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Tabata for beginners over 50: top 5 exercises

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When you are thinking about doing a tabata for beginners over 50, the last thing that probably enters your mind is some of these folks out here doing crazy box jumps into burpees or some wild routine on a suspension trainer. Seeing exercises like that probably conjures up feelings of broken knees, sore shoulders, and an aching back. But, there is no denying the amazing time efficiency that tabatas bring to the table as a form of exercise, the key is making sure that you have some tabatas in your toolbox that won’t break you for weeks to come.

In this post, I am going to discuss what a tabata is, why they are an excellent exercise for busy individuals, and how to do a tabata for beginners over 50.

What is a tabata and why should you do them?

A tabata is a form of working out where you do a single exercise with a timer running in a specific work-to-rest ratio; typically 20 seconds of work with 10 seconds of rest and then repeating that usually for 8 sets which makes a total workout time of 4 minutes.

You might be thinking to yourself that 4 minutes doesn’t sound like a long time to get a workout in, but trust me, if you choose the right exercise, 4 minutes will seem like a lifetime! The primary reason this is so hard is that you are working yourself in short but fast bursts with not a lot of time for rest. The reason that this is good to do relative to more traditional forms of cardio like going for a 10-minute run is that it mimics what you’re likely to do in your day-to-day life.

Think about it for a second. In a non-exercise context where you are being active, are you more likely to be running around at a constant pace for a long time or are you going to be changing up speeds and intensities? To illustrate this better, imagine you are at a family cookout with some young kids around. Given ANY outdoor activity that those kids may engage in (tag, soccer, basketball, etc.), you’re going to be working in short bursts of speed with interspersed periods of rest. Therefore, our training should replicate that as best as we can which is where the magic of tabatas comes in!

What you need to do a tabata

The number of things you need to do a tabata can vary wildly, but for our purposes, we only need our bodys’ and a tabata timer. Fortunately, there are hundreds of free tabata timer apps that you can download on your phone, but the one that I use and prefer is here: IOS and Android. For both apple and android, this app will be set up automatically so you don’t have to worry about learning to set it up.

So, now that we know what a tabata is, why we should use them, and what we need to do them, let’s get into the top 5 exercises to do for beginners over 50!

Exercise #1: the jumping jack

The jumping jack is an exercise that has stood against the test of time for generations. It’s ridiculously simple, gets all your joints involved, and is pretty low-impact on the body.



I like this one as exercise number one because it’s a pretty good warm-up for the exercises to come. You can make these harder or easier by managing how many jumping jacks you can do in 20 seconds. Make sure to count them and find the pace that works best for you!



Your tabata timer will already be set to the 20-seconds on, 10-seconds off ratio and will run for 4 minutes, so get your apps open, and get it going!



Exercise #2: high knees

Exercise number two is another one that seems to be pretty easy but is actually pretty difficult. What you want to do here is stand up nice and tall and basically run in place getting your knees up as high as you can go. 

Why this exercise? As we age, the muscles in the front of our hips (the hip flexors) become weaker and weaker from inactivity. In your 50’s, you probably don’t notice this impacting your day-to-day life at all, but once you try this exercise out, you’ll definitely realize that your hip flexors are probably pretty weak. This is problematic because as you get older and older, this problem will just get worse and worse. The main concern here is becoming the old man or woman who shuffles their feet across the ground as opposed to picking them. This increases the risk for falling massively which is the second leading cause for death in seniors after illness. 

Risk mitigation aside, this is highly intensive cardio vascular exercise. We spend too few of our weekly hours doing cardio that involves manually picking our legs up as high as we can and it will show as you do this exercise. The main muscles you are targeting during this exercise are obviously the hip flexors as I’ve already stated but you will also get a good pump in your calves and abs! 

If your knees are a little shoddy and you find that this bothers them, simply take the “hop” out of your step and work on just driving your knees up as high as you can. that will pretty much take all the impact out of the exercise but will still give you a good cardio, calves, hip, and abs workout.

High knees example:



Exercise #3: shoulder taps

The next exercise on the list is going to be an upper body exercise called shoulder taps. Shoulder taps is one of those exercises that looks easy, but is far from easy. The reason for shoulder taps being on the list is that it is an isometric exercise that works on strengthening the shoulders and the muscles that help the shoulder blade move. 

Shoulder problems are rampant in people age 50+. There are many reasons for this but two of the main ones are weak shoulders in general and shoulder blades that don’t move well. When people think about their shoulders and shoulder pain, they often forget about the shoulder blade and how it may be contributing to shoulder pain. When you move your arm, you shoulder blade should slide over your ribs and helps to keep your shoulder joint in proper alignment. If the muscles connected to the shoulder blade are weak, it will not move well and it may even sit at rest in the wrong position. Over time, this improper movement and/or rest can cause the shoulder joint to move/rest improperly which will ultimately lead to shoulder pain. 

Fortunately, we can control this by exercising the muscles connected to the shoulder blade which should go a long way to clearing up shoulder pain. You have to understand that almost all joint pain is caused from improper movement. If you can fix the movement pattern, the pain usually goes away. 

The main muscle that we are looking at improving here is called the serratus anterior. This muscle is a tiny little group of fibers located roughly in your arm pit. These muscles connect to the underside of your shoulder blade and help it move. Unfortunately, it is a tricky little muscle to target during a workout because of it’s location and how it works. However, the shoulder tap does an excellent job at targeting this muscle because of the unique position you will be in. 

In order to do a shoulder tap, you will need to assume a push-up position. You will be holding this position for some time so if you need to drop to your knees at some point, that is totally fine; I would rather you do that then stop the exercise. When you are in the push-up position, you will simply pick one hand up, touch the opposite shoulder, place it back down where it was, and repeat on the other side. While doing this, do your best to keep your torso still; try not to roll your body side-to-side. It’s easier said than done, but if you can do that, you will also get a wicked ab workout. 

The reason this goes a long way in strengthening your shoulders is because they have to stay braced in a locked out position for the whole workout. This will cause the shoulder blades to come forward which will engage the serratus anterior muscles, and help to strengthen them!

Shoulder tap example:

Exercise #4: The deadbug

I talk all the time about bracing your core and I’ve talked a number of times about this exercise in particular. Bracing your core is the act of tensing your ab muscles so that they keep your spine from bending in a way that can cause injury. Whenever you pick something up, you core should automatically brace to some degree without you even thinking about it. This is a natural reaction because your body knows that it needs to protect the spine. However, I think we have all felt the ping in our low back when we go to pick up that awkward, heavy object off the ground that gives us grief for a few days following. 

The problem here is likely twofold: 1. you probably didn’t use your legs properly and 2. your core was not strong enough to brace against the weight that you were picking up. The dead bug solves this problem.

All you need to do to perform this exercise is lay down on the ground, point your feet to the ceiling (if this is too hard, you can bend your knees), and reach up to the ceiling with your arms as high as you can and hold. You will probably notice right away that you are shaking and that’s not to be concerning. All that means is that your core is really struggling to figure out what to do in this situation which is okay because we’re doing this exercise to teach it what it needs to do! When you hold these positions with your core, your brain is sending a ton of signals to the muscles to hold you up. If you are not very good at bracing your core, your muscles will not be very good at maintaining their tension which results in you shaking. I often describe it as your brain sending a million “on/off” signals to the muscles. As you get stronger though, the shaking will stop and that is a good thing because that means that your core has figured out how to brace! 

How to do a dead bug:

Exercise #5: breast stroke

The final exercise on this list is called a breast stroke. It is a back and shoulder exercise that is meant to help correct your posture by strengthening all of the muscles that run along your spine and work to hold it in proper alignment. 

Because of how much time we spend sitting every day, our backs have suffered greatly. I think we all know what bad posture looks like: shoulders rounded forward, back has an outward bow to it, and the neck and head are leaning forward. These cause far more harm to the body than just looking bad. Bad posture falls downstream to effect the back, which effects the hips, which effect the knees, which effects the ankles. Basically, as soon as your posture goes, Everything downstream begins to fall out of alignment and as we discussed with the shoulder taps, when things are out of alignment, injuries start to pop up.

The breast stroke is one of those exercises that does a great job of reversing the bad posture of rounding forward by arch the back in the opposite direction and making it work at the same time. 

To do a breast stroke, all you need to do is lay down on your stomach, pick your upper body and legs up, and brush your arms back and down towards your hip, and return them to touch at the top. You can lower yourself back down to the ground or stay up for an added challenge.

How to do a breast stroke:


Tabata workouts are a phenomenal way to get into shape. However, as with anything, they can be taken too far if you aren’t careful. Knowing where your limitations are and how to work on them in a safe way is really critical in order to ensure that you do not injury yourself and are actually making yourself better. 

When doing tabatas, I recommend using a tabata timer (here is the one I use for IOS and Android). Set the work to rest ratio to be 20 seconds of work, with 10 seconds of rest and do each exercise for 8 sets. This will come out to be four minutes of exercise per workout which, given the exercises above, works out to only be 20-minutes of exercise! 

Jordan Tank, Personal Trainer, Columbus, Ohio

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