Strength training is hands down one of the most effective ways to set women who are over 40 up for a long and happy life. Unfortunately, many women back off from serious workouts as they get older.
Although both men and women alike fall prey to ineffective workouts, women are uniquely impacted due to gender differences in physiology and metabolism.
Differences In Women Vs. Men
Due to their hormone makeup, younger women are protected from some of the metabolic problems that affect men. But as hormones change in middle age, women are more likely to develop insulin resistance and gain fat in the belly area. They also become more susceptible to the debilitating effects of stress and high cortisol.
And while both men and women experience similar loss of muscle after age 40, women often have less muscle to start with, putting them at increased risk of health problems. Women are also at greater risk of bone loss that leads to osteoporosis in later years.
Good News For Women Who Strength Train
The good news is that when women do strength training with the most effective parameters they can largely avoid these negative changes over age 40. Several recent studies illustrate the specific methods that can help optimize body composition and preserve strength.
The first consideration when designing workouts is figuring how much weight to lift. Known as training load or “intensity,” the amount you lift during training should be determined as a percentage of the maximum amount you can lift one time.
Many variables go into developing a training program, but generally, lifting heavier weights yields better training results. Heavier weights are associated with greater increases in strength, while more moderate loads will lead to more muscular and body composition changes. Typically, loads of 80 percent or more, which correlate to a weight you can lift 8 times before reaching failure, are used to build strength, whereas loads in the 65 to 80 percent range (8 to 15 reps before reaching failure) are aimed at building muscle.
The startling news is that, without guidance from a coach, women typically self-select training loads that are well below the 60 percent number that is necessary to elicit changes in strength and body composition.
How can you avoid this pitfall?
One proven option is to use rep ranges and let the reps dictate your load. For example, if you are training in the 10 to 12 rep range, you should use a weight that will allow you to do a minimum of 10 reps without cheating but not more than 12. If you can do 13 or more reps, you need to add more weight. Other typical rep ranges with corresponding goals are as follows:
|Body Composition/Muscle Growth
Training volume refers to the total workload of a training session, usually with regard to the number of sets and reps. Up to a point, a greater volume leads to greater increases in strength and muscle. For example, in a study of women over age 40, those who trained a higher volume of 3 sets lost more body fat than a group that trained 1 set per exercise. The high volume group also had greater improvements in health markers including triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, glucose levels, belly fat, and inflammation.
When programming volume, you need to consider the reps, sets, and frequency of training. As a general rule, 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps is a good place to start when embarking on a strength training program. As you progress, bumping up your sets into the 4 to 6 set range can ensure you keep getting better.
Of course, how often you train also impacts volume and has been shown to be a primary factor in the body composition benefits older women experience from training. A survey of women over 40 found that the more days women devoted to strength training, the lower their body fat tended to be. For each additional day of strength training per week, body fat averaged 1.32 percent lower. Fat-free muscle mass was also closely correlated with frequency. For each additional training day, muscle mass was an average of 1.45 pounds higher.
A frequency of 3 to 4 days a week appears to be the sweet spot for optimizing body composition: In the study, women who trained 3 to 4 days a week had an average of 4.3 to 5.8 pounds more fat-free muscle mass and 3.9 to 5.2 percent lower body fat compared to those who did not lift regularly.
A common mistake made by women of all ages is the belief that longer is better when it comes to working out. In fact, short and sweet workouts often lead to better results while minimizing the cortisol spike you get from training. By applying focus and effort, you can get a good workout done in 45 to 60 minutes including warm-up and cool-down.
Longer workouts lead to a drop in training intensity. Simply, you aren’t able to perform quality work for more than an hour and you end up wasting your time. Here’s proof: In one survey, the women who report that they train “very hard” had an average of 3.7 pounds more fat-free muscle mass and 3.6 percent lower body fat than women who report that they train “very easy.” Clearly, the more high-quality work women give to strength training, the better their body composition tends to be.
An important area that women differ from men is in terms of the amount of recovery they require between sets. For novice women who are embarking on a fitness program for the first time, longer recovery is often necessary to allow the body to adapt to the stress of training. However, once women gain training experience and develop baseline strength, research suggests women can get by on less rest than men.
Where men may need 2 to 3 minutes rest between sets, women can often thrive on half that. Women also tend to do well with circuits that alternate exercises targeting different parts of the body. For example, you can pair an upper body exercise and a lower body exercise with the only rest being the time it takes to transition between sets.
Strength training is one of the most effective forms of physical activity for women over 40 to reduce body fat and optimize body composition.
Women over 40 don’t need to back off from training—in fact, they will get better results from ramping up their efforts with high-quality workouts.
The ideal program will be individual but most women will benefit from lifting weights 3 to 4 days a week for 45 minutes to an hour.
Use rep ranges to gauge training loads. Weights should be light enough so that you can complete the minimum reps without cheating, but heavy enough so that you are not able to easily do more than the maximum number.
Volume is important for producing body composition results, especially as you gain training experience. A general rule is to train a minimum of 3 sets per exercise and work up to 4 to 6 sets.
Individualize your rest periods. Women who are new to training often require rest of 2 to 3 minutes. Once you develop general fitness, you can often shrink their rest periods to below 60 seconds, especially if you train circuits.
Quality is important when it comes to getting results. Studies consistently show that women who come into the gym with focus and a plan work harder and get more done.