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Essential Leg Strengthening Exercises for Seniors
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The senior population is unique from other populations. Because of this, there are important considerations for ensuring proper training, safety, and success.
Seniors are less likely to pursue weight loss as their main goal (although it’s still possible), and more likely to seek improvements in their movement, strength, and quality of life. To help them reach those goals, building and maintaining muscle mass is crucial.
Review these important benefits of strength training for seniors. Plus, explore the leg strengthening exercises you can implement with your seniors right away.
Benefits of Strength Training for Seniors
Strength training exercises are valuable for nearly everyone. However, strength training exercises are critical for the senior population. The following list includes of few of the reasons why.
Increased Bone Density
As age increases, bone loss typically increases. Exercise is a well-known bone loss prevention tactic. Weight-bearing exercises and resistance exercises stimulate the pull of muscles on bones, which helps strengthen the bones. Strong bones are an important component of health for the elderly population because increased bone strength can reduce the risk of fractures or bone breaks (1).
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), about 25% of elderly people (65 and older) fall each year! Falling is a common and valid fear for many seniors because falls can be life-threatening and even deadly (2).
Walking up the stairs, stepping off a curb, or side-stepping to avoid a person-to-person collision are situations many younger clients don’t have to think about. However, if an older client lacks the strength, mobility, and flexibility to accomplish these tasks, they’re more likely to fall. So, exercises that improve strength and balance can play a role in reducing falls (3).
Improved Quality of Life
Stronger muscles and bones, as well improved mobility, can help seniors maintain their independence longer, increase their confidence as they move, and improve how they feel (better posture, more flexibility, reduced pain, etc.). All three of these factors are huge contributors to the quality of life for many seniors.
Key Leg Strengthening Exercises for Seniors
It’s incredibly important to understand the skill level of your senior clients because their movement, balance, and strength may be altered by past surgeries, injuries, chronic disease, inactivity, etc. So, with any of the following exercises, ensure you start each client at the appropriate level and progress them properly and safely.
Try these exercises for building leg strength, plus variations to progress or regress your client.
With each of the following squat exercises, if needed, the client can hold on to a stable chair or secure railing. If appropriate for the client, work towards having them complete each exercise without holding on to support. Using a safe space and cueing engagement of the abdominal muscles are essential as well.
Partial Air Squat
With shoulders back, hips squared, and core engaged, your client will position themselves in front of a chair. Their feet should be hip-width apart. The client will slowly lower into a partial squat (about halfway between the standing position and the chair). Once they reach the halfway point, they will press back up into a standing position.
Sit to Stand
The client will begin this exercise in a seated position and scoot to the edge of the chair. Without using momentum, the client will use their leg strength to transition from a seated to standing position. From a standing position, they will bend their knees, hinge at the hips, and slowly lower back down to the chair (using stable support, if needed).
Your senior client will stand a few inches in front of a chair. With a neutral spine, square hips, and an engaged core, they’ll raise their arms in front of them to counterbalance the weight. They will bend their knees, hinge at the hips, and slowly lower into a squat. When their glutes touch the chair, without resting any weight on the chair, they will use their legs to press up into a standing position.
You’ll want to begin each exercise with the appropriate step height for your client. For most seniors, you’ll start a few inches off the ground (e.g., top of a step platform) and increase the height if it’s appropriate for the client. For all step exercises, repetitions should be completed on both sides of the body.
The client will start this exercise with both feet on top of the platform. Keeping the hips square, they will step back onto the floor with the left leg (keeping the right foot planted firmly on the step). Using the strength of the right leg, they will press up and bring the left leg back onto the step (ending the rep in the starting position).
The side-step exercise is very similar to the step back. However, instead of their feet being perpendicular to the platform, they will be parallel. So, the client is stepping down and to the side as opposed to down and back.
They’ll begin with both feet on top of the platform. With the right foot firmly planted on the step, they’ll step to the side with the left leg (and off the platform), keeping the right leg firmly planted on the platform. Using the right leg, they will press back up to the starting position.
Step up to Balance
This exercise can be completed with the feet perpendicular to the step (step up to balance) or parallel to the step (side-step up to balance).
The client will begin with both feet on the ground. They will place the right foot on the platform and press up through the heel to raise the left leg off the ground. They will hold this position (balance on the right leg) for a few seconds (keeping the left foot off the ground) before slowly lowering the left leg back down to the ground and returning the right leg to the starting position.
Leg extensions are another solid addition to a senior’s exercise routine.
Chair Leg Extensions
Your client will begin this exercise in a seated position. They will sit up straight, grip the sides of the chair with their hands, and slowly extend their right knee by contracting their right quadricep. Keeping the upper leg on the chair throughout the movement, they will slowly lower the leg back down to the starting position and repeat on the opposite leg.
You can progress the chair leg extensions with a resistance band or ankle weights.
Machine Leg Extensions
This leg exercise is performed with the same form as the leg extension chair exercise. However, resistance is applied just above the ankles, on the front of the shins (via the leg extension machine).
We suggest executing leg extensions as a unilateral exercise (one leg at a time) to ensure one quadricep muscle isn’t taking over.
You can improve your senior clients’ strength, mobility, and quality of life by learning and applying training approaches specifically for the elderly. Become an ISSA Lifespan Coach and learn how seniors are different from other populations, their unique needs, and gain the knowledge to design safe and effective fitness programs for them.
- H. Burger, C. E. D. H. de Laet, P. L. A. van Daele, A. E. A. M. Weel, et al. “Risk Factors for Increased Bone Loss in an Elderly Population The Rotterdam Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology, 1998; Volume 147(9): 871–879
- Center for Disease Control. “Facts About Falls.” Cdc.gov. 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/falls/facts.html. Visited Jan. 10, 2020.
- Stevens, J.A., Burns, E.R. “A CDC Compendium of Effective Fall Interventions: What Works for Community-Dwelling Older Adults.” 3rd ed. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2015