Fitness Training Older Adults | Do's and Don'ts for Training Seniors

Fitness Training Older Adults | Do's and Don'ts for Training Seniors

October 15, 2019
Author: Stefanie Gordon

When I began fitness training, I admittedly preferred instructing younger clientele who were looking to challenge themselves with high intensity workouts. Frankly, I was intimidated at the prospect of training older clients because I had no previous experience doing so. How careful did I need to be with them when it came to athletic training? How would I possibly fill up an hour-long personal training session? After I moved and worked at a new fitness studio nearby with a more senior client base, I realized I actually preferred training older adults.

Personal training my older clients was great because they were reliable, consistent and came motivated to work. They wanted to build their stamina so that ultimately, they could improve quality of life, not just fit in a different jeans size. Many of them gave maximum effort and were thrilled to see progress, big and small. And After many years of working hard on their careers, they were ready to commit to working hard on getting in shape and improving their health.

More seniors are looking for personal trainers to help them to take care of themselves, with experienced trainers in high demand. Senior fitness training can mean both gratifying work and job security, but training this population might mean modifying your personal training style if you’re not used to working with an elder group. A few key things to keep in mind are:

Complete a Thorough Intake During the First Session: As a personal trainer, your first order of business should be keeping your clients safe. After all — your role is to help troubleshoot existing problems, not create new ones. Take extra time during the personal training session to do a thorough intake, and make sure you hear their entire physical history. One of the most common liability claims occur when a personal trainer is unaware of a preexisting injury or condition and their client is injured further because they did not properly take it into consideration when designing their fitness regimen. Remind your personal training client that you want to hear about all past surgeries and preexisting injuries, even that rolled ankle they experienced the week before. Be aware of common conditions with older clients that include: sarcopenia (muscle loss with aging), osteopenia/osteoporosis (varying degrees of bone mineral density loss), joint replacements (especially hip and knee), in addition to heart disease, stroke history, and high blood pressure. Familiarize yourself with the contraindications for each condition. For example, a client with osteopenia or osteoporosis will need to avoid movements that include side bending, rotation of the spine, and spinal flexion.

Guide Your Personal Training Client in Setting Realistic Goals: A movement assessment certification, such as the Functional Movement Screen, can help fitness professionals gather the information they need to make personal training educated programming decisions. During personal training sessions, you should always watch for form, strength, and mobility. For example, when leading your senior client through a squat, is the lower back stabilizing? Do you notice good ankle and hip mobility or weakness/tightness? Are the calves too tight for them to even be able to start a squat? You should also check in with the client’s perceived exertion level. Don’t just assume that you know how the client is feeling movement to movement.

Once you have this information, it’s time to work with the client to set realistic workout goals. Just because your client could run a 7:00 mile and do bicep curls with heavy weights 20 years ago, doesn’t mean those numbers should be used as benchmarks today. Help them assess where they are right now and create optimistic, but attainable, goals for the future.

Don’t Assume That Older Correlates With Frail: Personal trainers often associate ‘senior’ with ‘frail’ and program workouts that aren’t challenging enough for their fitness clients (essentially just minutes on a stationary bike and a couple of squats.) Just because your client is advanced in age doesn’t mean they should be restricted from doing HIIT workouts. In fact, vigorous workouts can help build up an elder client’s stamina and, in turn, possibly increase their lifespan, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) 2018 guidelines. However, as stated before, the workouts and goals should be realistic and geared toward functionality. For example, falling is a big concern for older adults. Introducing balance work to strengthen the intrinsic and larger muscle groups of the lower body might help decrease their risk of falling. Flexibility is another concern for this population- gradually working on gentle stretches to lengthen the muscles and increase range of motion can help your clients feel less sore and stiff when they wake up in the morning.

Workout Do’s and Don’ts: Personal trainers, when preparing a workout for senior adults, should try to include a combination of strength, cardio, and flexibility exercises. Depending on your client’s injuries or limitations, modifications and props might be necessary.

Do’s:

  • Do allocate time for a thorough warmup and cooldown. Avoid rushing straight into a workout since this can increase risk of injury.
  • Do introduce strength training. If your client isn’t ready to work with weights, begin with bodyweight exercises or use a flex band to introduce light tension when necessary.
  • Do focus on exercises that incorporate a full range of motion. Remember: the focus is on functional movement that will enable them to live better day to day.

Don’ts:

  • Don’t include explosive movements. Lateral skate jumps and burpees are not suitable and can increase risk of injury.
  • Don’t go too extreme with the balance work. For example, working up to single leg balance is great, but proceed with extreme caution before placing the client on an unstable surface.
  • Don’t let your ego dictate the session. With this population, it’s especially important to constantly check in and see how they’re feeling. Just because you spent a lot of time creating an amazing workout based on balance training doesn’t mean you proceed as planned if your client is experiencing vertigo.
  • Don’t do anything you’re not 100% sure is safe. And, never train without making sure that you’re covered by a personal trainer insurance policy.

About Stefanie Gordon

Stefanie Gordon is a STOTT PILATES Level 2 certified instructor and PMA-CPT. She completed a mentorship in Pilates for Runners and Prenatal Pilates with the Kane School in NYC, and is a Pre/Postnatal Pilates Specialist and Diastasis Recti Recovery Specialist with The Center for Women's Fitness. Stefanie is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, and is additionally trained in CoreAlign levels 1, 2, & 3. When she isn't teaching fitness, she can be found writing or spending time with her husband, daughter, and husky. .