Want to look great in your favorite outfits, feel strong and confident, and stay that way for the rest of your life? Enter weight training. Done the right way, it’s the proverbial magic bullet—well, almost. It takes a bit of effort, but likely a lot less than you think, and the rewards are worth it.
Healthy muscles hold the key. They naturally grow and get stronger until about age 30, then gradually start to disappear (“atrophy” is the medical term) at the rate of around 3–5 percent per decade among inactive people. Although this holds true for men as well, women, being genetically less muscular to begin with, face a bigger risk.
Health Risks of Muscle Loss
Loss of muscle leads to sags, curves in the wrong places, a slowed metabolism, and fat gain, and increases risks for osteoporosis, diabetes, and frailty—the stereotypical little old lady who shuffles along at a snail’s pace. While she might be a funny character in a comedy skit, in real life, she’s headed for a nursing home.
Weight-loss diets pose extra risks, as without weight training, up to half the weight lost may be muscle. This, in turn, slows down metabolic rate and contributes to regain of fat (but not muscle).
The good news is, weight training at any time of life will reverse at least some age-related muscle loss, increase lean muscle tissue, and improve confidence and appearance. Studies of women in their 90s show dramatic improvements in strength and ability to function independently in just a few weeks.
A Common Myth
“Women tend to fear bulking up,” says fitness trainer Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, author of Strong & Sculpted and a leading expert on muscle-building science. But it’s a myth that weight training will build big muscles. “Women just generally don’t have the capacity to bulk up because they lack sufficient testosterone,” says Schoenfeld. Compared to men, women have about one-tenth the testosterone, the key hormone that promotes muscle growth.Working out with very light weights does not produce results. Schoenfeld calls this a “pink dumbbell mentality.” To preserve and/or build some healthy (not bulky) muscle, a woman needs to challenge muscles with progressively heavier weights.
A study of 1,132 women and men ages 21 to 80 found that two or three weight-training workouts per week, each lasting about 25 minutes, plus cardio exercise, produced significant results. Using Nautilus machines, found in most gyms, for 8 weeks, women lost an average of 3.4 pounds of fat, gained 1.7 pounds of muscle, and lowered blood pressure. All had similar improvements in body composition.
Although those numbers may not sound huge, keep in mind that muscle occupies less space than fat, adds strength, and improves metabolism, so the scale doesn’t tell the whole story. Clothes will fit better, and overall body shape, size, and proportions will noticeably improve.
These are the most important things to do:
- Exercise every major muscle group—easiest to do in a gym with machines.
- Start with a weight that allows you to do only eight repetitions (this will vary among women).
- Take about 2 seconds to lift, push, or pull, and 4 seconds in the other direction.
- When you can do 12 repetitions, increase the weight by about 5 percent.
- Weight train on non-consecutive days, giving muscles at least a day to recover between workouts.
Schoenfeld has found that varying reps and weight is an effective way for women to build muscle. Work all the major muscle groups, he says, but break it up into three workouts per week with a weight you can lift:
- Workout one: 3–5 reps
- Workout two: 8–12 reps
- Workout three: 15–20 reps
“It’s never too late to start,” he says. “And the more you’re able to challenge your muscles, the greater the benefits.”
Compared to men, women are twice as likely to become frail later in life.
15 Reasons to Weight Train
Studies show that the benefits of effective weight training include:
- A stronger body
- Less body fat
- More lean muscle
- Stronger bones
- Increased metabolic rate
- Improved ability to turn sugar and carbohydrates into energy
- More efficient digestion of food
- Lower blood pressure
- Healthier cholesterol levels
- Less risk of low back pain, diabetes, and arthritis
- Better odds of maintaining weight loss
- For anyone with arthritis, less pain
- A better mood
- More confidence
- Improved athletic ability