Sample Class: Chair Exercises

by Karen Schlieter on Dec 13, 2013

It’s rewarding to hear older-adult participants say they can more easily perform activities of daily living as a result of taking your classes. Participants at a low level of physical function are especially likely to notice a difference. When working with these individuals in a group setting, you may need to rely on seated activities, to ensure safety and success. This article explores approaches and practical applications from an introductory class called “Build Me Up,” which emphasizes seated strength-building and mobility exercises for participants at a low functional level and at high risk for falls.

Many of the principles and activities in this article are drawn from the books Physical Activity Instruction of Older Adults by C. Jessie Jones and Debra J. Rose (Human Kinetics 2005) and FallProof!™: A Comprehensive Balance and Mobility Training Program by Debra J. Rose (Human Kinetics 2010). As noted in the first of these, program design should draw on general exercise principles of overload and specificity, along with older adult-specific exercise principles of functional relevance, challenge and accommodation. Follow these guidelines when developing class structure and format. It will help you deliver a program that is valuable, relevant and safe.

Build From the Beginning

Build Me Up classes begin with a 10- to 15-minute seated warm-up that includes continuous, rhythmic movements that proceed from smaller to larger ranges of motion. Progress participants systematically from head and neck movements to shoulder and arm exercises and then to trunk and lower-limb activity. Challenge cognition and motor coordination by repeating movement patterns, such as moving the feet in a repeating “V” pattern of forward-wide and backward-narrow. Participants at lower levels of function will not require (or appreciate) a great deal of variety or complexity. Set up class members to achieve success through mastering the routine. This will keep them motivated and may promote more physical activity at home.

Following the warm-up, progress the class through strength-building moves with exercise bands (5- to 6-foot lengths) and 7- to 8-inch, air-filled rubber balls (playground balls). Rotate among upper-body, lower-body and core exercises. A typical seated strength circuit includes the following:

  • chest press
  • leg extension or leg press (pressing down on ball while it rests beneath foot)
  • horizontal pull-apart (scapular retraction)
  • single-leg curl
  • arm curl
  • hip abduction
  • single-arm triceps extension
  • hip adduction (with ball between knees)
  • back extension (with neutral spine)
  • single-arm overhead shoulder press (with or without resistance)
  • plantar flexion (with resistance)
  • ball press (core exercise)

As participants perform the exercises, cue appropriate posture, breathing and form. Mention the muscles being worked, and discuss the functional relevance of the exercises. For instance, strengthening the triceps muscles will help participants push themselves up from a chair by using their arms. When appropriate, provide alternatives or modifications for limitations or contraindications.

Balance and Mobility Promotion

In addition to strength-building exercises, incorporate an activity to promote balance and mobility. You may also stimulate one of the sensory systems that contribute to balance (visual, somatosensory and vestibular). To improve the muscle power required to rise quickly from a chair or recover from a loss of balance, have participants sit with feet hip-width apart, arms extended forward. Ask them to press the feet into the ground as they bring the nose over the knees and lift the buttocks just slightly off the chair (or attempt to lift them off the chair) and then lower themselves back down. Have them perform 5-6 repetitions quickly, rest briefly and then do 1-2 more sets of 5-6 repetitions.

Trunk leans are a great activity for promoting trunk mobility and improving strength, flexibility and center-of-gravity control.

For more exercises, please see “Innovative Chair Exercises for Seniors” in the online IDEA Library or in the November 2013 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

IDEA Fit Tips , Volume 12, Issue 1

© 2014 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Karen Schlieter

Karen Schlieter IDEA Author/Presenter

I am a fitness and wellness professional, specializing in balance and mobility for older adults. I graduated from California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) with a bachelor’s degree in psycholog...


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  • Woody McMahon

    As a trainer that specializes in working with older adults, I would not recommend the regularly suggested traditional seated exercise program. The seated position creates the greatest spinal compression forces and presents the most risk for vertebral compression fracture. The seated position does little to functionally strengthen the key muscles for walking and standing. Finally, little if any balance improvement can be achieved in the sitting position. Given that most people sit too much as it is; a better program design would include prone and supine flexibility and strengthening as well as supported or unsupported standing exercises. If you are interested in a more physiologically correct approach to older adult exercise, take a look at the work of Sara Meeks, PT. I have a great article in PDF format that speaks to this very subject.
    Commented Jan 13, 2014
  • David Hart

    I agree about the concern of the overhead press. Obviously gauge their ability before hand. Overhead exercises are good as they help work the shoulder capsule and open up the chest. I do make sure they don't look to far above the horizon to avoid cervical strain. One exercise to replace the overhead press if you are concerned is to do 'reach and pull'. That's like reaching up to pull on the rope (hand over hand) to get the water out of the well.
    Commented Jan 13, 2014
  • Camille Williams

    I am having trouble visualizing this set of exercises and I can't find them on internet. Would you be so kind as to video someone doing these exercises as a series - perhaps in the order you describe? Thank you
    Commented Jan 10, 2014
  • User

    Hi Karen, As a Medical Exercise Specialist whose main demographic of clientele is 55 years and up, I have been in a position to teach chair exercise classes for seniors. The one exercise I have to warn against is the overhead press, especially with resistance. I will do ROM exercises (no resistance) which most of my clients can not do the full ROM because of the presence of osteophytes (bone spurs), some level of impingement due to the loss of subacromial space (which happens over time during normal wear and tear of the shoulder joint) and /or frozen shoulder, due to a chronic orthopedic issue or a shoulder replacement surgery. Rather than have them do any "press" overhead, I recommend doing PNF patterns which are more natural for shoulder movement, painfree and also allows for activation of the rotator cuff complex vs. the deltoid and neck. Great class and I am sure it is very rewarding...Nicole (CPT,MES,DVM)
    Commented Jan 10, 2014
  • Ken Alan

    Thanks, Karen. Great info.
    Commented Jan 09, 2014