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The Best Leg Strengthening Exercises for Seniors to Improve Quality of Life

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 17 October 2019
Hits: 8008

Having worked closely with older adults the past 5 years in our Stronger for Longer program we have seen  a real shift in the way seniors look at exercise, in particular strength training. It is fair to say the older population is EXTREMELY interested in not just maintaining their health and vitality as they age, but finding ways to improve it. Right at the top of the list of things that most seniors would like to improve is their leg strength. There has been many studies completed showing how leg-strength is associated with the ability to rise from a chair, walking speed, and risk of falling. These studies also show that deteriorating leg strength is a good predictor of frailty and mortality with older adults. Due to the cumulative effects of aging and physical inactivity a certain percentage of older adults struggle with performing many basic functional tasks such as walking and climbing stairs both requiring a fair degree of leg strength. Those who are unable to perform one task are much more likely to be unable to perform additional tasks and very quickly the likelihood of functional impairment increases. The good news is you can reverse this decline by using carefully selected strength exercises and in this article we will show you exactly how. The pictures and videos shown in this article are all from 70-80 year old clients in our Stronger for Longer program.

Leg Strength is Critical for Older Adults and This is Why

The picture of the lady above (Bev) shows her completing a 35kg deadlift for the first time at 83 years of age! Not only does this provide significant physical benefits but the mental change to her ability to move confidently and efficiently with daily activities is arguably more powerful. If you have worked with clients of this age you will know exactly what I am talking about when the client experiences this sudden rise in ability and strength. Things they were too scared to try are now forgotten as they now seek to try and push the limits of exercise performance.

Many of our older clients tell us how invaluable it has been to the activities in their life by improving their leg strength. It has helped them walk for longer and feel less tired doing so, helped them catch themselves before falling over, be able to move briskly to cross the road, ride a bike longer, move smoothly through their feet when dancing, and even sustain standing up for longer periods of time. The benefits to their life from improved leg strength is significant.

But the big question is, how do we strengthen the legs with seniors?

Neuromuscular Exercises Are The Best Choice

For there is many ways to do this and not all strength exercises are great choices. It is very disappointing to see exercises as seen in this You Tube video that has 1.8 million views of a guy sitting in a chair lifting his leg prescribed as strength exercises for older adults. These may be great choices for someone already in a wheelchair but they are very poor choices for trying to stay out of one. These exercises will change nothing to improve strength in the body.

Weight training is great but you must be smart with your exercise selection. For example using machines like the leg press and leg extension may add some muscle but it will do very little to improving movement. While this may seem like a good idea as it appears to keep the exercise safe it actually will provide little benefit to the older adult. This is an example of a muscle based approach to improving strength. See our article - which is better the leg press or the squat for more detail on this concept.

Strength using a muscle approach versus strength using a neuromuscular approach are two completely different things. This is very important to understand if you want to make a huge difference to an older adult’s movement capacity. It is always the neuromuscular based exercises that provide the biggest change to the senior’s overall strength.

To ensure success with your leg strengthening program the body must continually be challenged with more difficult tasks or exercises in order for it to continue to adapt and grow. This means that exercises demanding high levels of coordination and stability are of more benefit to those like machines and seated exercises. The greater the challenge the greater the benefit it will provide to you.

A slowing of neural firing speed, (the brains message to the nerves within muscles for movement) is the main thing for older adults to be aware of. The consequence of a slow firing speed is potentially a slower response time for the initiation of movement exposing the person to serious injury when put in a situation of danger.

Watch the videos below of examples of this in action.

It is not always about lifting heavier weights to increase strength, sometimes completing more repetitions, performing the exercise for a longer period of time, or completing 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.

Resistance Exercise & Stronger Bones

The danger of Sarcopenia, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and bone density loss contributing to falls cannot be overstated, and these factors can be well managed and even prevented by applying a well-designed strength training program. Peak bone mass is reached at around 25 years of age and normally remains relatively stable until around the age of 50. However after the age of 50, progressive losses of bone mineral density begins to occur and as bones lose their density, becoming weaker the risk of fracture during regular activities increases.

Resistance training can actually increase calcium flow and allow muscles in older adults to perform like muscles many years younger. Research has found that multi directional exercises with load improve bone density and bone strength faster due to the fact that they incorporate so many of the structural lines needed for everyday life moving. By forcing challenges with these exercises with either load or speed these lines adapt and create a structural change to the bones. This is another reason why we must teach senior’s functional exercises like squats, lunges and deadlifts.

We have covered all the incredible benefits of strength training for older adults in many of our articles before and I suggest you read our articles provided in the links below for more information.

  • Strength training is the best anti-aging exercise
  • Strength training for seniors
  • How to prevent falls with older adults
  • How to Strengthen your Legs if you are an Older Adult

    Saying you want stronger legs seems like a very simple term to improve, and in some cases it is if you know what to do. We will go through specific details on how we do this for older adults beyond 60 and provide several pictures and key points to remember to help you achieve this.

    With all of the exercises it is important to remember that quality is more important than how many you do or how much weight you can lift. Never sacrifice your technique to do more reps.

    Okay let’s get stuck into it.

    1. Squats

    If you can get to a level where you can hold a weight while you do this exercise that is great as it will provide an overload to the nervous system and add more load to your bones forcing a rapid change. Performing this with great technique means you will also be teaching yourself to place safe loads through your joints and avoid serious injury and pain to your knees and hips! Due to our sedentary lifestyle we develop tight joints, poor posture and dysfunctional movement patterns that limit our ability to squat, leading to inevitable problems at the back and the knee.

    If technique or joint pain is an issue it is best to start without the weight, or even leaning against a Swissball for assistance. However, your goal is to reach a level where you can hold a dumbbell or even a barbell and squat! For reaching this level of ability means that activities in life like getting out of a chair will be a breeze as your training ability exceeds your life demands. 

    Read our article – 7 Best Squats for bulletproof knees for more detail about how to execute these correctly.

    Below are some pictures of the clients from the stronger for longer class completing two versions of the squat.

    2. Deadlifts

    Of all the exercises to really spend time to master this would arguably be the best. While the squat is a great exercise I would rank this as more important.

    In the gym it is known as the deadlift but in life it is simply known as bending over. A good example of this in daily life is lifting shopping bags, a heavy bucket of water, or a pot plant. It doesn’t look like a leg exercise, but you need to use your legs and more specifically your hips to provide the bulk of the workload to SAFELY lift the object!

    Not only does this strengthen the legs but the entire body and is a great way to prevent the hunched posture and dowagers hump associated with older adults. This movement is also closely linked to serious back injuries like bulging discs so it is vital you understand the technique required.

    The first and most important objective of this exercise is to improve your technique on how to safely bend maintaining a neutral lumbar spine. We won’t even think about getting you to lift weight until you can prove you can bend correctly with no load!  

    Watch the video below of how to master the technique.

    Once your technique is mastered the next stage is to develop your strength by gradually increasing the difficulty of the exercise. We start with a kettlebell before progressing to a trap bar.

    As with the squat the benefit of doing this is invaluable as your training ability will exceed anything you will encounter in life and chances of injury or loss of function is greatly diminished.

    Below are some pictures of clients from the stronger for longer class completing the deadlift.

    There is many different versions of the deadlift to try and you can read more about those in this article – Which deadlift version is best for you?

    3. Lunges

    The lunge differs to the previous exercises in that it shares a similar timing to walking, especially walking up ladders, stairs & hills! Improving your lunge strength will help with those tasks while simultaneously improving your stability and balance as this exercise demands this.

    Things that can often limit a person’s ability to lunge are the hips and the big toe as this movement requires a good degree of mobility at both of these joints. It is very common for people to lose mobility at these joints from lack of movement and it can greatly disrupt your ability to move correctly. The knees might cause some pain in people but you will find it will have more to do with their hips and feet limiting their ability to flex the knee. See our article – Knee pain has nothing to do with the knee for more on this.

    Depending how much stiffness or pain you may need to use a stick to assist you in the beginning combined with some hip and quad loosening.

    Once you have mastered your technique and have no limitations with the movement you can begin to complicate the exercise by adding load and also forcing greater depth by bending over. See the videos below of this in action.

    Once again here is some pictures of clients from the Stronger for Longer class completing various lunges.

     

    For more information about lunge techniques read the article – Why Lunges Are Essential To Stability

    Single Leg Exercises for Improving Balance and Preventing Falls

    So far the exercises we have provided will give you stronger legs in various patterns of movement, however, it is important to incorporate balance specific exercises to train your body’s reflexes. And to do this effectively we must include several single leg exercises.

    To protect our body from a fall our nervous system has to detect movement extremely quickly and needs to stabilise against that or allow it to occur in a controlled fashion. This happens so quickly that you can’t generate a thought in response. That reflex is not trained by doing conscious exercise; it’s trained by being exposed to the stimulus that affects movement and developing strategies to become more efficient and stable. This means that to become more efficient at correcting joints for falls prevention you need to use exercises that demand this reflex skill.

    Watch the video below of 80 year old Laurie Ford demonstrating some great falls prevention exercises.

    The beauty of single leg exercises are that they force people to develop this skill and just like the lunge this ability transfers very quickly to movements like walking.

    Just as we have shown you with the previous exercises there are certain levels to start with and gradually progress as your ability and technique improves. The goal is to master the harder versions.

     

    A good article to read about single leg exercises is – Why the single leg squat is the best exercise for knee pain

    Don't Forget to include POWER Training!

    Lastly we come to the controversial topic of power training! This might sound too advanced for older adults to do but in reality it is actually essential! From the age 65 to age 89, our ability to produce power with our legs declines 3.5% per year. This is much faster than our rate of decline with strength, which is 1-2% per year. That is 2-3 times faster

    A study by Skelton, Kennedyt and Rutherford (2002) found that women who fall have 24% less explosive power in their weaker limb than women who did not fall. They also noted that in older women who lived independently, poor lower limb explosive power combined with power differences between limbs may be a better predictor of future falls than the traditional measurements of strength.

    Read our article – Why power training is so important for more detail on this.

    Movements like starting a lawn mower or whipper snipper require your body to move the starter handle quickly, not just your upper body but your legs are important for this movement too; otherwise you won’t have enough power to start it, or you will use your back too much which can cause a back injury!

    Other examples include digging with a shovel or rushing quickly across the road to not miss the bus or train. In both cases it is not strength that is most important but the ability to initiate a burst of power to get there quickly.

    This is where the value of integration exercises like the woodchop that require to use the body as a whole to move the load quickly. The legs are a big part of getting this movement right, for without the legs, you will produce less power and risk hurting your back.

    Putting it all Together

    How much do you need to do? Not as much as you might think!

    This will depend on your current physical activity and level of ability. A beginner may need more time to get used to the muscle soreness and energy it may drain from you when starting out. Someone who is used to walking a lot and is fairly active will cope much more easily with more work. Just remember that quality is more important than more work.

    As a general rule I have found that two sessions of 30-60minutes per week of strength exercises are enough for the older adult. For those who want to push it a bit more you could stretch it out to three days per week always allowing for a day’s rest between sessions for the muscles to repair. Recovery is just as important as the training and make sure you are eating quality food to assist this stage. For more information on this we recently published a detailed article about nutrition for seniors.

    Most of our programs will include 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps for most exercises. We allow 1 minute rest between sets where we might use some mobility work on the hips and thoracic region.

    Walking of 45-60 minutes per day is recommended to people of all ages and complements your strength program perfectly.

    Do You Need More Help?

    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. 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.

    Summary

    In summary, strengthening your legs will help reduce the chances of becoming immobile throughout your elderly years, and will improve your strength through everyday tasks, reduce risk of falling, improve bone density, and make things in everyday life seem a lot easier to do! Knowing where to start can be tricky, and hopefully the exercises shown in this article give you some great ideas.

    It is never too late to start strength training and I cannot overstate the value of this to changing your life forever. The hardest part is just getting started.

    If you would like to know more about Lift For Life and Stronger For Longer programs click the image below and I will be in touch within 24 hours to schedule a time for a free consultation and movement assessment.

    About The Author

    Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 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.

    References:

    • Bending the Aging Curve -  Joseph Signorile
    • Movement - By Gray Cook
    • Functional Training for Sports - By Mike Boyle
    • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
    • Athletic Body Balance by Gray Cook
    • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
    • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
    • Back Pain Mechanic - by Stuart McGill
    • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
    • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
    • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
    • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
    • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
    • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek