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Man performing plank

Core Strengthening Exercises For Seniors

“SQUEEZE YOUR CORE”, “TIGHTEN THAT CORE UP”. “YOU’VE GOT TO KEEP YOUR CORE STRONG”. These are a small sample of some common phrases revolving around the “core”. But what the heck is the core exactly? And why is it so important for the aging individual? I will answer these questions and explain why building up core strength for seniors is one of the best things to do as you get older.

What is the core?

Abdominal muscles

While you might think of the core as only comprising the abdominals which is what the above picture depicts, it is much more than that. The core comprises the trunk, glutes (butt muscles), chest, and back muscles. Basically everything besides the arms, legs, and head is the core. That being said some of the more important core muscles are comprised of the abdominal muscles- Recuts Abdominus which is the “six pack” muscle group, the external and internal obliques which are on the sides of our abdomens, our gluteal muscles, and our lower back muscles.

Why is the core important?

The core musculature not only provide us with means to perform actions such as the powerful gluteal muscles initiating standing up from a chair, but they are also extremely important in providing stability. This stability can help prevent a fall which could lead to a length and expensive hospital stay. If you are interested in learning more about preventing falls read this article-Fall Prevention. One of the problems with many of the core muscles is that they often weaken and atrophy as people age and retire. During retirement or when getting older in general, many people will become more sedentary sitting for much longer periods of time. While they may still be walking a considerable amount which will keep their leg strength up, they may no longer be doing other activities such as gardening, chores around the house, or light recreational sports. This can lead to the core muscles being neglected. If you don’t use it, you lose it. As the saying goes. A loss of core strength can make simple tasks such as standing up from a chair a challenge. It also can lead to an increased risk of falls as our core muscles help our stability and balance.

Benefits of core strength

  • Improves stability and balance
  • Can decrease risk of falls
  • Improves functional independence
  • Makes simple tasks such as standing up easier
  • Keeps you independent in your own home longer and out of the hospital or nursing home

isolation vs compound

JUST GET TO THE EXERCISES ALREADY! I know, I know. You are anxious to get to the exercises, after all that is why you are here. But first, I want to explain why I have chosen the below exercises to strengthen the core as they are not what you will typically find when researching core strengthening exercises. I strongly prefer compound movements not only for strengthening the core but as a general premise as well. Most typical core strengthening exercises are isolation exercises such as the crunch or seated leg tucks which both isolate/work the rectus abdominus muscles in an isolated fashion and have little effect on other muscles of the core. As a Physical Therapist I use isolation exercises frequently however these are most appropriate for those recovering from an acute injury or surgery.

The problem with isolation movements is that they do not translate well to how the body moves in the real world. Suppose for example you have a 1 year old grandchild who you care for occasionally and have to lift up off the floor. This is a compound movement which requires activation from just about every core muscle. There is nothing isolationary about it and you may have sore muscles in areas you didn’t even know existed the next day. In addition isolation exercises are very time inefficient. You could spend 60 minutes going through all sorts of isolation exercises to target specific muscle groups of the core or you could simply do some squats and deadlifts and get the same or more benefit in a fraction of the time. Time is valuable no matter what stage in life you are at and you want to have time to do the things you love.

4 Exercises to improve core strength

1. The Squat

Woman Squatting

While you might be wondering why the squat is number one on the list of exercises for the core, the truth is that the squat is one of the most functional exercises you can perform. You might have terrifying images of a hulking bodybuilder squatting a bar with hundreds of pounds on his/her back. Don’t worry, you can still benefit from the squat without being a bodybuilder. The squat will primarily work your gluteal and leg muscles however your abdominal and lower back muscles will get a great workout as well as primary stabilizers during this exercise.

How to perform

Beginner: Start by just using a chair with a sturdy back which does not slide on the floor. If possible place against a wall for added stability. Spread your feet until they are approximately shoulder width apart. Squat down slowly and controlled while bracing your core. A good barometer if you are performing this correctly is that you should feel a little burn in your legs by the 6th or 7th repetition. Do not rush this and try and knock out the reps as quickly as possible. Perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions.

To Progress: Increase repetitions to 15 however do not go higher than 15 as you will then be building up endurance and less on strength. When this becomes too easy a light bar across your upper back will work and if possible using a squat machine at a gym will be the next progression. Just remember that using proper form and actually “feeling” the muscles working is the most important part here.

2. The Deadlift

Woman deadlifting

At this point you might be wondering if you are on a bodybuilding article or a core strengthening exercises one, but deadlift is one of the best bang for you buck exercises you can do to strengthen your core. The deadlift is a total body workout by itself and recruits the major muscles of the core- Abdominals, glutes, and lower back muscles. It is also very functional with a very high correlation to our every day life as bending over and picking something up off the floor is something we do every day. Start with a light weight and focus on using correct form before progressing to heavier weights to decrease any chance of injury and to ensure you are performing correctly. Below is a good video by Silver Sneakers on proper deadlift technique.

How to perform

Beginner: You do not need to start off using a bar loaded with weights at the gym. A simple object such as a milk jug or 5 to 10 pound dumbbells may be the best starting point. A kettlebell if you have it is also an excellent starting weight to use if you are new to deadlifting. Start with your feet spread shoulder width apart or a little wider than shoulder width. Try to maintain a neutral spine as you lower your buttocks down to grip your weight. As you stand concentrate on pushing down through your feet while maintaining the same neutral spine. Do not jerk the weight or overextend your back at the top. The motion should be smooth and controlled. Perform 3 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions.

To Progress: Increase weight used. Progress to a barbell or if you are using a common household item purchase a kettlebell or dumbbells as a progression. Stick to 3 or 4 sets and no more than 15 repetitions. Going past 15 repetitions will be pushing you out of strength building territory and into endurance training.

Deadlift Technique

3. The Deadbug

GIF of Deadbug exercise

The deadbug has an unappealing name however is an excellent exercise to strengthen your core musculature. It will primarily work your abdominal and spinal erectors which are imperative in providing stability during everday activities. The deadbug has the added benefit of working on our coordination as you will be performing a contralateral movement. This helps to improve our mind-body control and is very helpful for the aging adult.

How to perform

Beginner: Lie on your back on a hard floor. You may place a yoga mat down if you have it or a towel. Extend your arms straight up towards the ceiling so they are perpendicular to the floor. Also bring your knees up to your chest so they form a 90 degree angle. This will be the starting position. Now at the same time extend your right arm overhead while keeping your arm straight and extend your left leg down to the floor until the leg is straight out and the heel is almost touching the ground. Do not allow the leg to touch the ground however and then reverse the motion until you are at the starting position. Repeat on left arm and right leg now. You may perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions with 1 repetition being performing the motion on both arms and legs. Alternatively you can set a timer for 30 seconds and perform until the timer runs out. It is important that you perform this exercise slowly with a smooth controlled tempo and do not arch the back but instead keep your lower back in contact with the ground as much as possible. Brace and tighten your abdominals throughout this exercise.

To Progress: Increase time performed to 1 minute, then to 1 minute and 30 seconds and finally to 2 minutes. Once you are able to perform this exercise for 2 minutes at a time without much difficulty it is likely too easy for you and you may be ready to progress to a more challenging exercise such as the plank below.

4. The Plank

Woman performing plank

Ah, the dreaded plank. 1 minute doesn’t sound like a lot of time does it. However time is relative and 1 minute when performing a plank can feel like a lifetime if your core is not strong. The plank is one of my personal least favorite exercises to perform in terms of enjoyment however I know the benefits vastly outweigh the minor discomfort you get when doing it. The plank is an excellent exercise to strengthen your glutes, spinal erectors, abdominals, as well as middle back and shoulders. It might be difficult to perform however if done consistently the rewards are more than worth it.

How to perform

Beginner: Start with the forearm plank which is generally easier than the standard plank with the arms outstretched. The forearm plank is depicted in the picture above. Place your elbows directly underneath your shoulders so that your elbows will form close to a 90 degree angle and have your forearms stretched out forward. Extend your legs back behind you so that you are on your toes. You may spread your legs out to have a larger base of support. The key is to keep a neutral spine and as straight as possible. For many individuals you will have to focus on squeezing your abdominals up to achieve this flat back. Until you get the hang of this exercise I would recommend using a mirror if you have it set up next to so you can see if you are able to perform with correct form or not. If you do not have a mirror simply using your phone and take a video. Make small corrections until you are able to perform so your form matches the picture above. Perform for 3 sets of 30 seconds with 30 to 1 minute rest breaks in between sets.

To Progress: Increase time you are able to perform in 15 second increments up to 2 minutes. At 2 minutes I would recommend progressing to the standard plank where your arms are fully outstretched. To further progress the plank and add a balance and stability component, you can extend one arm out slowly and then repeat on the other arm. Perform for 10 repetitions. It is very important if progressing to always use good form with attention made to having a straight back.

Exercises to avoid

1. sit-ups

Sit-ups are the most common exercise performed to improve abdominal strength. And it is likely the worst exercise as well. The problem with the sit-up is that when done in a closed chain as it is typically done such as if someone is holding your feet or you are performing it at the gym where your feet are locked in place, you probably are doing very little for your ab muscles and a whole lot for your hip flexor muscles. This is because in that position the hip flexors can act to bring your torso off the ground instead of your abdominals. The hip flexors are very seldom weak and are often very tight due to the ever increasing number of desk jobs and our society’s general decline into a more sedentary lifestyle. Doing sit-ups will just exacerbate the problem with little benefit for your abs as the already strong hip flexors will overpower your weak abdominals when doing this exercise.

2. Crunches

Crunches are much more effective at isolating the rectus abdominus than sit-ups are and truthfully can be beneficial in improving core strength. However aging adults may have degeneration in the spine which the crunch can place a significant amount of stress on which could lead to pain and/or injury. There are just as effective methods to improving rectus abdominus strength without the added risk of damaging your spine. One of which is the McGill curlup which was designed by Stuart McGill who is one of the top spinal research doctors in the world. A video is below.

McGill Curl UP

Disclaimer

Although I am a Doctor of Physical Therapy by profession, I am not your personal Physical Therapist nor am I a medical doctor. All content and information on this website is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and does not establish any kind of patient-client relationship by your use of this website. A patient-client relationship with you is only formed after we have expressly entered into a written agreement with you that you have signed, including our terms to represent you in a specific manner. Although we strive to provide accurate general information, the information presented here is not a substitute for any kind of professional advice, and you should not rely solely on this information. Always consult a professional in the area for your particular needs and circumstances prior to making any professional, legal, medical and financial or tax related decisions.


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Comments

One response to “Core Strengthening Exercises For Seniors”

  1. Rebecca Avatar
    Rebecca

    Great list of exercises. Do you have any progressions for the planks?

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