Given that a large percent of members entering health and fitness facilities are now the “baby boomers” (55+) crowd, as fitness professionals we are faced with several different challenges to enhance their activities of daily living (ADLs) through training. Core and balance work is a staple for the senior population, but have you considered plyometric training? While we are not going to be asking our senior members to perform box jumps, there are forms of reactive training that can enhance our client’s abilities to avoid falls, play with their grandchildren safely and even participate in recreational activities like golf, tennis, walking and even running (if they choose to).
For our senior clients, functional independence and freedom of movement is critical to enhancing their quality of life. With mobility problems comes the chance of debilitating falls which may, in turn may result in hip fractures. According to the Journal of Sports Medicine, the risk of hip fractures increases after the age of 50, and 20% of females who suffer a hip fracture do not survive the first year post fracture. Accordingly, another 20% do not regain mobility without assistance.
There are other physiological factors which may decrease an individual’s ability to function. Seniors between the ages of 65 and 74 are approximately 3% shorter than those aged 18-24 years.1 This change in height may be due to a flattening of intervertebral discs, or kyphosis. Postural stability problems can lead to reduced static and dynamic balance, maximal oxygen uptake decreases as well as a decrease in the size of individual muscles. Strength decreases occur as well as the loss of muscle mass (defined in seniors as Sarcopenia).
The loss of range of motion around a joint is significant as well, leading to decreased flexibility and a noted decreased ability to move.
With all these changes occurring, maintaining mobility, while enhancing a senior’s ability to keep their physical freedom is paramount in a well-defined exercise program. While most may understand the role of cardiovascular training and resistance training in seniors, many have yet to tap into a form of training once thought too dangerous for seniors – plyometric training.
Plyometric or Reactive training is defined as a quick, powerful movement involving an eccentric contraction, followed immediately by an explosive concentric contraction. To move with precision, force must be reduced, stabilized and then produced. This increases the rate of force production, motor-unit recruitment, rate coding and synchronization. In summary, types of plyometrics, done correctly, can help increase your reaction rate – making you quicker, faster and potentially stronger.
This sounds great for athletes – but what about plyometric exercises for seniors?
Reactive training has several important benefits for seniors. First and foremost, reactive training enhances the rate of force production. This is defined as the ability of a muscle to exert maximal force in a minimal amount of time. Success in most functional activities (including trying to stop yourself from falling) depends on the speed at which muscles are activated. For example, if you start to stumble down a flight of stairs, you work quickly to stop yourself from falling using arms and legs to help stabilize you and prevent the fall. To prevent a trip and fall, an individual must have sufficient lower limb muscle power to get a stabilizing leg out fast enough to prevent the fall or reduce the effects of the fall. However, the speed of contraction lessens as you get older, decreasing the firing time of muscles, reducing strength and limiting ability to prevent a dangerous fall.
Reactive training is an important component for seniors who have achieved proper core and balance control. Remember, core control helps your client control their center of gravity, balance training keeps their body stable over a static or dynamic base of support and reactive training, when progressed into properly, allows the client to generate maximal force in a minimal amount of time (so long as the requisite core and balance efficiency are achieved).
All movement patterns that occur during functional activities require a series of stretch-shortening cycles (eccentric and concentric contractions). The neuromuscular system must react quickly and efficiently to impart the necessary force (post eccentric contraction) in the appropriate direction. Muscles must produce the force to change the direction of the object’s center of mass. Therefore, specific functional exercises that emphasize a rapid change of direction must be used to prepare your client for the functional demands of everyday activities. Without proper training, the necessary reflexive properties of the neuromuscular system will decline, reducing the senior’s ability to maintain their functional mobility. To use an old adage – “if you don’t use it, you lose it”. So plyometric training must be incorporated into a senior’s program.
Plyometric training can begin as simply as teaching your client how to step from one foot to another (drastically lowering the amplitude), using the same concepts and landing measures as you would an athlete – however greatly reduced in impact and power requirements.
Begin with the following plyometric activities:
Step and stabilize –
- Begin with your client standing with feet hip-width apart, toes pointed ahead and knees in line with toes.
- Instruct your client to slowly step forward, normal length of stride, keeping the foot and toes pointed straight ahead. Your client should land on the flat on the front foot (landing mechanics dictate that the bottom of the ball of the foot and the heel should touch the ground at the same time).
- As your client shifts their weight from the back foot to the front foot, instruct your client to draw-in and brace their abdominals and tense up their glutes.
- When your client has shifted their weight onto the front foot, have them pick up the back leg and balance on the front leg for 2- 4 seconds, try to progress to 20 seconds of balancing.
- Repeat on opposite leg.
Assisted step-up and stabilize
- Holding onto a sturdy external object, place a small step in front of your client.
- Client should be standing in front of the step with feet hip-width apart, toes pointed ahead and knees in line with toes.
- Draw-in and brace abdominals, and cue your client to step onto the small step, keeping the foot straight and landing on the bottom of the ball of the foot and the heel (proper landing mechanics).
- Ask your client to press through the heel of the foot placed on the step and slowly lift their body weight onto the step, balancing on the leg that stepped up.
- Hold the balance position for 2-4 seconds, progressing to 20 seconds.
- Move to a taller step once your client has mastered the small step.
Assisted step-down and stabilize (short step)
- Standing on top of a small step with feet hip-width apart, toes pointed ahead and knees in line with toes – make sure your client is able to hold on to a sturdy object.
- Ask your client to draw-in and brace their abdominals and slowly lift one leg and lower the leg down to the ground. Make sure your client keeps the opposite knee in line with the feet and both pointed straight ahead.
- Allow your client to step down, instructing them to use the proper landing mechanics (edge of the ball of the foot and heel) keeping the toes straight, knees in line and the glutes tense.
- Instruct your client to shift their body weight from the back leg to the front leg and balance on the front leg for 2-4 seconds, progressing to 20 seconds.
- Repeat on opposite leg.
- Place a piece of athletic tape on a floor that will provide adequate support for jumping (i.e. sport court, aerobics room floor). Instruct your client to stand in front of the tape with feet hip-width apart, toes pointed ahead, knees in line with toes.
- Have your client draw-in and brace their abdominals. Have your client squat down slightly, and allow their arms to swing back, ready to jump.
- Instruct your client to jump forward, over the tape, landing on the opposite side using the proper landing mechanics (land on the edge/bottom of the ball of the foot and the heel, knees in line with toes – both pointed straight ahead – knees should have an approximate 45 degree bend in them, with the body positioned at an angle proportionate to the angle of the client’s shin).
- Instruct your client to “stick” the landing (once your client has landed, movement should not be allowed) and hold for 10 seconds. Excess movement can mean a lack of core control.
- Have your client step back in front of the line and repeat the jump.
- To progress your client, have them stand on the side of the tape and perform a side jump using the same techniques as listed above.
Psst! Our newest course, Certified Senior Fitness Instructor is coming out soon! (FYI – In case you wanted to tap into the largest population of gym-goers).
Kyphosis: exaggerated outward curvature of the thoracic region of the spinal column resulting in a rounded upper back.
Sarcopenia: the loss of muscle as a person ages.
Motor Unit Recruitment: refers to the recruitment pattern of muscle fiber or motor units in response to creating force for a specific movement.
Rate coding: muscular force can be amplified by increasing the rate of incoming impulses from the motor neuron after all prospective motor-units have been activated.
Rate of Force Production: ability of muscles to exert maximal force output in a minimal amount of time.
 Daley MJ, Spinks WL. Exercise, Mobility and Aging. Sports Med 2000 Jan;29(1):1-12.
 Skelton D A, Dinan SM. Exercise for falls management: Reationale for an exercise programme aimed at reducing postural instability. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice (1999) 15, 105-120.