Image for elderly strength training article If you think you’re “too old” to do strength training exercises, think again! Studies have shown that even 90- to 100-year-old nursing home residents can benefit from a program of regular strength-training exercises.

Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle and strength and decreased quality of muscle tissue often seen in older adults. Although many questions remain about muscle loss and aging, one thing is certain: strength training exercises can help reduce these effects. Even very small changes in muscle size can make a big difference in strength, especially in people who have already lost a lot of muscle.

About Strength-Training Exercises

Benefits

According to the American Spine Society, strength training can provide the following benefits in older adults:

  • Better balance and, consequently, reduced risk of falls
  • Quicker responses, which may also play a role in preventing falls
  • Reduced risk of osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
  • Improved quality of life

Examples of Strength-Training Exercises

You can increase your strength by regularly using any of the following:

Weights

One of the best ways to increase strength is by lifting or pushing weights and gradually increasing the amount of weight you use. You can use the hand and ankle weights sold in sporting-goods stores, or you can use things like emptied milk jugs filled with sand or water, or socks filled with beans and tied shut at the ends.

  • Strength-training equipment
  • A resistance band
  • Other activities

How Much and How Often?

The National Institute on Aging recommends the following tips on how much and how often you should do strength-training exercises:

  • Exercise all of your major muscle groups at least twice a week.
  • Don't do strength exercises of the same muscle group two days in a row.
  • Depending on your condition, you might need to start out using as little as one or two pounds of weight, or no weight at all.
  • Use a minimum of weight the first week, then gradually add weight. Starting out with weights that are too heavy can cause injuries.
  • Gradually increase the amount of weight in order to benefit from strength exercises.
  • When doing a strength exercise, do 8-15 repetitions in a row. Wait a minute, then do another set of 8-15 repetitions in a row of the same exercise.
  • Take three seconds to lift or push a weight into place; hold the position for one second, and take another three seconds to lower the weight. Don't let the weight drop; lowering it slowly is very important.
  • It should feel somewhere between hard and very hard for you to lift or push the weight. It should not feel very, very hard. If you can't lift or push a weight eight times in a row, it's too heavy for you. Reduce the amount of weight. If you can lift a weight more than 15 times in a row, it's too light for you. Increase the amount of weight. Do not increase more than 5% for all upper body and 10% for lower body exercises.
  • Stretch after strength exercises, when your muscles are warmed up. If you stretch before strength exercises, be sure to warm up your muscles first (through light walking and arm pumping, for example). Research has demonstrated that holding each stretch a minimum of 30 seconds is most beneficial.

Safety Tips

  • Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist before engaging in a new exercise program.
  • Breathe normally while exercising. Holding your breath (known as Valsalva maneuver) while straining can cause increases in blood pressure. This is especially true for people with cardiovascular disease.
  • If you have had a hip repair or replacement, check with your surgeon before doing lower-body exercises.
  • If you have had a hip replacement, don't cross your legs, and don't bend your hips farther than a 90° angle.
  • Avoid jerking or thrusting weights into position. This can cause injuries. Use smooth, steady movements.
  • Avoid "locking" the joints in your arms and legs in a tightly straightened position.
  • Breathe out as you lift or push, and breathe in as you relax.
  • Muscle soreness lasting up to a few days and slight fatigue are normal after muscle-building exercises, but exhaustion, sore joints, and unpleasant muscle pulling aren't. The latter symptoms may mean you are overdoing it.
  • None of the exercises you do should cause pain. The range within which you move your arms and legs should never hurt.

Build That Brawn!

These exercises, from the National Institute of Aging, can help increase your strength when performed on a regular basis:

Arm Raise

This exercise strengthens shoulder muscles.

  1. Sit in an armless chair with your back supported by the back of chair.
  2. Keep feet flat on floor, even with your shoulders.
  3. Hold hand weights straight down at your sides, with palms facing inward.
  4. Raise both arms to side, shoulder height.
  5. Hold the position for one second.
  6. Slowly lower arms to sides. Pause.
  7. Repeat 8-15 times.
  8. Rest; then do another set of 8-12 repetitions.

Chair Stand

This strengthens muscles in abdomen and thighs. Your goal is to do this exercise without using your hands as you become stronger.

  1. Place pillows on the back of chair.
  2. Sit toward front of chair, knees bent, feet flat on floor.
  3. Lean back on pillows in half-reclining position. Keep your back and shoulders straight throughout exercise.
  4. Raise upper body forward until sitting upright, using hands as little as possible (or not at all, if you can). Your back should no longer lean against pillows.
  5. Slowly stand up, using hands as little as possible.
  6. Slowly sit back down. Pause.
  7. Repeat 8-15 times.
  8. Rest; then do another set of 8-15 repetitions.

Biceps Curl

This exercise strengthens upper-arm muscles.

  1. Sit in armless chair with your back supported by back of chair.
  2. Keep feet flat on floor even with your shoulders.
  3. Hold hand weights straight down at your sides, with palms facing inward.
  4. Slowly bend one elbow, lifting weight toward chest. (Rotate palm to face shoulder while lifting weight.)
  5. Hold position for one second.
  6. Slowly lower arm to starting position. Pause.
  7. Repeat with other arm.
  8. Alternate arms until you have done 8-15 repetitions with each arm.
  9. Rest; then do another set of 8-12 alternating repetitions.

Heel Raise

The heel raise strengthens ankle and calf muscles. You can use ankle weights for this exercise if you are able.

  1. Stand straight, feet flat on floor, holding onto a table or chair for balance.
  2. Slowly stand on tiptoe, as high as possible.
  3. Hold position for one second.
  4. Slowly lower heels all the way back down. Pause.
  5. Do the exercise 8-15 times.
  6. Rest; then do another set of 8-15 repetitions.

Variation: As you become stronger, do the exercise standing on one leg only, alternating legs for a total of 8-15 times on each leg. Rest; then do another set of 8-15 alternating repetitions.

Knee Flexion

Strengthens muscles in back of thigh. You can use ankle weights for this exercise if you are able.

  1. Stand straight holding onto a table or chair for balance.
  2. Slowly bend knee as far as possible. Don't move your upper leg at all; bend your knee only.
  3. Hold position for one second.
  4. Slowly lower foot all the way back down. Pause.
  5. Repeat with other leg.
  6. Alternate legs until you have done 8-15 repetitions with each leg.
  7. Rest; then do another set of 8-15 alternating repetitions.

Fitness Tip: To make this exercise more effective try performing slight hip extension (see below) with the involved leg first from this position, then try knee flexion.

Hip Flexion

This strengthens thigh and hip muscles. You can use ankle weights for this exercise if you are able.

  1. Stand straight to the side or behind a chair or table, holding on for balance.
  2. Slowly bend one knee toward chest, without bending waist or hips.
  3. Hold position for one second.
  4. Slowly lower leg all the way down. Pause.
  5. Repeat with other leg.
  6. Alternate legs until you have done 8-15 repetitions with each leg.
  7. Rest; then do another set of 8-15 alternating repetitions.

Shoulder Flexion

Strengthens shoulder muscles.

  1. Sit in armless chair with your back supported by back of chair.
  2. Keep feet flat on floor even with your shoulders.
  3. Hold hand weights straight down at your sides, with palms facing inward.
  4. Raise both arms in front of you (keep them straight and rotate so palms face upward) to shoulder height.
  5. Hold position for one second.
  6. Slowly lower arms to sides. Pause.
  7. Repeat 8-15 times.
  8. Rest; then do another set of 8-12 repetitions.

Knee Extension

Strengthens muscles in front of thigh and shin. You can use ankle weights for this exercise if you are able.

  1. Sit in chair. Only the balls of your feet and your toes should rest on the floor. Put a rolled towel under knees, if needed, to lift your feet. Rest your hands on your thighs or on the sides of the chair.
  2. Slowly extend one leg in front of you as straight as possible.
  3. Flex foot to point toes toward head.
  4. Hold position for 1–2 seconds.
  5. Slowly lower leg back down. Pause.
  6. Repeat with other leg.
  7. Alternate legs until you have done 8-15 repetitions with each leg.
  8. Rest; then do another set of 8-15 alternating repetitions.

Hip Extension

Hip extension strengthens buttock and lower-back muscles. You can use ankle weights for this exercise if you are able.

  1. Stand 12-18 inches from a table or chair, feet slightly apart.
  2. Bend forward at hips at about 45° angle; hold onto a table or chair for balance.
  3. Slowly lift one leg straight backwards without bending your knee, pointing your toes, or bending your upper body any farther forward.
  4. Hold position for one second.
  5. Slowly lower leg. Pause.
  6. Repeat with other leg.
  7. Alternate legs until you have done 8-15 repetitions with each leg.
  8. Rest; then do another set of 8-15 alternating repetitions.

Side Leg Raise

This strengthens muscles at sides of hips and thighs. Use ankle weights, if you are ready.

  1. Stand straight, directly behind table or chair, feet slightly apart.
  2. Hold onto a table or chair for balance.
  3. Slowly lift one leg 6-12 inches out to side. Keep your back and both legs straight. Don't point your toes outward; keep them facing forward.
  4. Hold position for one second.
  5. Slowly lower leg. Pause.
  6. Repeat with other leg.
  7. Alternate legs until you have done 8-15 repetitions with each leg.
  8. Rest; then do another set of 8-15 alternating repetitions.