Resistance training for the older adult is much the same as it is for the younger population with a few special differences that will help keep you from hurting yourself and overcome those nagging pains and issues that seem to develop over time.
So Many Exercises, So Little Time
Choosing the Top 10 Exercises for the over 50 athlete was quite challenging since there are so many, however, once we go back to how humans were truly meant to move, we can see that the choices are quite clear and dry.
From choosing from all the fundamental human movements that we should naturally be able to do and finding appropriate ways to load them and avoid certain troublesome areas that we develop over time we can come up with a comprehensive list of exercises that will serve to keep us feeling younger, moving better and stave off the inevitable decline in strength and muscle wasting as we age.
So here we go...
The Top 10 Best Exercises for Anyone Over 50
- Squat (variations)
- Deadlifts (hip-hinge variations)
- Heavy Carries (loaded carries or moving heavy objects from one place to another)
- Planks (core stability)
- Bird Dogs (core stability while moving)
- Pushups (horizontal pushing)
- Inverted Rows (horizontal pulling)
- Cable Pulldowns (vertical pulling)
- Overhead Presses (vertical pressing)
- Single Legged Stability (single legged exercises - many to choose from here, the idea is to find one you can do that is pain free and works through a full range of motion)
Now from this list we'll break them down further into their component exercises with some modifications for dealing with age and performance issues that tend to accompany us as we get older.
These tend to be a favorite of mine since they increase are overall leg strength and ability to get in and out of a sitting position, which in my opinion is super important. The ability to move around and perform a full range squat without pain is the issue most people will suffer from right out of the gate. They either don't have enough strength to perform the movement correctly or they have one or several issues within the hip-knee-ankle that prevent them from getting into a true squat position, which should look like a person dropping their butt right inbetween the knees as if going to sit on the floor with their feet still on the ground. This video will depict a couple alternative methods to the squat to work around these lack issues for lack of mobility and also allow you to squat relatively pain free.
Now for a person that's been active and exercising consistently over the years many of these exercises are fine to be performed in their usual fashion, as long as they're not causing any pain or exacerbating some conditions. So if you're good to go with a barbell, dumbbell or kettlebell feel free to blast these with a vengeance.
Another one of my favorite lifts that helps build up the posterior chain muscles (ie. the hamstrings, glutes, calves, lower and upper back musculature). Deadlifts are fabulous because they help you get into those muscles we tend to neglect (provided they're done correctly) and will help you keep your lower body strength and ability to keep a rigid lower and upper back.
This one is great for your posture to help hold your shoulders back and chest out, making it an absolute must for office workers and anyone who is seated for most of the day. The trouble with this exercise is that it's often performed incorrectly and to achieve the hip-hinge position a lot of people have to learn to unlock their hips and sit back onto their heals in order to get the glutes and hamstrings firing correctly.
The video will give you two variations that should help start you off on the right path. And as usual, if you're already doing a deadlift variation without pain...go destroy a couple heavy sets of them for me right now!
Heavy Loaded Carries...
Nothing helps build a stronger body like loaded carries, which are simply picking something heavy up and walking with it. There are many variations to this, but farmer carries tend to be the easiest for most people to perform. There are of course, many others that will help you build a strong and functional core that is capable of moving under a load. A couple of my other favorites are zercher carries and loaded waiter carries that increase the core stability challenge and add in the shoulders and upper back musculature into the mix.
Core Exercises like Planks and Bird Dogs...
These two exercises are by far the easiest for most people to perform and help to stabilize the core musculature of the hip, abs, obliques, lower and upperback all in a one-two combo. You take a static exercise like the plank in order to develop some solid core strength and stability and then combining it with contra-lateral movement in the bird dog and you've got a super recipe to help prevent back pain and lessen the risk of fatiguing while under a load. Not to mention it's super easy to do just about anywhere without any equipment.
Not many things can challenge both the upper body pushing muscles of the triceps, chest, shoulders and upperback stabilizers like the pushup. Not only that, but being able to push yourself off the floor or into an upright position makes it super functional for us as we age.
Now a lot of people will experience problems with pushups, whether it's just too tough to perform due to lack of muscular strength or injuries in the shoulders, elbows or wrists, which makes these modifications shown in the video super beneficial to attain the strength and proper mechanics while getting things back in alignment and increasing your strength.
Inverted Rows and Cable Pulldowns...
Rowing exercises are one of those exercises that are often avoided in some exercise programs, but are vital for good shoulder health and posture. As we get older we can often see a consistent slouching posture emerge if we're not engaging and strengthening our upper back and shoulder musculature which can lead us to some pretty severe shoulder and neck pain. However, we can correct this poor posture by including some tough upper body pulling exercises like inverted rows and cable pulldowns.
Inverted rows serve to help us engage the powerful pulling muscles of the lats, rhomboids, teres muscles and posterior shoulders, all while keeping a stable core and engaging the posterior chain musculature. Plus we can increase the difficulty level simply by lowering the body closer to the ground, as seen in the video below.
Now just because we have one good pulling exercise doesn't mean we should neglect another pattern of pulling the vertical pull, which is just as important as our inverted row motion. The vertical pull allows us to get a nice stretch and contraction out of the powerful lat muscles and allows are shoulder blades to work in another crucial plane of motion which tends to get stuck or tighter if we don't use them.
To combat shoulder pain and problems with the wrist-elbow-shoulder joints choosing a uni-lateral pulldown makes a ton of sense, simply because you can put your hands in a position that feels good on all the joints. Not to mention you can really squeeze from the lats and get the shoulder blades working properly before attempting a straight bar or pull-up bar option.
Now the overhead press is somewhat challenging for most individuals over 50, especially for the ladies who already have a limited ability to push up heavy objects overhead due to their smaller structure and muscle mass. This makes overhead pressing a must for preserving shoulder, trap and tricep health as we age.
There is nothing more functional than having to pick an object up off a high shelf and bring it safely down or being able to push something up without pain or losing balance and control.
One nice trick with the overhead press to get out of problem areas with the shoulders-elbows-wrists is to use dumbbells in a neutral grip pattern as depicted in the video. This will allow you to work the shoulder and triceps hard in a much safer range of motion and not hinder the range of motion from restrictions at these joints.
Single Legged Balance Exercises...
Now last but not least on our list for the top 10 exercises for over 50 individuals is single legged balance activities. It's hard to choose a particular exercise as they're all good, but will be best suited for the individual by what hurts, what doesn't and what range of motion can be attained from each exercise.
In most cases, any single legged exercise is going to get you a lot of bang for your buck in your training, whether it's a walking lunge, split squat, step-up, single legged stiff leg deadlift, or just simply raising a foot of the ground and trying to maintain your balance.
They're all going to target the hip-knee-ankle stabilizing muscles as well as engage the core throughout the range of motion, but will be limited by what hurts and what doesn't. Many times these aches and pains can be treated with mobility work and stretching, while working what feels good and avoiding the painful ones until those tissues have been strengthened and mobilized enough to achieve a good range of motion and support. So start with what works well and find those tight areas to loosen with soft-tissue exercises, stretches, lacrosse ball massages, ART practitioners and even a good RMT.
See some examples of what you can try here in this video below...
Now, while this list isn't even close to the amount of strength exercises one can do even at an advancing stage of age, there are at least some options to try out and work towards. There's always a way to make your body stronger, fitter and more mentally tough. You just sometimes have to modify things towards your ability level and pain tolerance to get a good range of pain free range of motion.
The human body is amazing at adapting and changing. You just have to apply some stress, get a bit uncomfortable and push through the mental barriers. That way you can keep on enjoying life, moving well and making the most out of our short existence on the earth. Life's too short to squander away because you're not fit enough to travel, play sports, enjoy the outdoors, garden, etc. Stay in shape. Stay healthy. Love deeply. And live life to the fullest.
If you're interested in furthering your training goals further we have live training options here at the Strength Lab in our Fit Over 50 Program, a pre-programmed course where you have LIVE Coaching to assist your workout efforts in a clean, safe and private environment. Click the picture to get the full details...
And if you're out of our general area in Ottawa, ON then feel free to send me a message for online training! We'll see you in the gym.
Jesse “Captain Smash” Howland is the owner of SMASH’s Strength Lab, which offers targeted personal training to reach a variety of fitness and physique goals. A natural bodybuilder, competitive powerlifter, certified personal trainer, and nutrition coach, Jesse is often the go-to resource for personal training Ottawa. He studied Exercise Science at Oregon State University and even trained at the world famous Gold’s Gym. He’s a former US Army Captain with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, a former blog writer at Veterans Fitness Career College, and former Chief Executive Officer at U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM). His workouts and personal training are army-inspired to help reach your weightloss, athletic, or physique goals.