting position as you exhale. 

  • Repeat this exercise according to your workout program or until you feel you need a break.

Seated Rows

At a gym, there are a few options to complete this exercise. Machines built specifically for seated rows are a good option when available, as they ensure that your body has the correct form down before completing the exercise. As mentioned before, please consult with a gym employee before using any other forms of gym equipment you are unfamiliar with. For this exercise, the main piece of equipment is the cable machine.

To get started:

  • Sit upright on the bench and plant your feet on the floor or in the foot pads at the front end of the bench. 
  • Extend your arms to grab the handle and move your shoulders back and down. Be sure to brace your core and select a weight that is comfortable for you before beginning this exercise.
  • Next, simply exhale and bend your elbows to pull the cable towards you. Be sure to keep your elbows tucked in and your back neutral. 

Pause for a second and then extend your elbows outwards to the count of three. Without letting go of the handle, repeat this exercise as outlined in your workout plan or as you feel fit.

This exercise is a great way to build strength for your back, biceps, shoulders and core. For more information on core exercises, check out our guide on easy, but essential core exercises for seniors.

Bicep Curls

Next, we will focus on a classic exercise targeting your arms. Bicep curls are a simple, yet effective exercise to help seniors build muscle and maintain bone and tendon strength.

For this exercise, you may either sit or stand. The fundamentals are the same, but the starting positions are slightly different. To perform this exercise standing up:

  • Start by standing tall, with a dumbbell in each hand, ensuring that your back is straight and your feet are a shoulder-width’s distance apart. However, using other low-weight objects for this exercise is ok as well. Ask if your gym has 0.5 or one pound weights available.

Next, make sure that your grip on your weight of choice is firm and correct: Hold the weights horizontally at thigh level with your palms facing outward. Make sure that you aren’t holding the dumbbells directly across your thighs.

Exhale and bend your elbow, contracting your bicep muscle. Continue to raise the weight until it reaches shoulder level.

  • Pause for a second, then slowly return the weight to its original position. Repeat this exercise according to your workout plan or as many times as you feel necessary. 

Tricep Extension

For this exercise, you’ll just need one dumbbell or weight of choice. Even a water bottle is enough weight for this strength training exercise. But, using one or two-pound dumbbells is a great, low-weight alternative for seniors. 

The tricep extension, like the bicep curl, focuses on one muscle group in your arms, but the benefits extend to your tendons and bones as well. To start:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, brace your core and hold the weight tightly with both of your hands.
  • Lift the weight towards the ceiling until your arms are fully extended. Ensure that your palms are facing the roof and your elbows are pointing forward. This will be the starting position, so make sure you have your hand position right before going any further.

Next, bend your elbows and squeeze your triceps as you slowly lower the weight behind your head. Pause for a second, then extend the dumbbell back up towards the ceiling to return to the starting position.

As with all of these exercises, repeat the tricep extension according to your workout program or repeat it as many times as you feel is necessary. This is just one of many easy upper body exercises you can do to maintain strength.

Exercise is an integral part of leading a healthy lifestyle as we age, and strength training in particular is an important part of exercise to help seniors maintain proper health,  balance, mobility and more.

At Iora, our care teams take the time to help you uncover your health and wellness goals. We care for the whole person, addressing physical, social and mental health. We also work with each patient to achieve their health goals through nutrition and exercise classes designed for all ability levels.