6 Tips For Trainers Working With Older Clients

By Elsbeth Vaino

When I hear a trainer ask a question about training older clients, I ask how old is older. As a 46-year-old, I chuckle a bit when the answer is over 40. I still smiled a bit when Girls Gone Strong replied that they meant over 50.

When I hear older, I think over 65, but I suspect ten years from now I’ll be bumping that cut off to 70. Regardless of the cutoff, these tips largely apply for clients over 40.

1. Throw Away the Three-Pound Dumbbells

I actually have a pair of three-pound dumbbells at my gym. They’re collecting dust in a corner. In fact, I noticed them yesterday and started thinking about whether I had any use for them. I thought it might be fun to use them as drumsticks, but either I’m not a talented drummer, or they’re a bit heavy for that. Or both. Definitely both.

I actually take issue with using three-pound weights with older clients. This is primarily because it sets the bar very low, which can feed an already low self-perception of physical ability. It also implies that you’re going to have your clients do isolation upper body exercises like bicep curls and shoulder raises. I’m not suggesting those aren’t good exercises, but odds are they’re not good starting exercises.

With few exceptions, movement-based and multi-joint exercises are going to be better choices for this demographic — I would argue that for any demographic, actually. Depending on goals, isolation exercises that use small dumbbells may be in order, but in all likelihood, by the time that becomes true, your client will be strong enough to lift more than three pounds.

2. Start with an Assessment

I meet with all of our prospective clients for a 30-minute assessment, or consultation. Officially, we spend this time talking about goals, health and injury history, and physical activity history, as well as going through the Functional Movement Screen (FMS).

Unofficially, it’s my chance to make them feel welcome and comfortable in the gym so that even if they have zero training experience, they can come to their first workout either feeling confident, or in some cases not feeling overly apprehensive.

It’s also a chance for me to see how well they move and how fit they are — or aren’t.

I use this approach for all of my clients, but it’s especially important for the older ones, because the variation in physical ability between individuals of the same age gets greater and greater as we become older. Some 50-year-olds are still playing competitive ultimate (shout out to the amazing Justine Price, an incredible ultimate player who, at 50, will be playing on the Women’s Masters team at the Canadian Ultimate Championships this year). Others may be tennis players, runners, cyclists, skiers, hikers, swimmers, or even soccer and hockey players. These athletes do not move like their sedentary counterparts! By starting with an assessment, I can get a good idea of what will be an appropriate workout for this new client.

Another reason to start with an assessment is that it allows you to see whether there are any physical limitations that may impact your client’s ability to do some exercises. This information is important, as it allows you to program exercises which will support their body, and avoid the ones which may further aggravate an issue.

Knowing this ahead of time allows you to create a workout that is truly appropriate for the individual, which sets you and your client up for success before they’ve even had their first workout.

3. Be Ready for Less Than Perfect Movement

When you do your assessment — even for those amazingly fit clients over the age of 50 — you will almost definitely notice movement limitations. In some cases, they will be minor, while in others they will be more significant. Some clients will experience pain with multiple movements; others will be pain-free but may still be quite limited in their movements.

As noted in tip number two, you’ll see this in the assessment, but it will also come out in terms of how well they perform the exercises. A client who has a very rounded upper back is going to struggle with keeping their shoulders back while doing things like rows. This doesn’t mean the row is a poor choice for them, or that you should stop cueing better form; it just means you may have to alter your expectations of what proper form looks like.

When I see less than perfect form, I ask myself “Is this imperfect form safe?” If the answer is no, then I either work to fix the form, or I adjust or replace the exercise. Remember that your most important job is to not hurt your clients. If I think the imperfect form is safe, then I’ll consider how many times I’ve already corrected their form that workout: if it’s more than a couple, I might let it go that day but take a note and work on it next time.

If I do decide to address the form, I will keep in mind that even though it might look like they’re not in the position I want, there’s a chance that they are trying their best and that this is in fact their best version of the position. If that’s the case, I may try to add an exercise to help improve the movement in that area, and I may try a different cue in the future.

4. Be Their Fitness Guide

If you are training an older client who has never worked out or played sports before, you are training a person whose vision of their own physical potential represents only a tiny fraction of their actual physical potential. Maybe less. As their trainer, you have the privilege, over time, of proving to them just how much more they can accomplish.

I’ve found that the key to getting there is to help them see their own ability. When I watch a client perform an exercise and it appears they are capable of more, I say something like “That looked great, do you want to try a bit more?” or “Was that easy, hard, or somewhere in between?” Some clients are eager to do more, while some are apprehensive. I find a higher portion of older clients are apprehensive, which means I have to be a bit more creative.

My favorite approach is to have them do as many repetitions as they can on their next set. It’s not uncommon for someone who was doing sets of eight repetitions to then do fourteen repetitions with perfect form. And I usually get agreement when I follow that up with, “Since you were able to do fourteen at twenty pounds, do you think you can do eight at twenty-five pounds?”

On the rare occasion where someone does balk at adding weight, I revert to plan B: fractional plates. A set of fractional plates includes 0.25-pound weights that can be added to a bar or a weight stack. I ask the person to put out their hand where I then place the 0.25-pound plate, and I then ask “What if we increase it that much?” I have a 100 percent success rate with that move. For metal dumbbells and kettlebells, 1.25-pound magnetic plates are almost as effective.

Over days, weeks, months, and years, these small increments add up, and eventually you find your older clients doing things they never would have thought possible and being much stronger than they ever imagined. By guiding them instead of pushing them, you earn their trust and build their confidence, which can open them to exploring even more.

5. Bunions Can Be Single-Leg Exercise Killers

This tip is a little less exciting than the others, but it’s an important one. A lot of women over the age of forty suffer from bunions, an inflammation of the first joint of the big toe, which causes the toe to be displaced. If you are a fan of single leg training, then it’s important for you to recognize that a person’s bunion can alter their ability to balance on one leg.

When a person gets a large bunion, one of the foot muscles — the adductor hallucis — can change in terms of the direction in which it operates. In a normal foot, this muscle acts transversely, adducting the big toe and providing support for the transverse metatarsal arch. With a large bunion, this muscle can be displaced and become a sagittal plane muscle, meaning it loses the ability to support your foot from a side to side balance perspective. Not surprisingly, this can affect a person’s ability to do single-leg exercises properly.

One of my favorite single-leg exercises is the single-leg Romanian deadlift, but it’s also one where I see many people struggle from a balance perspective. Interestingly, this is an exercise where balance difficulties can often be fixed by doing them without shoes. When you have your client try them without shoes, take a look at their feet. If there is a big bunion, then it may be that they won’t ever be able to do this exercise well. If your client has a bunion and continues to struggle with the single-leg RDL, it’s probably not a great exercise choice for them. This can also affect lunges and split squats and any balance exercises.

I still like to do some balance work with clients who have bunions, but I usually reduce the amount of single limb training, or I move to options where the balance is more supported because I want to put them in a position to succeed. In the case of the single-leg RDL, placing one hand on a foam roller may provide just enough stability to make this a successful exercise.

6. Power and Agility Exercises Are Amazing for Older Clients

When we think of agility ladders, most people think of training for elite athletes. My first thought, however, is senior clients.

In climates like Canada, where icy sidewalks result in a whole lot of falls each winter, training quickness and agility with older clients — most of whom, athletes aside, haven’t moved fast since they were teenagers — is almost a no-brainer.

Watching an older client progress from confusion to twinkletoes in the agility ladder is a treat for the trainer, and can be a bone-saver for the client. As they get used to moving their feet quickly in the gym, they are more likely to repeat this skill if they find themselves slipping on the ice. Obviously this won’t PREVENT falls, but I am a firm believer that it can limit them.

Admittedly I don’t have hard evidence to back this up, but I do have feedback from clients about near falls where they were able stay upright. The fringe benefit of the agility ladder drill is that most people find them fun and it gets their heart rate up nicely. I’ve heard “It’s like recess!” from a giggling older client on a number of occasions.

Another recess-like exercise that can be a surprisingly good fit for older clients is medicine ball throws. Beyond their physical benefits, they’re also a good way to increase your client’s confidence in their own physical abilities while having fun.

There are, of course, some caveats. With both those exercises, hold off introducing them to your older clients until they’ve been with you long enough to add a little strength and coordination.

Always check with your client to make sure they are comfortable performing the exercises. Agility ladder drills, for example, may create uncomfortable bouncing for larger-breasted women. If you see your client holding their arms in a way that squeezes their chest, consider asking them about it and choosing a different option for them.

Furthermore, some clients may experience some urinary incontinence with power and agility drills. If you find that your client is reluctant to perform them, this could be the cause. If this is the case, encourage your client to speak to their doctor about it if they haven’t done so already — while urinary incontinence is common, it isn’t normal.

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About the author:  Elsbeth Vaino

Elsbeth Vaino is the owner of Custom Strength in Ottawa where she works primarily with clients over 30 who continue to perform at high levels in their chosen sport, as well as helping clients return to sports post-injury. Prior to becoming a trainer, Elsbeth had a successful career in engineering, which significantly influences her approach. She holds a CSCS, is FMS certified, and also has a wealth of experience coaching and teaching sports (hockey, ultimate, and skiing). Elsbeth shares her views and approach to fitness and nutrition at elsbethvaino.com. You can also connect with her on Twitter @customstrength.

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