12 Chair Exercises for Every Fitness Level

Woman doing exercises with a chair.

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We tend to spend a lot of time sitting in chairs, sometimes by choice (relaxing), sometimes not (working at a desk). But one thing you can also do while in a chair is exercise. In fact, chair exercises can be a great way to meet your fitness goals, especially for seniors or anyone who may be injured, recovering from an injury, or has balance/stability issues. Of course, just because you’re sitting down doesn’t mean you won’t get an effective workout either, and chair exercises have the additional benefit of providing additional support for your body. Plus, leveraging a chair can be an easy way to sneak some exercise without leaving the room you’re in, and you really only need one simple piece of equipment. Here, two fitness experts break down why you shouldn’t write off chair exercises, how they can be effective and provide some seated moves you can do for every fitness level.

Meet the Expert

  • Prentiss Rhodes is a Scottsdale-based NASM-CPT and Master Trainer.
  • Allyson Gottfried is a Los Angeles-based XPRO for Club Pilates GO.

What Are Chair Exercises and Who Are They Best For?

Chair exercises are exercises that have been adapted from “conventional” ones to make them accessible to people who may not be able to perform free-standing exercises, says Prentiss Rhodes, NASM-CPT and Master Trainer. While they have traditionally been used for seniors, you can also use chair exercises for anyone recovering from injuries or who doesn't have the ability to stand safely. 

What Are the Benefits of Chair Exercises?

One of the main benefits of chair exercises is that they’re simple to do, says Rhodes. They can provide support to perform exercises safely when balance may be a challenge for you. They’re also portable and can be done anywhere with minimal equipment. “For example, if you are in a time crunch and cannot get to the gym, or you are traveling and need to exercise in the hotel room, chair exercises can be highly beneficial in helping you stay on track with your fitness goals,” he says.

Chair exercises can also be a great way to stabilize the lower body, says Allyson Gottfried, XPRO for Club Pilates GO. They can help you focus on flexibility, strength, and coordination from a different perspective and improve posture. And for older or injured people, working seated in a chair reduces the risk of falls. 

Can Chair Exercises Be As Effective As Standing Exercises?

Ideally, we should be doing standing exercises as often as possible because of the benefits that weight-bearing exercises have on posture, balance, and bone health, says Rhodes. But if standing exercises are not possible, chair exercises are a great alternative and can be quite effective.

He adds that you can’t always compare standing and chair exercises directly to one another, as the efficacy and intensity of the exercise will depend on the person who’s doing them. For example, an 80-year-old grandparent who is post-rehabilitation after surgery may find five reps of a chair squat challenging, rating it at an 8 rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Whereas someone in the same age group with fewer physical ailments or better strength may only rate it a 4-5 RPE.

Gottfried adds that, importantly, modifications are not a cop-out. For a workout like Pilates, for example, she says doing modified movements while seated in a chair is a great way for someone to get all the health benefits of those exercises without lying down. In addition, chair exercises can help someone perform and execute exercises properly within their individual range of motion while maintaining good form and focus.

Chair Exercises for Every Fitness Level

Whether you're injured, need some help with balance, or want to take a fitness break while sitting in front of your computer all day, Rhodes and Gottfried recommend these chair exercises to try.

Beginner Chair Exercises

Seated Rotation

  • Sit upright and clasp your hands behind your head.
  • Slowly exhale as you rotate your upper body to the right.
  • Next, slowly inhale, pulling your abs in as you rotate back to the center.
  • Then repeat alternating sides.
  • This works the transverse abdominals and obliques, helps stabilize the pelvis, and helps with mid-back stability, says Gottfried. 

Dumbbell Shoulder Press 

  • Sit with an upright posture with your back off of the back of the chair.
  • Curl two dumbbells to shoulder height and press them to the overhead position. Make sure that the dumbbells are pressed directly over the body.
  • Lower the weights slowly and repeat.

Back Fly with Tubing

  • Sit with an upright posture with your back off of the back of the chair.
  • Hold a band, with palms facing up, at shoulder height.
  • Pull the band apart until the arms are at the sides.
  • Slowly return to the starting position and repeat. 

Leg Extension 

  • Sit with an upright posture with your back off of the back of the chair.
  • Lift one leg slightly so that the foot hovers slightly above the ground. Straighten the knee.
  • Slowly return to the starting position.
  • Repeat and alternate legs.

Heel Slides (Hamstring Curls)

  • Lean back slightly in the chair until the upper back is touching the seat back and your hips are straight, and your knees are bent.
  • Place a towel or slider under the feet and straighten the legs.
  • Pull through the heels until the knees are bent.
  • Repeat.

Arms Extended Plank

  • Place hands on the seat of the chair.
  • Pull the shoulders down away from the ears and rotate the shoulders so that the pits of the elbows are pointing straight ahead.
  • Walk your feet back until you are in a plank position.
  • Hold for 10-15 seconds.
  • Repeat.

Chair (Box) Squat

  • Stand in front of the seat of the chair with your feet hip to shoulder-width distance apart.
  • Keep your back straight and abs tight and engaged.
  • Lower yourself slowly under control until you are seated in the chair. You may use your hands for assistance.
  • Then, push through the feet and stand up.
  • Repeat.

Intermediate Chair Exercises

Chair Push-Up

  • Place your hands on the seat of the chair, facing the back of the chair.
  • Pull your shoulders down away from the ears and rotate the shoulders so that the pits of the elbows are pointing straight ahead.
  • Walk your feet back until you are in a plank position.
  • Bend the elbows and lower your body until the elbows are at 90 degrees.
  • Push up to the starting position.
  • Repeat.

Chair Figure-Eight 

  • Sit with an upright posture with your back off of the back of the chair.
  • Hold a weight, at shoulder height, with straight arms.
  • Keeping the arms straight, trace a figure-eight. 

Seated Saw

  • Start with your arms raised straight out to your sides, making a “T” with your torso.
  • In a flowing move, rotate your torso to the right, bending forward to reach down with your left arm to touch your left pinky finger to the outside of your right foot.
  • Straighten back to the starting position.
  • Repeat, alternating sides.
  • Repeat five times on each side.

Advanced Chair Exercises

Kettlebell Chair Press (Note: This should be done with a moderate weight)

  • Sit with an upright posture. Your back may be on the seat back for this exercise. 
  • Bring two kettlebells to the rack position and press them to the overhead position. Make sure that the kettlebells are pressed directly over the body.
  • Lower the weights slowly.
  • Repeat.
  • Note: Rhodes mentions you should do these exercises with a moderate weight.

Sit to Stand

  • Sit with arms held straight out in front.
  • Take a breath and exhale slowly as you stand up.
  • Then take another breath and exhale slowly as you sit back down slowly. Again, try hard to engage your muscles to help guide and control the movement rather than crashing down onto the chair.
  • Repeat 10 times.
  • Gottfried says to add a dumbbell held between both hands at the chest level to advance this exercise while performing this exercise for extra weighted resistance. 

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