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Strength Training for Women in Midlife May Be Easier Than You Think

Updated: Mar 27

If you're like me, you haven't been doing any kind of weight lifting (aka, strength training) because you thought it might be too complicated or strenuous, or you just haven't had time to figure out what to do and how to do it.

Even though I finally DID start a strength training program this year, I was unclear on how much weight to lift, how many repetitions (reps) I should do, whether I should use machines or free weights, etc, etc, etc.

But thanks to some pretty cool recent studies, I now know that it doesn't matter if I lift heavy or light weights, if I use free weights or machines, or if I count the reps or just stop when I can't lift anymore.

In one of theses studies, middle-aged men and women who started lifting light weights were able to achieve comparable gains in strength and muscle mass to those who used much heavier weights. This finding challenges the prevailing belief that only heavy weights can be truly effective.

Furthermore, the largest meta-analytical review to date involving resistance training reinforces the notion that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Regardless of age or gender, every version of resistance training, whether involving heavy or light weights, frequent or infrequent sessions and sets, led to significant improvements in muscular strength and mass. Now that's good news!

Another new study found that both machine-based training and free weights were equally effective in increasing muscle "hypertrophy" and strength. There's been a long-held belief amongst weight lifters that free weights were superb to machine-based training and that's simply not true.

Basically, any form of resistance training will do the trick: strengthen your muscles, which is what we ultimately want to achieve. Being stronger means that we can do the physical activities that we enjoy, such as gardening, playing tennis, picking up grandchildren, etc.

Being stronger can also help prevent heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. A review of studies published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2022 found that strength training is associated with a 10 - 17% lower risk of premature death from all causes, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. That's pretty impressive!

Lastly, being stronger also helps to prevent falls (which keeps us out of the hospital) and helps us maintain our independence for as long as possible. Unfortunately, despite the remarkable benefits of strength training, fewer than 15 % of older adults (≥65 years) participate in muscle-strengthening activities in the US. That's probably because many people believe that they have to lift heavy weights and/or have to spend hours in the gym to be strong which is simply not true.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

  1. Start slow and easy. Try lifting some light weights 1-2 times per week. You can join group classes or consult with trainers at your local gym to develop a full-body program suited to your needs.

  2. Choose your preferred approach: Whether you prefer lifting heavy weights or lighter ones, both can yield positive results. You can opt for the traditional approach with heavier weights or choose lighter weights for longer sessions, depending on your preferences and any physical limitations you may have.

  3. Do it at home or at a gym: Weight training can be done at home with light dumbbells or resistance bands. This can be an excellent option for those who prefer the convenience and privacy of exercising in their own space.

  4. Aim for "volitional failure": Strive to reach a point during each exercise where the effort feels like a 7 or 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. This level of intensity prompts your muscles to adapt and strengthen.

  5. Embrace the benefits: Weight training not only helps you build muscle but also aids in preventing muscle loss, which tends to occur naturally with aging. Engaging in regular resistance training can have significant long-term benefits for women in midlife.

Don't worry about looking like a bodybuilder. The goal of strength training for women in midlife is to improve overall strength, maintain muscle mass, and promote a healthy and active lifestyle. This is why I created Women in Motion, a three-month group program that combines nutrition with fitness and strength training (without dieting!). Check it out here.

By choosing an approach that suits you best, you can reap the rewards of weight training and enjoy a stronger and more resilient body as you age AND be able to do all the thing you love to do.

Looking for a group program to help you get stronger and healthier? Look no further! Check out Women in Motion, the program I developed at Colorado State University specifically for women who want to be strong, lean, and healthy. It's available in person and online!


Currier BS, Mcleod JC, Banfield L, et al

Resistance training prescription for muscle strength and hypertrophy in healthy adults: a systematic review and Bayesian network meta-analysis

British Journal of Sports Medicine Published Online First: 06 July 2023. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2023-106807

Anoop T. Balachandran a, Yipeng Wang b, Frank Szabo a, Catharyn Watts-Battey a, Brad J. Schoenfeld c, Zachary Zenko d, Norberto Quiles

Comparison of traditional vs. lighter load strength training on fat-free mass, strength, power and affective responses in middle and older-aged adults: A pilot randomized trial

Experimental Gerontology Volume 178, July 2023, 112219

Currier BS, Mcleod JC, Banfield L, et al

Resistance training prescription for muscle strength and hypertrophy in healthy adults: a systematic review and Bayesian network meta-analysis

British Journal of Sports Medicine Published Online First: 06 July 2023. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2023-106807

Hernández-Belmonte, Alejandro; Martínez-Cava, Alejandro; Buendía-Romero, Ángel; Franco-López, Francisco; Pallarés, Jesús G. Free-Weight and Machine-Based Training Are Equally Effective on Strength and Hypertrophy: Challenging a Traditional Myth

10.1249/MSS.0000000000003271, August 2, 2023. | DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000003271


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