doctor with elderly woman

If you have a frail elderly loved-one who’s in their 90’s, don’t think for a second that a strength training program would be futile.

Or maybe you, the reader of this post, is 90+ and feeling pretty frail lately, and wondering if it would be worth your while to start lifting weights.

The human body is designed to quickly adapt to a new stimulus. This includes very old and weak bodies.

People as old as 90 or even 95, who’ve never trained with weights, who are very frail, can actually make gains with resistance workouts.

A paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association details a study by Maria Fiatarone, MD, that endorses weightlifting for the frail elderly – even in their 90’s.

When people hear the terms “weightlifting” or “lifting weights,” they may conjure up images of big burly young men hoisting giant dumbbells over their heads.

But call it what you will – resistance exercise, strength training, etc., but it all boils down to the same thing:

If a demand is imposed on the bones, muscles and joints, this will force them to adapt – to become stronger.

“We sought to characterize the muscle weakness of the very old and its reversibility through strength training,” says the JAMA paper.

“Ten frail, institutionalized volunteers aged 90 ± 1 years undertook eight weeks of high-intensity resistance training.”

The concept of high intensity varies, depending on who is talking about it. Plus, it’s a relative concept.

In other words, what’s an intense routine with little dumbbells for a frail 90 year old may actually be a warmup to another 90 year old who’s been lifting weights for five years.

“We conclude that high-resistance weight training leads to significant gains in muscle strength, size, and functional mobility among frail residents of nursing homes up to 96 years of age,” says the paper.

Before a frail elderly person begins resistance training, one must make sure that they do not have any conditions that contraindicate certain motions.

For example, the surgeon who performed a knee replacement on that individual may not want the patient to use leg extension equipment.

Someone with spinal stenosis may be told by their doctor to avoid exercises involving spinal extension.

But since there are so many ways to train with resistance, a person will be able to work around medical restrictions.

Even someone who’s confined to a wheelchair can still do upper body workouts.

Someone with severe pain in both shoulders can do pulling movements – pulling resistance towards them from a horizontal or above-head anchor point – while avoiding overhead and chest pressing motions that aggravate their shoulders.

The big picture is that, unless someone is bedridden and can’t move their arms due to a neurological illness, injury or some other medical condition that renders them with profound weakness, any body will benefit from strength training.

As a former personal trainer, I recommend the following very “functional” exercises for frail elderly people.

Again, the regimen needs to be tailored to that person’s individual medical situation, but even a 90-something person with peripheral neuropathy, or peripheral edema, or peripheral arterial disease, or venous insufficiency may be able to make impressive progress with the deadlift – my first choice for the best functional exercise.

Trudy Daxon deadlifting

Trudy Daxon, at 83, has a way to go before her 90th birthday, but 83 is no spring chicken, either — yet this supersenior is deadlifting 160 pounds. Credit: Tampabay.com

You stand in one spot and simply pick a barbell off the floor, then lower it with control.

  • Feet remain planted; no balancing act.
  • No turning around, no confusing dance steps or awkward unnatural positions.

Other highly functional strength training moves for the frail elderly in their 90’s include the leg press, chair squat, kettlebell swing, standing overhead press and seated row.

Start out with very light weights. In fact, some individuals may find that simply raising their hands over their head for 15 repetitions is quite tiring.

So if necessary, start out with just body weight. This includes the kettlebell swing – without the kettlebell.

As the person gets stronger, introduce weight. For example, once 12 reps of chair squatting are no longer challenging, have the individual hold a two or three pound weight to their chest with both hands throughout the set.

Below are more resistance exercises for weak elderly people. These have a functional component, meaning, the movement has a carryover to the activities of daily living, and will thus make the tasks of daily living easier.

lat pull-down exercise

Lat pull-down; works the back, arms and shoulders.

lateral raise

Lateral raise; works the shoulders.

leg press

Leg press; works the legs and butt.

Chair squat; very functional

Chair squat; very functional exercise.

Strength gains can be made with a once per week session, but for faster gains, a person in their 90’s should train twice a week.

Source: jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/382128