“Functional training,” like most buzzwords, means something a little different to everyone who uses it. But when you train older adults, as I do, the concept becomes a lot less theoretical and a lot more urgent. What we do in the gym has a big impact on their quality of life.
When those clients tell me about their day to day struggles and challenges, a lot of them mention three specific tasks:
- Getting up off the floor
- Carrying heavy things
- Loading and unloading the car
Generally, I follow the principle of specificity: Your body adapts, and your fitness progresses, in a way that’s specific to the exercises you do. Simply put, you get better at what you train for.
For sitting and standing back up, squats are better than, say, leg curls. To improve your mile time, you don’t play tennis, you run.
However, that doesn’t mean you should exclude everything else.
A few years ago, I listened to a podcast with Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld that’s stuck with me ever since.
In it, Schoenfeld cites a 1990 study in which 10 older adults (average age: 90) did eight weeks of leg extension training. Really, you can’t get less “functional” than participants sitting in chairs and moving their legs up and down. At no point in real life do we move this way.
Yet by program’s end, these nonagenarians were not only 175 percent stronger, their functional abilities improved by about 50 percent. Two of the 10 were able to ditch their canes and walk without assistance. One of them could rise from a chair without using his arms.
The point: Strength is functional. If an exercise increases strength, it can also help you move.
In my experience, the most effective training combines functional moves—those that mirror everyday actions—and accessory lifts that strengthen the muscles used for those actions.
Here’s what I do to help my older clients.
READ ALSO: “What You Need to Know to Work with the 70+ Age Group”
Getting up and down from the floor
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories like this: “I was on the floor playing with my six-month-old grandson, and when I tried to get up, it took everything I had in me. It was pathetic! Can you help?”
The setup may vary—they’re repairing a sink or reaching for something under the couch—but the punchline is always the same: They get down, and they struggle to get back up. It’s a challenge with life-and-death implications.
In a study published in 2012, seniors who needed the most support from their hand and knees to get up and down from the floor were five to six times more likely to die during the six-year follow-up period, compared to those who could do it with the least assistance.
I typically use the following exercises.
The first four exercises train the core muscles in positions that a person might use when getting up off the floor, while the Pallof press improves core strength and stability from an upright position.
First phase of Turkish get-up
As noted by Dan John in this article, the Turkish get-up is the perfect exercise for this task. But you don’t have to do the entire movement to get something out of it. The most important part, for someone trying to get off the floor, is when you roll onto your forearm to lift your torso. That should be doable for anyone.
This one trains the anterior core in a way that’s more back-friendly than the plank. Start on your hands and knees as if you’re giving a piggyback ride. Lift your knees about an inch off the floor so your weight is on your toes and palms. Hold.
Modified side plank
Lie on your side with knees bent, supporting your upper body on your forearm. Raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from shoulders to knees. Hold.
An older client can usually hold the push-up position. But getting into it is sometimes a challenge. Have your client start on her hands and knees, and then straighten one leg at a time until her body forms a straight line from shoulders to ankles.
I like to use the standing version, with the body sideways to the weight stack and feet parallel to each other.
My clients love the leg press. I like it for building overall leg strength, and I particularly like single-leg leg presses for unmasking strength imbalances.
Here’s another leg builder my clients think is cool, especially when we use gymnastics rings. (“Honey, look! I’m a gymnast!” “That’s lovely, dear. Now do the iron cross.”) Two important coaching cues:
- Make sure the arms remain extended and the suspension straps stay taut. Don’t let clients turn it into a squat-row hybrid.
- Have them lean back slightly, keeping their weight on their heels.
Stationary lunge (aka split squat)
I really like this one because it mimics the last stage of standing up from the ground. (However, if the client has bad knees, you may want to avoid it.)
If the client is on the floor in the prone position, his first move is to push himself up. The chest press targets the muscles for that. You can use anything you have that clients like, including dumbbells, a resistance band, a machine, or even a barbell, if your client can manage it without pain.
I stay away from old-school dips with this clientele, but I like using an assisted dip machine, or doing body-weight dips with parallette bars (I prefer Lebert EQualizer bars).
Have the client sit between the bars with legs straight and heels on the floor. As she pushes herself up, she can use her legs for assistance. Don’t feel you have to achieve full ROM, with the upper arms parallel to the floor in the bottom position, or the elbows fully extended at the top. Even partial reps light up those triceps.
Rarely can older clients do traditional push-ups. But wall, knee, and bench variations? Almost anybody can do those. They all develop the upper-body and core strength needed to push yourself off the floor.
Carrying heavy things
The ability to haul heavier or unbalanced loads is essential for quality of life. Every day, we lug laundry, groceries, potted plants, sacks of dog food. Imagine trying to remain independent if you live alone and can no longer manage any of that.
In fact, one in four seniors take a spill every year. Falls are the number-one cause of injury—and death from injury—among adults over 65.
Strength training can help with that too: In one study, older adults on a 12-week lower-body strength program saw vast improvements not only in their leg strength but in their balance as well. And researchers from Vancouver found that resistance training can reduce the risk of falling among 75- to 85-year-old women by 57 percent.
These are the exercises I use.
UPPER BACK, ARMS, GRIP STRENGTH
You knew these would be in the mix. Suitcase, farmer’s, and waiter walks are my go-to variations. They ignite the traps, arms, core, and legs, and improve grip strength (which has been linked not only to health and longevity but balance as well). If you have access to a sandbag, use it.
Rows and curls
Why? Because biceps matter. When you’re carrying a heavy load, keeping it close to your body can prevent injury. The lats fire up when you carry things close to your sides, but you need biceps strength to hold something in front of you or against your chest.
And for those who say biceps curls aren’t “functional,” I speak as a former deliveryman when I say you’ve probably never moved furniture for a living.
I go with goblet squats, front squats, single-leg bench squats, and suitcase squats. I prefer to use kettlebells, but you can only use what you have. Being a good personal trainer means knowing how to improvise.
This is one of the harder lifts I teach my clients, but the effort pays off in a big way. Any variation is fair game. Again, I like using kettlebells because I find it’s easier to teach proper form with a bell than with a bar.
Lifting heavy things into and out of cars
Before you can carry those heavy things I mentioned in the previous section, you often need to lift them into and then out of a car, pulling from awkward angles that require bending and twisting. Imagine the injury potential for someone trying to deal with a grandchild in a car seat.
This one again? Yup—it’s the crossover SUV of strength exercises, and the perfect movement for time-constrained workouts when you need to cover multiple functional targets.
With my clients, I’ll use single-leg deadlifts, squat-style, sumo-style, and conventional, using a partial ROM (lifting the weight from a box or bench rather than the floor) when necessary.
If your client is free of back pain, the good morning is an excellent way to work the posterior-chain muscles. I’ll use weighted rubberized bars, and always start obnoxiously light to nail down the form. Even when the form is solid, I don’t go super heavy, keeping it in the 12- to 15-rep range.
Think about it: If you’re pulling a heavy suitcase out of a sedan’s trunk, you’re going to end up doing a bent-over row. My clients really like this one, too, as it’s easy to visualize being in a real-life situation where it’ll come in handy. I’ll use weighted rubberized bars again, but other options are fine as well.
Pulling it all together
A typical training session with my clients is 30 minutes to an hour. I utilize circuits and HIIT to keep their heart rate up the entire time and to maximize efficiency. (For more detail, I wrote this article about interval training for seniors.)
A sample workout might look like this:
WARMUP (5–10 minutes)
Do whatever you’re comfortable with, as long as you do something. Warmups are vital for this age group, as they stimulate the synovial fluid in the joints and prime the muscles for a hard workout. I typically go with a stationary bike or a brisk walk on a self-propelled Woodway Curve treadmill.
We do the lettered exercises as supersets, with or without rest in between movements. We’ll usually do each superset two times, followed by one or two sets of the three stand-alone exercises, resting a minute in between.
1A. Kettlebell deadlift
1B. Wall push-up
2A. Suitcase squat
2B. Parallette bar dip
3A. Bent-over row
3B. Push-up hold
4. 1st phase TGU
5. Pallof press
6. Farmer’s carry
COOLDOWN (7–10 minutes)
I tell my clients to choose any piece of cardio equipment and go at a “Sunday stroll” pace.
My clients typically feel they got a good, hard workout without feeling wiped out or experiencing excess soreness a day or two later.
The moves you can pretty much mix and match from any of those I’ve recommended, with the caveat that you want to start the workout with the most challenging compound exercises (like deadlifts and squats) and finish with the simpler ones (like carries).
I tailor the reps to the client, but it usually ends up between 10 and 20 for loaded strength exercises, and whatever they can manage for body-weight moves like push-ups and dips. For carries and static stability exercises like planks, it depends entirely on the individual.
Need to fill more time? I’d start by adding a couple of minutes to the warmup and cooldown. Then you can do some mobility work, stretching, and/or foam rolling.
Scale up or down as needed. If the client is new or extremely frail, you may want to just run through one set of everything the first week or so. If the client is up for more, try increasing the number of sets. With progress, you can work in one or two more strength exercises.
The only rule is that you make it work for your client.