Resistance Training for Beginners: 4 Excellent Movements for Seniors

Resistance Training for Beginners: 4 Excellent Movements for Seniors

In my last blogpost I wrote extensively on the 6 reasons why we seniors should start strength or resistance training and how it’ll benefit our health and enable us to be fitter so that we can be independent as long as possible in our sunset years.

If you’re a senior like me, you’ll notice that when you turned 50 or thereabouts, lots of things that you used to do effortlessly when you were younger seemed almost impossible now e.g. having a good friendly soccer game, tennis or racquetball.

Well, you do try but you end up just huffing and puffing more. And within 5 to 10 minutes you’re flat out.

But hey, I know exactly how you feel because I’ve been there!

I’ve been working out off and on since my 20s… and giving workout tips to folks on health and fitness forums, coached my wife and children (who are now adults) plus many friends who wanted to get back into shape. So that gives me over 30 years of hands on experience in fitness.

But during the times that I laid off, it was completely no exercise at all; zero, zilch – just like those of you who haven’t exercised in years. So I know how uncertain you may feel about working out again or working out for the 1st time in your life if you’ve NEVER worked out before. You’re probably thinking, “Will it be too strenuous for me?” and “how will I cope with the muscle aches since I’ve been sedentary so long?” Well, I’ll answer those questions in a while.

I used to run 2.4 km or about 1.5 miles effortlessly when I was younger. After a long lay-off when I tried jogging again upon I turning 50, within 5 minutes not only was I panting away my knees started to ache as well! I used to be able to do 15 pull-ups easily with 20 kg (or about 44 pounds) tied to my waist in my younger days. When I tried doing pull-ups again after 50, well I just hung on the bar and that was just about it.

Today, I can easily do 14 bodyweight pull-ups, 35 decline pushups with my feet up at around a 30 to 45 degree angle and 12 single legged full squats. This is how I look like now, a few weeks short of my 61st birthday.

Resistance Training for Beginners

The road back to fitness sure wasn’t easy for me BUT I did it. If I can do it, anyone can. And that means you can too.

But before you get all excited and do the resistance exercises that I’m going to outline to you, please go get the green light from your doctor first. This is especially crucial if you have any chronic conditions or illness because the last thing I want is for you to have a heart attack when doing these very simple movements.

At 25, you can just jump into any exercise program and go from there. But at 50 and beyond, I’d strongly advise you to be cautious and take it easy: start with baby steps and slowly progress from there. And that’s after your doctor has given you the okay to start resistance training.

At least that was what I did when I decided that I wanted to get back into shape again.

But before I give you some very basic resistance exercises to start your fitness journey I want to highlight just 2 big common mistakes that beginners make when starting out in resistance or strength training.

Common Mistakes Beginners Make

1. Attempting to Get fit Quickly

One of the most common mistakes most beginners make is attempting to get fit quickly. And that includes seniors as well.

In my over 30 years of working out, I can tell you the number of times that I’ve inadvertently pulled a muscle and got sidelined – just because when I decided to get back into shape after a layoff: I was an eager beaver, letting enthusiasm getting the better of me and throwing caution to the wind.

In fact just as recently as the middle of 2017, I had to layoff not because I wanted to but because my sick elderly parents were taking turns being hospitalized. I was going to the hospital almost every day and I was too worried about their health to workout.

When my parents’ health conditions stabilized I started working out again.

Once you have a “history” of working out so to speak, there’s something called muscle memory – and that helps you get back into shape much faster than someone who’s starting from scratch.

Well, when I started working out again in early May this year, my body responded pretty quickly: in the 1st week, I was barely able to do 8 normal pushups. But by the 4th week, I got about 70% of my strength and fitness back and was able to knock off 23 steep decline pushups pretty easily. I was on an adrenaline rush and that was what sidelined me for 2 weeks.

This was what happened: I started with bodyweight squats. They were pretty easy so the next workout I decided to progress to bodyweight lunges which further progressed to weighted lunges 2 workouts after that. Then I decided to progress on to assisted single leg squats: and that was when I pulled my left glutes and hamstring muscles and had to lay off training lower body workouts for 2 weeks.

Bruised ego and end of adrenaline rush.

Many years back, I was giving tips to a 30 something year old youngster in the gym who was a beginner. Once you’ve got enough experience under your belt, you can spot a newbie miles away by the way they train. He was doing deadlifts. I looked at the weight and his posture and form and advised him he had to get his posture and form right first before attempting to go heavy. I guess he thought youth was on his side and he STILL went heavy so I left him to do his thing.

2 days later when I returned to the gym for my workout, Mr. Newbie wasn’t around so I asked some of the regulars: and I was told he sprained his back pretty badly doing deadlifts.

And I need to point out, it’s us guys who have this silly macho ego thing, no matter at what age. Thank goodness ladies are much more realistic.

So folks, one step at a time! Baby steps if you’ve been sedentary for decades. Remember, it’s the tortoise that won the race, not the hare. And please remember, no pain no gain doesn’t cut it at our age – when there’s pain, stop!

2. Too Afraid to Increase Resistance Regularly

At the other end of the spectrum are folks who are too afraid to increase the resistance they’re using even when it’s obvious that the resistance they’re using is too light for them. These are mostly ladies who feel that going beyond 2 to 5 pound pink dumbbells will make them look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But I’m very glad that attitudes are changing and I’ve seen slim fit middle aged ladies deadlifting their own bodyweight and more.

When you first start resistance training, you need to start light enough so that you don’t compromise on form as you learn the movement.

But as you progress, if you keep on doing the same number of repetitions without increasing the resistance, you won’t progress further. In other words, your strength increase will only progress up to a certain point and no further.

This is not what strength training is about. You need to progressively increase the resistance of the load so that your muscles get stronger. And when you get stronger, over time you reap the benefits of resistance training that I mentioned in my last blogpost.

And lastly, to those ladies who still think that lifting progressively heavier weights or increasing resistance will enable them to build muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dwayne Johnson, The Rock – NO, YOU WON’T because ladies don’t have half as much testosterone as men.


Okay with those out of the way, let’s get down to the serious business – 4 beginner exercises which will work your entire body.

Resistance Training for Beginners

But before actually starting to work out, please warm up by doing some brisk walking for about 10 min. If it’s raining, snowing or simply too warm outside, then just do marching or jogging on the spot for 10 min.

However, if you’re extremely overweight please no jogging on the spot because in such a condition, jogging of any kind puts lots of stress on your knees and ankles; seniors like us don’t need that unless you’ve not overweight and have no knee or ankle pains. And please wear a good pair of cross trainers.


This is one of the best upper body exercises around and it’s relatively easy to do, depending on your existing level of fitness.

Why is it such an excellent exercise?

It works mainly your pectorals (chest muscles), frontal deltoids (front shoulders), triceps (the muscles at the back of your arms) and abs. Your entire core (abs, obliques or side abs and erectors or lower back muscles) also act as stabilizers.

I’m going to outline 4 pushup variations, starting with the easiest and ending with the normal pushup on the floor.

Wall Pushups

This is the easiest version, best suited for those who have been sedentary for ages and have not exercised for decades. It’s especially good for ladies since they have less lean muscle mass and have less strength than men. If you’re a guy in his 70s and you don’t think you have much strength you can also start with wall pushups.

Knee Push-ups


Other personal training experts may disagree with me but I find the knee push-up slightly more difficult than the wall push-up. Ladies who have no problems doing 15 to 20 reps easily on the wall pushup can progress directly to knee push-ups in the next workout.

Incline Push-ups


Next in difficulty would be the incline push-up. If you’re able to do 15 to 20 reps of the knee push-up easily, just progress to do the incline push-up the next workout. You can use a sturdy table or even your sofa to put your hands on when doing the movement.

The nearer you are to the floor, the more difficult the movement will be so I’d suggest you start with a high incline version first by holding on to a table. Once you find that easy and are able to do 15 to 20 reps, then the next workout use a lower table stand or even a low coffee table that’s not made of glass for safety reasons.

Push-ups on the Floor

This is the “normal” version of the movement when push-ups are mentioned. Once you’re able to do 15 to 20 reps of the low incline push-up, you’re ready for the conventional push-up on the floor.

You’ll notice that as you progress in the push-up, from the wall version to the knee and incline versions it gets more difficult and you feel it in your triceps, frontal shoulders, abs and core. This is especially so once you’re strong enough to do the conventional floor push-ups where your triceps, frontal shoulders, abs and core are doing most of the work and you’ll definitely feel it when doing the movement.

There are many further progressions in the push-up but I’ll save them for later when you’re ready to progress further.

Towel Rows

This is another great upper body exercise which strongly activates your biceps, forearms, lats i.e. the latissimus dorsi muscles that cover most of your back that look like wings, traps i.e. your trapezius muscles that starts from the back of your neck downwards to the mid-back, your rear deltoids (shoulders), and all the smaller muscles in your rotator cuff area.

If you can’t find an old large towel, an old long belt will also do but that will be harder to grip than a towel. You can increase or decrease the resistance by moving your feel either closer or further away from the pillar. If you don’t have a pillar in your house or apartment, iron window or gate grills will also do as will staircase poles.

Start with a resistance or foot position that’ll allow you to do 8 to 10 reps. Once you can do that 15 to 20 reps easily, then move your foot closer to the pole or pillar – that will increase the resistance. As soon as you are able to move your foot close enough to touch the bottom of the pole or pillar, then you’re ready for more advanced row movements which I’ll describe in another blogpost.

Okay, so far we’ve worked all the muscles of the upper body so we’ll move on to training the lower body now.

Chair Squats

This simple lower body exercise works almost all the large muscles of the lower body i.e. the quadriceps which are the muscles at the front of the thighs, the hamstrings which are the muscles at the back of the thigh, the adductors which are the inner thigh muscles and your glutes which are the muscles of your buttocks.

If you look carefully at the video, the lady performing the exercise has her back straight throughout the movement.

It’s imperative that you keep proper form and not round your back which is a very common mistake beginners make. It takes some getting used to initially because we naturally tend to unconsciously round our backs when squatting.

For those who have been sedentary for years or even decades, the chair squat may be the most difficult of the 3 exercises so far so don’t be surprised if your legs get tired after doing about 8 or 10 reps. That’s perfectly okay because as you progress you’ll get stronger and be able to do more reps.

I would also say that in my opinion, this is by far the most important resistance training movement for seniors.


Well, the stronger your legs and lower body are, the better will be your balance in normal daily activities and the less likelihood of you having a fall. And even if you do have a fall, because your bones are strengthened by this movement your risk of having a fracture is also lessened. Together with the 2 upper body movements i.e. the pushup and the towel row, your upper body muscles are also stronger and can react much faster to break the fall if that happens.

The Front Plank


This is the last exercise for beginners and it’s a very important movement because this movement strongly activates ALL your core muscles i.e. abdominals, obliques or side abs, erectors or lower back muscles plus other smaller stabilizer muscles too numerous to mention.

Having a strong core can help prevent common injuries like having a slipped disc. In fact, strong core muscles can prevent lower back pains, a common malady that many seniors are plagued with. The Harvard Medical School has a list of real world benefits when you have strong core muscles.

As you can see from the video, unlike the other previous movements, the plank is an isometric exercise i.e. there isn’t any “real” movement. You just have to hold the plank position as long as you can. Once you’re unable to keep your back in a neutral position as shown in the video, it’s time to terminate the exercise.

How to Progress in this Program

So far we’ve discussed on the 4 basic movements that are excellent for sedentary seniors. If you’re not a senior yet i.e. below 50 years old but are overweight and have also been sedentary for years or even decades you can also use this program to start on strength or resistance training, the benefits of which I’ve highlighted in my last article.

Ok, now we’re going to talk about how to progress in this very basic home based resistance training program.

Week 1


Warm up: marching on the spot or brisk walk for 10 – 15 min.

Push-up (any variation that meets your existing fitness level): 1 set of 8 – 10 reps maximum.

Towel Rows: 1 set of 8 – 10 reps maximum.

Chair Squats: 1 set of 8 – 10 reps maximum.

Planks: Hold the position as long as possible

If you’re not strong enough to get 8 reps, that’s perfectly okay. You’ll get progressively stronger if you adhere to the routine I outlined.

Rest between each exercise should be 60 to 90 seconds depending on how long it takes for you to catch your breath.

Please DON’T DO MORE REPS even if you’re able to and train only ON ALTERNATE DAYS! Sorry folks I had to use those in caps. I know many eager beavers may think, “The more I train I’ll become fitter and stronger faster!”

If that’s what your thinking I’m sorry I’ll have to burst your bubble.

Reason is very simple – when you first start working out after being sedentary for ages, you’ll experience muscle aches and pains which are known as DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness. That’s the reason for not exceeding 8 to 10 reps at least for the 1st week, and that’s to minimize the muscle aches. Believe me, if you try to go all out when you’re not in condition, the ensuing DOMS can be so extremely bad, that you’ll have difficulty getting out of bed and probably have to stop working out for at least a week. Trust me on this one folks, I’ve made the mistake of doing too much too early many times.

Also you may not realize it but resistance training hits your CNS or central nervous system hard and you NEED a minimum of 48 hours to recuperate otherwise you’ll over-train and feel tired all the time.

Now this will be what your training will look like in the 1st week:

Monday – Resistance training

Tuesday – Brisk walking for active recovery

Wednesday – Resistance training

Thursday – Brisk walking for active recovery

Friday – Resistance training

Saturday – Brisk walking for active recovery

Sunday – Rest

If Monday, Wednesday and Friday don’t work for you, it’s perfectly okay to do your resistance training on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Week 2

Everything will remain the same in the 2nd week, EXCEPT that for the push-up, towel rows and chair squats you increase your reps from 8 or 10 to 15 maximum. Your strength would have increased but please DO NOT exceed 15 reps as you’re still in the breaking in period.

By the second week you’ll still have some aches and pains but don’t worry, as you continue working out, they’ll slowly disappear and you’ll get stronger. If you’re not able to go up to 10 reps, don’t worry, just do the best you can.

This is how your week 2 workout should look like:

Warm up: marching on the spot or brisk walk for 10 – 15 min.

Push-up (any variation that meets your existing fitness level): 1 set of 10 – 15 reps maximum.

Towel Rows: 1 set of 10 – 15 reps maximum.

Chair Squats: 1 set of 10 – 15 reps maximum.

Planks: Hold the position as long as possible

Week 3

By the 3rd week most of the DOMS or muscle soreness would have dissipated and you’d be stronger than when you first started working out 2 week ago.

Now I’m going to turn on the heat a bit from week 3 onwards: all the exercises will remain the same EXCEPT that instead of 1 set per exercise, you’re going to progress to doing 2 sets. This is how it’s going to look like in week 3.

Warm up: marching on the spot or brisk walk for 10 min.

Push-up (any variation that meets your existing fitness level):

Set 1: 15 – 20 reps maximum.

Set 2: As many reps as possible.

Towel Rows

Set 1: 15 – 20 reps maximum.

Set 2: As many reps as possible.

Chair Squats

Set 1: 15 – 20 reps maximum.

Set 2: As many reps as possible.


2 Sets: Hold the position as long as possible

Again, if you’re not able to get up to 15 reps for the first set, just do as many as you can without undue strain. Rest between each set should be 90 seconds maximum.

After week 3, I’ll slowly crank up the intensity by decreasing the rest times and also doing the exercises in a circuit so not only will you increase strength, you’ll also increase your cardio capacity. In other words, killing 2 birds with one but you’ll need some basic home gym equipment for that.

I’ll go into more depth from week 4 onwards in my next blog post.

Meanwhile if you have any questions regarding this beginner’s workout for seniors please complete the contact form below or just email me:

Ciao for now!

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