Are there exercises you should never do? Equipment you should never use? Here’s how to sort through conflicting views to find the best training practices for your clients.
The woman who walked into Be Stronger Fitness in Sacramento couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Or, more accurately, what she wasn’t seeing.
“Where are the chairs?” she asked owner Robert Linkul.
Linkul soon learned that the woman, who was in her mid-60s, had spent her life as a farmer, doing physical labor almost every day. But now, on the verge of retirement, she’d somehow convinced herself that the only safe way to work out was in a chair—presumably, he says, “to do lateral raises with two-pound weights at extremely slow tempos.”
So, naturally, when she looked around Linkul’s gym, she thought someone was playing a joke on her. Dumbbells? Medicine balls? Gymnastics rings? Prowlers? What was someone her age supposed to do with that stuff?
But it’s no joke. The average age of Linkul’s clients is 63, and, like all the coaches I interviewed for this article, he thinks it’s more dangerous not to train them the way he does. “The aging adult is exactly the person who should be lifting heavier loads,” he says, with the goal of increasing their strength, power, movement skills, and functional abilities.
Still, it would be utterly insane not to make concessions to your clients’ advancing age. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way several times over.
But before we get into what trainers should and shouldn’t do with their older clients, let’s start with a more fundamental question.
What Do We Mean by “Older”?
Athlete and strength coach Dan John has a simple answer to the question: 56.
“Once you make it to 25, you’ll make it to 55, almost no matter what you do,” he says. “Fifty-six is when the statistics punch you in the face. Fifty-six is when the guy knocks on the door and says, ‘It’s time to pay the piper.’”
The problem isn’t what happens at that specific age. It’s what you do between your early 30s and mid 50s. “There’s this very slow erosion where your body composition starts to flip itself,” he explains. “You lose half a pound of muscle and gain half a pound of fat a year. It’s so slippery you don’t notice it. It’s like plate tectonics. You don’t notice it until there’s an earthquake.”
The obvious solution, and a big reason why the personal-training profession exists in the first place, is to do everything possible to maintain muscle mass and limit body fat, and to do it for as long as possible.
It’s a challenge John and I—two sexagenarians born at the peak of the Baby Boom in 1957—have embraced. We’re both lifelong gym rats, and we both write about training. Alas, the similarities end there.
For example, John competed in an Olympic weightlifting meet last fall. Me? The only time I touch a barbell is to move it off the rack so I can use the TRX.
And that’s the problem you run into when you try to draw up rules about aging clients. No two of us are exactly alike. If you asked me, a 61-year-old whose body has been breaking down since I injured my shoulder in a high school football game in 1972, I’d give you a whole list of things I don’t think someone my age should do.
But if you ask John what our peers should phase out, or banish entirely, his list would be blank. Instead, he proposes two qualifying phrases: “done properly” and “it depends.”
So if the question is, “Can a 60-year-old do a barbell squat?”, John would reply, “Done properly.” Should they? “It depends.”
“When you’re working with the older population, there is no bad tool,” he says. “Barbell, TRX, sled, whatever. There is no bad exercise. The whole buffet of training is available to the older client.”
That makes sense when you’re talking about strength training older clients like John or me—someone with a lifetime of training and as-yet-unexplored abilities and limitations. But Greg Mikolap, a trainer in the U.K. who works primarily with seniors, says he rarely sees a client like us. A more typical client, he says, is “a 65-plus-year-old who’s spent most of his or her life behind the desk.”
In those cases, it’s not hard at all to rule out entire categories of exercises.
What Not to Do
1. Anything with a barbell
My most successful books, including the first two in the New Rules of Lifting series, emphasized basic movements like squats and deadlifts. One by one, I realized my aging body could no longer tolerate the most popular barbell exercises: bent-over rows, bench presses, shoulder presses, power cleans, front and back squats, and finally deadlifts.
I say “finally” because I was still doing them until three summers ago, when I hurt my back on a warm-up set.
Linkul also avoids barbell lifts, especially the most popular one. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a client do a barbell bench press,” he says. “I don’t see a huge value of bilateral pushing at that angle, at this point in their lives.” He thinks the risk of shoulder injury is too high, even for push-ups. He’ll have his clients do dumbbell bench presses a couple of times a month, but otherwise avoids horizontal pushing.
Mikolap’s problem with the barbell is similarly exercise-specific, with a list that includes bent-over rows, Olympic lifts, front squats, and deadlifts from the floor.
2. Jumps and sprints
For me, nothing illustrates the indignity of aging quite like the time I hurt my knee jumping over a creek bed. A dry creek bed. I was playing golf with a friend, and didn’t see any extraordinary risk in making the short hop to retrieve an errant shot. But something went wrong on my takeoff, and I limped around for weeks afterward.
Mikolap eschews box jumps for a different reason: the high risk of falling for what he calls “a very dubious benefit.”
As for sprints, Linkul believes the risk of something going wrong in an all-out run is way too high when there are so many relatively safe ways to accomplish the same results.
3. Hard HIIT sessions
Mikolap sees this as a concession to the age-related decline in aerobic capacity—3 to 6 percent per decade in your 30s and 40s, increasing to a loss of 20 percent per decade after 70.
His point isn’t that you should avoid interval training; it’s still hugely beneficial for older trainees. But you should adjust your expectations for how hard to push them.
Now, with the scary stuff out of the way, let’s shift to what your older clients can do. All three coaches agree on one key point: A good training program for seniors starts at, on, and with the bottom.
What to Do Instead
1. Hit the ground
“That thing at your feet, called the ground, is the most important thing to deal with when you train a geriatric population,” John says.
The reason is simple: The older you get, the bigger the risk of falling, and the more catastrophic the consequences. Being able to get up and down from the floor is an important survival skill.
“That’s the beauty of the Turkish get-up, because you have to get up and down,” he says, adding that you don’t need to do the complete movement (which can be brutal for someone with bad knees) to get the key benefit of pushing yourself up from the floor.
He also likes push-ups and planks for that reason, along with ground-based mobility work.
But as functional as they are, there’s another ground-based exercise that the coaches consider even more important.
2. Focus on hip extensors
The gluteus maximus is the body’s largest muscle, and the one that makes us most distinctly human. With its key role in both posture and locomotion, preventing or reversing its atrophy is crucial for senior clients.
“Their glutes just kind of go away,” Linkul says.
John is more blunt. “The butt is the best indicator of youth,” he says. “A saggy ass is a sign of all kinds of issues.”
That’s why Linkul and John make the glute bridge a primary focus of their programs. John recommends doing the exercise two different ways: for reps and for isometric holds in the top position. For the latter, he uses a special tweak (shown here) to ensure good form:
With your arms out to your sides, turn your palms up, and drive your thumbs into the ground. John says it helps to keep the shoulders “back and packed.”
3. Use loads conducive to both strength and hypertrophy
For all the talk about sarcopenia (age-related loss of muscle) and osteopenia (loss of bone), Mikolap believes dynapenia (loss of strength) gets overlooked. As this study shows, strength falls two to five times faster than muscle size in seniors.
But that’s not to downplay the importance of muscle tissue. This 2018 study found that sarcopenia was independently associated with impaired mobility and the loss of what the researchers call “instrumental activities of daily living,” which include shopping, light housework, and preparing meals. Dynapenia, meanwhile, wasn’t associated with those impairments, once the researchers adjusted for a long list of health and demographic variables.
“After 55, you absolutely need old-school, Arnold Schwarzenegger hypertrophy work,” John says. He calls it a “game-changer” for older clients, co-equal to ground-based training.
You don’t have to choose to focus on one or the other, since you can increase both strength and muscle mass with multiple sets of eight to 12 reps. Linkul says his clients do 85 percent of their work in that range, with a total of 16 to 48 reps per movement.
If you’re looking for the perfect exercise for seniors, Mikolap recommends the TRX row. Not only does it increase upper-body strength and muscle mass in general, it improves grip strength specifically, which is highly correlated to longevity. “I would say it even decreases fear of falling because of the body’s position,” he adds.
4. Go unilateral
In place of bilateral exercises, Linkul likes to use single-arm exercises for the upper body and split-stance exercises for the lower body. That includes lunges and step-ups along with sled pushes and pulls.
Sled work, he says, offers a little-known benefit for clients recovering from lower-body injuries who might shorten their stride because they fear falling. Because they’re supported while pushing and pulling, “they can work on getting a longer stride, and it starts to transfer to their normal walking gait.”
5. Restore power
Power declines even faster with age than strength or muscle mass. Building strength will help restore power, since they’re highly correlated, but all three coaches still incorporate some power training in their programs.
The trick is to do it without creating more problems than you solve. So instead of doing box jumps or sprints, they use safer movements that keep their clients’ feet on or near the floor. “We don’t have to leave the ground to get the power component,” Linkul says. “If they can go outside and throw a medicine ball, they can completely unleash true power.”
Can’t go outside?
- John recommends kettlebell swings as an alternative to jumps.
- Mikolap suggests skipping instead of running.
- Linkul uses stationary bike sprints and dynamic step-ups in addition to medicine ball throws.
6. Transfer loads
John is one of the first, best-known, and most forceful advocates for using loaded carries in training, and Linkul is not just on board, he takes the idea a step farther with transfers: The client picks up a weight, carries it somewhere, and then puts it down.
Within that simple formula Linkul finds countless variations. “We might carry it overhead, or below the waist, or at the shoulders,” he says. They might carry it in a straight line or a serpentine pattern, and then set it down on the floor, or onto a shelf overhead, or someplace in between.
The drill begins with a hip hinge, which Linkul considers the most important movement pattern for older clients. Holding the weights develops grip strength. Carrying employs a split stance. They might also incorporate a vertical press, and all of it requires and trains core stability.
Putting It All Together
The most obvious advice for training older clients is to avoid three categories of exercises:
- Things that create new injuries, aches, or pains
- Things that exacerbate existing injuries, aches, or pains
- Things that wouldn’t normally create problems unless you do them too heavy or too fast, in which case, see #1 and #2
But it’s in following those edicts that so many senior fitness programs turn to mush.
Your clients need your help to preserve their strength, power, mobility, muscle mass, and functional movement skills, which means your workouts need to be genuine training programs.
That is, they need to work toward measurable improvements in important fitness qualities. Thus, a good program includes these elements:
- Ground-based core and mobility work
- Strength exercises that train the major muscle groups with multiple sets of eight to 12 reps
- Special emphasis on hip hinges, with the goal of increasing the size and strength of the glutes
- Exercises that increase grip strength, including pulls and carries
- Power exercises like medicine-ball throws and slams, kettlebell swings, skips, and sprints on a stationary bike
- Exercises and drills that check multiple boxes: unilateral lifts that improve balance and stability; lower-body exercises that improve movement quality; and carries that incorporate real-world functional challenges
Most of all, keep in mind that while each senior client has different abilities and limitations, all of us are trying to slow down the aging process as much as we can. That brings me to this final thought from Robert Linkul:
“When you treat people like they’re old, they start to act like they think old people should act.”
None of us wants that.