I knew the Reader’s Digest article was clickbait the moment I saw the headline: “14 Exercises You Should Stop Doing if You’re Over 50.” But my curiosity got the best of me.
It was even worse than I expected. An abyss of misinformation, fear mongering, and ageism, it served no purpose other than scaring people out of getting stronger and healthier, and feeling more confident and empowered—not only in the gym, but in all aspects of their lives.
The problem begins with the premise that exercise prescriptions and modifications should depend on someone’s birth year. Some of the strongest, fittest, and most technically proficient clients I’ve worked with were over the age of 50.
One of them, a 58-year-old woman, routinely crushed push-ups, trap bar deadlifts, and barbell front squats. As I write this, I have a 72-year-old client who’s close to doing her first unassisted pull-up.
On the flip side, some of the clients who arrive with the most limitations and the least technical proficiency are in their teens and 20s. And many of them are athletes.
Reader’s Digest eventually tweaked the article’s headline to “14 Exercises You Should Modify if You’re Over 50,” but it still reflects a flawed rationale. Age itself is no reason to tell someone they shouldn’t perform an exercise a certain way, or at all. Exercise selection for any client, at any age, should be based on factors like training experience, movement skill, body size and structure, injury history, and of course individual goals.
I picked out four exercises Reader’s Digest wants those over 50 to skip. I break down proper form and coaching cues for each, and offer the best variations I’ve used with my clients within that movement pattern.
From Reader’s Digest:
“The classic move may be a great way to build all-over strength, but it puts a lot of stress on your shoulders and upper back, which may be problematic for people with past neck and shoulder injuries. Dr. Bartel recommends doing wall push-ups instead.”
The wall push-up isn’t an ideal variation. The close proximity of head to wall means your clients have to overextend their necks and lift their chins to avoid smashing one into the other. It’s not really possible to progress or regress this variation, either.
If a healthy client can do a regular push-up from the floor, there’s no reason not to use it. And if a client can’t do it with good form and a full range of motion, there are plenty of good options within that movement pattern.
- Set the body in a straight line from head to heels, chin tucked, neck neutral.
- Keep the shoulders directly above the hands. Brace the core and squeeze the glutes to help stabilize the hips and spine.
- Take a deep breath before descending into the push-up, and exhale on the return to the top position.
- On the descent, draw the shoulder blades in toward the spine, and reverse the movement on the way up by protracting the shoulder blades.
- Watch for hyperextension of the lower back, flaring ribs, collapsing hips, or the head dropping.
- For clients with shoulder discomfort, try the scap push-up. Keep the arms straight and lift the knees off the floor as you retract and protract the shoulder blades.
- For wrist discomfort, have the client hold dumbbells instead of placing her hands flat on the floor. This keeps her wrists in a neutral position, and usually alleviates the discomfort.
Here are two of my go-to pushing variations:
This is a great option for people who lack the upper-body strength, shoulder and scapular mobility, lumbo-pelvic stability, and wrist and neck strength to do a traditional push-up from the floor. (That applies to lots of clients, young and old.)
You can rest the hands on any stable surface—bench, box, table, or barbell in a rack. This is a great use of the Smith machine, since you can raise or lower the bar to make it easier or harder as the client progresses toward the floor push-up.
The fixed nature of the barbell makes this exercise a good alternative to push-ups and barbell and dumbbell presses. It’s less technically demanding and often friendlier on the joints. You have lots of variations, including the tall-kneeling double-arm press.
From Reader’s Digest:
“Trainers love squats, but for older people who haven’t worked out consistently, they can put too much pressure on knees if done with weights. Instead, Dr. Bartel recommends focusing on squatting your body weight in the correct form.”
This isn’t terrible advice. I agree that mastering a body-weight squat should be a prerequisite before adding an external load. That’s true for all your clients. But once they clear that hurdle, there’s no reason not to add resistance. In fact, for most clients, it’s a disservice not to make the exercise more challenging.
The goblet squat is the easiest and most intuitive version of the weighted squat. It’s also the most versatile. You can use just about any type of load, from the kettlebell I use in the video to a dumbbell, weight plate, medicine ball, or sandbag.
- Hold the weight close to the body and squeeze the arms into the sides, like you’re trying to crush walnuts in your armpit.
- Stance width and foot position depend on what feels comfortable for the client. There’s no perfect form that works for everybody.
- Screw the feet into the floor, keeping all 10 toes in contact with the ground and the weight in the middle to back of the foot.
- Before descending, take a deep breath in, brace the core, and tuck the ribs toward the hips.
- Descend to whatever depth the client can manage without discomfort while keeping the torso upright.
- Exhale upon rising to the top position.
- Maintain control at all times, keeping the head, torso, and hips in a stacked position.
- Guard against rounding or hyperextending the lower back, flaring the ribs, collapsing the knees, or lifting the heels off the ground.
Here are three of my favorite squatting variations:
This variation is great for clients who’re still learning the basic movement pattern. Sitting on a bench keeps the torso more upright, making it a back-friendly option. Since the shins stay more vertical, it can also be a great option for those with knee issues or who lack the ankle mobility to perform a regular squat without tipping forward or falling back.
The focus here is on the eccentric portion, so if the client has difficulty standing back up, don’t hesitate to provide assistance.
Here’s a low-risk, easy-to-learn, and versatile option. Those with knee issues can lean forward to maintain a more vertical shin position, while those with back issues can keep a more upright torso.
It’s also a bit of a squat-deadlift hybrid, requiring the lats to engage and the core to brace.
Negative Spanish squat
The two-band setup is a bit tricky, but if you have the equipment, it’s a great way to strengthen the quads while keeping the shins vertical and taking most of the stress off the knees.
From Reader’s Digest:
“Pull-ups are challenging no matter what your age and, according to Russell, put a lot of pressure on shoulders, a complex network of muscles, joints, and ligaments that have often suffered strains and injuries by midlife. He prefers using the lat pulldown machine, which can work the same muscle groups.”
I know a thing or two about the pull-up. I even wrote a comprehensive program focused entirely on that exercise. And I’ll concede that it’s a technically complex movement, requiring a lot of upper-body strength and lumbo-pelvic stability, along with the ability to control and coordinate shoulder and scapular movement.
Without those prerequisites, you can irritate the connective tissues in your shoulders and elbows. The higher the volume, the greater the risk. But that’s true of countless exercises, and applies to everyone, at any age.
But if your clients perform the pull-up properly, with appropriate volume, it’s a safe and effective way to build high levels of upper-body strength.
- Most of the time, a grip just beyond shoulder width will work. But don’t be afraid to go wider or narrower.
- If the client has the strength to do the movement but experiences shoulder discomfort with the traditional overhand grip, try it with a neutral or underhand grip.
- With all variations, keep the body relatively straight from head to heels, the abdomen in a slight hollow position, knees extended, feet dorsiflexed, and one foot crossed over the other.
- Initiate the concentric movement by inhaling while pulling the shoulder blades down and in. Drive the elbows in toward the sides and down toward the floor as the body moves up. Exhale near the top.
- Inhale again, and begin the eccentric phase by moving the shoulder blades away from the spine, which reduces the risk of joint stress.
- Keep the core muscles braced throughout both phases, and squeeze the glutes and quads to prevent swinging.
- Avoid hyperextending the lower back and flaring the ribs.
- Don’t let your clients use momentum or kip.
Here are three pulling variations I’ve used successfully:
The scapula pull-up is a great steppingstone to the regular version. It develops grip strength, shoulder- and scapula-controlled mobility, and lumbo-pelvic stability, and requires the same body positioning while applying similar levels of tension.
This horizontal rowing movement not only strengthens the middle- and upper-back muscles, it helps your clients develop the mobility and stability they’ll need to work up to a regular pull-up.
This isn’t my favorite pull-up variation. As I note on the sales page for The Ultimate Pull-Up Program, it provides assistance at the beginning of the movement, where clients need the least help. Most people struggling to master the exercise will fail in the top half, which the band doesn’t really help with, other than providing a bit of momentum in the transition from the eccentric to concentric phases.
But I think it can be useful to help clients work on their body position and technique while doing more reps than they could manage without the band.
From Reader’s Digest:
“Deadlifts can put a lot of strain on the hips and torso,” says chiropractor Kelsey Nelson, DC. Instead, she recommends doing body-weight exercises such as glute bridges.”
The article manages to combine several myths in one quote. First, it’s important to separate the name of the exercise from the movement pattern, which is more accurately described as a hip hinge—a key human movement that most people need to master, no matter their age.
Second, it’s inaccurate to say that every deadlift needs to start from the ground. For most inexperienced clients, young and old, the best place to start is with the Romanian deadlift, which I’ll describe in detail.
- Screw the feet into the ground, keeping weight in the middle to back of the feet. As with the squat, use the stance width and positioning that feels best.
- Inhale, brace the core, and tuck the ribs toward hips. Initiate the movement by pushing the hips backwards, as if trying to press them back against a wall.
- Range of motion will differ from client to client. Lower isn’t better if your form deteriorates. When the client has lowered the weight as far as she can while keeping the head, torso, and hips stacked and the lats engaged, fire the glutes and hamstrings to return to the starting position.
- Lock out at the top with fully extended hips and knees.
- Take care not to let the hands or arms travel ahead of the legs.
Here are five of my favorite hip-hinging variations, all of which are less technically demanding and lower risk than traditional deadlifts from the floor:
This variation is fantastic for teaching clients how to master the hip hinge. The band or cable pulls the hips back, helping them engage the hip extensors, which isn’t automatic or intuitive for many of them. The staggered stance helps with balance. (Since the leading leg does the majority of the work, make sure you switch legs on each set.)
Double-kettlebell deadlift with band resistance around hips
This is a progression from the pull-through, using a parallel stance and the additional challenge of weights in the hands. With the band around the hips, you continue to reinforce the movement pattern.
Not everybody is designed to deadlift from the ground, so this is a fantastic alternative that shortens the range of motion while providing similar benefits.
The fixed position of the barbell makes this exercise less technically demanding than other single-leg deadlift variations, but it’s still a challenging progression from the landmine deadlift.
READ ALSO: Functional Training for Older Clients
I know I’m not alone in my frustration over articles like this one. The only reason it came to my attention is because countless people shared it on social media, voicing the same displeasure.
Like so many articles we’ve seen over the years, it started with the assumption that individual exercises cause injuries. The truth, as every good coach understands, is that the exercises themselves aren’t the culprit. The problem is performing them incorrectly.
And that can cause injury to anyone, at any age.