8 Leg Strengthening Exercises for Seniors That Physical Therapists Recommend

Learn how to stay active and independent through all stages of life with these leg strengthening exercises for seniors, recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Jun 19, 2024
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There are lots of different types of exercise out there: cardio, strength training, stretching, and even coordination and mindfulness-based activities such as yoga or tai chi. But if you’re an older adult, there’s one type of exercise that’s especially important: leg strengthening exercises. “The stronger your legs are, the more likely you are to be able to continue to do daily activities that you enjoy,” explains Vanessa Matos, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. Leg strengthening exercises also help to prevent falls and injuries related to taking a tumble, which becomes increasingly important as you move through life. 

Here's advice from Hinge Health physical therapists on how to strengthen your legs, plus a closer look as to why leg strengthening exercises for seniors are so important.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Vanessa Matos, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Matos is a Hinge Health physical therapist with a special interest in treating orthopedic injuries in athletes and patient education.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

Best Leg Strengthening Exercises for Seniors 

Hinge Health physical therapists often recommend these leg strengthening exercises for seniors. They hit all of the major muscle groups in your lower body in just a few moves.

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1. Knee Extension

1. Knee Extension

This is one of the top seated leg strengthening exercises for seniors. Knee extensions help to improve strength and endurance in your thigh muscles. “These muscles help with walking, as well as stair climbing and rising up from a chair,” says Dr. Matos.

How to do it:

  • Start by sitting comfortably in a chair.  

  • Straighten your leg, moving your foot toward the ceiling. The back of your thigh should remain on the chair as you hold this position. 

  • Relax your foot back to the floor.

2. Calf Raises

2. Calf Raises

This is an important leg mobility exercise. “Calf raises strengthen the muscles of your lower leg, which is helpful for walking and negotiating stairs,” explains Dr. Matos. While this exercise builds resilience for activities like walking and running, it also helps support your return to more intense movements like dance class or chasing a ball on the pickleball court. 

How to do it:

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart with one hand on a table for balance.  

  • Push through the balls of your feet to raise your heels off the floor. 

  • Relax your heels back to the floor. 

3. Tib Raises

3. Tib Raises

Tab raises strengthen the muscles on the front side of your lower leg, which you need for walking and balance. “They help keep you from tripping on your own toes when you walk,” explains Dr. Matos. They also help improve your shin, ankle, and foot strength. They are a simple way to train your shin muscles to feel stronger with activities like walking, jogging, and playing sports.

How to do it:

  • Stand with your back against a wall and your feet about a foot out from the wall. 

  • Lift the front of your feet off the floor to come onto your heels. 

  • Lower your feet back down to the floor. 

4. Sit to Stand

4. Sit to Stand

This simple exercise helps to improve strength and balance. “It’s incredibly functional — we use these muscles whenever we get up off of a chair or toilet,” says Dr. Matos. “Strengthening your leg and glute muscles with the sit to stand exercise helps ensure that you can remain independent with these sorts of daily activities for years to come.”

How to do it:

  • Sit in a chair with your feet a comfortable distance apart while holding your hands together in front of your chest.

  • Without using your hands, push through your feet to straighten your legs and stand up.

  • Sit back down in the chair with control.

5. Squats

5. Squats

Like the sit to stand move, squats help to improve strength and overall balance, notes Dr. Matos. “Squats help us maintain thigh strength, hip strength, and core strength to allow for independence with everyday activities,” she explains. As a result, you will be better prepared for activities like picking up heavy objects from the floor and walking up and down stairs.

How to do it:

  • Stand with your feet a comfortable distance apart. 

  • Keeping most of your weight in your heels, reach your hips back while bending your knees, as if you were about to sit in a chair. 

  • Push through your feet to straighten your knees and return to a standing position.

6. Lunges

6. Lunges

“Lunges are a great way to strengthen the front and back of your legs, as well as your hips,” says Dr. Matos. “It’s a movement that gives you confidence, especially for activities like getting up and down off of the floor.” It’s also an excellent exercise to help you stay active with sports and build resilience for activities you enjoy, like going on walks with your grandchildren.

How to do it:

  • Start by taking a big step forward with one foot. 

  • Bend through your front knee while keeping most of your weight on your front heel. Your back heel can lift off the floor, coming onto your toes. 

  • Push through your front foot to return to a standing position.

7. Lateral Step Up

7. Lateral Step Up

“This is an excellent exercise to strengthen your quads, which are the muscles that make up the front of your thigh,” notes Dr. Matos. As a result, you’ll find it easier to climb stairs and do any sideways movements that are required for activities like hiking.

How to do it:

  • Start by standing sideways next to a step with the foot closest to the step on top of it, knee bent. Your other foot should be on the floor with your knee mostly straight. 

  • Hinge at your hips so your chest is slightly bent toward the floor. 

  • Push through the leg on the step to straighten your knee and lift your other foot off the floor. 

  • Lower your foot back to the floor to return to the starting position.

8. Single Leg RDL

8. Single Leg RDL

This exercise not only strengthens leg muscles, but it challenges your balance too, says Dr. Matos. “For a lot of functional activities, we need to shift our weight forward, which can be challenging as we age,” she explains.

How to do it:

  • Start by standing with your feet a comfortable distance apart. 

  • Move your chest toward the floor by hinging at your hips. 

  • Lift one leg off the floor behind you and up toward the ceiling. 

  • Slowly return to the starting position. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Importance of Leg Strengthening Exercises

All seniors should do some sort of strength training to maintain their functional fitness, so they can continue to do all their normal activities, says Dr. Matos. But there are a few reasons why leg strengthening exercises for seniors are key. 

  • Keeping you moving. “Lower body muscle strength is required for mobility and balance,” points out Dr. Matos. This allows you to do everything from climbing stairs to going grocery shopping and playing in the yard with your grandchildren.

  • Preventing falls. Targeted exercises improve strength, balance, coordination, and mobility, which reduces the chances of a fall, according to a 2023 review published in Frontiers in Public Health. Strength exercises also enhance recovery skills so you can react quickly if you start to lose your balance and prevent injury. 

  • Maintaining strong bones. Resistance exercise, particularly leg strengthening exercises, have been shown to reduce the risk of osteoporosis in people aged 65 and older. 

  • Reducing pain. Leg strengthening exercises help to strengthen and stabilize lower body joints such as the knees, feet, and ankles, notes Dr. Matos. A 2023 study published in the Caspian Journal of Internal Medicine, for example, found that leg strengthening exercises such as quadricep and hamstring exercises help to relieve the pain and stiffness associated with lower body osteoarthritis.

PT Tip: Start With the Mini Version

Most of the above exercises can be done in a mini (or modified) version that is less challenging, says Dr. Matos. “This can be a good option if you struggle with the regular exercises when you first start them,” she explains. “Start where you can, and focus on building strength so that you can progress to the harder variations over time.” 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Older Adult Falls. Www.cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/falls/index.html

  2. Sadaqa, M., Németh, Z., Makai, A., Prémusz, V., & Hock, M. (2023). Effectiveness of exercise interventions on fall prevention in ambulatory community-dwelling older adults: a systematic review with narrative synthesis. Frontiers in Public Health, 11, 1209319. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2023.1209319

  3. Pinheiro, M. B., Oliveira, J., Bauman, A., Fairhall, N., Kwok, W., & Sherrington, C. (2020). Evidence on physical activity and osteoporosis prevention for people aged 65+ years: a systematic review to inform the WHO guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-020-01040-4

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  5. For older adults, every 500 additional steps taken daily associated with lower heart risk. (2023, March 2). American Heart Association. Retrieved from https://newsroom.heart.org/news/for-older-adults-every-500-additional-steps-taken-daily-associated-with-lower-heart-risk