If you’re a woman age 40 or older, you may be looking for ways to either keep your muscles strong or make them even stronger. Maybe you’ve tried a few things, but you’re not seeing the results you hoped for. Alternatively, maybe you’re just starting, and you’d like to see fast results.
Many women are looking into strength training these days, both for the health benefits and for the body-sculpting effects. Here’s why, and how you can best build up your muscles so that you feel more confident and healthier.
Scientists now know that as we age, we tend to lose muscle mass. Starting around the age of 30, we lose about three to 5 percent per decade, adding up to about 30 percent during a lifetime.
There are several factors involved that affect muscle loss, including diet, illness, inflammation, hormone changes, nerve changes and more. The largest factor, however, seems to be inactivity or a reduction in activity levels, and that’s one factor we can change.
Losing muscle creates weakness and mobility problems, which can increase the risk of falls and fractures. Maintaining or building muscle, on the other hand, has a number of benefits, including the following:
- Slows bone loss, and may help build bone —particularly beneficial for women, who have smaller, thinner bones than men
- Helps you feel stronger and more capable
- May help lower or at least control blood sugar levels
- Has more body-sculpting effects than aerobic exercise
- Helps increase metabolism
- May help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Can help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease
- Helps with weight maintenance
In addition to all these benefits, getting strong can help women experience other, more unexpected benefits. In one study, for example, researchers found that weight training was just as effective as yoga when it came to improving mental health and well-being. Women tend to notice the results faster than they do with aerobic exercise too, which can help improve body image and boost confidence.
In fact, it’s interesting to see how many mental and emotional benefits come with building muscles. In a 2015 study, researchers found that resistance training reduced symptoms of depression, improved body image and boosted self-esteem.
Getting strong can even improve your thinking power. In general, exercise can help keep your brain healthy and reduce your risk of dementia. However, getting stronger, in particular, may also boost cognitive function. Researchers found in one experiment that after 12 weeks of strength training, participants performed better on cognitive tests than they did before the training started.
Finally, focusing on building muscle can help women shift their perspective away from watching the numbers on the scale to creating healthy changes in their lives. When you start to feel stronger and more capable, and you begin to see the changes in the mirror, it can be incredibly motivating and could be the activity you need to create an overall healthier lifestyle.
The Best Way for Women Age 40 and Older to Build Muscle
Let’s assume you’re sold on building muscle. The question becomes, “what is the best way to do it?” Below are the five main guidelines you need to follow. The important thing to remember is always to listen to your body, and make sure you’re using the correct form to protect yourself from injury. Get help from a personal trainer as needed.
1. Do Exercises That Use Multiple Muscles at the Same Time
Compound exercises are considered superior to isolation exercises for building muscle and strength:
- Compound exercises: These are exercises that involve multiple muscle groups and joints at the same time; examples include the deadlift, bench press, overhead press and squat
- Isolation exercises: These are exercises that involve only one muscle group and joint; even if they involve more than that, they don’t stimulate the others strongly enough to create muscle growth; examples include leg curls, bicep curls, and quadriceps extension
For those trying to get the most out of their strength-building program, compound exercises are usually preferred because of the following reasons:
- They give you a full body workout in less time
- They allow you to lift heavier loads so that you can build more strength
- They burn more calories and improve joint stability
Even if you’re starting with these types of exercises, they can still be effective for with lighter weights. So, instead of doing a single-arm exercise, use the barbell in an overhead press with a lighter weight if necessary to more quickly build strength. Good examples of compound exercises known to give you fast results include the following:
- Barbell squat
- Barbell deadlift
- Dumbbell Lunges
- Barbell bench press
- Wide-grip lat pull-downs
- Dumbbell shoulder press
- Abdominal bicycle
Options that don’t use weights include:
- One-leg squat-and-reach
- Jumping rope
If you’re starting, make sure you get some assistance with these exercises to avoid injury. You may also want to use resistance bands rather than weights. Some good compound resistance-band strength-building exercises include:
- Squats: While in a squat, hold a resistance band in both hands with arms straight out at chest level. Pulse the legs by bending and straightening the knees about two inches up and down. As you pulse up and down, draw the band up overhead and then back down to chest level.
- Overhead shoulder press: Stand with one foot in front of the other, and then bend both knees so that you’re standing in a lunge position. Hold the resistance band in front of you, arms straight, and then draw it overhead. Bend the legs, and then pull the arms down as when doing a shoulder press as you lunge. Repeat, syncing both movements together — draw the arms down and bend the knees at the same time. When you’re done, switch to the other leg.
- Abdominal curl: Sit on a mat and hold the resistance band at chest-level, arms straight. Curl the body down, then back up about an inch, and then down an inch, and so forth, keeping the arms extended as you hold the band. To work the obliques, squeeze the band outward as you curl.
It’s always best to start with small weights so that you don’t hurt yourself. However, if you want to build muscle, you need to increase the weight gradually. Sometimes, women worry that if they lift heavier weights, they will “bulk up” and look more masculine, but this is usually an unnecessary worry. You’d have to lift much more often than two to three days a week and eat extra calories to bulk up.
Although lifting lighter weights while increasing your number of repetitions can build your endurance, it’s not as efficient at building muscle. The key to getting stronger is to work with heavier weights and fewer repetitions. So, if you notice that you can do 10 to 12 repetitions on any particular exercise, which means it’s time to step up the weight.
Heavier weights encourage the body to release growth hormone and other hormones that help build lean muscle while burning more fat. Lifting heavier weights also helps the body to be more efficient at using sugars and carbohydrates for fuel.
Do listen to your body as you go. If you start to notice pain, back off for a few days, then gradually increase again. It’s always best to go lighter than to experience an injury. Another option: lift that lightweight more slowly. Slow lifting challenges the muscle more and can help you keep building even with less weight.
3. Eat the Right Number of Calories and Protein
Women often incorporate strength training into their exercise routines with the goal of losing weight. That means they may be slashing calories at the same time. That’s not a good idea, however, when you want to build muscle. If you keep burning more calories than you’re taking in, you’re stopping your body from building muscle as there isn’t the energy there to do so.
When you cut back on calories, the body prioritizes its use of energy, and muscle building is way down on the list. If you put yourself into a calorie deficit, your body may have to resort to muscle breakdown for the energy it needs.
Keep in mind that the more strength training you do, the more you need to support that training with calories and muscle-building protein. When the body has the energy it needs, it not only helps you build muscle but also improves your performance during your workouts and helps you recover more quickly.
To build muscle and stay lean at the same time, make sure you’re eating a healthy diet that includes plenty of protein, and then swap your regular cardio for some high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
The best approach for health is to combine cardio with strength-training exercises, but the two can be at odds with one another. Whenever you perform cardio, you slow down your muscle-building process somewhat, depending on how much cardio you’re doing and how intense it is.
You can get around this by swapping out some of your cardio for HIIT. This is a form of cardio exercise that involves short bursts of super-hard work, followed by periods of lower intensity. During those short bursts, you have to push yourself as hard as you can go, which is why these bursts typically last only 20 to 90 seconds.
Research has shown that working your hardest is best when it comes to losing body fat and increasing metabolism. In fact, in one study, researchers found that HIIT three times a week for 15 weeks was more effective at reducing total body fat than regular cardio exercise. HIIT exercises that involve bodywork or added weights can also help you burn fat while toning your muscles too.
HIIT also creates an environment in your body that is similar to what a strength-training session creates. The intensity of the workout helps to encourage muscle growth, which is the opposite of what endurance exercises do. Finally, HIIT revs up the metabolism more than regular cardio, which helps you avoid putting on weight.
Rest is a key component in any sort of exercise routine, but when it comes to building strength, it may be even more important. The main reason is that your body needs time to build muscle tissue. If you challenge those muscles again too quickly, you won’t get the results you want.
That means you need adequate rest between workouts and adequate sleep. Let’s look at what happens when you don’t get enough of one or the other:
- Inadequate rest between workouts: If you hit the squats and bench presses hard one day and then go back the next day and try to hit it hard again, you’re not only going to feel tired, but you’re also going to slow your muscle-building process. Challenging the muscles helps you get stronger, but over challenging them creates too much stress, and increases your risk of injury, which can sideline you completely. Make sure your program allows one day of rest between workouts.
- Inadequate sleep: While you sleep, your body carries out most of its repair activities. If you don’t get enough sleep, not only does the body not get enough time to repair those stressed muscles, but it also increases levels of certain hormones that destroy muscle tissue while reducing levels of hormones you need to build muscle tissue. If you’re not regularly getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night, it will be near impossible to build muscle. Instead, a lack of sleep encourages muscle loss and fat gain.
In summary, to gain muscle, always listen to your body, watch your form, avoid injury and follow these five guidelines:
- Do more compound exercises.
- Lift heavier weights (gradually).
- Get enough calories and protein.
- Add in some high-intensity interval training.
- Rest between workouts, and get seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
Goldfield, G. S., Kenny, G. P., Alberga, A. A., Hadjiyannakis, S., Phillips, P., Tulloch, H., … Sigal, R. J. (2015). Effects of Aerobic Training, Resistance Training or Both on Health-Related Quality of Life in Adolescents with Obesity: The HEARTY Trial. Canadian Journal of Diabetes, 39, S18. doi:10.1016/j.jcjd.2015.01.080
Harvard Health Publishing. (2016, March 18). Preserve your muscle mass – Harvard Health. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/preserve-your-muscle-mass
Iuliano, E., Di Cagno, A., Aquino, G., Fiorilli, G., Mignogna, P., Calcagno, G., & Di Costanzo, A. (2015). Effects of different types of physical activity on the cognitive functions and attention in older people: A randomized controlled study. Experimental Gerontology, 70, 105-110. doi:10.1016/j.exger.2015.07.008
Oaklander, M. (2017, July 6). How Strength Training Changes Your Body for Good. Retrieved from http://time.com/4824531/strength-training-women-exercise/
Richards, S. E. (2018, February 9). Strength training is good for your body and your mind. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/7-benefits-strength-training-go-way-beyond-building-muscle-ncna845936
Taspinar, B., Aslan, U. B., Agbuga, B., & Taspinar, F. (2014). A comparison of the effects of hatha yoga and resistance exercise on mental health and well-being in sedentary adults: A pilot study. Complementary
Therapies in Medicine, 22(3), 433-440. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2014.03.007
Trapp, E. G., Chisholm, D. J., Freund, J., & Boutcher, S. H. (2008). The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. International Journal of Obesity, 32(4), 684-691. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803781