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Sample Class: Functional Strength for Older Adults

Baby Boomers are constantly bombarded with promises to lift, tighten and rejuvenate their bodies and “turn back the clock.” Truthfully, fitness professionals can roll back the clock for older participants! When you improve strength and stability, you increase functionality and combat the effects of sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss).

This class targets the somewhat frail older adult with a three-pronged approach to functional strength. By addressing mobility, strength and balance, you improve posture, facilitate the activities of daily living, and reduce the risk of falling.

Functional Strength for Older Adults Details

Goal/Emphasis: to improve functional strength
Total Time: 60 minutes
Equipment Needed: Each participant needs a chair (with a back) and a Thera-Band® resistance band. You may need nonslip mats, depending on the flooring. Some exercises are performed against a wall; therefore, remove obstacles.
Music: In the background only. Don’t perform exercises to tempo. Encourage each person to move at his or her own pace. Many older adults prefer a moderate tempo with positive lyrics—not necessarily “oldies.”
Precautions: The class is designed to put minimal stress on knees, wrists and elbows. Besides having limited movement abilities, frail adults may suffer from comorbidities like heart and lung disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and balance disorders. Modify moves to fit participants’ needs, but remember that intensity is important for this population too.

Warm-Up (15 minutes)

A dynamic warm-up doubles as the mobility phase of the workout. Participants begin each sequence standing, right (R) side to chair back. Perform 10–15 reps of each exercise per side unless otherwise indicated.

Slow marching. With chest lifted and shoulders relaxed (hand on chair if needed), begin slow march. Lift knees as high as ability allows, dorsiflexing ankles. Continue for 1 minute, about-face and repeat. Add knee extension: Hold lifted leg and slowly extend with good posture; bend knee, and lower foot to floor.

Toe and heel taps. Shift weight to leg closest to chair, move other leg in front, plantar-flex, and tap floor with toe. Dorsiflex to heel-tap (1 repetition).

Leg swings and circles. Begin with simple swings (front to back, side to side) and circles (lifted leg straight and bent). As ability improves, add single-leg bicycle, reverse bicycle and simple patterns (circle leg toward midline of body, tap foot on outside of support foot, circle back up, and open into knee lift on other side).

Turn and stand facing back of chair.

Head turns. Turn head side to side and up and down. Add diagonal patterns.

Ta-das. Face chair, both hands on chair back. Step R foot back, turn body, look over shoulder and lift R arm up and away, as if to say, “Ta-da!” Switch sides.

Chest opener. Take split stance behind chair. Raise arms in front of chest, elbows bent at 90 degrees, palms facing. Open arms to sides and bring them back to the front. Switch feet in split stance and open arms. Reach arms overhead, palms out, and return to start.

Arm swings and circles. As with leg swings and circles, start with simple front-to-back and circular moves, and progress to more complex patterns.

Back pat and back scratch. With R arm up, bend elbow and pat upper back. Left (L) arm goes behind back, palm out. See how close you can get your hands. Reverse arms and repeat (1 rep).

Strength Phase (30 minutes)

Sit toward front of chair seat. Perform each exercise 10–15 times on each side (as applicable).

Bellybutton squeeze. Sit upright, exhale and tighten abdominal muscles, pulling navel toward spine. Hold for 2 seconds.

Seated leg raise with hold. Sit upright, engage core, and lift leg off floor, holding for 2 seconds, then lower leg. Bend knees for less challenge; straighten and push through heel for more. Repeat on opposite side.

Triceps “push-off”/Sit to stand. With hands on seat, lean slightly forward from hip and use arms to push off. Return to start. Sit to stand (progression): Cross arms over chest for greater challenge (stabilize chair if needed). Add diagonal arm reach (up and to opposite side) for final progression.

Do the following seated or standing.

Scapular squeeze. Hold resistance band in both hands, arms straight out in front. Squeeze between shoulder blades as you bend elbows and pull back.

Single-arm chest press or “bubble” punch. Wrap resistance band around back, under arms; grip both ends. Alternate single-arm chest presses. Progression: Add speed to make the press a punch. For greater challenge, punch in all directions, as if trapped in a bubble and you’re trying to punch your way out.

Bent-elbow raise. Keep resistance band behind back, gripping with both hands, elbows at shoulder height, palms facing. Lift elbows as far above shoulder height as comfortable and then lower to start position. Advanced: Combine with sit to stand.

Triceps extension. Grip resistance band in both hands, R arm in “back pat” position, L arm in “scratch” position. Extend R arm. Switch sides.

Reverse wood chop. Grip resistance band in both hands, L hand on hip and R hand straight in front. With R arm, pull band diagonally R (follow with eyes). Return to start; repeat L.

Four-step wall push-up. Place hands on wall. Walk feet back so body is an an angle.

  • Progression 1: feet in split stance.
  • Progression 2: feet in parallel wide stance.
  • Progression 3: feet in narrow stance.
  • Progression 4: plyometric push-up (Hands come off wall on up phase and land on down phase.)

Wall-assisted step-back to plank. Begin in push-up position (or with forearms on wall). Take slow baby steps back, maintaining neutral posture, until it becomes difficult. Baby-step back to start. Keep shoulders down, core engaged. Progression: Hold deepest position for 10-second (or less) plank. Push through heels as you hold.

Focus Phase: Balance and Gait (10 minutes)

Lateral step-out. Standing behind chair for support, shift weight to one leg and take small steps to side with other leg. Progression: Bend knee slightly on last step. Increase challenge with step-to-side lunge (try other planes of motion).

Curtsy and cross-over. Use chair for support, if needed. Place foot behind body, bend knee and curtsy. Deepen curtsy if possible, and cross leg in front of body. Progression: Combine the moves.

Reaction drills. Perform seated or standing. Pick three “commands.” Keep them simple and start slow, in random order. For example: “When I say, ‘One,’ point your toe in front. On ‘Two,” take it to the side. On ‘Three,’ the foot goes behind.” Focus on upper body or lower body, or partner up.

Movie star walk. Practice heel-to-toe walking. Progression: Vary sensory cues (turn head side to side and/or wear sunglasses to challenge eyes). Walk around chairs or add obstacles to step over as added challenge (based on ability).

Stretch. Finish with 5 minutes of static stretching. Address all muscles worked during class, emphasizing chest, front of shoulders, hamstrings and calves.


  1. Jane Jubb on July 1, 2020 at 4:46 pm

    This newsletter is terrific!

  2. Crystal Mcknight on November 17, 2020 at 7:03 pm

    I love this! Thank you!

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