12 Best Equipment-Free Strength Exercises for Older Adults

Strength training isn’t just for bodybuilders and marathoners. It’s for anyone who wants to feel healthier, more energetic and, yes, younger. You don’t even need a gym or special exercise equipment to begin building muscle and increasing your strength.

“Body-weight exercises are a form of strength training and are the best exercises to start with to ensure proper form and safety,” says Annora Brennan, a Los Angeles-based gerontologist and fitness professional who specializes in fitness for older adults.

“Strength is the fountain of youth,” says Gavin McHale, a kinesiologist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a certified exercise physiologist who works primarily with older adults. “Benefits of resistance training, and subsequent strength gains, in older adults include better control of symptoms of chronic disease, pain and depression, as well as prevention of falls, maintaining existing muscle mass, improving posture and stability, increasing bone density and remaining functional.”

As we age, we naturally lose some muscle mass because our muscles become less sensitive to dietary protein’s muscle-building ways and because of changing hormones. However, a decline in physical activity is the biggest culprit. “Sarcopenia — gradual muscle aging — is a natural process of aging, as is the loss of bone density, both of which can be reduced through strength training,” Brennan says. “Strength training can help you maintain independence and continue doing the activities you love.”

[See: Exercise Equipment for Seniors.]

“Use it or lose it” is the clear message, says Tami Peavy, a physical therapist and clinical director with La Mesa Rehab in La Mesa, California, and founder of PracticalTherapy4U in Los Angeles. “Simply by growing older, you lose muscle mass at the rate of up to 5% per decade after age 30,” she says. “The good news is that with some simple strength training, you can reduce that loss and regain muscle mass.”

Other health benefits can follow. Strength training only once a week showed improved health markers with reduced inflammation, lower blood pressure and lower blood sugar levels among healthy older adults ages 65 to 75 in a study from Finland, published February 2019 in the journal Frontiers in Physiology.

Luckily, virtually everyone is able to perform strength exercises, as long as they take into account their personal health rather than the number of candles on their birthday cake. “I have clients that are 25 years of age that may need more modifications than 70-year-olds who have been working out their whole life,” says Briana Kline, exercise scientist and founder of Roots of Integrity Holistic Fitness & Wellness in Chicago.

“Start small. Some is better than none, more is better than some,” McHale says. If you have any limiting conditions such as bad knees, hypertension or a surgically replaced joint, talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise routine.

Gradually, you can ramp up your workout in several ways. “Progressing with body weight can easily be done by adding repetitions, changing the tempo — actually slowing the exercise down — and modifying stance or weight,” Brennan says. That could mean widening or narrowing your stance, and using a single arm or leg rather than both arms or legs to bear your weight.

Here are the 12 best equipment-free exercises to get you started, build strength and feel young, no matter your age:

1. Lying Hip Bridges

These work your glutes, your body’s largest muscle group, while also opening up the hips, McHale says. The hips can get especially tight in people who find themselves spending hours sitting throughout the day.

Instructions: Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Flatten your lower back against the floor, squeeze your bum and push your hips up into the air. Make sure to push through your entire foot, almost as if you’re trying to push your toes out the end of your shoes. Pause, then slowly lower to start.

2. Squats to Chair

Among the most functional exercises around, squats strengthen the entire lower body and core to help you take stairs, pick things up off the floor and get out of chairs without struggle into old age, McHale says.

Instructions: Stand with your feet hip-width apart directly in front of a chair. Keeping your chest upright, push your hips back and bend your knees to lower your body toward the chair. Either touch your bum to the chair or sit down on it. At the bottom of the squat, your upper body should be leaning forward only slightly. Pause, then push through your feet and squeeze your bum to return to start. During squats, keep your weight mostly distributed over you heels and mid-feet, Brennan emphasizes. (You should be able to wiggle your toes throughout the entire movement.) This prevents putting unwanted pressure on your knee joints.

3. Wall Push-Ups

Improve your whole upper-body strength, especially your arms and chest, with this simple exercise, Kline says.

Instructions: Stand about 2 feet away from the wall (move closer to the wall to make the exercise easier), and put your hands against it at shoulder height and shoulder-width apart. Keeping your body in a straight line, bend your elbows diagonally to your sides to lower your chest to the wall. Let your heels come off of the floor. Pause, then slowly press through your hands to straighten your elbows and return to start.

4. Side Lying Circles

This little move has big benefits: It strengthens your hips while improving mobility through the joint, Kline says.

Instructions: Lie on one side on the floor with your body in a straight line, your bottom arm extended straight past your head. Rest your head on your bottom arm and squeeze your abdominals to pull in your belly. Keeping your hips directly over each other, lift your top leg to about hip height and move your leg in small clockwise circles in the air. Pause, then perform the circles in counterclockwise motion. Lower your leg to return to start, and repeat on the opposite side.

[See: Tips to Keep Your Bones Healthy and Strong.]

5. Quadruped Opposite Arm and Leg Balance

This exercise is great for improving balance, coordination and strength in the back and abdominals, Kline says.

Instructions: Get on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Keeping your back flat and abdominals tight, lift one hand to reach straight in front of your shoulder while lifting your opposite foot straight behind your hip. Hold for three breaths (or as long as you can maintain balance), and then lower your hand and foot toward the floor to return to start. Repeat on the opposite side.

6. Deadbugs

They have a funny name, but they’ll seriously help you improve your core stability for greater balance and allover strength, McHale says.

Instructions: Lie flat on your back with your arms and legs up in the air, your knees bent. Maintaining contact between your lower back and the floor, lower one leg until your heel just about touches the floor while also lowering the opposite arm toward the floor above your head. Lift them back up to return to start, and repeat on the opposite side. You can make this exercise harder by keeping your legs straight rather than bent.

7. Side Planks

This plank variation will improve side-to-side core stability as well as strengthen your shoulder, a joint that can give many older adults problems, McHale says.

Instructions: Start by lying on your side, propped up with your elbow directly below your shoulder. With either the sides of your feet or the sides of your knees stacked on the floor (do what’s comfortable for you) . S queeze your core and lift your hips off of the floor so that your body forms a straight line from your ears to either your feet or knees. Hold for as long as you can while maintaining good form. Lower your hips to return to start, and repeat on the opposite side.

8. Wall Angels

Ease back pain and improve your posture by opening your chest and working your shoulders with these simple against-the-wall moves, McHale says.

Instructions: Stand with your back flat against a wall and your feet about 3 to 6 inches from the wall. With the back of your head touching the wall and your arms straight down by your sides, tuck your chin to your chest. Then turn your palms out and slowly raise your arms, maintaining contact with the floor or wall. Raise your arms as high as you can without your elbows bending or feeling any discomfort. Pause, then lower your arms to return to start.

[See: Best Exercises for Heart Disease Patients.]

9. Wall Slides

This wall exercise helps keep your hips and knees strong and serves as a good posture reminder, Peavy says.

Instructions: Stand with your back about 1 to 2 feet away from the wall with your feet under your hips. Lean your bum, back, shoulders, arms and head against the wall. Bend your knees and lower your body to nearly 90 degrees. Hold that position for three counts and raise back up. Perform two sets of 10 twice a day, Peavy suggests.

10. Pec Stretches

Instructions: Stand in the middle of a door entry space. Place both arms on the side of the doorway and gently step through to stretch your pectoral muscles. That helps prevent tight pecs, which can pull the shoulders forward and create a rounded shoulder posture, Peavy explains.

11. Standing Balance

Instructions: Hold onto a steady surface like a countertop or chair. Lift up one foot and balance on the other foot, holding the position as long as you can. Switch to the other foot and do the same thing. Eventually, work up to standing on one foot without holding onto the chair or countertop and maintain that pose for a minute or longer, then switch feet and balance on the other side. (Stay near the steady surface so you can easily reach it for support, if needed.)

12. Chin Up — Literally

“Every day, you carry a ‘bowling ball’ around your shoulders — because your head weighs 10 to 12 pounds,” Peavy says. For every inch you let your chin drop, your head moves forward and rounds your shoulders, and you add more than 10 pounds worth of pressure, she notes.

Instructions: Keep your neck straight — but not stiff — and your head upright when you stand or walk. By doing so, you’ll avoiding building pressure and pain in your neck, shoulders and back.

Make sure to mix some moderate cardio — like brisk walking — into your workout. Squats, planks, pushups, balance exercises and walking are the equipment-free exercises that Brennan most highly recommends.

K. Aleisha Fetters, MS, CSCS, is a freelance Health & Wellness reporter at U.S. News. As a certified strength and conditioning specialist with a graduate degree in health and science reporting, she has contributed to publications including TIME, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, and Shape. She empowers others to reach their goals using a science-based approach to fitness, nutrition and health. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram, find her on Facebook or the Web or email her at kafetters@gmail.com.

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