The 20-minute strength plan every midlifer should follow

best 20-minute strength fitness exercise plan midlife 40s 50s 60s
best 20-minute strength fitness exercise plan midlife 40s 50s 60s

In the second part of our mini-series on midlife strength, we bring you the workouts for each decade – and ability. For more on the series, click here.

So you’ve been convinced of the benefits of strength training. The next question: where do you start? There are dozens of plans and programmes vying for your attention, from the intimidating (powerlifting, strongman) to the just-a-bit-too-basic (doing press ups and squats). What all good plans have in common, though, is that they provide a balance between the simple, functional movements any healthy body should be able to do. These include:

Pushing: This means anything from a dumbbell press to a press-up. An ideal plan provides both horizontal pushing and vertical, so you’ll never be stymied while putting things in cupboards – and it will keep your shoulders healthy enough to do both.

Pulling: This is what many programmes miss, as it’s tricky to do without equipment: but it’s essential as it redresses the balance from all the forward-hunching you do at your desk. Ideally, you’ll do as many ‘pulling’ moves as ‘pushing’ ones, or even more.

Squatting: Simple but crucial. If you’ve ever seen a toddler pick up a toy you’ve seen perfect squat mechanics in action – the upright torso, shoulder width feet and weight on the heels – but years of slouching on sofas and in office chairs wreck our mobility. Fix it with some squats and you’ll benefit from healthier hips and knees.

Hip-hinging: Sounds complex, but you see it everywhere: a deadlift is a hip hinge, but so is a kettlebell swing – or the explosive movement that starts a standing broad jump.

Carrying: This is the element that’s often left out of strength programmes – partly because gyms aren’t conducive to it – but, among other things, carrying things will keep your core strong, without endless sit ups.

The basics of strength training: Unlike cardio, which is usually done continuously or in high-intensity bursts, strength training demands proper recovery between sets. Normally, you should focus on one or two moves at once: power lifters might do a single set of squats and then rest for up to five minutes before trying again, to let their bodies recover. If you’re lifting less weight you don’t need to do this, but it’s still important to lift with good form and think quality over quantity. Strength athletes sometimes joke that anything over five reps counts as cardio – you can do up to 12, but after that it’s time to up the weight or pick a harder movement.

Stop before you ‘fail’: Though bodybuilders often wax lyrical about training to ‘failure’ – the point where your muscles literally won’t allow you to lift another thing – it’s not a useful approach because strength training is at least partly about teaching your muscle fibres to coordinate among themselves better (as the saying goes, ‘what fires together, wires together’) and by doing messy or unfinished reps, you’re ‘teaching’ your muscles the wrong movement pattern. A good rule of thumb: however many reps you’ve planned to do, stop the set once they start to slow down to the point that you’re grinding them out. Keep your movements controlled, and you’ll also reduce your risk of injury.

Your 20-minute strength plan

Strength is built over the long term, but if you’ve got 20 minutes spare a couple of times a week, you can make a start. Begin with the below: do the workout that’s appropriate for your age group 2-3 times a week, making sure you rest for at least a day between sessions. If moves are marked 1A and 1B, do them as a ‘superset’, which means doing both moves back to back before resting. For the weighted movements, pick a weight that’s manageable and increase it once you find hitting the upper end of the rep range easy. If you don’t have dumbbells, try these moves with water bottles or cans. Rest around 60 seconds after each set, or longer if you need to.

If you find your age-group workout too simple, move to a ‘younger’ option and if you find it too hard, move to an ‘older’ option until you get stronger. And of course, if you have any concerns, consult a doctor before starting on a strenuous workout plan.

In your...40s

  1. Goblet squat: 5-10 reps, 3 sets. Hold your dumbbell by one end, as if you’re lifting a goblet to your mouth. Squat, keeping your weight on your heels, aiming to touch your elbows to the inside of your knees. Stand up.

  2. A press up: 5-10 reps, 3 sets. A classic: but aim to keep your hands close together and your elbows tucked to your body to protect your elbows and shoulders. Your chest should almost touch the floor at the bottom of the move. This can be tricky, especially for women – if you can’t manage one rep, do the incline press-up (see the 50s version).

  3. Bent-over row: 5-10 reps, 3 sets. Bend at the hips, back straight, with a weight in each hand. Pull the weights towards the sides of your chest, thinking about bringing your shoulders behind you. Pause at the top of the move, lower and repeat.

  4. Single leg Romanian deadlift: 6 each leg, 3 sets. Stand on one leg with your knee slightly bent, then bend at the hips with your back straight behind you until you feel a stretch in your hamstring. Do this without weight until you get the hang of the movement.

  5. Waiter carry: 10m distance, 2 sets. Simply hold a weight directly overhead, and walk with it. It’s easy if you’ve got healthy shoulders.

In your...50s

  1. Squat: 5-10 reps, 3 sets. Keeping your weight over your heels and your feet shoulder width apart, squat down as low as you can, then drive back up. If you struggle to keep your heels on the floor, use the doorway squat (below).

  2. Hip bridge: 8-12 reps, 3 sets. Lie on the floor with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Press through your heels to raise your hips in the air, pause, and lower.

  3. Incline press-up: 5-10 reps, 3 sets. All the same advice as a regular press-up, except that you'll put your hands on a raised surface to make the move easier – a couch, park bench or table will all work. Once you’ve mastered the move on a high object, go lower.

  4. Curl to lunge: 6 reps, 3 sets. Holding a weight in each hand, take a big step forward and curl the weights up towards your shoulders. Step back as you lower the weights, and repeat.

  5. Suitcase carry: 10m distance, 2 sets. The holiday classic: simply hold a weight in one hand, walk the prescribed distance, and switch hands, aiming to stay upright with a strong core and straight back the whole time.

In your...60s (and beyond)

  1. Wall press-up: 5-10 reps, 3 sets. Like a press-up, but on a wall - keep your hands shoulder-width apart as you lower yourself towards the wall, and press up strongly.

  2. Doorway squat: 5-10 reps, 3 sets. This move lets you support yourself as you squat. Standing in a doorway, hold onto the frame as you squat, bringing your hips back but keeping your weight on your heels. Push back up.

  3. Clock toe taps: 30 seconds, 2 sets on each leg. Stand on one leg and use the other to tap as many points of a clock face around you as you can – from one to 12, then repeat on the other leg.

  4. Lunge: 6 reps, 3 sets. Simply take a big step forward, bending on your front leg, then stand up. Change legs with each rep.

  5. Farmer’s walk: 10m distance, 2 sets. This couldn’t be simpler: hold a weight in each hand and walk. If you’re still doing your own shopping (rather than relying on home deliveries or other people), you can give this one a miss.

Remember: none of this should take long, and it’s one of the best investments you can make in your health. Make 20 minutes a couple of times a week, and you’ll be surprised by how good you feel.