Do you feel like you’re always dealing with aches or pains? Feel like your body is slowing down and weakening or just not functioning the same as you age?
If so, you’re not alone.
It’s common for our bodies to begin to lose strength, mobility, and function as we age …
But it’s not inevitable.
There are many things we can do to prevent this physical breakdown many of us start to feel in middle age.
Strength training is one of the best ways to improve overall physical health and function as we move through midlife and beyond; however, if you’ve never done weight training before, the large amount of equipment options (barbells and kettlebells and dumbbells, oh my) and unfamiliar movements can be overwhelming.
Luckily, there are bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, squats, and lunges that require no additional equipment because they use your own body weight. But while these forms of exercise might get your heart rate up and build muscle in the beginning when you’re first starting out with strength training, by themselves they aren’t enough for a total body workout that guarantees long-term fitness gains.
To be clear, body weight training workouts are enough to get you started with strength training, but they aren’t enough to help you gain muscle or maintain muscle mass in the long term — especially if you’re female.
So let’s talk about why that is, why you should be weight lifting, especially as you get older, and what you need to know about training with weights for beginners.
What is resistance training?
First, let’s talk terms.
Resistance training is a general term used to describe exercise that makes your muscles work against a weight or force to build muscular strength, endurance, and size. This resistance can come from your body weight, free weights (like barbells, kettlebells, and dumbbells), weight machines, cable machines, or resistance bands.
Strength training is a type of resistance training where the goal is to increase the strength of your muscles. It usually involves lifting heavy weights for fewer repetitions (around 1-5 reps per set), with longer rest periods in between sets, so you can keep lifting heavy. Training to increase strength is largely about intensity – lifting as heavy as possible for a few reps while maintaining proper form.
Hypertrophy training is a type of resistance training where the goal is to increase the size of your muscles and your muscle mass. It typically involves more moderate weights and higher repetitions (around 6-12 reps per set), with shorter rest periods in between sets. The key to hypertrophy training is more about volume – doing more work (sets/reps/total weight) in each workout.
While both types of training will result in muscle growth and strength gains, the emphasis is different. Hypertrophy training leads to greater increases in muscle size, while strength training results in larger strength gains.
Your individual goals determine which approach or combination of these approaches is better for you.
Generally speaking, if you’re looking to build muscle mass and “look like you lift”, hypertrophy training may be more suitable for you. If you’re aiming to improve functional strength and power, then strength training might be the way for you to go.
If you are a peri or post-menopausal woman, I highly recommend lifting heavy weights for fewer reps and focusing mostly on strength training exercises with some hypertrophy-focused work, because this approach will benefit you most during this menopause transition, when your estrogen levels are declining and ultimately flatlining in post menopause. Strength training will do more to mitigate the reduction of estrogen which is primarily what’s responsible for the muscle loss and related complications we see later in life. This will also help give you the most bang for your buck in terms of cardiovascular health, hot flash reduction, bone density improvement, injury/fall prevention, and glucose control.
Benefits of resistance training and how it can improve your overall health
Strength training is often misconstrued as something that only bodybuilders or fitness fanatics do, but the truth is, everyone can benefit from it. Especially for women, who may not realize the important role strength training plays in preserving bone density and joint health, reducing hot flashes through perimenopause, and reducing the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes.
Because having more muscle isn’t just about looking good.
Strength training, specifically, trains your muscles to utilize as many muscle fibers as possible for strong muscular contractions which increase their potential for generating strength and power. This creates the feeling of being functionally strong and capable in life and it’s something we lose the ability to do as we age if we don’t keep training it.
Strength training applies multi-directional mechanical stress to your bones which stimulates bone-building to help you improve and maintain bone mineral density — something women lose rapidly later in life without intervention.
This mechanical stress in combination with the maximal muscle fiber recruitment referenced above improves balance, coordination, and joint stability — all key components of fall prevention to avoid fractures and osteoarthritis prevention.
Additionally, the more muscle you have, the better you are able to control your blood glucose levels, which helps reduce your risk of developing diabetes. More muscle mass is also correlated with less visceral (deep belly fat), which has been linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance, all of which can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
And speaking of cardiovascular health, the stress applied to the muscles during strength training exercises improves vascular compliance which improves dilation and construction of blood vessels, which not only improves vascular health and muscle function, but can also help reduce hot flashes in perimenopause.
Strength training isn’t just a vanity thing. It goes a long way in improving function and preserving quality of life.
Bodyweight training vs. weight training
But we all start somewhere. And bodyweight exercises are a great place to start.
A 2023 study looked at the effectiveness of bodyweight training vs. weight training for muscle growth (hypertrophy, not strength) and found that in healthy newbies (aka untrained individuals), the muscle size gains were about the same. Pretty cool.
However, to keep getting the benefits of resistance training, you have to keep the resistance and level of challenge high enough to stress the muscles enough to continue to create strength adaptations and mass gains.
And the main problem with bodyweight exercises is that at some point you outgrow them and they become too easy to be effective for building strength and hypertrophy. Because the only way to up the challenge of a body weight training program is to increase your bodyweight — not something many of us want to do.
The other problem is time.
The bodyweight only group in the study did a strength training workout where they did as many reps as possible for 1-2 sets. On the other hand, the weight training group performed a strength training workout that involved 3 sets using a weight that was heavy enough that they could do no more than 10 reps. This means that the bodyweight only crew had to do more reps and longer workouts. So if you don’t have a ton of time, you might want to just pick up the damn weights and start weight training.
This study reinforces once again that if your goal is hypertrophy, you should focus on more repetitions and more total volume of work and in the beginning, bodyweight exercises can get you started. But if your goal is to gain strength and increase muscular function (which is the bigger quality of life issue that comes with aging), bodyweight isn’t gonna do it for you.
Regardless, once you’ve been at it for a while, you have to increase the challenge to keep getting the benefits. Because, in trained individuals, heavier weights are more effective for building strength and muscular function.
Step-by-step guide to transition from bodyweight exercises to using free weights:
Step 1: Start with basic bodyweight exercises
Bodyweight exercises are a fantastic way to start your fitness journey because they require no equipment and can be done anywhere.
Beginner strength training should start with mastering basic bodyweight exercises like squats, floor bridges, push-ups, lunges, step-ups, and TRX or ring rows. These exercises are great for building initial strength and conditioning your body for more advanced, traditional strength training workouts.
The key here is to make sure you move well before you load it up. If you have any painful joints, don’t just give up! Work with a certified personal trainer, corrective exercises specialist, or physical therapist to strengthen the muscles around those joints.
Step 2: Increase volume, intensity, and variations
Once you get comfortable with the basic exercises, increase the volume by doing more reps and sets.
You can also add more intensity through variations like jump squats, broad jumps, decline push-ups, walking lunges, pull-ups, etc., to challenge different muscle groups in different ways.
This is also a good time to experiment with adding a resistance band to your workouts to start preparing your body for the added resistance and when you add weight to your strength training program.
Step 3: Introduce some free weights
Time to start introducing some free weights into your routine. I recommend starting weight training with dumbbells and kettlebells with exercises like dumbbell squats, kettlebell deadlifts, shoulder presses, bent over rows, etc.
Begin with lighter weights and focus on your form. Prioritize controlling the weight and the movement well over going heavier. For more advice on how much weight to lift, check out this post.
Combining bodyweight exercises and free weights in your strength training workouts. For example, do a set of push-ups followed by a set of dumbbell rows. This will help you gain strength through weight training while still leveraging the benefits of bodyweight exercises for strength training.
Step 4: Gradually increase the weight
As your strength increases, gradually increase the weight you’re lifting. Continue to prioritize controlling the weight and the movement well over going heavier in your weight lifting.
Choosing the right weight for each exercise is crucial to achieving maximum results. It’s important to choose a weight that challenges you, but not to the extent that the quality of your movement suffers.
Remember that to build strength and muscular function, you need to use a heavier weight and do fewer reps. If you can do 8-12 reps of a movement with a weight, then you’re in hypertrophy training territory and you’re not going to get the strength/function gains as efficiently as you would with cutting the reps and upping the weight.
Step 5: Start working with a barbell
Finally, move to more advanced free weight training by adding a barbell to your weight lifting.
At a certain point, your grip will become a limiting factor when using dumbbells and, in order to get stronger, you’ll need to have another strategy for holding more weight in your strength training workout.
So, once you’ve mastered the exercises and gotten stronger, a barbell will let you go much heavier and allow you to move more weight per rep. With the use of a barbell rack to help, a barbell positioned correctly lets you worry less about grip strength and stabilization and focus more on moving bigger loads, so you can develop more strength.
Contrary to popular belief, strength training isn’t just for gym rats and fitness fanatics.
From improved bone density, muscle function, balance and coordination, to better cardiovascular and metabolic health – strength training has numerous physical benefits and is key for quality of life through middle age and beyond.
And it’s especially important for women through the menopause transition and post-menopause.
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced lifter, understanding the different types of exercises available and having a general knowledge of how to approach strength training can help you make the most out of your training sessions.
Taking into account the tips outlined in this blog post will lead you to success as you transition from using just your body weight to incorporating more strength training and lifting weights.
Need help getting started with strength training? Grab our FREE Simple Strength Training Guide to get the ball rolling!
And if you’re ready to make this transition with a supportive community of women who are stepping up and committing to taking their health seriously, join us for StrongHer in 6 where I’ll walk you through adding in weights and activity step-by-step over 6 months so you can be more active, athletic, and durable in midlife, through menopause, and beyond.