Heath and Aging

Exercise & Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging

Sample Exercises - Strength

make it affordable

weightsExercising at home is just one way to be active. We feature it because most older people can do it, but you also might try Bonita's example:

"I'm 69 and live on my Social Security income. My kids try to spoil me, but I'd rather do things on my own as much as possible. When looking for a fitness center where I could use strength-building equipment, I bargained the owner down to a monthly fee that I could afford. I started with 1-pound weights and gradually moved on to heavier weights. I also added stretching to my routine. I've always been active, but never as much as I am now. Joining the fitness center has done me a world of good. The owner of my club holds me up as an example, and my family is so proud of me."

older man carrying grandchildHow to Improve Your Strength

Even very small changes in muscle strength can make a real difference in function, especially in people who have already lost a lot of muscle. An increase in muscle that you can't even see can make it easier to do everyday things like get up from a chair, climb stairs, carry groceries, open jars, and even play with your grandchildren. Lower-body strength exercises also will improve your balance.

About Strength Exercises

To do most of the strength exercises in this book, you need to lift or push weights. You can use weights, resistance bands, or common objects from your home. Or, you can use the strength-training equipment at a fitness center or gym. Start with light weights and gradually increase the amount of weight you use.

How Much, How Often

older woman doing strength exerciseTry to do strength exercises for all of your major muscle groups on 2 or more days per week for 30-minute sessions each, but don't exercise the same muscle group on any 2 days in a row. (Use the Weekly Exercise and Physical Activity Plan in Chapter 7.)

  • Depending on your condition, you might need to start out using 1- or 2-pound weights, or no weight at all. Your body needs to get used to strength exercises.
  • Use a light weight the first week, then gradually add more weight. Starting out with weights that are too heavy can cause injuries.
  • Gradually add more weight in order to benefit from strength exercises. You need to challenge your muscles to get the most benefit from strength exercises. (The Progressing section below will tell you how.)
  • It should feel somewhere between hard and very hard for you to lift or push the weight. It shouldn't feel very, very hard. If you can't lift or push a weight 8 times in a row, it's too heavy for you. Reduce the amount of weight.
  • Take 3 seconds to lift or push a weight into place, hold the position for 1 second, and take another 3 seconds to return to your starting position. Don't let the weight drop; returning it slowly is very important.
  • Try to do 10 to 15 repetitions for each exercise. Think of this as a goal. If you can't do that many at first, do as many as you can. You may be able to build up to this goal over time.

'Quick Tip'



A repetition, or rep, is one complete movement of an exercise, and a set is one group of reps. In this guide, a set of strength exercises is 10 to 15 repetitions. You can use the Strength and Balance Daily Record in Chapter 7 to keep track of the number of strength exercises you do.

'Making it REAL!'


Want to be able to lift your carry-on bag into the overhead bin of the airplane or get in and out of the car more easily? Keep doing those strength exercises, and you'll get there.

person lying on a bench, holding weights, being assisted by a trainerSafety

  • Talk with your doctor if you are unsure about doing a particular exercise. For example, if you've had hip or back surgery, talk about which exercises might be best for you.
  • Don't hold your breath during strength exercises. Holding your breath while straining can cause changes in blood pressure. This is especially true for people with heart disease.
  • Breathe regularly. Breathe in slowly through your nose and breathe out slowly through your mouth. If this is not comfortable or possible, breathe in and out through either your nose or mouth.
  • Breathe out as you lift or push, and breathe in as you relax. For example, if you're doing leg lifts, breathe out as you lift your leg, and breathe in as you lower it. This may not feel natural at first, and you probably will have to think about it for a while as you do it.
  • weights, water bottle, and a can of soup
    Proper form and safety go hand-in-hand. For some exercises, you may want to start alternating arms and work your way up to using both arms at the same time. If it is difficult for you to hold hand weights, try using wrist weights.
  • To prevent injury, don't jerk or thrust weights into position. Use smooth, steady movements.
  • Avoid "locking" your arm and leg joints in a tightly straightened position. To straighten your knees, tighten your thigh muscles. This will lift your kneecaps and protect them.
  • For many of the sample exercises in this guide, you will need to use a chair. Choose a sturdy chair that is stable enough to support your weight when seated or when holding on during the exercise.
  • Muscle soreness lasting a few days and slight fatigue are normal after muscle-building exercises, at least at first. After doing these exercises for a few weeks, you will probably not be sore after your workout.

Progressing

Muscle strength is progressive over time. Gradually increase the amount of weight you use to build strength. When you can do 2 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions easily, increase the amount of weight at your next session.

Here's an example of how to progress gradually: Start out with a weight that you can lift only 8 times. Keep using that weight until you become strong enough to lift it easily 10 to 15 times. When you can do 2 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions easily, add more weight so that, again, you can lift it only 8 times. Keep repeating until you reach your goal, and then maintain that level as long as you can.

'Quick Tip'
Challenge yourself, but listen to your body, and use common sense when you exercise.

  • If you feel sick or have pain during or after exercise, you're doing too much.
  • Exhaustion, sore joints, and painful muscle pulling mean you're overdoing it. None of the exercises should cause severe pain.
  • Over-exercising can cause injury, which may lead to quitting altogether.A steady rate of progress is the best approach.

Working with a Resistance Band

Resistance bands are stretchy elastic bands that come in several strengths, from light to heavy. You can use them in some strength exercises instead of weights.

  1. Lay the band flat in your hand with the end toward your pinky finger.
  2. Wrap the long end of the band around the back of your hand.
  3. Grasp firmly.
'Wrapping a resistance band' - let one end hang a few inches over the pinky edge of your palm, and pinch the band against the base of your index finger with your thumb. Wrap it around the back of your hand, bring it around the pinky side of your palm, over the top of the palm, between your thumb and index finger, and make a fist to hold it.

'tip'If you are a beginner, try exercising without the band until you are comfortable, then add the band. Choose a light band if you are just starting to exercise, and move on to a stronger band when you can do 2 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions easily. Hold on to the band tightly (some bands have handles), or wrap it around your hand or foot to keep it from slipping and causing possible injury. Do the exercises in a slow, controlled manner, and don't let the band snap back.

weight, can of soup, and bottle of waterWorking with Weights

You don't have to go out and buy weights for strength exercises. Find something you can hold on to easily. For example, you can make your own weights from unbreakable household items:

  • Fill a plastic milk jug with sand or water and tape the opening securely closed.
  • Fill a sock with dried beans, and tie up the open end.
  • Use common grocery items, such as bags of rice, vegetable or soup cans, or bottled water.
Hand Grip This simple exercise should help if you have trouble picking things up or holding on to them. It also will help you open things like that pickle jar more easily. You can even do this exercise while reading or watching TV.
tennis balls
  1. Hold a tennis ball or other small rubber or foam ball in one hand.
  2. Slowly squeeze the ball as hard as you can and hold it for 3-5 seconds.
  3. Relax the squeeze slowly.
  4. Repeat 10-15 times.
  5. Repeat 10-15 times with other hand.
  6. Repeat 10-15 times more with each hand.
Wrist Curl This exercise will strengthen your wrists. It also will help ensure good form and prevent injury when you do upper body strength exercises.
demonstration of wrist curls
  1. Rest your forearm on the arm of a sturdy chair with your hand over the edge.
  2. Hold weight with palm facing upward.
  3. Slowly bend your wrist up and down.
  4. Repeat 10-15 times.
  5. Repeat with other hand 10-15 times.
  6. Repeat 10-15 more times with each hand.
Overhead Arm Raise This exercise will strengthen your shoulders and arms. It should make swimming and other activities such as lifting and carrying grandchildren easier.
older woman doing Overhead Arm Raise
  1. You can do this exercise while standing or sitting in a sturdy, armless chair.
  2. Keep your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart.
  3. Hold weights at your sides at shoulder height with palms facing forward. Breathe in slowly.
  4. Slowly breathe out as you raise both arms up over your head keeping your elbows slightly bent.
  5. Hold the position for 1 second.
  6. Breathe in as you slowly lower your arms.
  7. Repeat 10-15 times.
  8. Rest; then repeat 10-15 more times.

'tip'

As you progress, use a heavier weight and alternate arms until you can lift the weight comfortably with both arms.

Front Arm Raise This exercise for your shoulders can help you put things up on a shelf or take them down more easily.
man doing Front Arm Raise
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hold weights straight down at your sides, with palms facing backward.
  3. Keeping them straight, breathe out as you raise both arms in front of you to shoulder height.
  4. Hold the position for 1 second.
  5. Breathe in as you slowly lower arms.
  6. Repeat 10-15 times.
  7. Rest; then repeat 10-15 more times.

'tip'

As you progress, use a heavier weight and alternate arms until you can lift the weight comfortably with both arms.

Side Arm Raise This exercise will strengthen your shoulders and make lifting groceries easier.
woman doing Side Arm Raise
  1. You can do this exercise while standing or sitting in a sturdy, armless chair.
  2. Keep your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart.
  3. Hold hand weights straight down at your sides with palms facing inward. Breathe in slowly.
  4. Slowly breathe out as you raise both arms to the side, shoulder height.
  5. Hold the position for 1 second.
  6. Breathe in as you slowly lower your arms.
  7. Repeat 10-15 times.
  8. Rest; then repeat 10-15 more times.

'tip'

As you progress, use a heavier weight and alternate arms until you can lift the weight comfortably with both arms.

Arm Curl After a few weeks of doing this exercise for your upper arm muscles, lifting that gallon of milk will be much easier.
man doing Arm Curl
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hold weights straight down at your sides, palms facing forward. Breathe in slowly.
  3. Breathe out as you slowly bend your elbows and lift weights toward chest. Keep elbows at your sides.
  4. Hold the position for 1 second.
  5. Breathe in as you slowly lower your arms.
  6. Repeat 10-15 times.
  7. Rest; then repeat 10-15 more times.

'tip'

As you progress, use a heavier weight and alternate arms until you can lift the weight comfortably with both arms.

Arm Curl with Resistance Band This variation of the Arm Curl uses a resistance band instead of weights. (See Working with a Resistance Band above.)
woman doing Arm Curl with Resistance Band
  1. Sit in a sturdy, armless chair with your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart.
  2. Place the center of the resistance band under both feet. Hold each end of the band with palms facing inward. Keep elbows at your sides. Breathe in slowly.
  3. Keep wrists straight and slowly breathe out as you bend your elbows and bring your hands toward your shoulders.
  4. Hold the position for 1 second.
  5. Breathe in as you slowly lower your arms.
  6. Repeat 10-15 times.
  7. Rest; then repeat 10-15 more times.

'tip'

 As you progress, use a heavier strength band.

Seated Row with Resistance Band This exercise to strengthen upper back, shoulder, and neck muscles should make everyday activities such as raking and vacuuming easier. (See Working with a Resistance Band above.)
woman doing Seated Row with Resistance Band
  1. Sit in a sturdy, armless chair with your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart.
  2. Place the center of the resistance band under both feet. Hold each end of the band with palms facing inward.
  3. Relax your shoulders and extend your arms beside your legs. Breathe in slowly.
  4. Breathe out slowly and pull both elbows back until your hands are at your hips.
  5. Hold position for 1 second.
  6. Breathe in as you slowly return your hands to the starting position.
  7. Repeat 10-15 times.
  8. Rest; then repeat 10-15 more times.

'tip'

As you progress, use a heavier strength band.

Wall Push-Up These push-ups will strengthen your arms, shoulders, and chest. Try this exercise during a TV commercial break.
man doing Wall Push-Up
  1. Face a wall, standing a little farther than arm's length away, feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lean your body forward and put your palms flat against the wall at shoulder height and shoulder-width apart.
  3. Slowly breathe in as you bend your elbows and lower your upper body toward the wall in a slow, controlled motion. Keep your feet flat on the floor.
  4. Hold the position for 1 second.
  5. Breathe out and slowly push yourself back until your arms are straight.
  6. Repeat 10-15 times.
  7. Rest; then repeat 10-15 more times.
Elbow Extension This exercise will strengthen your upper arms. If your shoulders aren't flexible enough to do this exercise, try the Chair Dip.
woman doing Elbow Extension
  1. You can do this exercise while standing or sitting in a sturdy, armless chair.
  2. Keep your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart.
  3. Hold weight in one hand with palm facing inward. Raise that arm toward ceiling.
  4. Support this arm below elbow with other hand. Breathe in slowly.
  5. Slowly bend raised arm at elbow and bring weight toward shoulder.
  6. Hold position for 1 second.
  7. Breathe out and slowly straighten your arm over your head. Be careful not to lock your elbow.
  8. Repeat 10-15 times.
  9. Repeat 10-15 times with other arm.
  10. Repeat 10-15 more times with each arm.

'tip'

If it's difficult for you to hold hand weights, try using wrist weights.

Chair Dip This pushing motion will strengthen your arm muscles even if you are not able to lift yourself up off the chair.
woman doing Chair Dip
  1. Sit in a sturdy chair with armrests with your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lean slightly forward; keep your back and shoulders straight.
  3. Grasp arms of chair with your hands next to you. Breathe in slowly.
  4. Breathe out and use your arms to push your body slowly off the chair.
  5. Hold position for 1 second.
  6. Breathe in as you slowly lower yourself back down.
  7. Repeat 10-15 times.
  8. Rest; then repeat 10-15 more times.
Back Leg Raise This exercise strengthens your buttocks and lower back. For an added challenge, you can modify the exercise to improve your balance. (See Progressing to Improve Balance.)
man doing Back Leg Raise
  1. Stand behind a sturdy chair, holding on for balance. Breathe in slowly.
  2. Breathe out and slowly lift one leg straight back without bending your knee or pointing your toes. Try not to lean forward. The leg you are standing on should be slightly bent.
  3. Hold position for 1 second.
  4. Breathe in as you slowly lower your leg.
  5. Repeat 10-15 times.
  6. Repeat 10-15 times with other leg.
  7. Repeat 10-15 more times with each leg.

'tip'

As you progress, you may want to add ankle weights.

Side Leg Raise This exercise strengthens hips, thighs, and buttocks. For an added challenge, you can modify the exercise to improve your balance. (See Progressing to Improve Balance.)
woman doing Side Leg Raise
  1. Stand behind a sturdy chair with feet slightly apart, holding on for balance. Breathe in slowly.
  2. Breathe out and slowly lift one leg out to the side. Keep your back straight and your toes facing forward. The leg you are standing on should be slightly bent.
  3. Hold position for 1 second.
  4. Breathe in as you slowly lower your leg.
  5. Repeat 10-15 times.
  6. Repeat 10-15 times with other leg.
  7. Repeat 10-15 more times with each leg.

'tip'

As you progress, you may want to add ankle weights.

Knee Curl Walking and climbing stairs are easier when you do both the Knee Curl and Leg Straightening exercises. For an added challenge, you can modify the exercise to improve your balance. (See Progressing to Improve Balance.)
man doing Knee Curl
  1. Stand behind a sturdy chair, holding on for balance. Lift one leg straight back without bending your knee or pointing your toes. Breathe in slowly.
  2. Breathe out as you slowly bring your heel up toward your buttocks as far as possible. Bend only from your knee, and keep your hips still. The leg you are standing on should be slightly bent.
  3. Hold position for 1 second.
  4. Breathe in as you slowly lower your foot to the floor.
  5. Repeat 10-15 times.
  6. Repeat 10-15 times with other leg.
  7. Repeat 10-15 more times with each leg.

'tip'

As you progress, you may want to add ankle weights.

Leg Straightening This exercise strengthens your thighs and may reduce symptoms of arthritis of the knee.
woman doing Leg Straightening
  1. Sit in a sturdy chair with your back supported by the chair. Only the balls of your feet and your toes should rest on the floor. Put a rolled bath towel at the edge of the chair under thighs for support. Breathe in slowly.
  2. Breathe out and slowly extend one leg in front of you as straight as possible, but don’t lock your knee.
  3. Flex foot to point toes toward the ceiling. Hold position for 1 second.
  4. Breathe in as you slowly lower leg back down.
  5. Repeat 10-15 times.
  6. Repeat 10-15 times with other leg.
  7. Repeat 10-15 more times with each leg.

'tip'

As you progress, you may want to add ankle weights.

Chair Stand This exercise, which strengthens your abdomen and thighs, will make it easier to get in and out of the car. If you have knee or back problems, talk with your doctor before trying this exercise.
man doing Chair Stand
  1. Sit toward the front of a sturdy, armless chair with knees bent and feet flat on floor, shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lean back with your hands crossed over your chest. Keep your back and shoulders straight throughout exercise. Breathe in slowly.
  3. Breathe out and bring your upper body forward until sitting upright.
  4. Extend your arms so they are parallel to the floor and slowly stand up.
  5. Breathe in as you slowly sit down.
  6. Repeat 10-15 times.
  7. Rest; then repeat 10-15 more times.

'tip'

People with back problems should start the exercise from the sitting upright position.

Toe Stand This exercise will help make walking easier by strengthening your calves and ankles. For an added challenge, you can modify the exercise to improve your balance. (See Progressing to Improve Balance.)
woman doing Toe Stand
  1. Stand behind a sturdy chair, feet shoulder-width apart, holding on for balance. Breathe in slowly.
  2. Breathe out and slowly stand on tiptoes, as high as possible.
  3. Hold position for 1 second.
  4. Breathe in as you slowly lower heels to the floor.
  5. Repeat 10-15 times.
  6. Rest; then repeat 10-15 more times.

'tip'

As you progress, try doing the exercise standing on one leg at a time for a total of 10-15 times on each leg.

Publication Date: May 2011
Page Last Updated: March 24, 2014