5 reasons women find it difficult to build muscle at midlife

I talk a lot about the value of building muscle with my midlife female clients.

Note that for the most part, we’re not talking big, bulging biceps here, (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not a common goal amongst the women I work with 🙂 ) rather, arms that have some definition, legs that show the outline of the underlying muscle, a back that’s flattered by a halter-style dress and just enough of a six-pack that we’re comfortable being in a bathing suit (not necessarily a bikini) in public.

Not only does having muscle make the day-to-day chores of living easier (think hauling grocery bags, moving heavy furniture, slinging your roller bag into the overhead bin), it elevates metabolism (the number of calories your body burns at rest) and allows us to keep enjoying the activities we love (golfing, kayaking, cycling, bouldering, hiking) without fear of pain or injury.

It makes us smile when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror (flex, anyone?).

And the act of building it helps to reduce the body’s natural tendency to lose bone density as we get older.

But, just like keeping those middle-of-the-body pounds at bay, it often gets harder to build muscle as we age.

5 Reasons Women Find it Difficult to Build Muscle at Midlife
  • The body naturally loses muscle mass with age.

Research shows that, unless we do something about it, we’ll lose 1-2% of our muscle mass annually between the ages of 40 and 50. 

Once we hit 50, the rate of loss increases, by some estimates, to as much as 3% per year.

This means that by the time we reach 60, we might only have half the muscle mass that we did in our 30’s. (This statistic alone makes me wish that I hadn’t waited until I was 40 to get serious about strength training…)

The good news is you can stave off age-related muscle mass loss with as little as two days of whole-body strength training per week. (Not sure where to start? Why not try one of my beginner strength workouts >> Beginner At-Home Strength Workout and Progressing Your Beginner At-Home Strength Workout)

For those of you looking to do more than just ‘run to stay in place’, you’ll need to add an extra day or two of strength training, experiment with body part splits vs whole-body workouts (what’s best for your exercise buddy may not be what works best for your body), be strategic with your choice of exercises and of course, address the four issues below… (I’d recommend starting here before you completely overhaul your strength program 🙂 ).

  • Muscle-building hormones decline with age.

In addition to contributing to hot flashes, night sweats, libido loss and middle-of-the-body weight gain, the fluctuating and decline hormones of perimenopause may also make it more difficult to build significant muscle.

Testosterone (commonly referred to as the ‘male hormone’) is the primary hormone responsible for building bone and muscle. By the age of 40, a typical woman’s testosterone level will have fallen to half of what it was in her 20’s and continue to drop as she ages.

Estrogen is an ‘anabolic’ (or ‘building’) hormone. It’s promotes the growth of neutrons, cells, tissues and organs, including hair, skin, bone and muscle. It’s also a natural energy booster. With lower levels of circulating estrogen, not only can it be more challenging to exercise at the same intensity we used to, our bodies can’t create new tissue at the same rate as they did when we were younger.

If you suspect that hormonal imbalance is impeding your progress in the gym, see your doctor or naturopath and ask them to test your estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and thyroid levels.

  • Weight loss strategies often undermine muscle gain.

Many midlife women adopt a ‘move-more, eat-less’ strategy to offset weight gain during perimenopause. They simultaneously increase the frequency, duration and intensity of exercise and reduce calories not realizing that the body’s natural response to stress of this sort is to tighten its hold on fat stores.

In many cases, this approach generates too much of a calorie deficit for putting on any appreciable muscle and can sometimes result in the body using precious muscle tissue for fuel.

  • Protein intake is inadequate to support building muscle.

In order to build muscle your body requires fuel. Both in terms of the absolute number of calories you’re consuming (you can’t build something from nothing) and the percentage of those calories that come from protein.

The long term recommendation that midlife women consume a minimum of 0.8 g of protein per kg body weight per day (that’s only about 55 g for a 150 pound woman) has often been challenged. Recent studies suggest that increasing protein intake above this minimum not only benefits weight loss and weight loss maintenance, it can also help ‘slow gainers’ to get better results from their strength training programs.

Note that protein doesn’t have to come from animal sources to help build muscle. Need ideas for increasing your protein intake? I’ve got you covered.

  • Rest and recovery are under-valued.

As a consequence of adopting a ‘more more, eat less’ strategy, many women just aren’t giving their bodies enough time to rest and recover. While it can be scary and counter-intuitive  to ‘do less’, it may be exactly what your body needs to build the muscle you’re looking for.

Strength training involves the breaking down and re-building of muscle fibres. Rush the process and you’re unlikely to see growth (and much more likely to injure yourself or just plain old burn out from over-exertion).

Many midlife women suffer from disordered thyroid and adrenal glands. Exhaustion and over-training are significant contributors. If you’re someone who feels the need to hit the gym daily, try substituting a yoga class or long walk in nature for at least one of your weekly workouts. Pay attention to how your body feels. And make sure you’re tracking your gains. Sometimes less really can be more 🙂

Need some help in the muscle-building department? I’ve just opened up two new spaces in my Online Fitness Coaching practice and would love to be your midlife-muscle-up-guide. You’ll find more details about this service here >> 1-on-1 Fitness Coaching. Make sure you scroll down to the bottom of the page and complete the online application form; this lets me know you’re serious about enlisting me as a coach 🙂

Have you found it more challenging to build muscle at midlife?

If so, what strategies have you tried and found successful?

Looking for an inexpensive way to jump-start your journey to fitness and health? Join my online Bootcamp today! Get more info by clicking the image below.

Looking for an inexpensive way to jump-start your journey to fitness and health? Join my online Bootcamp today! Get more info by clicking the image below.

Comments

  1. Your comments about the decline of the ability to build muscle in midlife for women must be disappointing to some readers. The protein comments are informative as well.

    • Christina,

      While it might be disappointing to hear the truth about aging, I think in the long run, it’s better for women to be realistic about the changes diet and exercise will make to their bodies. So many are still falling for the ‘lose 2 dress sizes in two weeks’ and ‘get a bikini body’ types of programs that are so prevalent online. Of course, they don’t see the promised results and often blame themselves. Knowledge is power. And just because something is more difficult doesn’t mean that it can’t be done 🙂

  2. Hello Tamara,

    Just amazing articles. I also wondering for this type of information but today i got it. Thanks very much.

  3. Thanks for sharing!

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