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Why Strength Training Is The Most Important Exercise For SENIORS

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 23 February 2015
Hits: 12464

In all my years as a Personal Trainer (10 years now) I have always been amazed at the significant difference between clients who work out versus those who never exercise. And in particular the senior clients or older adults as we refer to them. The difference between some of our 70 year old clients who do strength training versus a 55 year old who does nothing is astounding, you have to see it to believe it. The 70 year old will whip the 55 year old's butt at every exercise, have no pain, no limitations, and importantly no fear! It is apparent that while we are all eventually going to age, there is a big distinction between getting old healthily, and still be able to do many of your favourite activities late in life, versus aging with accumulated health and medical problems that severely limit your lifestyle. This means that we don't all age the same! While studies may report that particular parts of the body's physiological system declines on average 30% between the ages of 50 and 80 years of age, the actual range of decline among individuals may be as large as 10-60%. This means that a 10% reduction in one particular component, (for example balance), may have no significant effect on the individual, while a 60% reduction may cause significant problems and even lead to a chronic injury or disease. What is the solution? Medical drugs? Surgery? Change your lifestyle? None of these are good choices but unfortunately that is what many people resort to. The real answer is to use exercise and nutrition basics to develop these skills and prevent the rate of decline. And of all the exercises to have the most profound effect on the older adult it is strength training. In this article I will explain why.

The Older You Get The More Important Strength Training Becomes

We know we cannot stop the aging process. But we can change HOW we age, by using exercise to prevent the loss of muscle and our ability to move with daily activities. A slowing of neural firing speed, (the brains message to the nerves within muscles for movement) is the main thing for older adults to focus on. Because the consequence from lack of exercise is potentially a slower response time for the initiation of movement. This slower response time may put someone at risk of injury when put in a situation of danger.

A perfect example is in the case of a trip or a slip or when on a bus and you are standing up and it takes off quickly. When this occurs a very rapid response must occur so that the individual can adjust their centre of gravity, step forward, grab a stationary object, turn or tuck their body into a safer position for impact with the ground. A slowed response which you would see with an older person who has not spent time developing skills of balance, but also strength puts this person at risk of a fall. The rate of declines vary greatly between people who use strength training versus those who do not. 

We run a specific program for seniors called Stronger For Longer is based upon latest research but more importantly years of experience training hundreds of older clients with various injuries and health conditions. Below are some great videos to watch of a client of ours, Laurie Ford who just turned 80 years of age this year. Not only is he is still as strong as ever after having hip surgery 6 years ago, but he now also sprints as part of his training warm up! If you don't believe me watch the videos below.

You see Laurie competes in the annual Melbourne to Hobart Yacht race every year, in fact he is the skipper of the yacht. Anyone who knows about sailing will know that this race is not for the faint hearted. But what makes Laurie's story so incredible is he is 80 years of age! And he has no intentions of slowing down. In the video you can watch Laurie complete various exercises like Barbell Squats with over 70kg on the bar, single leg balance exercises with dumbbells, even Barbell Deadlifts with 60kg on the bar! He can do all of this because he has learned the secrets to slowing the aging the process, which I am about to share with you now.

Also check out some of our other articles here

You MUST Use Functional Strength Training Exercises That Incorporate Balance & Co-Ordination

Okay so what is BEST exercises for Seniors? Strength training. But not in the way most people know it. Most of us know we need to exercise unfortunately many choose the wrong type and this is never more true for the older adults. Most strength programs are built on body building principles which will ruin an elderly person who needs to improve their balance, co-ordination and core stability. The human body only knows movement, it does not know muscles! When you bend over to pull out a weed from the garden there is a series of movements all co-ordinated in a split second to allow you to bend over and pull the weed out.

The brain controls the muscles and organizes this process, so it makes sense to go to the brain to create good movement. A body building type of program, although appearing safe will create more dysfunction. This is also the phase where most Rehab programs from therapists fail because they do not understand movement. We must apply what we know about the body likes to move as this is how we are designed to move and where the inner unit and outer unit integrate to create efficient movement. The secret to our success here is to trick or encourage the lazy weak muscles to fire in the integrated movement using various tools and equipment. Once the movement is perfected it needs to be completed several thousand times perfectly for it to be written in as a NEW automatic movement pattern.

To explain this better here is a good analogy that will help you understand the importance of learning good movement skills, and why just focusing on muscles and strength will not solve many problems and in fact create more!
Thinks of this like getting an upgrade on your computer. We know what the latest upgrades are and we have a method for showing you how to do it, but because they are quite big files it takes a while to upload into the system. Once the upload is completed you then just have to maintain this regularly and you will never have any problems. This is the goal of our program. To upgrade your inbuilt computer system.

And to do this we need to have constant and gradual improvement and challenge that we refer to as progressive overload.

What Is Progressive Overload & Why Is This So Important For The Older Adult?

To ensure success with your program the body must continually be challenged with more difficult tasks or exercises in order for it to continue to adapt and grow. The body will adapt only to the level of challenge that you give it and will not improve any more until it is given a greater challenge. It is not always about lifting heavier weights, sometimes completing more repetitions, performing the exercise for a longer period of time doing the exercise faster or slower can be all you need to enforce change. The key is to use a lot of various methods to continually overload the body’s systems so that you continue to make improvements.

Unfortunately many people do not understand this concept. They either think that what they are doing is “good enough” or that working out harder will be dangerous for them. It is a real myth that mature adults should only use light dumbbells or easy resistance bands because they might become injured. The muscles of older adults need to be challenged in order to grow just as the muscles of younger adults. If anything more so than younger adults! This is the phase where most programs start to go wrong, and can you now see why this causes so many problems?

The focus is really on the end result that we are after – improved human movement and function. This takes advantage of how the neuromuscular system is designed to work in the first place which is in a highly coordinated manner. Very, very rarely to muscles work in complete isolation or anywhere close to it. Some muscles contract to provide movement while some muscles contract to provide stability. This is all done at the same time. The don’t work separate to each other. In addition to this it must not be forgotten that the more co-ordinated and complex movements have a greater effect on the brain.

Remember at the beginning we told you that “The positive effects of regular exercise appear to be largest for tasks that are more complex and which require executive control”.

This means that diseases like senility and dementia are less likely to be a factor by including a much more brain like approach to exercise. Sitting on machines or even sitting on the floor completing Pilates exercises because it is safe, is really undertraining your body and actually speeding up the aging process! There is a need for both to be used however your goal MUST be to evolve to completing ALL exercises in a standing position. See videos below for examples of this.

Let's take a look at some great exercises that ALL older adults should spend time to do.


Let’s start with Squats because this is one movement you will use ALL the time. This is the action of sitting down. The Squat is very important movement to get right as it mimics sitting down, jumping and many everyday life movements you need in order to live! In fact many people often call the exercise for older adults, "sit to stand". This movement can build tremendous strength to all the muscles of the legs which will help to prevent many of the problems we have discussed so far. Some would argue it is too dangerous to do squats with seniors and that we should put them on a machine like the leg press.

I would argue it is dangerous to put them on a leg press as this only serves to make their stability worse.

The squat is superior to any form of isolation or machine training because the relative timing (rate at which body segments move relative to one another) is similar to a real-life movement. This means that when you improve squat strength, you are developing strength in a sequence that the brain can immediately apply to similar movements, such as walking up stairs, because it shares a similar relative timing sequence.

Watch the video below of how to do the squat.

How To Do A Basic Squat With Perfect Technique

1.Standing with a stick resting on your upper back hands slightly wider than shoulders
2. Lift your chest up to activate your upper back muscles and drive the elbows forward. Take a comfortable stance wide enough that allows you squat down between your legs.
3. Take a deep belly breath then draw your belly button inward.
4. Lower down into a squat as low as you can keep the natural arch in your low back
5. Exhale through pursed lips as you return to standing.

You can read more about the different versions of the squat in this article - 7 best squats for bulletproof knees and strong legs


This is often the movement that will really hurt a person’s lower back if enough poor repetitions are performed. I have seen several incidents where someone has ruptured a disc in their lower back when they bent over to pick up a pencil or tie their shoelaces! Poor bending technique will create enormous destructive forces through the spine, and develop several muscular imbalances that will alter your posture and other movements. To think about how often you would need to bend over in a day it would be 100’s of times if not 1000’s!

We use this movement all the time and don’t think about it. But trust me once you hurt your back badly you will think about it all the time and wished you knew how to do it right a long time ago. This action is very similar to what people do when gardening or picking up something off the ground.

How To Bend Correctly

1. Position the block or box height such that it allows you to keep a natural arch in your low back at the lowest point of the exercise. It is very important to keep the natural arch!
2. Standing with feet a comfortable width apart. Reach down keeping the natural arch in your low back. Grasp a wooden stick or a bar if in the gym a little more than shoulder width apart (clean grip).
4. Pick the chest up, look forward inhale drawing the belly button inward. Bend forward slightly until the bar is at knee level; lift the torso to the top position, exhaling through pursed lips through the most difficult point of the movement. Imagine trying to push the ground away from you with your feet.
6. At the top repeat the inhaling process before lowering to the ground.

For more information on deadlifts make sure you check out the article - How to find the best deadlift version for your body

The Toe Touch Drill

A little bit harder version of the previous exercise. This is where we begin to teach the nervous system, how to execute perfect movement in 360 degrees. Your goal is to reach as far away to each corner without losing your balance. I like to use this as an assessment tool with every client I meet on their first day, and especially with people suffering lower limb injuries or walking impairments. The reason for this is, it exposes mobility restrictions and weaknesses that are often hidden in other tests, helping me to design a corrective program that addresses these faults.

And the other reason is that it is a great core exercise. In reality it is so much more than just a simple core exercise as it influences many joints and muscles all within the blink of an eye. It is unique in that it has the ability to change the way a person walks for it shares the same relative timing used by all the joints of the body in the gait cycle. It is for this reason we use it extensively with older adults who are at risk of falling and with people suffering various injuries in their lower limbs.

In all these cases, there is be a problem with how the person stabilises their leg during the stance phase of walking.

You can read more about this particular exercise, also see several versions of this in this article - Why I rate the Toe Touch Drill as the best Stability Exercise


1. Stand on leg
2. Gently reach behind you with the leg in the air as far as you can and try to tap the floor
3. Come back up to standing and repeat in all directions as if you are standing on clock face and you are trying to touch all the numbers of the clock.
4. Make a note of how unstable you are in certain positions and where you are limited with your range of motion

These last two exercises are great for improving balance and preventing Hip Fractures.

Hip Fractures Becoming More Common Among Middle-Aged as Well as the Elderly

If anyone knows about breaking bones it is me. I am 41 years of age this year and in my lifetime I have broken over 20 different bones! Fingers, wrist, ribs, big toe, even my skull! I used to think that I was just unlucky however I now realize my lack of muscle and poor nutrition were the most important factors. I was lucky that I was able to recover because I was fairly young when all of these happened. However for elderly people a simple fall that results in a fracture can be a life threatening injury. A thinning hipbone is a major concern if you are elderly, because any fall increases the risk of a broken hip, which can result in a fatal lung clot from immobilization.

It's estimated that 25 percent of elderly people suffering a hip fracture actually die as a direct result, usually from the blood clot. Peak bone mass is reached at around 25 years of age and remains relatively stable until around the age of 50. After the age of 50, progressive losses of of bone mineral density begins to occur. As bones lose their density they become weaker and the risk of fracture during regular
activities increases.

According to statistics, the number of hip replacements substantially increased between 2000 and 2010. The procedure has also become increasingly common among younger people, which is a clear warning sign that our lifestyles are in dire need of reassessment! Over that 10-year span, total hip replacements more than doubled, from 138,700 in 2000 to 310,800 in 2010. Among 45 to 54-year olds, the number rose by 205 percent! In all, 51,900 hip replacement procedures were performed on people aged 45-54. Compare that to 80,000 procedures performed on seniors aged 75 and older. Rising arthritis rates are thought to contribute to this rapid rise in hip replacements among the middle-aged, but similar to my situation in my 20's it is more likely that poor diet and lack of muscle are the real culprits.

Chronic sitting may also be part of the problem. Prolonged sitting may actually be more hazardous to your health than lack of exercise in general. Make sure you check out our article about the dangers of sitting too much and how you can prevent many of the unwanted postural and chronic injuries associated with this.

But as we have already discussed it is the lack of muscle mass that is main reason. And you can only grow muscle from doing exercises that promote it, being Strength Training.

Make Sure You Grab A Copy Of Our Special Report

There is a lot of information and great exercises I have not included in this article and I do suggest to grab a copy of our latest report that covers everything you need to know about older adults health. This report provides you with detailed pictures, instructions of over 50 exercises and some excellent workouts and tests to use for measuring your improvement. This report covers several of the important nutritional needs of older adults with clear and simple to follow information so you can implement this into your life immediately. Many of the exercise pictures shown in this report are of clients who in their 70’s and 80’s who currently train with us at No Regrets. We also feature several of their stories for you to see how they changed their life by adopting the methods explained in this report. I hope you enjoy reading this and it helps you to enjoy your golden years.


I apologize for such a long and compelling article but you can see now why so many people are suffering with all types of unnecessary pain, limitation and poor health that could easily be avoided by adopting some simple exercise and lifestyle choices. It is 100% clear that anyone over the age of 60 needs to be completing a strength training routine at least 2 days per week in addition to daily walking. And the design of the exercise program MUST be built around the rules of improving movement in a standing position. If you begin implementing this now and watch your nutrition you will lead a healthy and very active life right up until the day you die.

If you would like to know more about our Stronger For Longer Older Adults Group Training program or any of our other services please click the image below and I will get back in touch with you within 24 hours.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


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  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
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