Is building muscle harder after 50?
Ideally, we would build muscle and maintain it over a lifetime. However, career, family, and life in general often leave little time for more than a quick power walk or run on the treadmill.
Once we pass the age of 40, a woman’s body produces less of the healthy estrogen and more of the type produced by fat tissue (estrone) which contributes to metabolic syndrome.
Genetics play a part, but a sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy habits, a lack of sleep, and the standard American diet along with natural metabolic changes can all contribute to excess weight. Often referred to as the middle-age spread, this excess weight may accumulate around the belly area. Even when our muscles are under there, the extra weight may keep them hidden.
The body goes through changes that makes it harder to build muscle, but not impossible. It’s never too late to start building muscle and getting fit. Being proactive about minimizing age related muscle loss is a good plan. There are several reasons we might want to make a plan to help reduce the amount of muscle wasting we experience.
According to studies, it is somewhat harder for older women to build muscle than it is for older men. This difference is in part due to differences in the way food is digested and utilized. 2
Digestion is not the only factor at play when it comes to women vs. men building muscle tissue. From birth, women and men have different amounts of certain muscle fibers. In addition, women tend to have higher leptin levels than men. Leptin is the satiety hormone that signals your brain to increase feelings of hunger. So while there are these fundamental differences, there are also adjustments we can make to give us an advantage in building muscle after the big five-oh.
Four areas to pay attention when building muscle after 50 to are:
- Quality protein intake in the right quantity,
- In conjunction with resistance training
- Managing cortisol levels (the stress factor!)
- Optimizing Sleep to allow for recovery
What is the best exercise for a 50-year-old woman?
What type of exercise you have success with will depend on several factors. Your body weight, the current level of physical activity and fitness level, muscle mass, and health status as well as what you have access to and enjoy.
The best exercise is the one you will do consistently. Choose an exercise program not only on what it will do for your body but also based on how much you will enjoy that particular activity. If you hate doing it, you are less likely to do it. Weight training only works if you do it properly and on a regular basis. The goal is to exercise more as we grow older!
Here are some exercise recommendations; choose several and mix it up:
- Body Weight exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, lunges, squats, and the like will improve muscle strength. These are a low-cost, simple way to get started building muscle.
- Weight-lifting – Use dumbells, barbells, kettlebells, or machines for muscle building. Focus on multi-joint movements like squats, deadlifts, pushes, pulls and carries. My favorite: Lyzabeth Lopez Hourglass workout (gym equipment required)
- Yoga and Tai Chi – Requires you to lift your body weight and hold positions for an extended time. You will discover muscles you didn’t know you had. Good for relieving tension build-up from weight lifting. Use Youtube to find free training videos you can do at home or join a local class.
- Barre – Designed to strengthen and tone your body and is particularly good for core strength, balance, and posture.
For at home workouts I love Fitness with PJ on Youtube.
Strength training to build muscle in women over 50
Women over 50 can do strength training. Weight lifting is perhaps the best way to build muscle, although if you’ve ever seen a dancer or martial artist you know it’s not the only way. Strength training can help to increase muscle mass and at the same time, balances your hormones. More muscle means a better metabolism, which may help a woman lower her body fat percentage.
Make a plan and consider these factors:
- amount of time you can dedicate to a workout
- where you will exercise
- your current level of physical fitness
- end goal
With these factors in mind, make a workout plan that you can be consistent with that includes the exercises you will do, where you will do them, and at what time. Put it on your calendar if you want to follow through and consider it an appointment with yourself. Keep the end goal in mind. You might do weight lifting at the gym on Monday and cardio at home on Tuesday, workout with a personal trainer on Wednesday, Barre on Thursday, etc.
Focusing on specific muscle groups on specific days is particularly useful at this stage of life. This allows the days in between muscle groups for recovery. It can help to hire a personal trainer if you’ve never done strength training with weights or if you’ve forgotten proper form.
The health benefits of implementing a training program to help build muscle are numerous. Here are just a few you can expect from working on muscle gain:
- Reduces perimenopause and menopause symptoms
- Decreased risk of heart disease
- Stronger mental health (lowers risk of dementia)
- Fights Osteoporosis
- Reduces Inflammation
Can a 50-year-old woman get toned?
Getting toned is basically building muscle, but usually when someone says they want to be toned, what they mean is they don’t want to bulk up but they also don’t want to jiggle. That is why many women choose Barre, Pilates, or Yoga over strength training. The same toned look can come from weight-lifting, it’s just a matter of how you do it.
So if your goal is to get toned but you are worried about looking overly muscular, set your fears aside. When you add muscle to your body it makes you look leaner and more toned. Most trainers will recommend a smaller number of repetitions using a heavier weight.
Muscle added from strength training increases your resting metabolism to help you burn more fat and calories at rest, offering a more lasting solution to weight loss than cardio and diet alone.
After 3-4 months of consistent training, women will see an increase in muscle tone. As you practice strength training you will begin to shed excess fat, which will slow age-related muscle loss. In addition, weight-bearing exercises can help to maintain healthy bone mass making your bones stronger and less prone to breaking.
Can I build muscle after menopause?
Yes you can and it’s important that you do. “During menopause, the decline in estrogen levels is paralleled with a slight increase in injury risk and a decline in lean body mass” source 1
Unless you are into bodybuilding, implementing strength workouts a few times per week will suffice to gain health benefits. If you are into competition or want a bit more than a toned body, you will need to increase the number and intensity of your workouts.
Incorporate Weight Lifting
If you’re wondering, “how can I reshape my body after 50?” The answer is to safely incorporate weight lifting into your workout routine. If you’ve been doing cardio all your life, or nothing, the answer is weight-lifting.
Don’t think you will have to spend hours at the gym to reshape your body. You can “lift weights” using only your body weight in the comfort of your own living room! Although, using free weights or a kettlebell at home can give you an excellent workout as well. I use this kettlebell workout poster and an adjustable kettlebell in my living room to get a full-body workout.
As mentioned in the four areas to pay attention to above, one key not to overlook if you want to build muscle after menopause is to get enough protein. Use this protein calculator to determine your personal needs.
Following a healthy diet plan such as Paleo, Ketogenic or Trim Healthy Mama will improve the odds that you will get the right amount of protein. Not only will diet and exercise help you build muscle and be more toned, it will help to reduce the risk of sarcopenia.
Sarcopenia is loss of muscle tissue and does not necessarily have to be part of the aging process. With careful planning and dedication, we can age as strong women. – link to building strong bones post on TOM bone density is
Allow time between workouts for recovery. This is why many trainers will alternate upper body with lower body workouts. In addition to allowing time for recovery, it helps you to have a well-balanced body. You will know what I mean if you’ve ever seen guys in the gym with serious muscle gains in the upper body, yet walking around on little toothpick legs because they neglected to workout their lower body!
Sleep and it’s impact on building muscle
Menopause does not have to equate to sleep struggles. Many women report a lack of quality sleep during this phase of life. Women who practice good sleep hygiene habits will have an easier time building muscle than those who skimp on sleep or get low quality sleep. Sleep affects the hormones that have a direct impact on body composition and the metabolic rate. Practice good sleep hygiene habits and when challenges arise, address the immediately.
One problem that many women face in their fifties, is night sweats or hot flashes at night. Circadian rhythm can be tied to an increase of hot flashes at night, meaning there is a higher chance of experiencing night sweats. Being uncomfortably hot at night can interrupt a good night’s sleep, so it is crucial to find a solution. For myself, and many women in my community, the hydroponic mattress pad by ChiliPAD has been a sleep saver!
Pulling it all together
In summary, for overall health and to build muscle, women can focus on the right type of exercise in conjunction with a healthy diet, good sleep habits, and stress management. With consistency and these components in place, a woman at any age should be able to build muscle.
My personal workout routine at age 50 can be found here.
- Effect of hormone therapy on lean body mass, falls, and fractures: 6-year results from the Women’s Health Initiative hormone trials.Bea JW, Zhao Q, Cauley JA, LaCroix AZ, Bassford T, Lewis CE, Jackson RD, Tylavsky FA, Chen ZMenopause. 2011 Jan; 18(1):44-52.
- https://source.wustl.edu/2008/03/older-women-not-men-have-a-hard-time-maintaining-muscle-mass/My personal workout routine at age 50 (Opt-in)Strength train 2-3 times per week using kettlebells, dumbbells, resistance bands, or other equipment