Cardio exercise gets plenty of credit for keeping your heart healthy. But weekly strength training has its own benefits, and they get even better with age.
The perks of resistance training include better strength, energy, mobility and, according to a January 2018 Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (MSSE) study, a lower risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Weight lifting may even reduce your risk of some forms of cancer, per September 2019 research in the MSSE.
Plus, by helping you stay stable on your feet and strengthening your bones, resistance training can help you avoid falls. And, if you do take a tumble, it can slim your chances of breaking anything, says New York-based certified personal trainer Carolina Araujo, CPT.
One of the best, easiest ways for older adults to build muscle is to pick up a set of dumbbells. You can find them at the gym, but they're also inexpensive to buy and small to store in your living room. Adjustable dumbbells are perfect for more exercises than you can count.
To help you get started with the best of the best, here are the top five dumbbell exercises for seniors, along with expert tips on getting started safely and with confidence.
The 5 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Older Adults
Move 1. Dumbbell Squat
The squat is a staple of day-to-day life. (Think: getting up from a chair, sitting down on the toilet.) That's why it's so important to strengthen your squats, Araujo says.
This exercise targets your leg muscles, including your quads, glutes and hamstrings, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). But it also works your core to help improve your overall stability.
- Hold a heavy dumbbell by one end at chest-height.
- Begin with your feet just wider than hip-distance apart. (Toes can face forward or turn out slightly.)
- Keeping your chest tall and core tight, bend your hips and knees to sink into a squat so your upper legs are parallel with the floor (or as low as you can comfortably go with good form).
- Press through all four corners of your feet to return to standing.
You can make this exercise a little easier by lowering into a chair with each rep, Araujo says. Or, if you're ready for a challenge, add a three-second pause at the bottom of the motion.
Move 2. Dumbbell Chest Press
Just like the squat, the chest press is a compound exercise, working multiple joints and muscle groups at once. The upper-body move strengthens your chest, shoulders and triceps, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
By doing the strength move with dumbbells, you load and work sides of your body separately. That means you train all of the important stabilizing muscles in your chest, shoulders and arms — and can cut your chances of shoulder and elbow pain.
Dumbbell Chest Press
- Lie on your back on a bench or other flat surface with a dumbbell in each hand. Hold the weights with straight arms above your chest. Plant your feet firmly on the floor and tighten your abs.
- Bend your shoulders and elbows to lower the weights until they're in line with your chest (or as low as you can comfortably go with good form). Your forearms should be completely vertical at all times.
- Press the weights back up over your chest.
If you don't have a workout bench available, you can use an at-home weight bench alternative, like the floor, a piano bench or other stable surface.
Move 3. Dumbbell Deadlift
Whenever you bend over to get a pen off the ground, you're doing a deadlift.
Practicing your deadlifts with dumbbells strengthens your glutes, hamstrings, core and lats. It'll also help you master proper form for everyday feats of strength. Picking up a pen may feel easy, but when you're lifting a heavy box off the floor, using proper form is critical to side-stepping injury, especially in your lower back.
The deadlift is one of the most functional dumbbell exercises for seniors, Araujo says.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing your body. Brace your core.
- Push your hips back and soften your knees to lower the weights toward the middle of your shins.
- Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
- To stand up, push your feet into the floor and squeeze your glutes. Imagine you're trying to push the floor away from you.
- Reverse the motion to lower the weights with control, and repeat.
To lower into a deadlift, envision yourself trying to pushing your butt against a wall behind you, Araujo says. Keep your back flat and knees pointing forward at all times.
Through the years, it's easy for the shoulders to lose strength and mobility. The dumbbell scaption is a great exercise to change that, and without aggravating sensitive joints. It tends to feel more comfortable than lateral, or side shoulder raises.
- Start standing with a dumbbell in each hand, arms at your sides, palms facing in.
- Brace your core and lift the dumbbells in front of your body at about a 45-degree angle.
- Raise the weights until they're slightly above shoulder height.
- Lower the weights back down with control.
Do not arch your lower back or use momentum. Keeping your core and glutes braced will help keep your back happy.
Move 5. Dumbbell Row
Forward motions, like driving a car or typing on the computer can take a toll on your posture, according to NASM. Over the long term, this can cause lower back pain or a hunched upper back, Araujo says.
But strengthening your back muscles can help. The dumbbell row strengthens the muscles up and down your spine and around your shoulder blades to help improve your alignment. It also works your your deep core muscles, which can further relieve back pain, she says.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs. Push your hips back and hinge forward at least 45 degrees (as much as 90 degrees), keeping your back flat. Start with your arms extended toward the ground, palms facing each other.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades down and together, then bend your elbows to pull the weights toward your lower abdomen.
- Pause, then lower the weights with control.
To modify this exercise, lift one dumbbell at a time. Place your free hand on a chair or bench for extra balance, Araujo says. Or, make it harder by lowering the weights over a three-second count.
4 Dumbbell Exercise Tips for Older Adults
1. Do Three 30-Minute Sessions Per Week
Although strength training offers many benefits, it's not an everyday type of activity. If you're new to lifting weights, aim for two to three total-body workouts each week, Araujo recommends.
"Between your dumbbell workouts, you can do some cardio exercise, like walking or biking, but don't neglect your recovery," she says. "The last thing you want is to get injured because you did too much too fast."
In the first few months of strength training, your workouts shouldn't last much longer than 30 or 45 minutes.
2. Try 4 Sets of 10 Reps
This is where you get into the nitty, gritty. As a general guideline, to build muscle, you should do at least 3 to 5 sets of 6 to 12 repetitions of your resistance exercises, according to NASM. Araujo recommends you start doing each move for 4 sets of 10 reps.
Between each set and exercise, rest between 90 and 120 seconds. But if you feel like you need more rest, take it!
3. Increase Weights Gradually
The weight you use will vary by exercise. After all, most people can squat more weight than they can lift with scaptions. Most older adults can start with 15-pound weights for your lower-body exercises and 5-or 7.5-pound dumbbells for upper body and gauge your abilities from there, she says.
More important than numbers is to pick a weight that you can comfortably control, Araujo says. If you finish a set and feel you could do another straight away, you can probably increase the weight a bit. If your form gets shaky toward the end of a set, your dumbbells are too heavy.
To build muscle and strength over time, you also need to consistently increase the weight you're lifting or the number of sets and reps you're doing (aka progressive overload), per NASM. Make it a goal to make your dumbbell exercises a bit more challenging whenever they start to feel easy.
4. Always Warm Up and Cool Down
Every training session should begin with a warm-up and end with a cool down, Araujo says. Although they're easy to skip, these parts of your workout are just as important as all the dumbbell-lifting in the middle.
Then, save the last few minutes of your exercise session for a few cool-down static stretches, like side lunges and runners lunges. These will help to gradually bring your heart rate back down and promote recovery, Araujo says.
Listening to your body is an important part of preventing injury. If you experience any sharp pain, particularly around your joints, stop the exercise you're doing and talk to your doctor.
- NASM: "Front Squat or Back Squat — Which Should You Choose?"
- ACE: "Chest Press"
- ACE: "5 Benefits of Compound Exercises"
- NASM: "Smart Moves for Strong Shoulders"
- NASM: "Hypertrophy: Back to the Basics"
- MSSE: "Strength Training and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease"
- MSSE:"Weight Training and Risk of 10 Common Types of Cancer"