The safest and most effective way to build muscle for older people is using machines that create compound (multijoint), closed chain, non-concussive movements with optimal range of motion such that the muscles are supporting the skeleton and not the other way around. While all that sounds complicated, it’s not really.
A compound movement involves two or more joints working together with their associated musculature. Imagine a rowing movement with the upper body. In that movement both your elbows and shoulder joints are moving together, so you are sharing the load between the two sets of joints. To accomplish this move you are firing the muscles of the forearms, upper arms, posterior shoulders, upper back, and I know that there is a lot going on in a compound movement.
Typically, compound movements are closed chain, which essentially means the hands or feet are in contact with either the ground or with a machine. That stability increases safety.
Aerobic examples of great compound movements are cycling (either recumbent or upright, depending on ability and/or need for spinal support), rowing, upper body ergometers, and recumbent steppers.
Strength examples would be squats, leg presses, seated rows, dead lifts, stiff-legged dead lifts, and high pulls. With all these movements good form is critical. Consult with a qualified trainer so that you can properly ingrain the right forms into your neuromuscular memory. Once you have established the proper motion, the rest is comparatively easy!
Less effective and potentially more dangerous weight exercises are open chain, primary rotary movements, such as arm or leg curls. Adding weight to the end of our lever arm or leg puts a lot of more stress on our working parts than compound movements. While such movements can be very helpful in some circumstances (including injury rehabilitation), you don’t want to do them without a clear purpose and supervision.
Things like stomach crunches and hip abduction/adduction machines are what we loosely call vanity movements: inefficient, ineffective, and potentially injurious. Save your open chain movements for the therapeutic environment where joint stability and range of motion are the order of the day. Focus instead on big, functional, compound movements that will keep you strong, loose, and not afraid to do the things you love.
Andy Baxter is a Medical Exercise Specialist, world champion master’s rower, and the designer of SciFit’s new lateral trainer, the Side Step, which adheres to his philosophy of staying closed chain, compound, and bidirectional, while enhancing lateral strength and stability.