How do you feel about strength training? Sometimes we can feel nervous about strength training and building too much muscle. Strength training can play an essential role in making you leaner and many women actually see a positive change in their shape and as well as improving how they feel when they strength training regularly. And the great news is that even a short-term strength training program can produce amazingly positive results.
Hormonal fluctuations can impact on a your health, fitness, body weight, and emotional state. At a physiological level, the female body is losing muscle mass at about 500g per year amounting approximately to 5 kilos of weight gain each decade after 40. This weight gain will be more if you aren’t exercising. This means even if we’re not eating any more we will naturally gain weight if we don’t take action.
If you lead a sedentary lifestyle muscle deterioration will speed up. On average, women notice loss of strength from about aged 50 onwards. From age 50-70, a woman can lose up to 30% of strength through natural muscle loss alone.
This is part of the frustration I hear from many of our members. “I’m doing the same as I’ve always done but I’m still putting on weight’. We have to accept that our bodies are changing and that we may need to approach things differently.
Starting at peri-menopause
We are now living longer than ever and this means that we now spend half our lifetime in peri-menopause, through menopause and into post menopause – 40 years on average for most women. The peri-menopause, which are the years leading up to menopause, is a time when women naturally experience irregular periods, progressive weight gain, mood swings as well as the typical night sweats, hot flushes, headaches and much more.
Metabolism drops significantly and this also impacts our ability to lose weight and stay healthy. Our hormones oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are fluctuating at varying levels. If we aren’t exercising and add to this too much sugar, caffeine and alcohol we can make things a lot harder for ourselves.
Weight gain is not inevitable
As we age past 40, the body naturally loses muscle density. Although I must highlight that not all muscle loss is naturally-induced. Certain medications can result in noticeable muscle weakness, such as corticosteroids commonly prescribed for asthma or arthritis. But the rate at which we lose muscle naturally can be delayed for many years through a regular routine of strength training exercises.
A loss of muscle mass means a drop in metabolism and your metabolic rate determines to some degree how much body fat you gain, irrespective of whether or not you exercise.
Muscle helps drive the metabolic rate up – the higher your metabolic rate the easier it is to burn body fat. Dense muscle (strong muscle fibres are thick and tightly packed together to produce a more defined muscle) produced through regular strength training assists in raising your metabolism.
Muscles & The Brain
As we enter mid-life the neuro-muscular pathways also slow down. It’s normal. In essence, it means it takes longer for muscles to respond to signals from the brain. It’s the reason why we can no longer run as fast as we could, or lift things as easily as we may have 20 years ago. The speed at which the neural impulses from the brain are sent to the muscles slows down, taking longer to send and receive the signals.
Muscles & Soft Tissues
The mid-life period also brings with it a change in the pliability of soft tissues (tendons, ligaments, as well as muscle). The human body consists mainly of fluids, and some of it can be found inside joints, in tendons, ligaments and muscles. As we age, the fluid content slowly ‘dries up’ leaving the soft tissue structures less pliant and less able to tolerate stress. Consequently, we notice more joint problems as we age.
Muscles are not able to repair quickly as they used to due mainly to lower levels of enzyme activity.
The heart is a muscle that requires constant exercising throughout life. As we enter mid-life, the heart is less able to propel large quantities of blood quickly through the vascular system. By our late 40’s we tire more quickly than we used to, and we require more recovery time following exercise.
Why Exercise Is the Key
A combination of aerobic activity, strength training, restorative exercise and a healthy diet, is the best method of leading a healthier life past 40.
Studies reveal that muscles have a greater capacity than first thought, of synthesising proteins to produce stronger muscle fibres following a short term strength training program. Yarasheski, K. E. (October 2003). “Exercise, aging, and muscle protein metabolism”. The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 58 (10): M918–M922.
Of course, adopting a long-term strength training routine will bring greater health benefits for longer duration, but this study reveals that even a short-term program can produce amazingly positive results.
So with increased muscle strength comes greater mobility and this is especially important in our 50’s and beyond.
The Science: Strength Training on the Female Body
When a woman aged 50+ performs a strength training program three times a week, strength gains soon become apparent. On a physiological level, her muscles are changing:
- There is an increase in IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor) a hormone that assists in muscle growth.
- There is an increase in Type I & Type II muscle cross sectional area. In other words, strength training produces more fast twitch (Type I) and slow twitch (Type II) fibres that are necessary to allow us to lift heavier objects safely, run faster, jump higher and essentially lead a more mobile and active life.
- There is an increase in Myosin Heavy Chain (MHC) synthesis. This allows faster and stronger muscle contractions necessary for daily and physical activities.
- An increase in neural adaptations. The communication pathways between the brain to muscles via the nervous system, become more efficient with regular strength training. Think of it as when you are driving a car – your foot pushes down on the accelerator and the car immediately responds with power and speed. The body reacts in much the same way. Exercise allows the neural pathways to send signals to the muscles faster, allowing the body to run faster, have better balance, agility and co-ordination.
As you can see there are huge benefits to a regular strength training routine. These go well beyond simply having a body worth showing off in jeans!
Sounds great – here’s how you start
When you think of strength training, you may think of men lifting heavy weights and body builders. Strength training can involve weights but it can equally use your own body weight. We have a few sample home workout sessions you can try – “Moving Your Way Through The Menopause”
If you’re new to lifting weights, it’s better if you go to a class or work with a trainer – this can be done online if necessary! Your fitness professional will show you how to lift correctly and provide you with a safe program to enhance and improve your general fitness.
If you’re working with weights, here are some ideas on how to approach and progress:
- Do 2-3 sets of 8-20 repetitions per exercise/muscle group
- Your program should consist mainly of exercises that involve more than one joint
- Perform your strength training 3 times a week or more depending on recovery rate.
- Make slight changes to your program every 4-6 weeks depending on your progress.
- Use an intensity scale of 1-10, with 1 being no effort and 10 being extremely difficult. Aim for 7-8 on the intensity scale. This means it is a challenge but it is not to the point that you are losing correct form.
- Increase the weight you are lifting when more than 12 reps of the exercise can be performed with perfect form.
- If you are aiming for 15 reps and you can only perform 8 reps with perfect form, you need to lower the weight.
No Equipment Needed
Strength training refers to more than just gym equipment. For best results you need to utilise all forms of strength training – weight machines, dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, medicine balls.
Strength training also uses body weight moves such as push ups, chin ups, crunches, lunges, squats, dips.
Strength training also can involve using resistance bands and tubes for a low impact strength workout or for rehabilitation. You can also use equipment such as swiss balls for improving balance and core strength.
For many women strength training is an aspect of fitness that is shunned but you would do well to embrace it! There is no doubt about the huge health benefits a strength training program can provide to your body in middle life and beyond. In fact, strength training MUST become an important part of every women’s fitness programme. If you’ve got any questions – pop it in our Facebook group or join one of my weekly Q&A’s.