Creaky, achy joints and nagging back pain aren’t an inevitable part of aging. There are dozens of exercises that target thighs, glutes and core, the muscles that support the knees, hips and back, the three most-common pain spots. Here are the ones that work best.
Important: Start slowly and at low intensity if you’re new to exercise. You shouldn’t feel any pain when doing these exercises. If you experience pain—or you have known physical problems—consult a physical therapist for customized exercise advice.
Add these exercises to an existing workout routine or use them as the basis of a new one. With each exercise, be sure to listen to your body. Take as much time as needed between any repetitions and build any hold time or repetitions gradually.
Bridging. Primary targets: Core, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps and adductor muscles. Lie on your back, knees bent, thighs parallel and feet facing forward with heels directly under your knees. Keep your arms flat on the floor, slightly out to the sides with elbows bent and palms up. Place a small pillow between your knees and press your knees together as you slowly lift your buttocks and back off the ground. Now press shoulders, upper arms and feet into the floor and straighten your right leg out at the level of the left knee to form a straight line from your right shoulder to your right foot. Hold for up to 30 seconds. (If it’s too difficult to hold for that long, start with five to 10 seconds and gradually build up to 30.) Then bend your right knee, returning your right foot to the floor and repeat the move with your left leg. Note: Thighs stay aligned throughout the exercise. Repeat up to three times with each leg if holding for 10 seconds…or do just once if holding for 30 seconds.
Plank with leg extension. Primary targets: Core, gluteus maximus, quadriceps, shoulder and arm muscles. Start on hands and knees, with hands directly under shoulders and knees directly under hips. Straighten one leg back behind you so that you’re supported on your toes…then straighten the other leg to support yourself on the toes of that leg. You will now be in a full plank or push-up position. Hold the position for 10 seconds. Then raise one leg about six inches, keeping the knee straight. Hold for 10 seconds. Lower that leg back to the push-up position and raise the other leg for 10 seconds. Slowly build up to repeating the entire sequence three times.
Helpful: If this is too strenuous, start on your forearms rather than with your arms extended. To add difficulty, gradually increase hold time for each phase to up to 30 seconds, at which point one full repetition is enough.
Half-side half planks. Primary targets: Core, glutes, shoulder and lower leg muscles. Lie on your right side. Prop yourself up on your right elbow, which should be directly below your right shoulder. Bend your right knee toward your chest and straighten your left leg out directly in line with your body (like a dart). Lift your hips off the ground and reach your left hand toward the ceiling and hold for 10 seconds. Switch sides and repeat. Repeat the entire sequence up to three times.
Note: Slowly increase hold time until you reach 30 seconds for each side. At that point you can progress to full side planks—with both legs positioned in a straight line with the upper body, the lower arm straight and your weight supported by your hand, not your forearm.
Wall slide. Primary targets: Quadriceps, core. Stand with your back flat against a wall and your chin tucked so that the middle of your neck is as close to the wall as is comfortable. Keeping your entire back against the wall, raise your arms into a goal post position (upper arms at shoulder height, elbows bent at a 90-degree angle and backs of hands against the wall if you have sufficient flexibility in your shoulders). Position your feet shoulder width apart and in front of the wall at about a distance roughly equal to the length of your thighs. (This is so that your knees will be positioned in line with your ankles when you’re in the “seated” position.) Slowly slide your back down the wall until your hips and knees are nearly at a right angle. Hold for 10 seconds, then slowly slide back up. Extend hold time as you grow stronger, working up to 30 seconds. Repeat up to two times. For additional challenge, increase the hold up to one to two minutes. Warning: To avoid unnecessary stress on your knees, your knees should never be farther from the wall than your ankles during this exercise.
Side steps. Primary targets: Gluteus medius, core and leg muscles. Grab one end of an elastic resistance band in each hand and stand on the band with both feet close together in the middle of it. Cross the ends of the band and shorten it up so that it is fairly taut with your hands at approximately waist level. Keeping your foot on the band, step to the left with your left foot, taking as big a step as you can…then return your foot to starting position. Repeat the step up to five times with the left foot…then do the same number of steps to the right with the right foot. Start with up to three repeats of the entire sequence…building up to three repetitions of 10 steps in each direction.
Do these stretches after any workout or after five to 10 minutes of light activity such as walking. Ideally stretches should be held for 30 to 60 seconds.
Hip and knee stretch. While lying on your back, bring your right knee to your chest and wrap your hands around your right knee, then slowly extend your left leg straight along the floor. Gently push the back of your left knee toward the floor and hold for 30 seconds. Return your left knee to the starting position and lower your right leg to the starting position. Repeat reversing leg positions.
Hamstring stretch. Lie on your back with both knees bent and your feet on the floor, holding one end of a resistance band (or a yoga strap, bathrobe belt or even a dog leash) in each hand. Loop the strap under the arch of your left foot and raise that leg toward the ceiling, keeping your knee straight. Your upper arms should stay flat on the floor against your sides, elbows bent. Use the band to pull your toes gently toward you, lifting your leg as high as you comfortably can, ideally until the sole of your foot is parallel to the ceiling. (Note: Raise your leg only as high as you can while keeping your knee perfectly straight.) Hold for 30 seconds, then bend your knee and return your foot to the starting position. Repeat the stretch with your right leg.
Hip and back stretch. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor (place a thin pillow under your head for comfort if desired). Place your left heel on your right thigh just above your knee. Now link your hands together under your right thigh to bring your right knee toward your chest…or if you are very tight, use a band or strap under your right thigh to bring your right knee toward your chest. Make sure your head stays flat on the floor. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides.
Back-hips-knees stretch. Get on your hands and knees, then drop your buttocks back toward your heels without moving your hands. Arms should be extended out straight in front of you with your head tucked between them, face toward the floor. Hold for 30 seconds. Your knees can be either together or spread apart during this stretch, depending on what’s most comfortable for you.
Lunging hip flexor stretch. Kneel on your left knee, left toes pointed behind you, and your right knee bent so that your right foot is flat on the floor and as far forward in front of you as possible. Make sure your right knee is directly over your right ankle, not in front of it. Your left knee should be far enough back to feel a stretch in the front of your left hip. Position your hands wherever comfortable for balance. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch legs and repeat.