Ah, middle age and menopause – two things that, while inevitable, are not always talked about in the most positive of ways.
It’s a time when women have traditionally been told to slow down and “take it down a notch” when it comes to activity and exercise programs as if age makes us delicate flowers.
As a result, women skip the high intensity, high impact activity in favor of “gentle” options like yoga, walking, and low-impact exercise.
But that advice is not doing us any favors when it comes to improving bone density, preventing falls and injuries, or reducing our risks for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Thankfully, science is catching up and the narrative around how women should be active later in life is changing now.
Many of the kinds of training we used to think were only for younger athletes or fitness buffs, are actually incredibly beneficial for mid-life and menopausal women who don’t want to sit on the sidelines for the rest of their lives and watch their health, fitness, and body image continue to disintegrate.
The three big training styles I recommend for middle-aged and menopausal women based on recent scientific evidence are: lifting heavy, high intensity and sprinting, and power training or plyometrics.
In this blog post, we’ll break down the why and how behind incorporating power output training and plyometrics into your fitness regime.
What is power training?
Power is the ability to produce a high amount of force over a short period of time. Power training focuses on developing your ability to overcome resistance in the shortest period of time.
The element of time is what makes power training different than strength training. In strength training, you’re trying to lift heavier things over time. In power training, you’re trying to move the weight faster and more explosively over time.
Both — strength and power — are important and we lose both as we age if we don’t keep working on them in our training.
What are plyometrics?
Plyometrics is one form of power training.
When people think of plyometrics, they often immediately think of jumping on and off boxes and other intense jump training.
But plyometric exercises include a number of explosive movements, such as bouncing, hopping, skipping, jumping, and bounding that target fast-twitch muscle fibers and aim to increase your power output by increasing the amount of force your muscles can produce.
Since women generally have fewer fast-twitch, power-producing muscle fibers than men, plyometrics training can be especially beneficial for us.
And it gets even more beneficial for women as we age, because with the reduction of estrogen that occurs in menopause, women will lose muscle strength, power, and ultimately function even faster than men.
So, even though it goes against conventional wisdom, women of all ages benefit from including plyometrics in their training — and this goes doubly for women in middle age and through menopause.
The benefits of plyometrics training
Most obviously, plyometric training can improve power, speed, and agility, but there are plenty of other lesser-known but even more awesome and important benefits.
A 2019 systematic review of the recent research on plyometrics reported that in older adults aged 58 to 79, plyometrics improved:
- muscular strength
- bone health
- body composition
- postural stability
- physical performance
Even more importantly, none of the studies reported increased injuries or other adverse events from plyometric exercises among participants. This led the researchers to conclude that “Plyometric training is a feasible and safe training option with the potential for improving various performance, functional, and health-related outcomes in older persons.”
Plyometrics training is a stressor that, when applied strategically and intelligently, stimulates your bones, muscles, and connective tissues every time you push off the ground and absorb the force and impact of landing. This force generation and absorption training creates important physiological and genetic changes that are especially important for middle-aged and menopausal women.
Let’s look at these benefits individually.
Plyometrics build stronger bones
Plyometric training is a weight-bearing exercise that provides significant benefits to our bone health, which often tends to decline during the menopause transition.
Research has shown that the impact forces generated during plyometrics help improve bone mineral density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis, which is prevalent in older women.
A 2015 study found that women aged 25 to 50 who jumped just 10 to 20 times a day, twice daily, with 30 seconds of rest between each jump significantly improved bone density in their hips after 16 weeks and the non-jumpers in the study actually lost bone mineral density over the course of the study.
According to research, jumping is even more beneficial for building stronger bones than running. The reason is that running applies a mostly one-directional stress on your bones and jumping in different directions — forward and back, side to side, diagonally — applies multi-directional stress on your bones and connective tissues which creates different angles of bone-building signaling to improve bone density.
Plyometrics improve balance and coordination to reduce falls and prevent injuries
As we age, there is typically a progressive decline of our neuromuscular function which increases our risk of falls and fall-related fractures, a loss of function and performance in daily tasks, and ultimately a loss of independence.
Plyometric training may minimize and perhaps, in some cases, even reverse these changes, because it can improve coordination and balance. This not only increases your speed and agility in sports, but also improves your ability to react, change direction, and exert force quickly, which reduces your risk of falls and, ultimately, can prevent fractures and other preventable injuries.
Think about it, how many times have you gone to move quickly, sneezed, or tried to catch yourself from falling or sliding and pulled or “tweaked” something?
A big part of why that seems to happen more and more as we age is because we’ve stopped training our bodies to move quickly, so our tissues are unprepared and therefore become more prone to injury when they have to move quickly or abruptly change directions.
The rapid and explosive movements involved in plyometrics also enhance motor unit recruitment and muscle firing coordination, both of which improve your overall physical function in daily life. By incorporating plyometrics into our training routines, we can also develop better body control, proprioception, and spatial awareness.
Plyometrics also trigger changes in your genes that improve the integrity of your muscles, the strength of your muscle contractions, and their response and reaction time. All of which improve muscle function in daily life in ways that will absolutely improve your overall quality of life and help you maintain your independence for as long as possible.
Additionally, plyometric exercise strengthens your muscles as well as builds stiffness and resilience in your tendons to reduce your risk of injury and inflammation.
Plyometrics enhance blood sugar control
One of the remarkable, lesser-known benefits of plyometric exercises is their positive impact on metabolic health.
Plyometrics helps our bodies efficiently transport glucose into the cells where it can be put to use, instead of being stored away in your fat stores. This improves insulin sensitivity by allowing us to rely less on insulin to get the glucose where it needs to be.
As a result, exercise performance is enhanced, body composition improves, and reduced risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Additionally, research shows that regular plyometric exercises can stimulate muscle growth. The more muscle you have, the better your glucose control and the better your blood sugar levels.
Plyometrics increase power output and speed
Plyometric exercises are designed to improve muscle power by increasing the amount of force generated by our muscles over a short period of time.
When power improves, it enhances your athletic performance, so you can run fast, pedal powerfully, jump high, and change direction quickly.
As we get older, power is one of the first things to go — especially for women, as we lose estrogen and estrogen receptors in our muscles through menopause. So, by including plyometric exercises in our regular workouts, we can hold on to a little of that magical power for longer.
Plyometrics improve economy and endurance
Endurance athletes, this one’s for you.
Plyometric exercises increase your muscle fiber recruitment and coordination as well as your tendon stiffness — all of which improve your economy and reduces the amount of energy it takes for you to run at a certain pace.
According to research, even including something as simple as jumping rope 2-4 times per week into your running warm-up can improve your performance, likely thanks to the gains jumping rope creates in reactive strength and arch stiffness.
As your tendons and connective tissues stiffen, they become like springs — creating stored energy and releasing it to reduce the energy needed from your lower body muscles to propel you forward.
Essentially, the quick, strong contractions you create by adding plyometric exercises to your workout routine like body weight squat jumps, tuck jumps, or box jumps help to build you a body that gets better “gas mileage.”
Additionally, with age, our mitochondrial function and density decline. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of your cells – they convert the chemical energy from your food into usable energy to power the cell. Building up the density and function of mitochondria within our cells is an important part of endurance — it’s why we train at easy efforts (Zone 2) most of the time — having plenty of well-functioning mitochondria is what gives us the ability to endure. Plyometric exercise helps improve endurance athletic performance by countering the age-related loss of mitochondria and improving mitochondrial function within your cells.
How to add plyometrics training to your workout routine
As with all things, I recommend that you add plyometrics into your life gradually and progressively. Most of us have been avoiding this kind of explosive movements and high impact, so we need to retrain our tissues by starting small and slowly ramping things up over time.
If you’re new to plyometrics, here’s a simple way to start and progress to jumps:
- Step 1: try low-amplitude bounding first (like this). Progress that by holding a weight in front of your chest and then gradually increasing the reps over time.
- Step 2: add some springy hops (like this). Progress that by holding a weight in front of your chest and then gradually increasing the reps over time.
- Step 3: do some stationary “jumps” (like this). These will help you learn proper jump positions, landing mechanics, and condition your connective tissues for jumps.
- Step 4: add some light rebounding (like this) or skipping (like this) to learn to limit your ground contact time. This will help you develop quickness and more spring in your tendons and connective tissue.
- Step 5: do some depth drops (like this) where you step off a step and land softly on the ground in a squat position. This helps condition your body to absorb the landing impact appropriately. Keep the reps low (4-6 reps per set) and gradually build up to 3-4 sets over time.
- Step 6: add the squat jump (like this). Explosively jump into the air, land softly in a squat, and immediately explode into the next rep. Over time you can progress this to a tuck jump (like this).
- Step 7: once you’re comfortable moving quickly and absorbing the force of landing, then you can start jumping on to things and doing box jumps (like this). Start with a small stack of weight plates or a low step and build up your strength (and courage) over time before you increase the height of the box. Keep the reps low (4-6 reps per set) and gradually build up to 3-4 sets over time.
And don’t forget to change directions to mix things up and build multi-directional strength in your bones and soft tissues to prevent injury. Some ways to do that are side to side hops (like this), in and out hops (like this), and lateral jumps (like this).
If you’ve already been diagnosed with osteoporosis, consult with your doctor regarding plyometrics before following this or any other program or progression. Jump training has been shown to be safe and effective for people with low bone density but you should still talk to your doctor and work with a qualified personal trainer who can help you progress appropriately based on the feedback you’re getting from your body in training so that you actually get stronger and don’t get injured.
While hops, skips, and jumps are important for improving bone mineral density, there are also plenty of ways to develop your power and speed without impact or with less impact.
First, you can do jumps in the water or use resistance bands anchored overhead to reduce the impact of the jumps.
Or you could focus on upper body plyometrics training using movements like plyo push ups.
It doesn’t take a lot to get the benefits — just a few minutes of explosive exercises, 2-3 times per week is plenty. And if you’re adding them into your strength workouts, I recommend doing them after your warm-up and before your main strength exercises so you’re fresh and ready to focus on explosive power.
Plyometric training is an empowering and effective method of training for women who want to be active, athletic, durable, and maintain their quality of life through menopause and beyond. By incorporating explosive movements into our workouts, we can experience increased power, improved metabolic health, enhanced speed and agility, stronger bones, and improved balance and coordination. As we embrace the benefits of plyometrics, we break free from limitations and redefine what it means to be strong and capable. So, let’s lace up our shoes, leap into action, and unleash the power within us!
Need help from a qualified coach to get your power back safely? Join us for StrongHer in 6 — our signature group coaching program which is designed to move you step-by-step from sedentary to stronger in 6 months.