7 Principles for Outstanding Boomer Workouts

by Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA on Dec 12, 2016

Tailor your training to the specific needs of over-50 exercisers.

Do you teach or train generally healthy, moderate- to high-functioning baby boomers? Or are you thinking of directing more of your efforts to exercisers over 50? If so, be among the first to learn targeted principles you can weave into clients' or class participants' workouts.

Whether you're a small-class leader, a one-on-one trainer or a group fitness instructor, applying seven specific principles will allow you to offer the most effective sessions for midlifers and older boomers. Keep these goals in mind:

  • Offer baby boomers life-enhancing fitness programs that have low risk and high reward.
  • Entice a unique, yet often-overlooked cohort into your classes, training sessions and facilities.
  • Design exercises that maintain function and that expand, and do not shrink, people's capabilities.

Boomers—who currently range from 53 to 71 years old—want to enjoy the second half of life actively, comfortably and energetically. Yet they have accumulated five to seven decades of aches and pains. Joint issues may limit their ability to do high-impact activities. Years of sitting and driving—of living life in front of their bodies—may have produced forward-head misalignment, rounded shoulders, hunched posture and overstretched or weak backs. While not elderly, frail or sedentary, your boomer clients and class participants may be feeling the effects of the passing years. More of the same no longer offers the same benefits.

More of a new (or simply reprioritized) approach will help your 50-plus members age actively. Get ready to elicit life-changing results from boomers in your small groups, large classes or one-on-one training sessions.

The seven principles below can be used in any combination or as standalones. Apply one, two or all seven to a given exercise; use three principles in one session and a different three in another; focus on one principle one day for an entire class and another the next. Regardless of how you mix and match the principles, your clients will reap the benefits.

Principle 1: Minimize Core Work and Ab Exercises Requiring Spinal Flexion at the Neck

Challenge yourself to select ab exercises that involve no crunches. While the traditional crunch has its place, the last thing 50- to 70-year-olds need is more forward-rounding. Nor is a six-pack a primary goal for this cohort. Instead, offer moves that keep the head on the mat or that provide very little opportunity to forward-flex the neck.

Work with, not against, the anatomical reality of the abs: the rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis and obliques are endurance, compression and posture muscles. They are not designed for power (in contrast with the glutes and quads, which are power muscles). Therefore, emphasize the abs' postural, endurance and compression aspects. Boomer clients especially appreciate improving posture as they strengthen their core.

How many of your over-50 clients already have their head thrust forward, a tight neck and rounded shoulders? Probably most, if they are typical older adults. When selecting ab exercises for them, simply ask yourself whether a given move exacerbates these problems, is neutral or counteracts them. The last option is ideal.

No-Crunch Examples

Primary examples of suitable abdominal compression moves for boomers are plank and reverse curl, or reverse curl with oblique rotation (bringing the right hip toward the left rib cage, for instance). Another great option is the "marching abs" move, where the upper body stays on the mat throughout. Legs are bent 90 degrees at the knees; hips are fairly open, with feet close to the ground. Class members march the feet, holding the knee angle constant, alternating right- and left-foot marches. Depending on core strength and back issues, you may decide to cue, "March the feet from the ground to about a foot from the ground"—the most challenging version. If you spot faults in form or difficulties maintaining alignment, cue members to march in space. Have them draw their knees closer to the chest, close down some of the hip angle, and march with their feet anywhere from 1 to 2 feet from the ground.

Principle 2: Activate the Back

In keeping with the focus on not reinforcing forward hunch and rounded posture, this principle prioritizes actions behind the body. Incorporate exercises that require glutes, hamstrings and back muscles. Use every opportunity to open or extend the pectorals, anterior deltoids and hip flexors.

Getting your clients to focus on dorsal (or back-side) moves continues the theme of counteracting decades of movements that close off the front of the body. If you lead cardio classes, think of this principle as giving the heart and lungs more room to pump and breathe. The concept is simple. What's tricky is remembering to favor arm patterns such as row, hand-to-heel lift behind the back or shoulder extension. If you model simple arm swings, cue the back arm, not the front arm. Ask participants whether they can see the back arm in the mirror behind them.

For strength, balance or stretch classes, substitute exercises with hip extension for ones promoting hip flexion. For instance, if doing balance work, have the lifted leg start and stay in hip extension. Then slightly raise and lower that leg using the glutes. Add in small loops, counter- and clockwise, all in the dorsal plane. Or lift the leg only a few inches from the starting position to the left and right, tapping lightly side to side, again always with hip extension and behind the body. This not only works the core muscles, which need to compress and stabilize to hold the upper-body position, but also reinforces good posture.

Principle 3: Offer Functional Options

More than any other age group, midlife and older exercisers need functional movements that mirror real-world biomechanics. Exercises are more functional if people can apply them with activities of daily living, or ADLs. Contrast these exercises with single-joint, isolated strength and muscular-endurance training moves, such as calf raise or triceps kickback. Instead of these, offer an exercise that lifts a weight left to right with rotation from low to high (floor to overhead), or perform squats that mimic ducking sideways under a rope or bar.

Boomers are more interested in continuing activities they enjoy than they are in hypertrophy. They want the strength, power and endurance to travel, take up new hobbies, and keep up with grown children and grandchildren. These exercisers are looking at their parents and making decisions about their own aging. Will they retain their physical and mental capabilities to the same or a greater degree than the parents whose caregivers they may be today?

Will the exercises you choose for them help them climb steps, get up and down from chairs and the floor, prevent falls, and turn to see behind them while driving? Do the moves allow them to keep surfing, hiking or camping? Think in terms of adding rotation, level changes (low to high, and high to low) or working in opposition. Approach your class or session design with the idea of helping boomers to keep their world from shrinking. What are they worried about giving up? What do they enjoy doing that they'd love to continue as long as possible? Train from that perspective and you will have loyal, active, committed clients in the boomer population.

Principle 4: Provide Dynamic and Static Balance Options

When your clients hear "balance options," do they think solely of static balance moves? For example, "Stand still and lift one leg"? If so, add dynamic balance to their workout repertoire.

Walking is the ultimate and primary functional balance move. Perhaps start class with a functional balance warm-up: walking forward, backward, quickly with direction changes, slowly, super slowly. Then cue walking in one line as if on a balance beam, going forward and back while lifting a knee up and over with each step. Also challenge your class or clients to go forward and in reverse, toe to heel, heel to toe.

Heel walking is another dynamic, functional balance move. Have clients walk around the room forward and in reverse, with toes lifted. Or cue participants to take two steps up to an imaginary line with heels down and toes up, and then take two steps back to the starting position. They'll want to hinge at the hips to counterbalance, so watch that they keep their hips open and the glutes are under the shoulders, not behind them.

Primary Goal: Improving Static Balance

When offering static balance options, it's important to provide a few exercises where participants support on one leg while lifting, holding and moving the other (half static, half dynamic). In such cases, focus on the balance move.

For example, stand on the left leg while making figure-eight loops in front and behind the body, clockwise and counterclockwise with the right leg.

Combining Static Balance With Another Goal

You can offer a time-efficient, two-for-one special by combining static balance challenges with upper-body exercises. In essence, any time you cue participants to stand in place while doing an exercise, add a balance component. Simply give a variety of stance options, ranging from wide to narrow (see the sidebar "Standing Balance Progression").

For instance, if you are leading lat pull-downs with resistance tubing, suggest narrowing or staggering the feet rather than always defaulting to a wide, parallel stance. While your primary goal is to strengthen the lats, your people get a secondary benefit from retraining their bodies and brains to account for a different base of support.

Staggering or narrowing the feet during upper-body stretches is also a great way to incorporate more balance work. Gently dropping the ear side to side while the feet are in tandem position requires new attention and adaptation.

Principle 5: Activate From Proximal to Distal, From Core to Hands and Feet

Quality movement originates from the center, then translates outward. Ideal movement has us first activating the core, then putting the arms and legs in motion. Ab work is the perfect example of this principle. We compress the abs, and then shift arms, spine and legs into position. Having good posture also requires central activation as the "base."

When putting weights or resistance into hands or onto legs, it's even more important to first make sure your clients have activated their core. You don't want weighted arms and legs waving about distally until proximal muscles are stabilizing or contributing.

Again, decades of good and poor body mechanics leave evidence. A 60-year-old who turns on her core and then adds resistance will be able to train longer and with less risk of injury than a person with a lot going on in the limbs (even with resistance added), but very little happening in the core.

Putting this principle into action comes down to cuing and correcting form, as "proximal to distal" applies to almost all movement. Injury prevention is important for every client. With older adults it's especially critical to address all ways to reduce risk, improve form and build body awareness.

Principle 6: Offer Movement Patterns That Enhance Cognitive Skills

No doubt you have come across a lot of information extolling exercise's effect on the brain. This is an exciting time to be a fitness professional, knowing that our leadership brings physical and mental benefit to our clients. Take advantage of the latest findings, and overlay your programs with cognitive tasks and moves. Baby boomers are of an age and awareness level to welcome brain-stimulating exercise.

Integrate Moves That Cross the Midline

You have many options for bringing cognitive activities into your classes and sessions. The key is to tell people what you are doing and why. Explain that you're building in brain boosters.

When you cross the midline with an arm, a leg or both, for instance, you stimulate the brain and further integrate the left and right hemispheres. Why not bring in moves that accomplish multiple goals simultaneously? Here's one example: Instead of doing a squat to a straight-ahead knee lift with a slight hold in the knee-lifted position (balance and strength move), replace the sagittal-plane knee lift with one that rotates inward and draws to the opposite elbow. Think of this as a standing cross-crawl with cues to rotate enough to have a knee or elbow come across the midline.

Another midline-crossing balance move is the standing long-arm, long-leg diagonal cross. Stand on the right leg, extend the left leg to the side (in the frontal plane), toes lightly touching the ground (or not, if you want to add more balance challenge). Extend the right arm above the shoulder and to the right at about a 45-degree angle, basically continuing the diagonal line created by the opposite leg. Your right arm and left leg reach in opposite directions and form one long, angled line. Then simultaneously adduct the leg across the front midline of the body and slice your right arm toward the thigh, also crossing the midline, though in the opposite direction. The long arm and long leg pass each other.

Are you rechoreographing your cardio combos in your mind as you read this? Cross, tap, cross, tap instead of walk, tap, walk, tap? With new arm patterns that cross the midline instead of working bilaterally and parallel? Yes, it's that easy to implement brain bursts once you have these principles in mind.

Principle 7: Carefully Consider Your Cues

Social media postings, trade show banners and club class descriptions seem to skew heavily to a hardcore workout mentality. A scroll through Facebook exhorts us to embrace high-intensity, high-impact exercise: "Go hard or go home." Certainly some boomers want to work out intensely, but joints hurt. Recovery takes longer than it used to. The benefits of high-impact exercise must outweigh the pains and flare-ups from a lifetime of injuries and surgeries. Carefully consider whether accusatory, "all-or-nothing" slogans and phrases will motivate or alienate this age group. Do your words emphasize pain or power? Discomfort or energy?

Cues that motivate your younger, pain-free, joint-happy clients may be off-putting or irrelevant to your 50-, 60- or 70-year-olds, no matter how fit and athletic those exercisers are. Seek words and phrases that motivate by emphasizing the benefit of exercise (see the sidebar "Speak Boomer Language" for examples).

This is not to say boomers want watered-down, low-key exercise or a hushed tone. In fact, active boomers still consider themselves young(ish), younger than others their age and younger than their parents were at the same age. But over-50 bodies, especially active ones, are already talking, screaming and shouting internally: "Ouch, this hurts"; "Oooh, I will pay for this later." Punishment cues can demotivate. Why not take advantage of this age group's wisdom, body awareness and mental toughness? For example, consider these cues:

  • "Practice makes progress, not perfection. Perfection is highly overrated. Keep practicing, people!"
  • "You know you can get through this."
  • "Ask what your body can do for you. Now do it."
  • "Listen to your body. Now take its advice and give me your smartest best."

In Summary

These seven principles are accessible and straightforward. Use them to stimulate creativity and rethink class content. Perhaps you are already integrating some of these principles and can now expand on them. Maybe you have an eighth or ninth principle to add to this list of what's working well with your midlife clients and participants. Regardless, you will make a significant difference in the lives of your baby boomers when you put any of these principles into action. In the words of Miss Piggy, "Boom Shakalakalaka!"

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About the Author

Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA

Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

I have taught fitness on 4 continents in 4 languages for 35 years. My fitness career spans land, sea, and airwaves. My writing and speaking career has done the same. You can find me at funandfit.org/ Fun and Fit: Active Aging Answers for Boom Chicka Boomers. From hosting an international fitness tv program, to hosting an online radio show, to serving as grammar expert on a live show, I have taught, led, moved and grooved with energy and good grammar. I currently teach group exercise for Bay Clubs in Santa Barbara and speak at conventions, conferences, meetings in my role as half of FunandFit.org. My specialty is exercise for baby boomers. Along with my twin sister, Alexandra Williams, we promote active aging for women over 50 irreverently and informatively at our blog http://funandfit.org/. We both hold Master's Degrees which helps us offer humorous advice with confidence and a modicum of credibility. But don't take our word for anything. Check out our site, ask a question, make a comment Then decide for yourself. http://funandfit.org.