Strength training: carry those weights, girl!
October 28, 2011 | By:
Working out with hand weights is one of the best things a woman over 50 can do for health – and it won't make you look like the Hulk. Julie Welch explains

Tone muscles and lower cholesterol and blood pressure at the same time. Photo: © Image Source/Corbi

Working out with weights is one of the best things you can do for your body, ever. Even more so if you’re a woman who has reached 50. It stops you getting fat, it gives your mood a boost, resurrects your boobs and straightens a spine that, after years of hunching over a computer, is beginning to slump into a demi-lune.

Crucially, it also offers protection against osteoporosis by increasing bone density, improves your balance and can really help if you suffer from back pain.

Don’t just take my word for it: all the research points the same way. As we age, increasing and maintaining muscle mass is one of the best ways to keep body fat at bay and improve overall fitness. Research shows that the average woman who strength-trains two to three times a week for two months swaps 3½lbs of body fat for nearly 2lbs of muscle; and on average, for every pound of muscle you gain, you burn 35-50 more calories a day.

It’s also a great way of lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol and blood pressure, so it cuts down the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Now, time to dispel a myth: it’s not true that it makes you bulk up like a 1980s Soviet shotputter. Unlike men, women don’t gain size from weight training; we develop muscle tone and definition. I can testify to that, as I have trained with weights for years, as an adjunct to long distance running, and it has been a huge help with my posture and core stability.

Alongside that, it will give you more energy, stamina and power. But what I really like about it is how strong it makes me feel, not just physically but psychologically. I’m not alone: all the research confirms that women who strength-train report feeling more confident and capable of coping with the slings and arrows that come our way in midlife.

If you’re working out with weights in the gym, avoid the temptation to jump on the treadmill or the Nordic ski machine first. To be safe and effective, a weights workout needs to precede a cardio session. If you leave it until afterwards, your body will be tired and so more prone to injury.

Which brings me to a second point. Don’t worry if you don’t belong to a gym. Working out with weights can easily be done at home. In fact, for older women – who can be self-conscious and fastidious about doing strength work – it is by far the better solution, since the corner of the gym where the weights live tends to be off-puttingly colonised by grunty blokes in sweat-splattered T-shirts. And don’t get me started on the equipment: a residential home for every bacterium in the neighbourhood.

For starters, I recommend buying a set of hand weights. Leave the dumbbells and disc plates for later when you’ve built up strength and technique. Reebok is my favourite. They go from toothpick-light to seriously chunky and they look nice, too.

If you’re new to working out with weights, consider having two or three sessions with a personal trainer who can show you how to do it safely and effectively and can make a programme specifically for your needs. Your gym will be able to point you towards one, or try Workout at Home.

How long should you work out for? It’s up to you, but I find that 20 minutes every morning as soon as I’m out of bed sets me up for the day and, far from leaving me exhausted, gets me energised and ready for that lunchtime run or evening cardio session.

Incidentally, one of the side benefits of regular weights training is that your body will start asking you to feed it protein, which builds muscle, rather than carbs, which build waistlines. All in all, it really does make a difference, and it’s so, so easy. What are you waiting for?

Further reading

Real ale: a glass a day could help prevent osteoporosis

The well-balanced diet: think you know everything about eating well for your age?

Dem bones, dem bones: the numerous causes of back trouble

Foot work: a free alternative to the gym