Even if you're training an older population, you can still intelligently program interval training into their program. Here's how.
Interval training like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is all the rage these days. Most of us know it’s an efficient and powerful way to help clients stay in shape in half the time of steady-state cardio. Your clients likely know this too, and will inevitably ask you about it. However, what if your clients were past the retirement age?
You may be concerned about making them do something as physically demanding as interval training, and it’s good to be a little hesitant about bringing possible harm to your client.
But the truth is that you can put older clients on a higher intensity interval training protocol safely and effectively. Of course, there are some things that you must keep in mind when introducing the more aggressive exercise methods like HIIT.
- Slower recovery: As we get older, our ability to recover from workouts is a lot slower. If you try to put your older clients through too much without careful consideration of their ability to recover, you may end up being on a first-name basis with the 911 operator real fast.
- More general aches and pain: With age comes more wisdom but also more aches and pain–such is a sad fact of life. In my experience, older clients often have some sort of underlying health issue, such as osteoporosis, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, or a past heart history that you’re going to have to keep in mind.
- Make sure they’re cleared by their doctor: It’d be prudent on your end to make sure it’s okay for them to do these exercises, no matter what you think or what the client may say. Be smart with what you’re doing!
At the same time, they already know the importance of exercise; they’ve seen too many friends who’ve neglected it and watched their friends struggle. Not them. They won’t have it. They’re likely willing to try the things you suggest, but you shouldn’t treat that responsibility lightly.
So, let me share how I use interval training with my older clients? Here’s a sample workout:
- 5-10 minute warm-up
- TRX row
- 2 minute sprint
- Squat to shoulder press with medicine ball
- 2 minute sprint
- Kettlebell deadlift
- 2 minute sprint
- TRX push-ups
- 2 minute sprint
- 5-10 minute cool-down
It looks pretty intense, but let’s dig a little deeper into what all those bullet points really mean.
Warm-ups and Cool-downs Are Just As Important
Warm-ups are important no matter who you are, but this is especially true with an older population. They need to get their muscles, joints, and heart prepared for the workout that you are about to give them. So, I don’t gloss over this part or rush them through it.
I typically put my clients on a Nu-Step or treadmill for warm-ups. Time-wise, they average about 5-7 minutes. These are not iron-clad numbers, but I like those numbers because they allow adequate time to get ready without the feeling like it’s sapping up all of their workout time.
For the cool-down, I typically just tell my clients to spend 10 minutes on any piece of cardio equipment of their choice at a slow, steady pace. I tell them to just imagine they’re taking a leisurely Sunday stroll through the park. When they imagine this, it’s easy for them to get into proper cool-down mode.
Sprints Are Not the Sprints You’re Thinking Of
When I say “sprint”, I’m not talking about going all-out like people do in the Olympics. This isn’t really a sprint. For this population, I use the word “sprint” to denote a quicker pace than normal, plain and simple. They could spend a period of time on any cardio equipment of their choice and just go a little bit harder than they normally would.
For example, during a two-minute sprint I may have somebody use the rowing machine, treadmill, or a bicycle and encourage them to work a little harder for up to two minutes. They don’t have to be booking it as fast as they can, but they should be getting their heart rate up.
Now they don’t have to “work” for the entire two minutes either, but you can encourage them to go for as long and hard as they can. For a more de-conditioned client, I may use one-minute intervals instead. If the client has plenty of time and plenty of stamina, sometimes I’ll use three-minute intervals, or a 500-meter row.
Yes, you want to push them, but you have to remember who you’re working with. Use your best judgment here. You know your client best.
Adjust the Lifts Appropriately
The lifts I listed above as examples are those that I like to use with a lot of my older clients. I like to include exercises that involve many muscle groups–you know, the compound ones. I’ve got nothing against exercises like bicep curls, tricep push-downs, calf raises, or single joint exercises here; I think they’re great, but in a HIIT scenario they just are not ideal.
Other exercises that would fit well include but are not limited to: one-arm kettlebell shoulder presses, push presses, thrusters, kettlebell swings, Russian twists with feet planted, TRX reverse lunges, assisted pull-up machines, seated cable rows, goblet squats, one-arm rows, Turkish get-ups, battle ropes, and ball slams.
You’ve probably noticed that these exercises are all pretty intense. Sure, Turkish get-ups, kettlebell swings, and thrusters can really kick butt, but these shouldn’t be restricted to younger clients. I’ve found that older people can do all kinds of “cool” exercises, too. You just may have to lighten the weight and coach them very closely in order for them to do them comfortably. They’ll reap in the same benefits, or perhaps even more in some cases.
To put it in perspective, I would tell younger clients to do kettlebell swings with a 40-lb kettlebell. However, with a thin-framed, 73-year-old woman who’s been cleared to do the exercise, I may have them using a 10-lb bell.
Additional Things to Remember For Your Older Clients
There are a few other little tidbits of information that you need to consider when using this type of training with an older client.
- There is nothing wrong with a rest period. An older client is not going to be able to train as hard as a younger person. Let them rest if they need to.
- It’s always better to start too easy than to go too hard and face the consequences. You can always up the intensity, but you can’t undo a muscle strain.
- Use common sense. For goodness’ sake, if your client is having a really hard time with kettlebell swings, make it easier for them or skip the exercise altogether! If something hurts your client or makes them feel uncomfortable, simply don’t do it.
In my experience, older clients are an absolute blast to work out with. You can still do some really cool forms of training with them as well–HIIT being one of them. You still have to be mindful, however, and use your best judgment on a case-by-case basis.
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- Trapp, E. et al. 2008. The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. International Journal of Obesity. 32, 4 (2008), 684-691.
- Gibala, M. et al. 2012. Physiological adaptations to low”volume, high”intensity interval training in health and disease. The Journal of Physiology. 590, 5 (2012), 1077-1084.
- Laursen, P.B. and Jenkins, D.G. 2002. The scientific basis for high-intensity interval training: optimising training programmes and maximising performance in highly trained endurance athletes. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.). 32, 1 (Jan. 2002), 53-73