10 strength training tips for women over 40 and nutrition and lifestyle considerations for stages of menopause.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, over 41% of the U.S. female population was 45 years of age or older. But flip through a women’s fitness magazine or scroll through fitness-related articles and you’d think it’s a much smaller percentage, due to their underrepresentation.
As we get older, our needs and goals change. Our strength training workouts will likely be different in our 50s compared to what we did in our 20s. To ensure we still make progress and remain healthy and injury free, there are some adjustments you can make to your workouts. Let’s begin with strength training tips for women over 40, then we’ll discuss nutrition and lifestyle considerations for menopause, since that brings more changes into the mix.
Strength Training Tips for Women Over 40
Every woman, regardless of age, should strength train and do it for the rest of her life . There are tips we can use as we get older to ensure we stay safe and pain-free with our strength training, and to maximize our efforts in the gym. While these following tips are for women approximately 40 and older, they’re also beneficial for trainees who have a history of injuries, arthritis, or lots of aches and pains.
Keep in mind some of these tips may be more applicable to women in their 40s, and some to women in their 60s and up. Everyone is different, so do what’s best for you.
1. Don’t skip a general warm-up; consider lengthening it. Before you start strength training, perform a general warm-up. Low-impact activities would be ideal, such as using a stationary bike or other piece of cardio equipment. This doesn’t need to take more than a few minutes; just get your blood moving. If you’re feeling ‘stiff’ (and especially during cold months), add a few more minutes than usual. A good rule of thumb is to break a light sweat.
2. Perform more warm-up sets for strength training exercises. Some trainees find that as they’ve gotten older, they feel and perform better when they perform an extra warm-up set or two for their strength training exercises. Increase the weight gradually while decreasing the reps; it’s okay to do more warm-up sets than you used to. Take the time to prepare your body for the work it’s about to do.
As an example, let’s assume you’re going to perform goblet squats for your first exercise, and you’re aiming for 45 pounds for a set of 10 reps or so. Here’s how you can warm-up:
- Warm-up set 1: bodyweight squat x 10 reps
- Warm-up set 2: 15 pounds x 8 reps
- Warm-up set 3: 25 pounds x 6 reps
- Warm-up set 4: 35 pounds x 5 reps
You may want more (especially with exercises that allow you to handle more weight) or fewer sets (for exercises that require less weight, like a dumbbell shoulder press), but play with a gradual increase in weight and see how you feel.
Note: How important is warming up? Let’s put it this way: it you’re short on time you should remove a set of two from the workout instead of skipping the warm-up.
3. Use primarily joint-friendly tools and exercises. For example, using dumbbells for a bench press is easier on many trainees’ shoulders and elbows, when compared to a barbell bench press,
because natural movement can occur in the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. For women in their 40s and beyond (or those with aches and pains), stick mostly to dumbbell exercises, cable machines, bodyweight exercises, suspension trainer exercises, and even some machines.
Another strength training tip: make good use of the neutral grip (i.e., palms facing each other) for upper body pressing and pulling exercises. Keep this in mind when selecting bars for cable machine pull-downs, seated rows, chin-ups, and when pressing dumbbells. For instance, some people find pressing a dumbbell overhead with palms facing forward aggravates their shoulders, but they don’t experience pain when pressing with a neutral grip; same thing with dumbbell bench press variations.
Here are some joint-friendly exercises to use as a starting point:
- Quad-dominant exercises: goblet squats, double dumbbell/kettlebell squats (‘bells held at shoulders), split squat, rear foot elevated split squat, lunge variations
- Hip-dominant exercises: Romanian deadlift, single leg RDL, glute bridge and hip thrust variations
- Upper body pushing exercises: low-incline dumbbell bench press (neutral grip may be best), push-up variations (with a suspension trainer), dumbbell overhead press with a neutral grip
- Upper body pulling exercises: dumbbell row variations, inverted rows (ideally with a suspension trainer), face-pulls (with resistance band, suspension trainer, or cable machine), pull-ups (with neutral grip or suspension trainer), or cable pull-downs with free-moving handles (i.e., ‘D’ handles).
This isn’t an exhaustive list, because everyone is different. You may be able to do all those exercises plus dozens more, or some of those exercises may not work for you (for example, some people can’t handle any overhead pressing exercises). More on this in tip 11 below.
Listen to your body and use exercise variations and tools that feel best to you.
4. Use barbell exercises strategically, or modify them. The ‘big barbell lifts’ referred to most often are the barbell squat, bench press, and deadlift (i.e., the ‘powerlifts’); the standing press is a great one too. If you enjoy those exercises and can perform them pain-free, include them in your training. Some people, however, find them difficult to perform but want to train some variation of them.
The traditional barbell back squat: some trainees find this exercise bothers their shoulders, or back. If you’re one of them but still want to squat with a bar try lighter weight or front squats with the bar. If that’s bothers you then move to a DB squat and work on building up mobility and strethening shoulders other ways to slowly work up to a back squat, there are so many ways to modify so everyone is able to workout at their level.
5. Determine the best combination of unilateral and bilateral lower body exercises. Examples of unilateral exercises (when you perform one leg at a time) are split squats, lunges, etc. Bilateral lifts work both legs simultaneously (e.g., squat variations, leg press). Some trainees can’t handle much unilateral training because it aggravates their knees, so they use predominantly bilateral lower body exercises in their workouts. But some trainees find unilateral work makes their knees, hips, and back feel better than bilateral lifts.
This is why you need to be your own guru; listen to your body’s feedback. Do what works best for you. If an exercise causes pain or discomfort, swap it out for something else.
6. Always use proper form, and make every rep count. So, you have your exercises ready to go and know what works best for your body. Ensure you’re using correct form on all exercises. If you’re not positive you’re doing a lift correctly, reduce the weight and focus on correct technique; slow down the movement a bit too, if that helps. ‘Make every rep count’: focus on every rep you perform; never rush through a set just to get it over with. The first rep of a set deserves every bit of focus and effort as the last. You should instill the ‘make very rep count’ mindset with the first warm-up set you perform.
7. Finish sets strong. This is important for barbell lifts in particular. Recovery between workouts seems to take a bit longer as we get older, so one way to recover quicker is to stay away from failure when strength training. ‘Failure’ meaning pushing a set to the point when another rep isn’t physically possible with good form. Stay away from failure by finishing each set strong; stop a set knowing you could complete 2-3 more reps with perfect form. This way you’re still training hard but you’re also a) leaving room for improvement the next workout and b) not digging too deep into recovery.
There are two exceptions to this rule:
- It’s fine to occasionally push harder to test your strength, or for a fun challenge. Don’t do this often, and do not attempt another rep you’re not confident you can complete with proper form. You can push exercises that use dumbbells, your bodyweight, cable and other machines harder than barbell exercises. For example: pushing a set of push-ups to the max is safer than a set of barbell bench presses.
- For deadlifts, I recommend a cushion of at least three reps. Because this exercise can typically handle a lot of weight, stop the set when you can complete at least three more solid reps. When deadlifting: dominate the weight and set. Finish strong.
8. Most of the time you should finish your workouts feeling strong and energized, not exhausted. If you feel beat up or worn out after every strength training session, you pushed too hard. If you work hard and smart during your workouts, and follow the tips above, you should complete a workout feeling great, not exhausted, most of the time. By not crushing yourself with each workout, you’ll be able to come back next time and do a little better. Gradual progress is where the magic happens, and keeps you safe and healthy.
9. Use the workout split that best fits your training schedule, and preferences. Some people use strength training as a tool to complement other activities, so they only want to work out 2-3 times per week. For others, strength training may be their primary form of physical activity, so they work out four or more times per week. Depending on how many days per week you want to strength train, some templates are better than others.
- Two workouts per week: stick with total body workouts
- Three workouts per week: total body workouts or an upper/lower split
- Four workouts per week: upper/lower split or a three-way split like legs/push/pull
- Five workouts per week: three-way split like legs/push/pull or some other ‘split’ routine
At Total FX Fitness we cover this for you so there is no guesswork and everything is put together the way it is for a reason that will give you optimal training results.
Strength training splits defined:
- Total body workouts: as the name implies, you work your entire body in a single workout (e.g., goblet squats, push-ups, and dumbbell rows).
- Upper/lower split: one workout hits the muscles in your upper body (e.g., push-ups, dumbbell rows, lateral raises, face-pulls, biceps curls) and the other your lower body (e.g., goblet squat, lunges, leg curls).
- Legs/push/pull: the ‘legs’ workout, obviously, hits your legs. The ‘push’ workout would include exercises like push-ups, overhead presses, triceps extensions, etc. The ‘pull’ workout could include deadlift variations, rows, pull-ups, and biceps curls.
Not only is it important to consider your preferences and workout frequency, but keep in mind how you feel with any given strength training split. Whereas someone may feel excellent and recover without issue with three total body workouts per week, someone else may find they do better with a split so each muscle group and accompanying joints have longer to recover.
You can also alternate splits for variety, and to see what works best for you.
10. Be willing to adapt on any given day. Maybe you tweaked your back gardening or from winning a jousting tournament at your local Medieval Festival (hey, you may have some unique hobbies – I don’t know your life). The next time you enter the gym you see trap bar deadlifts on the menu. As you perform the first warm-up set you notice your back just doesn’t feel ‘good.’ The smart thing to do is adapt; don’t push through the workout. Nix the deadlifts for the day and do something that doesn’t bother your back. Perhaps you could try some unilateral work and back extensions. You can still train, but you need to adapt to the situation so you don’t turn the minor issue into a nagging injury. Adaptation is one of the most important factors for reaching your goals.
Be smart: if something causes discomfort or pain despite using proper form, switch it out for something else until you feel better.