If you're over 50, strength training may not always include hitting the weight room, especially if you're dealing with back pain and achy joints. But you can still get a great workout and build stronger muscles using resistance bands, without putting additional strain on your joints.
As you age, you want to make strength workouts a priority in your exercise routine, because they're crucial for maintaining muscle mass. A June 2014 article in Current Opinions in Rheumatology says that you can lose up to 50 percent of your muscle mass by age 80, and that this decline can start as early as your 40s.
"As a trainer, strength training is part of my daily coaching regime with all of my clients," Serena Scanzillo, CPT, a personal trainer with experience training older adults, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It builds strength, combats fragility and improves functionality, especially in older adults."
Resistance bands are a lightweight, inexpensive and space-efficient alternative to dumbbells for those looking to up the intensity of their workouts without added stress, Scanzillo says.
To help you get started, Scanzillo provides the best five resistance band exercises you need as an older adult. You'll need a mini band and/or a long resistance band for all of the moves — which are demonstrated by Peter Marino, CPT, CEO and founder of Posh Fitness — below.
The Best Resistance Band Exercises for People Over 50
1. Kneeling Pallof Press
- Anchor a long-loop resistance band that will be at chest height when you kneel down.
- With interlaced fingers or a hand-over-hand grip, grab the resistance band.
- Kneel on both knees with the anchor of the band directly to your left, and move to the left until the cable is taut and trying to twist you toward the anchor.
- At this distance, set your knees about shoulder-width apart. Hold the handle in front of your chest. Brace your core.
- Slowly press your arms in front of you until they’re almost completely straight. Pause for a beat, then bring them back to your chest.
- Do all your reps this way, then turn around and repeat with the anchor of the resistance band to your right.
Why Pallof Presses Work
Many of the most popular core exercises rely on muscle contractions to move your torso into flexion (crunching forward) or extension (extending backward). The Pallof press, however, is an anti-rotation exercise that requires the muscles in your core to resist the pull of the band and keep your torso perfectly still.
And building this kind of strength in your midsection helps prevent falls, as your core muscles are more prepared to keep you from falling if you wobble slightly or lose your balance.
To make this exercise more challenging, perform this exercise from a split squat: Stand with your left leg in front of your right, knees bent at 90 degrees, front thigh parallel to the ground, back knee hovering an inch or two above the ground.
If balance is an issue, perform this exercise standing. Or if kneeling and/or getting down to the floor is too uncomfortable, you can opt for a seated position.
2. Banded Scapular Retraction
- Loop the resistance band around your wrists. Position your arms at a 90-degree angle with your palms facing each other and fingers pointing to the ceiling.
- Brace your core and slowly rotate your elbows outward, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Be careful not to arch your back and keep your core tucked tight.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades for 2 seconds before releasing and returning your arms to the starting position.
- Do 10 to 15 reps and rest for 30 to 60 seconds. Complete 2 to 3 sets.
Why Banded Scapular Retractions Work
Your scapula is the bone that connects your humerus (upper arm bone) to your clavicle (collarbone), also known as your shoulder blade, according to the American Council on Exercise.
The scapulae and arms are connected by various muscles, ligaments and tendons, and when those tissues get weak, it can cause poor posture, Scanzillo says. This can lead to pain in the upper back, neck and shoulders, per the Cleveland Clinic.
A common sign of weak scapular muscles is rounded shoulders and a protruding neck (also known as forward head posture), according to a June 2018 study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.
3. Banded Squat
- Place a mini resistance band around both legs above your knees.
- With your feet about shoulder-width apart, bend your knees and push your butt back.
- Lower down until your knees are bent to about 90 degrees (or as low as you can comfortably go).
- On an exhale, reverse the motion and stand back up, fighting the resistance of the band against your knees and hips.
Why Banded Squats Work
Regardless of your age or fitness level, squats are an extremely functional exercise that can help you maintain your independence as you get older. (Think: going to the bathroom by yourself.)
Adding a band makes the exercise slightly more challenging, while increasing the engagement from your abductors (muscles along the outside of your legs that move your leg out to the side of your body).
If you only have access to a long-loop resistance band, you perform band-resisted squats by standing on one end of the band and taking hold of the other side of the band with both hands at shoulder level.
Or to make this exercise more accessible, perform the squat from standing to sitting in a chair, keeping the band around your thighs.
4. Banded Scissor Toe Tap
- Loop the resistance band around your ankles and stand tall with your feet hip-width apart.
- Step your right foot back at a 45-degree angle, keeping your hips square and facing forward. Avoid rotating your spine. You should feel the tension in your right hamstring and hip.
- Pause for 2 to 3 seconds before bringing your right foot back to the center. This is 1 rep.
- Repeat on the left side and alternate legs for 10 to 12 reps. Complete 2 to 3 sets, resting 30 to 60 seconds in between.
Why Banded Scissor Toe Taps Work
The muscles that control your hips also get weaker with age and a sedentary lifestyle. Many older adults experience pain in their hips and lower back, much of which could be helped or reversed by strengthening the core, glutes and hamstrings, Scanzillo says.
This move may look like a lower-body isolation exercise, but the staggered stance requires you to engage your core and brace your entire body — even your back and arms — throughout the movement. In addition to your core, scissor toe taps target your hamstrings and glutes. They may fire up your heart and lungs, too.
5. Banded Lateral Walk
- Place a mini resistance band around your ankles and stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Slightly bend your knees and lower yourself a few inches into an "athletic stance."
- Step to your right side with your right foot.
- Step your left foot toward your right to return your feet to hip-width apart.
- Keeping your knees bent, take several steps to the right.
- Repeat this motion moving to the left.
Why Banded Lateral Walks Work
The lateral band walk is similar to the scissor toe tap, but it works your lower-body muscles in a slightly different way.
Lateral crab walks with a mini resistance band isolate your hip abductors (muscles that move your legs outward) and hip adductors (muscles that move your legs inward) and strengthen your hips to improve balance and stability — two key factors in maintaining your health as an older adult, Scanzillo says.
If this movement proves to be a bit too challenging for your balance, sit down and do hip abductions while seated: Place a mini resistance band around both legs above your knees. With hands on your hips or at your sides, press your knees apart as far as you comfortably can. Slowly reverse the motion until your knees are back together.
Strength Training in Your 50s
In your 50s, maintaining your strength is a big priority, especially as you begin to experience some (natural) age-related muscle loss. That's why the best band exercises for your 50s involve a little more strength than moves for later life, Tamir says.
"These are more challenging because they require more stability with single-leg stance exercises," he says. "Many people in their 50s can do what they were able to do in their 40s."
Although you want to maintain as much strength as possible at this age, the moves above should feel comfortably challenging. If some motions feel too challenging, opt for a lighter resistance band.
Strength Training in Your 60s
As you get into your 60s, you may start seeing some more noticeable changes in your strength and balance, Tamir says. Exercises that once felt easy may be a little more challenging, so maintaining strength and preventing injury are priorities.
Tamir recommends modifying the exercises above and opting for a similar stance for all of them, so you don't have to switch getting down to and up from the ground with each move, which can become more challenging with age.
Strength Training in Your 70s and Beyond
Generally, your 70s (and beyond) is the point when your body experiences the most muscle loss, also known as sarcopenia, Tamir says. As your body loses muscle, your risk of falls and injury increase.
Exercises to improve your balance are the key. Modify the above exercises as much as possible (perhaps opting for a seated version of each) and focus on the lower body and core to help build stability and overall motor control.
- Current Opinions in Rheumatology: "Sarcopenia in Older Adults"
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "Effect of Scapular Stabilization Exercise on Neck Alignment and Muscle Activity in Patients with Forward Head Posture"
- American Council on Exercise: "Muscles That Move the Scapulae"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Poor Posture Hurts Your Health More Than You Realize: 3 Tips for Fixing It"
- Clinical Cases in Mineral and Bone Metabolism: "Clinical definition of sarcopenia"
- Physiopedia: "Scapula"
- Clinical Anatomy: "The anatomy of the hip abductor muscles"
- StatPearls: "Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Thigh Adductor Magnus Muscles"