What are the best leg exercises to do if you’re a senior who wants to gain strength and be more functional?
That’s what I’ll be sharing in this article.
I’ll also be sharing how many sets and reps you should be doing, how often you should be performing these exercises, how much rest you should take between sets and between exercise sessions, and how you should think about increasing your weight.
Instead of word-vomiting at the beginning of this article, I’m going to share the exercises first and then I’ll share the instructions afterward. I of course recommend that you read the instructions first because they are actually more important than the workouts themselves… but I digress.
Let’s get to it!
- For a beginner, choose two or three exercises below and do two to three sets of 10, twice per week
- Once you’ve done this consistently for 3 weeks, feel free to add one or two more exercises and do three sets of 10 for all of them
- Building leg strength is about consistency over a long period of time (months and years, not weeks). Figure out how to be consistent and you’ve won the game.
- Lifting legs twice per week is sufficient to build long-term strength and muscle gains
- Resting anywhere from 60 seconds to 4 or 5 minutes between sets is reasonable and necessary depending on how intensely you are working and what type of weight you are using
Best Leg Strengthening Exercises For Seniors
Sumo Deadlift (with kettlebell)
Seated hamstring curl
Seated knee extension
Seated calf raises
Standing calf raises (single and double leg)
If you’re looking for a few different types of hip exercises, check out this article I wrote.
How many sets and reps of each exercise should you do?
I’m going to break this down into beginner, intermediate and advanced.
If you are a beginner-beginner like you’ve never touched a weight in your life, then I would recommend just starting with two sets of 10 reps and selecting 3 of the above exercises. Choose a weight that is fairly easy for you to start.
The goal of the first couple weeks of lifting weights is to get your body used to the movements so that you don’t have a ton of soreness when you start increasing the difficulty level.
Eventually, you want to be able to work your muscles really hard and not be sore the next day.
This is an important point; sore muscles are not a good indicator that you’ve worked hard enough, they are feedback that you aren’t used to working those muscles.
Sore muscles are a novelty effect, that’s it. So, that means that you should not be chasing soreness, thinking that it’s necessary to improve. It’s not and if you work out like that you won’t last very long as you’ll likely increase the difficulty of your workouts way too fast and burn yourself out or injure yourself.
Once you’ve been working out at least six weeks and you’ve gotten 15+ training sessions under your belt, move up to 3 sets of 10 repetitions for 4 to 5 of the exercises.
If are a beginner and feel like you’d rather start here, that’s fine too, just know that with increased repetitions and overall volume of work, you will likely be sorer to start with. Muscle soreness from a workout session usually lasts for 48-72 hours. If it lasts a little longer than that it’s still no need for concern, but you definitely shouldn’t be sore longer than a week. That means you pushed yourself too hard.
If you’re an advanced gym-goer/lifter then you’re free to work up to 10+ sets per muscle group per week. There has been data in the general population (not seniors), that volume as high as 20+ sets per muscle group per week produces the most optimal results for folks in terms of muscle growth.
Muscle growth is not necessary for strength increases however increased muscle size generally means that you will be able to lift more weight, too, or, that when training with heavier weight, your muscles will better be able to tolerate it.
How many times per week should you work out your legs?
For someone new to working out I would recommend getting a leg workout in twice per week for the first couple of months.
Once your body has adapted to increased intensity and difficulty with two times per week, if you want to up it to three times per week as that works better for your schedule that is fine, too.
I have many clients who have seen tremendous progress even from just one time per week but progress is much slower than if they were doing at least two times per week.
Think about working out as a skill. The more you do certain movements you get more proficient at it. This is the science of motor learning. Practice a pattern enough times, it gets better, and then goes on autopilot (think, driving).
Once you’ve acclimated your legs to workouts, shooting for 10 to 20 challenging sets of leg exercises per muscle group is a good range to shoot for.
An example of this type of workout would be:
- 5 sets of leg press on day 1
- 3 sets of squats on day 2
- 2 sets of lunges on day 1
How long should you rest between sets; what about between workouts?
You should rest between sets for anywhere between 60 seconds to 4 minutes depending on how heavy and how high of the intensity you are working at.
If you are using lighter weights and not working close to failure (can’t do one more rep), then it’s acceptable to rest as little as 60 seconds between sets. If you want you can even superset another exercise to make your workout more efficient.
Supersetting is when you combine two exercises that are working opposite muscle groups one right after the other. This allows you to perform more work in a shorter amount of time.
If you are lifting heavy weights you’ll likely need to rest between 2.5 to 4 minutes. The reason for this longer rest period is that you will need it in order to complete the same amount of reps in the following set. If your goal is to do 8 repetitions, but you only rest 30 seconds from the last set and then you’re only able to do 4, this means that you didn’t rest long enough, particularly if the workout calls for 8 reps.
In terms of how long to rest between workouts of the same muscle group, this really depends.
It’s completely feasible to work your legs nearly every day without rest, assuming that you are doing a small amount every day and you feel like your body is recovering.
However, if you are doing full, intense workouts then it’s recommended, particularly for a beginner to rest between 48-72 hours between a leg workout (or upper body for that matter).
At some point, I’ll create a chart to break that down for you and how I think about it for my clients.
When should you increase the weight, reps, or sets?
This is where the RPE scale (rating of perceived exertion) comes into play. I use the scale with 100% of my clients.
This is a way to “auto-regulate,” your workouts, or, said another way, determine how hard you are working by assessing how difficult the last rep was.
If you had one more rep in the tank it was a 9 out of 10. A 10 out of 10 means you could not do any more reps.
Most beginners overestimate their RPE because they are not used to working out to max capacity. Determining RPE is a skill and it requires being honest with yourself and also fine-tuning your “difficulty,” meter.
I recommend working with a coach for at least a few months to help you understand what different RPEs feel like. But, once you’ve got it, it’s easy to figure out.
You should increase weight, reps, or sets, once you’ve done the same workout a few times, and the RPE with the same weight is getting a bit easier (dropping down ~ 2 on the RPE scale).
There are many different ways to adjust how much weight you use or how much you’re using but I’ll let the experts explain that on stronger by science. They covered autoregulation in training and it’s definitely worth a read. In fact, I use one of their templates myself!
I wrote another article about sarcopenia you might be interested in, and, another one about if you’re 65 and older if you can still build muscle. Check those out as they are applicable to building massive strength!
I hope this was helpful for you and that you have a slightly better understanding of how much you should be doing and what you should be doing to get yourself a great leg workout!