An AI-generated image of a 60-year-old woman lifting a heavy barbell
Women Need Resistance Training: Here Are Some Easy Ways to Get It

Until my 50s – and even at the beginning of my health journey – I wasn’t even thinking about resistance training. Why not?

  • I’d never been introduced to weightlifting or similar forms of training when growing up or learned about their importance. I thought of resistance training as something for men who wanted to look more muscular.
  • I wasn’t athletic as a child and had unfortunate experiences being shamed in gym class, so I had a negative association with organized sports, gyms and fitness activities (although I always enjoyed hiking, paddling, swimming and riding my bike).

But when I finally did, it was a revelation. Wow! I felt better after resistance training than any other form of exercise. And I soon noticed that I was getting stronger and could do everyday things with more ease and less pain, from holding up my arms to wash windows, to pulling weeds, to carrying boxes or furniture.

By now we’ve all heard in the media about the benefits of challenging our muscles: strength training, weightlifting, power training or most broadly, resistance training.

Among other things, resistance training can help us with so many things we all want. If it were a drug we would all be on it!

  • Strength, confidence and energy
  • Positive mood and long-term brain health
  • Less achiness and more ease in our daily activities
  • Lowered inflammation, better blood sugar control, heart health and more
  • Protecting our bone density
  • Balance and core strength/stability
  • Burning more calories and reducing abdominal fat
  • Fewer aches and pains, even reducing back pain and symptoms of arthritis
  • A longer, healthier and more active life!

Muscle has been called “the organ of longevity,” and keeping it strong is one of the best retirement investments we can make.

And the recommended dose is just 30 minutes twice a week!

So why are so few of us, and especially women, getting our weekly dose? Only 17.5% of women of any age in the U.S. do. I get it, because I spent decades not doing it or even thinking about it. But I’ve found that it’s easier and more beneficial than I ever imagined. Here’s what I’ve found and am excited to share with you.

Women are built for strength and especially muscular endurance.

Just the word “muscle” still brings up an image of men in my mind. But of course women’s muscles allow us to do every single thing we do in the world. And besides whatever work or sports activities we may have, we lift weights all the time: Amazon boxes, furniture, babies, toddlers, bags of groceries, sacks of kitty litter or dog food, carry-ons that need to go into the overhead compartment. You could carry a person your own size out of a burning building if you needed to. You know you could!

Sure, men on average are stronger than women. But women seem to have an edge in endurance: the longer the sports event, the less difference is seen between males and females. And when we train our muscles, we make the same proportionate gains that men do. And wonderful news: this is true for people at ANY age throughout the lifespan.

The author holding a barbell overhead and wearing a shirt that says Will Lift for Tacos
Me in Mexico, thank you Ashley for the fun shirt!!

Let’s get toned, not bulky.

Fortunately, we are extremely unlikely to grow muscles that bulge in unwanted ways. Even female bodybuilders (and even many men) who would like to grow large muscles find it very difficult. The typical and pleasing result of resistance training for women is a lean and toned look.  When I first lost weight, my butt deflated ? and I felt like I had “stick arms” (but still with some saggy stuff underneath, I that’s impossible to fully eradicate ?) and bony shoulders. Now ten years later, at 63, I have nicely rounded glutes and toned arms and shoulders (never mind the wrinkles and age spots, they are fine!).

My hero Ernestine Shepherd shows the “extreme” of a female bodybuilder who started training for the first time at age 56. That’s about as muscular as a woman our age can get. And I want to look like her when I’m 87! ?

Anyway, if you ever feel like you’re adding too much muscle, all you have to do is back off the training and it will quickly shrink again. Muscle is “expensive” for the body to maintain and burns a lot of calories (a side bonus if we want to reduce fat).

Use “overload” to get stronger fast!

Resistance training is anything that challenges our muscles beyond the ways they are challenged in our everyday life. What’s wrong with just doing our everyday activities? Well, over time we will tend to get weaker and less able to do those same things. You’ve probably noticed that picking up heavy jugs of detergent, or getting up quickly out of a chair, has gotten harder over the years. It’s natural to think that is “just aging” and assume there’s nothing we can do about it.

But with the principle of overload, we can turn that around. Basically, we challenge our muscles, for instance with heavier jugs of detergent and faster chair get-ups than usual, and our bodies respond by increasing our baseline ability. The body isn’t like a car that breaks down over time – it has the awe-inspiring ability to adapt to the demands we place on it, getting stronger, or faster, or better coordinated (yes, like me eventually in Zumba class). This happens even for people who are already frail and in nursing homes.

Of course we don’t want to risk injury by picking up jugs that are 10 times as heavy as usual. If we increase our overload gradually, our strength will increase gradually and safely. We actually have a GREATER risk of injuring ourselves in the long run (with frailty, falls, broken bones, etc.) if we DON’T challenge our muscles.

Here are five principles that I hope will make it easy for you to get started with resistance training and feel the benefits!

Cartoon woman with Fierceafter45 logo doing water aerobics with foam dumbbells
Of course the foam dumbbells create resistance when pushed UNDER the water 🙂

Principle #1: It doesn’t have to be in the gym.

And it doesn’t have to be hunks of metal.

Resistance training can be, for example:

  • Using resistance bands in simple routines at home which you can easily find online. The bands are inexpensive and can be anchored to a door or a post in your basement, or used freestyle.
  • Using weights and/or bands in a recorded or live virtual class at home. I can recommend several great colleagues with live online classes at different levels; email me at patricia@fierceafter45.com for ideas depending on your needs!
  • Joining a Bodypump class, which was my own first entry into resistance training. I found it very beginner-friendly, with motivating music and the invitation to go through the moves with just the bar alone for practice at first. Both men and women of a wide range of ages and abilities can join this class, since everyone decides how much weight to add to the bar. The only downside is that instructors can’t always check our form in a large class, so I’d advise getting a brief one-on-one check from a trainer, instructor or physical therapist to be sure you’re doing the moves safely and effectively.
  • Joining a specialized class like Pilates or TRX. My county rec center offers classes which are quite affordable and very friendly to people of any age or level.
  • Doing yoga, which counts as resistance training because it places overload on the upper body and core.
  • Using weight machines in a friendly, accessible location. My county rec center is a great example: they offer free orientations to the machines, and adults of all ages, sizes and ability levels are represented in the weight room.
  • Using foam dumbbells in the water in a class or on your own (bonus, no sweating!)
  • Doing wall push-ups, planks, crawling, and similar simple moves that challenge our upper body and core.
  • Just lifting, pushing and pulling heavier things on purpose! If you want to design a plan to use at home, I’d love to help. Reach out to me at patricia@fierceafter45.com or make a Zoom appointment with me here!
Four women outdoors looking strong, raising fists or holding a resistance band
My “Fierce in the Forest” group works with bands outdoors!

Principle #2   Improve your form and posture for a wide range of benefits.

When I studied to become a personal trainer, I learned the principle “straighten before strengthening.” Of course we don’t want our clients raising heavy barbells over their heads with hunched shoulders and overly curved backs. So we learned to spend the first six weeks or so with light weights, focusing on form and correcting posture.

What??? I thought. We can improve somebody’s posture in just six weeks? Why doesn’t everyone know about this?? I had previously assumed that my middle-aged posture was just part of who I was and something I had to live with.

In my training, I learned that postural imbalances (except for spinal conditions like scoliosis and fused disks) generally just mean that “something is tight” (like the chest muscles) and “something is weak” (like the mid-back muscles). Stretching, massage and self-massage, even just with a tennis ball, can work on the tightness, while we focus our training on the weak areas and gradually build them up.

This simple method has transformed my posture over the past ten years, and I’m not on my way to chronic back pain or a hump in my upper back like I used to be, phew!

As you start your own resistance training, it’s great to consult with a physical therapist, chiropractor or personal trainer (like me!) for a quick assessment of “what is tight and what is weak” (there are common patterns, but we’re all a bit different). Then the professional can recommend simple self-massage techniques and stretches, as well as exercises that specifically target your weak areas. You’ll feel the benefits not only in your strength training but in the rest of your life.

If this isn’t possible for you right now, I’d recommend starting your resistance training with weight machines, a Pilates class or a yoga class where the teacher offers corrections; these will all encourage you into a favorable position. Or you can start with resistance bands or water exercise, which can be more forgiving of postural imbalances.

Principle #3  It doesn’t take much! Try a few minutes at a time!

As mentioned, the suggested dose of resistance exercise is “30 minutes, twice a week, for all major muscle groups.”

I know that can be hard to fit into your week, and the idea of 30 minutes straight of this kind of work can be daunting. For myself, even with the great feelings I get from resistance training AND all the long-term benefits, I still need to be intentional and make sure I get in my training and don’t skip it. (Silly human!)

Fortunately, there’s nothing magical about the duration of 30 minutes. An hour a week is also 10 minutes, six days a week. Or even “exercise snacks” of five minutes twice a day, six days a week!

Of course, we shouldn’t just stand up creakily from a long period of sitting and start challenging our muscles immediately. It’s important to warm up the body and move our joints first – but we can do that by taking a walk (even inside the house), which we should be doing every day anyway. And afterward we should stretch, but that’s also something we should be doing every day and will bring us more ease and less pain in our everyday life.

What do they mean by “all major muscle groups”? We need to challenge our arms, back, chest, core, glutes and legs. It’s most efficient to include “compound” exercises that challenge several of these areas at once. For instance lifting a carry-on into the overhead compartment works all of them!

Or we can work on legs/glutes/back one day and arms/chest another day, and let them rest in between. That’s especially good when we’re ready to train hard enough to get sore (in a good way) afterward.

If you use Instagram, check out my great colleague Jim Brown for some inspiration on quick “exercise snacks” and stretches.

And if you need some help getting started adding little strength exercises to your day, I’d love to help. Book a call with me and I’ll bet we can create a starting plan right in the call and you won’t even need to hire me. You’re welcome!

Image of the author's feet with ankle weights and the caption "How can you get a little stronger today"?

Principle #4  Eat plenty of healthy protein.

Official health guidelines say that protein should make up between 10% and 35% of our calories. That’s a wide range! And there’s increasing evidence that as we age, and as we try to conserve and increase our muscle capacity, going toward that higher end can benefit us.

Protein is essential for repairing and rebuilding our bodies – it’s more like replacement car parts than fuel. And as a side benefit, research indicates it’s more filling per calorie than carbohydrates or fats, so getting plenty of protein helps keep us comfortably full and can reduce those pesky evening cravings (I keep track of my protein grams each day and can definitely tell the difference in my evening urges when I hit my target or not!).

Fortunately, there are ways to get plenty of protein without piling our plates with processed and factory-farmed meats. I wrote a blog post about the importance of protein here, and another one about 12 easy high-protein foods here! You can also print out my handy guide here with a protein calculator and lots more ideas for adding healthy lean protein to your meals.

Tasty plant-based protein sources

Principle #5  Remember progressive overload and feel the transformation!

Doing something more challenging than we usually do tells our body that we need to get stronger, and it miraculously pays attention and responds!

We can create overload by:

  • Lifting something heavier than we usually would, or creating resistance for our muscles with elastic bands.
  • Doing something with more repetitions than we usually would (like squatting three times instead of just getting out of a chair once).
  • Doing something faster than we usually would, like standing up quickly out of a chair, especially with a weight in our arms. Power includes speed as well as strength, and it declines more rapidly with age than strength alone, so it’s great to include power training in our plan.

Faced with a four-lane intersection, you may have enough strength to walk across the street. But it’s power, not just strength, that can get you across all four lanes of traffic before the light changes. Likewise, power can prevent falls by helping you react swiftly if you start to trip or lose your balance

Physiopedia

Of course, we can go too far with our overload and stress our bodies. It’s best to gradually increase it, and not forget to rest at least one day a week.

Unfortunately in gyms, for beginners the next step up on a weight machine or a dumbbell rack might be from 5 pounds to 10, which means doubling our load! I think this is discriminatory, since there are plenty of gradations for people at the higher levels! Look for a dial on a machine or fractional weights for in-between adjustments. And of course resistance bands don’t have this problem, because you can simply adjust the length or pull/push harder as needed.

A simple method for progressive overload is to do 8-10 repetitions of an exercise and work your way up to 15 as it feels easier. Once you reach 15, increase the load and go back to 8-10 repetitions at the new level.

My neck is tilted too far backward 🙂 Hi Viviana!

There are so many ways to convince our bodies to get more powerful and capable. I hope some of the ways I’ve mentioned here have given you ideas on how to start or expand your resistance training and live a healthier, less achy,  more active and perhaps even longer life!

If all this information leaves you still wondering what to do next, I’m here for you! We can have a Zoom call (book it here!) and figure out the best way for you to get started right in the free preliminary call. Then if you want, you can hire me to create an affordable custom workout plan, and maybe to keep you on track with weekly check-ins. Or I can refer you to a terrific colleague for virtual training or workouts at your level.

Whether you hire me or not, I’m very excited to see that 17.5% expand, so that more women (including me now finally, starting in my mid-50s) are getting their 1-hour weekly dose of resistance training and preparing themselves for a longer, healthier, more active lives!

Thank you for reading this, and I hope you’ll join my twice-monthly “Jetpack” email newsletter if you’re not already on the list. In it I share my activities and offerings, many of them free, and other ways for us all to stay “Fierce after 45.” Sign up here, thank you!

Finally, in case it’s helpful, below is some extra info about possible pain and soreness as we begin resistance training. We can definitely get the gains without pain, but it’s good to be prepared and know what to do, if you’re just starting out. Basically I’m talking to me, ten years ago, and sharing what I wish I’d known! Happy and safe training!

What about pain and soreness?

As I’m sure you’ve experienced, we might feel an aching or burning sensation in specific muscles during exercise which eases when we stop the activity. It’s natural and not harmful – it comes from our metabolism and is a sign we are working hard. I think most of us start seeing it as a positive kind of pain, like chili peppers on our tongues.? Like with hot peppers, you get to decide how much you want to tolerate. You should always feel free to take breaks and let the ache settle down, and never push through pain that feels truly extreme. And after the workout, it’s great to stretch and massage any muscles that experienced soreness.

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is another common and natural effect, which may surprise us the next day after a challenging workout. It’s a signal to rest those muscles (not the rest of the body – in fact it’s good to keep moving and keep our blood and fluids circulating). Often it’s just a low-level achiness we can feel proud of, since it shows we worked effectively. But if we add too much overload too quickly, it can be temporarily debilitating; I’ve sometimes had trouble getting up off the commode the day after doing lots of weighted squats ? and that tells me I went too far (though I recovered without problems in a few days). To deal with DOMS pain, we can take a bath with Epsom salts, do activities with gentle pain-free movement, try stretching and massage, and take an occasional over-the-counter pain reliever.

And what about joint pain or back pain?

Joint pain is a whole different matter from muscle pain. Some muscle pain is part of the process of healing and growth, but joint pain is a signal that we are overstressing that joint and need to protect it.

Consult a physical therapist, chiropractor or other professional if the pain keeps happening with relatively normal activities. Learn and practice good form, with the help of a personal trainer or other professional. Sometimes we’re twisting the knee or stressing the shoulder or elbow by moving in a non-optimal way.
Consider using aids like knee braces, but just temporarily – supporting the joint too much can get in the way of building the strength of the muscles around it that protect it.

And “work the pain-free range.” As I learned from my brilliant sports chiropractor Dr. Anne Sorrentino, instead of “resting” a pain-provoking joint completely, we should continue to move it, but only within the range that doesn’t cause pain. For instance, a client recently told me that walking for an hour causes pain in her knees, but walking for ten minutes doesn’t, so she is doing that every day. Perfect! Those ten minutes of daily walking will help strengthen the muscles around the knee and lubricate and help heal the knee joint.

If you ever have pains that immobilize you or feel “weird” or “electric,” be sure to consult your medical practitioner, because you may have a pinched nerve that needs to be addressed.

Low-back pain while or after exercising is a sign that our posture and form need improvement. If we are in poor alignment and our glutes, hamstrings and mid-back are not activated the way they should be, the lower back tries to “help” and can quickly get overwhelmed since it is a smaller and weaker muscle group. “Work the pain-free range” and get advice from a physical therapist, chiropractor or personal trainer on your form. Wishing you happy and safe strengthening for life!

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