4 Strength Training Principles You Need to Know

Confused about how ‘heavy’ you should be lifting?

Wondering why the strength training program you’re following is no longer producing results?

Not sure which exercises to include in your program? Or what order to place them in?

You’re not alone.

While the internet has made information easier to access, when it comes to fitness and healthy living, more info isn’t necessarily better 🙂

The good news is, answers to the above questions (as well as to most of the questions readers ask me daily) are all based on an understanding of four fundamental principles of strength training:

Below I describe each principle and explain how to make it work for you and your fitness goals.

Principle #1: Muscular Overload

In order to develop muscular strength, one must apply a force greater than that which the muscle is accustomed to

In other words, the weights you lift need to be heavier than your handbag.

Overloading the muscle leads to several physiological adaptations that allow it to grow in size and increase in strength.

Regardless of whether you’re lifting for power (4-6 reps), hypertrophy (8-12 reps) or endurance (15-20) reps, if the weight isn’t heavy enough to nearly fatigue the muscle by the end of the set, it’s not heavy enough to achieve your goals.

While lifting ‘light’ is a good strategy for beginners (whose initial focus should always be on proper execution of the movement) or those rehabbing an injury (and are looking to avoid prolonging it), progressing to an appropriately heavy weight after a week or two is the only way to get stronger.

This principle also explains why ‘body weight’ exercises alone might not lead to muscular gains (or at least continue to lead to muscular gains after your muscles get used to performing the movement without additional resistance; see point #4 below).

Principle #2: Specificity of Training

In order to produce a training effect, exercises should be relevant and appropriate to the goals for which the individual is training

More simply put, you need to match your exercise choice to the desired outcome.

Looking to build stronger legs? Squats, lunges and dead lifts will help; bicep curls, shoulder presses and lat pull downs won’t.

Toe push-ups a goal? Include them in most of your workouts and supplement the chest, shoulders and upper back with incline presses, chest flys and seated rows.

The specificity principle also applies to increasing strength for improving a specific sports skill (e.g., soccer kick, tennis serve, canoeing stroke). In addition to strengthening the relevant muscle groups (e.g., soccer players need to squat and lunge, tennis players should develop their upper backs and shoulders), ‘motor skill’ specificity is also enhanced by practicing the movement patterns specific to the sport.

Note that the specificity principle does not, alas, apply to fat loss. That is, you can’t reduce belly fat by simply performing abdominal crunches (that requires exercising your willpower and strengthening your meal planning skills…).

Principle #3: Exercise Order

In order to ensure proper overload of larger muscle groups, exercise them before smaller muscle groups

A comprehensive strength training program needs to include exercises for all your major muscle groups. But not all muscles have the same capacity for strength and growth.

Smaller muscles tend to fatigue sooner and more easily than larger muscles.

In addition, many large muscle exercises require the assistance of smaller muscles for stabilization and support. Fatigue the small muscle first and you’ll limit its ability to act as an accessory to the larger muscle exercises, thereby limiting your ability to overload the larger muscle group.

Barbell bench press

For example, the bench (or chest) press is often chosen as an exercise to develop the large muscles of the chest. But the smaller triceps muscles are needed to help with extension of the elbow. Perform tricep dips or skull-crushers before your bench press and your pre-fatigued triceps will limit your ability to fully overload the chest.

Principle #4: Progressive Overload

In order to continue getting stronger, you must gradually increase the exercise demand on your body

If you’ve ever lifted weights before, you’ll have noticed that, what was once a challenging weight for an exercise becomes easier over time. That’s because the muscles have physiologically adapted to the load by becoming stronger and better able to endure time under tension.

In order to keep them growing and getting stronger it’s necessary to periodically and gradually increase the load.

This doesn’t mean that you need to choose a heavier weight each and every time you perform your workout (that’s a recipe for injury and over-training). By keeping track of how much weight you lift during a workout, and how many reps and sets of an exercise you’re able to perform with that weight, you’ll know when it’s time to increase the load.

The advice that I give my clients? When you’re able to perform all of your prescribed repetitions of an exercise and feel as if you could knock out an additional 3 or 4 without sacrificing form, it’s time to try a slightly heavier weight. Try the next size up dumbbell or move the pin on the cable and pulley stack one plate down; if that’s too light, increase again until you find an appropriate weight for the exercise.

In general, you can expect to be able to increase weights on an exercise every 3rd or 4th workout. But some muscles are slower to adapt than others and may require more ‘experience’ with an exercise before they’re ready to progress.

Still not sure what you need to be doing?
Looking for an online fitness coach that ‘gets’ the challenges of being a midlife woman?
I currently have space for 3 new clients in my 1-on-1 fitness coaching practice. Once these spaces are full I won’t be accepting new clients until the fall.
You can find all the details about my services (including inspiring testimonials from previous clients) here >> 1-on-1 Fitness Coaching for Midlife Women.
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Why many mid-life women don’t lift weights | overcoming common objections

Despite understanding the myriad benefits of strength training, many midlife women still aren’t lifting weights.

While cardio workouts and yoga classes are important components of a well-rounded midlife fitness program (I do both and encourage my clients to do so as well), they just don’t stimulate muscle growth, enhance metabolism and slow bone density loss the same way a good old-fashioned weight lifting session does.

In my experience, the objections women typically have to strength training can be grouped into three categories; worries about ‘bulking up’, fear of injury and a simple lack of knowledge about where to start and how to progress their workouts.

Below I’ve expanded on these three objections and made some suggestions for overcoming them.

Read, comment, share and meet me in the weight room 😉

 

Why many midlife women don’t lift weights: common objections and how to overcome them

 

  • Fear of ‘bulking up’.

The word ‘bulky’ means different things to different people. Suffice it to say, the word is rarely used as a compliment.

Many women aren’t interested in developing the physique of either a body builder or a power lifter and believe that this is what will happen if they lift weights.

Most would prefer the ‘fitness model’ physique and don’t understand that the women in fitness magazines have to lift weights (and lift ‘heavy’) to get that look.

By ‘heavy’ I mean choosing a weight that allows you to perform only 8 to 12 good form repetitions before your muscles fatigue. (Read more about choosing the right weight for you here >> How much weight should I be lifting?)

Depending on the exercise, your fitness level and your experience with strength training, ‘heavy’ might be 5, 10 or 50 pounds. It’s all relative.

Midlife women have to work hard in the gym to build visible muscle mass, let alone ‘bulk up’. I regularly lift ‘heavy’ and have never been referred to (at least to my face. 🙂 …) as ‘bulky’.

  • Fear of injury

While strength training does have a risk of injury (let’s face it, any form of physical activity can lead to injury if you’re not careful…), the primary reason to lift weights at midlife is to create a body that’s more resistant to injury during every-day-living, as well as during the pursuit of all the other physical activities we love.

The key is to go slow. Start with simple movements with little to no load. Body weight exercises are a great place to begin.

Learn proper form. Read a book, watch a video or hire a coach (I currently have room for two new clients in my online coaching practice) if you need help. Watch yourself in the mirror. Create a strong mind-to-muscle connection.

Progress when your body is ready to. You’ll know it’s time to choose a heavier weight or a more challenging version of the exercise when you could easily perform a bunch of extra repetitions without losing form or feeling tired.

Always warm-up before you begin lifting. Spend time practicing the movements you’ll be doing in the workout. Cool down and stretch when you’re done.

And make sure you’re getting adequate rest between sets and sessions.

  • Lack of knowledge

If you’ve never lifted weights before, the gym can be an intimidating place. There’s lots of strange-looking equipment. And depending on where you work out, the sex-ratio in the free-weights section of the room may be heavily male-biased.

Remind yourself that we all start as beginners. And the only way to progress beyond your beginner status is to begin 🙂

For many women, group fitness classes are the perfect place to start their strength-training journey. Choose a class that includes a strength component (for example, bootcamp, body sculpt, lift and pump etc.) with an instructor who looks like she lifts weights. Pay attention to the form cues she gives you and don’t be afraid to approach her after class with your questions. Many of us relish the opportunity to turn other women on to strength training 🙂

Hire a personal trainer for a few sessions. She’ll help you figure out where to start, create a program that’s specific to your fitness level and goals, and tell you how and when to progress your workout.

Hanging with her in the gym will help you overcome those initial feelings of intimidation and start you on your way to feeling ‘at home’ in the gym.

Already have a little experience with strength training? Prefer working out at home? Looking to join a group of like-minded midlife women striving to be the healthiest, happiest and strongest version of themselves possible?
My 40+ Online Women’s Training group is about to get started with a new 3-month program.
Registration for the Spring 2017 session opens next week. Add your name to my Course Interest list (below) to ensure you get the details as soon as they’re available (and an early registration offer that I don’t share anywhere else).

 

5 reasons you’re not loving your workouts (and what to do about it)

Not everyone loves to exercise.

Even those of us whose livelihood depends on working out go through periods when exercise is not our favourite thing to do.

Days when we’d rather hit the snooze button than go to the gym.

Weeks where we have to have a stern chat with ourselves before each and every workout session.

There are lots of reasons why you might not be loving your workouts. Here are the five most common and some suggestions for getting past them.

5 reasons you’re not loving your workouts (and what to do about it)
  • You’re new to exercise (or returning from a hiatus). Making change is hard. Especially when that change requires you to move your body in ways it’s not used to. Or carve out time in an already busy schedule.

Newcomers don’t know how good regular exercise feels, so they often give up before they get to the stage of noticing the difference. Remind yourself that change takes time and that often, we might not enjoy the initial stages of developing a new habit.

That’s okay. Try focusing on all the positives that regular exercise brings to your life and trust that it will get easier and more fun if you keep at it.

  • You’ve chosen the wrong mode of exercise (for you). Not all types of exercise are equally appealing to all people. Sure, you can learn to like (and even love) a new form of exercise over time, but choosing a mode of exercise that’s in complete opposition to your preferred form of movement (not to mention your personality) is bound to lead to a lack of exercise love.

Need the accountability and energy of others? You’re probably better off choosing a group fitness class than heading into the weight room on your own.

Prefer the forest to the gym? Take your run out-of-doors to avoid the boredom of the treadmill.

And don’t discount the value of cycling to library or doing your errands on foot. Exercise comes in many different forms and as long a you’re moving your body regularly and at an intensity that’s a little higher than your normal mode of locomotion you’re doing something good for your body. Why not create your own weekly women’s hiking group?

Hiking with friends (and canines) is a great non-traditional form of exercise

  • You’re been doing the same thing for too long. Don’t confuse dislike with boredom. If you’ve been going to the same group fitness class forever or haven’t changed up your strength exercises for a month or two, chances are the reason you’re not loving your workouts is pure and simple boredom. Guess what? Your body is probably just as bored as your mind.

Try switching up the exercises in your workout. Or venturing into a different instructor’s class. (Don’t worry; we never take it personally when our regulars decide to try a new class 🙂 ).

It’s possible that a complete change of venue is what you really need to re-kindle your love of working out. Many gyms and boutique fitness studios offer introductory specials to newcomers. Use this as an opportunity try out that new kick-boxing facility or indoor cycling class for a week or two before committing to a longer term membership.

This is what I did in January 2016. It was exactly what I needed to re-discover my love of movement and weight-lifting (and paved the path for me to return to my first exercise love, strength training for muscle growth).

  • You’re feeling discomfort. By ‘discomfort’ I don’t mean pain. If exercise is painful, you need to stop immediately and make an appointment with your primary health care provider to figure out what’s up and how to fix it.

Instead, I’m referring to that feeling of doing something far enough outside of what you usually do that your brain tries to convince you to stop.

We all like things that are easy for us. Activities that are within our comfort zone. Things that we’re already good at. It’s the reason we push back when our trainer gives us a challenging workout. Or switches the order of our lifts. Or asks us to start our training session with core activation exercises rather than leaving the floor work until the end…

Exercise should push you slightly beyond your comfort zone. If it doesn’t, you won’t get faster, stronger, leaner or healthier.

Identify what’s causing the discomfort. Is it something you can sit with until it goes away? If not, and you’re actively avoiding it, try placing it higher on your priority list and get it done earlier in the workout, day or week.

This is what I’ve done in my own training. I strength train four days per week. The fourth workout of the week focuses on hamstrings and glutes; my least favourite muscles to exercise. Why? Because they’re the weakest muscles in my body and every exercise in this workout is hard for me.

Setting up for a barbell dead lift

After about a month on my current program, I realized that I purposefully placed this workout at the end of the week because it’s the one I’m most likely to blow off. I’ve since moved it to the top of the workout week, getting the discomfort out of the way before I move to the more ‘fun’ workouts.

  • You aren’t seeing results. I frequently hear from women who are frustrated and discouraged because they’re not seeing the results of their exercise efforts. As a consequence, they begin to loathe their workouts, viewing them as a waste of time and not worth doing.

Often this is because the only measure of progress they’re looking at is the bathroom scale.

© Okolaa | Dreamstime.com - Feet On Bathroom Scale With Scared Cute Face Photo

Changing your mindset about exercise is crucial to becoming someone who enjoys working out. Finding other ways to measure progress not only increases your enjoyment of exercise, it also helps you sit with discomfort long enough for the work to become less uncomfortable (and to start seeing the results your desire).

Try taking measurements. Or trying on the same pair of ‘thermometer’ jeans (you know, the ones you can just about get in to…) at regular intervals. Keep track of how many good form toe pushups you can do. Or how much weight you’re squatting. Give yourself a ‘star’ on the calendar for every workout you do and reward yourself at the end of the month for sticking with the program.

Remember that it takes longer to build muscle, lose weight and improve flexibility at midlife. We don’t have all those great hormones working in our favour the way we did in our 20’s and 30’s.

That doesn’t mean it’s not possible, just that we need to be realistic about our expectations, consistent with our routines and more patient with our bodies.

And remember that we’re in it for the long haul, not just to fit into a bathing suit next summer 😉

 

Nutritional strategies for midlife women | simple steps to a slimmer midsection

I struggle with food and the fact that since I have turned 42 my body seems to be gaining fat even if I weight train almost every day and I eat healthy 95% of the time.

I’m 51, peri-menopausal and only in past few months struggling with my weight for the first time since I was a teen. I have gained 12lb in past 5weeks! I’m super healthy with my diet already.

I am 44 pretty much have always worked out, some times more than others. But try to stay on a good path. As of this summer I gained the belly issue, which is driving me CRAZY.

The above are just a sampling of the e-mails I receive every week.

From midlife women who, despite exercising regularly and eating fairly well, can’t seem to shift the extra middle-of-the-body weight that all too often accompanies the fluctuating hormones of perimenopause.

Clearly, we all want to love our bellies once more 🙂

 

And there are more than aesthetic reasons for wanting to trim belly fat. The deeper layers (or ‘visceral’ fat) are linked to myriad health concerns in peri-menopausal women, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels.

Let’s leave for a moment, the possibility that their diets aren’t quite as ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ as they think (it’s still possible to have difficulty losing weight on a healthy diet) or that the exercise program they’re following isn’t precisely the one their body needs to build muscle and shed fat (remember doing more doesn’t always translate into faster progress towards one’s goals) and instead, talk about the most important places to focus their nutritional attention.

The following five strategies don’t require adhering to any particular ‘diet’ and can be implemented by simply taking the time to analyze your current way of eating (MyFitnessPal is the tool I use with my 1-on-1 coaching clients), noticing where improvements could be made and creating ‘rules’ for implementing those changes on a daily basis.

Recently, I’ve had a client lose 4% body fat, 13 pounds and 3 inches around her belly in our first two months of working together, by doing nothing more complicated than reducing alcohol, eliminating her morning ‘fancy’ coffee-shop coffee and add an extra serving of protein to her day. Not to mention going from 0 to 10+ good form toe push-ups!

She started a new exercise program as well, but I don’t believe that her short, twice-weekly strength workout has had as much impact on her physique as the nutritional changes she’s implemented; it’s always much harder to change your daily energy budget via exercise than via nutrition.

5 Nutritional Strategies for Midlife Women | simple steps to a slimmer midsection
  • Reduce added sugars

This is probably the single most important dietary change you can make (regardless of whether you’re aiming to tame your tummy or lose weight all over your body).

Midlife hormonal changes make the body more likely to store fat, in particular around the midsection. They also make it more difficult to access this stored fat as fuel during exercise. The combination of higher circulating insulin levels and lower estrogen production encourages the proliferation of fat cells in the belly. You’re not crazy if you’ve noticed a difference in the way your body responds to chocolate cake now, in your 40’s, as compared to your 20’s and 30’s.

For more discussion on the relationship between carbohydrates, insulin and fat loss you’ll want to read this post >> How to eat carbs and still lose weight

Go ahead. Eat the cake. Just not every day.

Registered dieticians recommend no more than 30 g of added sugars per day (note that if you’re using a food tracker like My Fitness Pal to analyze your diet, the daily sugar column may combine both the sugars that naturally occur in many whole foods with the sugars that manufacturers add to them; read your labels to know where your sugar is coming from).

  • Reduce alcohol

In addition to alcohol having more calories per gram (7 cals/gram) than either protein or carbohydrate (4 cals/gram), it is not used as fuel by your body and is immediately stored as fat (see the above comment about sugar). While red wine does have some health benefits, these same benefits can be obtained by eating certain fruits and vegetables.

I’ve personally noticed a big difference in my midsection by simply cutting out alcohol during the week (a habit that’s no longer serving me) and limiting myself to a glass of wine or two on Friday and Saturday nights. Moderation rather than deprivation 🙂

  • Increase protein

There are three reasons to ensure that you’re getting enough protein in midlife.

(1) Protein ameliorates the effects of carbohydrates on your blood sugar levels, keeping your body from going into fat storage mode.

(2) Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, thereby keeping you feeling fuller for longer and reducing cravings for starches and sweets.

(3) Protein is required to build muscle. Unlike fat, muscle is metabolically active. More muscle means a higher metabolic rate, thereby allowing you to burn more calories (estimates range from approximately 50 to 100 calories per pound of muscle each day), even while at rest.

Note that the standard RDA recommendation of .8 gram per kilogram lean body mass per day may not be enough to have a significant effect on weight loss, especially if you’re also training for strength.

Personally, I prefer to set daily protein goals based on macronutrients in my diet. I aim to get 30% of my daily calories through protein, although I’ll be the first to admit that 135 grams of protein isn’t always easy to pack into 3 meals and 1 or 2 snacks.

Struggling for ways to increase your protein intake? Here are some suggestions >> Getting More Protein in Your Diet

  • Increase fibre

Dietary fibre is important for digestive regularity. It helps keep blood cholesterol at healthy levels. It also fills you up. Vegetables and fruits are full of dietary fibre. Not to mention the array of vitamins and minerals they provide.

Aiming for 5-10 servings of fruits and veggies per day will typically provide you with the 25 mg of dietary fibre most nutritionists recommend for midlife women.

Eat a rainbow to ensure you’re getting a broad array of micronutrients too.

  • Reduce processed grains

The more processed the grain, the lower the nutritional value. Compare the protein, fibre and sugar content of a standard piece of white bread (1 g protein, 1 g fibre, 1 g sugar) with that of a sprouted grain bread (4 g protein, 3 g fibre, 0 g sugar). Given the above discussion on the effects of sugar, fibre and protein on middle-of-the-body weight gain, the choice should be obvious. Choose brown over white whenever possible.

Some women find that their bodies no longer tolerate grain-based starchy carbohydrates the way they did in their 30’s. Try substituting sweet potatoes, squashes, beans and pumpkin for breads, cereals, pasta and rice. It may take a week or two before you notice a change in your belly. Pay attention as well to your energy levels to determine whether this is an appropriate choice for you.

Note that this doesn’t mean you won’t ever eat a bagel or enjoy a piece of warm, French bread every again. Only that you’ll need to monitor the effect of these ‘indulgences’ on your body and decide how frequently to include them in your nutrition plan given your health and fitness goals.

Caveat:  Know your own body well enough to be able to distinguish between a ‘little belly bloat’ and a more serious, persistent health condition. A swollen or distended abdomen may be an indicator that there’s more than imbalanced hormones going on. See your primary care physician and tell them about your concerns sooner, rather than later.

Tips for progressing your planks

I include planks in every single group fitness class I teach and almost every program I write for clients. Front planks, side planks, feet-elevated planks and walking planks, to name but a few.

This is me, planking in Las Vegas (apparently what happens in the gym in Vegas, doesn’t stay in Vegas…)

I love that you can do them just about anywhere, with or without equipment, and that there are enough variations to keep even the most easily bored exerciser happy for months on end.

The key to continue getting the most bang for your plank-buck? Progress them over time.

Being able to do a 5-minute plank is great, don’t get me wrong, but there are better ways to use those precious minutes in the gym once you’re regularly hitting the 1-minute mark.

Benefits of including planks in your workouts
  • Planks are a whole-body exercise that require simultaneous contraction of the glutes, abdominals, quadriceps, chest, shoulders and back. They are the precursor to performing a push-up and will aid in your quest for a pull-up.
  • They increase your ability to perform activities of daily life (lifting groceries, shovelling snow and carrying children around).
  • They improve your performance in the weight room and during other forms of physical activity (running, cycling, kayaking, golfing, step aerobics) by strengthening your core. A stronger core is key to better movement in all directions.
Mastering the basics: planking 101

Whether performing the plank from knees or toes, from forearms or hands, with hands or feet elevated or with the help of an unstable exercise tool, the following cues will improve your plank and minimize your risk of injury:

  • Maintain a straight line from the back of your head to the back of your heels (or knees, when performing the simplest version of the plank). Bending at the hips reduces the effectiveness of the exercise (we’ve all seen people plank with their butts in the air; FYI a plank is a straight board…).
  • Engage abdominals and gluteal muscles to protect your lower back. Clenching your bum cheeks will reduce the tendency for the hips to drop towards the floor and a curve to appear in your lower back.
  • Pull elbows close to the body and shoulder blades back and down. Doing so will reduce the pressure on your shoulders and increase the contribution of your back muscles to the exercise. Remember, planks are just as much about the back side of the body as they are about your ‘abs’.
  • Keep forearms parallel to one another. When you clasp your hands together in front of you your arms form a triangle with your clavicle. In addition to looking desperate (praying for the exercise to be over), planking in the clasped hands position tends to lead to rounding of the shoulders. By separating the hands we facilitate shoulder retraction and encourage the back to help hold us in the plank.
  • Maintain a neutral neck. That means you don’t want to look down at the floor (this results in rounding of the shoulders; see point above) or crank your head up to look across the room (this will create tension in the neck and likely lead to dropped hips and an exaggerated curve in your lower spine).

Progressing your planks

There are lots of fun and creative ways to progress the basic plank.

Below are some of the techniques I use to progress my clients’ planks, ordered according to (approximately) increasing difficulty. Depending on your upper body strength and your innate sense of balance, some progressions may be more challenging than others.

  • Increase the lever length; if you’ve mastered the knee plank it’s time to lengthen the lever and come to toes. Just like pushing a child on a teeter-totter; the longer the lever, the more challenging the exercise.
  • Change the incline; Not quite ready to go from knees to toes? Try varying the incline to find a middle ground. Place your hands on a bench or box, with hands directly under shoulders and come to toes. Need to make a toe plank more challenging? Reverse the incline so that feet are elevated above the head; perhaps on a bench, or a stability ball when you’re ready to add dynamic stabilization to the mix (see below).
  • Lift a hand or foot; by decreasing the number of points of contact your body makes with the floor, you’re not only forcing the remaining limbs to take on a greater load, you’re also working on balance and anti-rotational core strength.

Start by lifting one foot about 4 inches off the ground (see right panel in the photo above). Aim to keep your hips level and toes turned down. Hold for as long as you can then switch. You might also choose to lift one hand and extend the arm in front of you, parallel to the floor. As you get better with your 3-point plank, try cycling through all four limbs, one at a time, holding each for as long as you can and immediately moving to the next limb when you can’t hold the previous one off the floor for another second.

  • Add instability to the mix; the moving 3-point plank, as described above is the easiest way to introduce a stability (read ‘balance’ ) challenge to your plank. Stability balls, Bosu balance trainers, balance boards and the TRX suspension trainers are all good options too.

Performing the basic plank with hands or feet elevated on any of the above tools will force stabilizing muscles in your shoulders, core and legs to work harder to maintain the static hold. You may need to revert to a shorter lever plank (i.e., a knee plank) when you first introduce instability. Don’t think of this as back-sliding, but re-inforcing the foundation you need to tackle the more challenging exercise.

 

  • Add movement to your plank; when we add movement to an static stabilization exercise like the plank, we’re asking the body to maintain stability in the face of an external force. This is good training for life 🙂 , especially if you’ve noticed your balance getting worse with age. These moving plank variations will require you to continually fight for stability, using many small muscles whose existence you may have been previously unaware of (but will undoubtably feel tomorrow).

Some of my favourite ‘moving planks’? Roll-outs and roll-ins on the ball, TRX suspension trainer ‘plank to knee-ins’, side planks with core rotation and plank rows (to name a few).

I find it helpful to include a variety of plank progressions in every workout. Some simple plank holds to work on form and endurance, an unstable plank or two to focus on balance and unilateral strength and a moving plank to further challenge balance and make my clients have to really think about what they’re doing (exercise is good for the brain, too 🙂 ).

Looking for more information about building a rock-solid core? You might be interested in the following posts:

10 Crunch-free exercises for a stronger core

5 Moves to Master in Midlife – Exercising for Form and Function

Exercises for Re-building Pelvic Floor Strength in Midlife

Core Training – 5 Moves for a Stronger Midsection

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?

Finding and giving value in 2017

The first post of the year.

For a fitness blogger, the topics are fairly predictable; how to get back to exercise after the holidays, tips for reducing added sugar, finding new motivation in a new year, tricks for creating attainable goals and making new habits stick, strategies for dealing with the January gym rush etc.

Not that these posts aren’t helpful. Heck, I’ve written many of them myself, and if that’s what you’re looking for, just click on the links above and get inspired.

This year’s first post is more personal.

Twenty-sixteen was a challenging year for me.

The plans that I’d made for family, fitness, business and personal development didn’t all pan out. Some of that was on me and some of it was completely beyond my control.

I didn’t get to the gym as much as usual. I indulged in alcohol more frequently than I typically do. I cancelled an online program due to lack of interest. I took things personally way more often than is typical of me.

There were periods of stillness, punctuated by tentative steps forward.

I joined a new gym. I took on new fitness coaching clients. I attended a midlife bloggers conference. I went to a health and wellness spa. I revitalized my newsletter. I blogged regularly. I travelled a fair bit and spent lots of time hanging with my family and friends.

In retrospect, I think I did pretty damn well, all things considered.

For the first time in fourteen months I find myself looking forward with hope and possibility. And the realization that 2017 can only be an improvement on 2016 if I’m clear on what I want from it.

It’s been years since I’ve made a New Year’s resolution. Not doing so has worked well for me, so I’m inclined to continue the lack of tradition 🙂

Setting ‘goals’ isn’t quite right either, as what I’m seeking isn’t material or measurable. (Don’t get me wrong, I have goals, they’re just not associated with the start of a new year…).

While vision boards work for many, I’m just not motivated by looking at pictures or motivational phrases.

What I’m after is a feeling. And that feeling is ‘value’.

  • I want to feel valuable to others. That what I give to my family, friends, clients and online community is of value. I want to know that when I write a blog post or share a personal story or help someone make a positive change in their life that my contribution is valued.
  • I want to value myself and my time more. Enough to put my own needs at least on par with the needs of others and spend less time on activities that aren’t adding value to my life or my business.
  • I want to make others feel valued. Letting people know I appreciate the time and energy they share with me. And that their actions have impacted me as an individual or an online community that they’re a part of.
Creating this feeling of ‘value’ is going to require change.

Some of those changes will be related to this blog and my activity on social media.

I’ve already implemented the first one. Every day in January, I’ll be sharing a ‘workout-let’ on my Instagram and Facebook fan pages; a short workout designed to help you get back to exercise after the holidays in a safe, sane and enjoyable fashion. (Make sure you’ve ‘liked’ my Facebook page and are ‘following’ me on Instagram to ensure you see them all and if you value the content I’ve shared, please pay it forward by sharing with your own friends and followers.)

Newsletter recipients will see a change in the frequency of emails from me. While I’ve enjoyed communicating twice-weekly in this less ‘formal’ fashion with my followers, the low rate of responses and overall engagement on this platform has led me to question whether it’s a valuable use of my time (and whether the recipients who do engage are receiving much value from my musings..).

I’ll be phasing out a program that’s helped many beginners to fitness and working on creating something new that will be considerably more valuable to my ‘ideal reader’ (midlife women with the goal of becoming the strongest, healthiest and happiest version of themselves possible).

While blogging will remain on my list of ‘valued’ activities, I’d like to tailor my posts to the topics of most value to my midlife female readers rather than those most ‘valued’ by search engines 🙂

Take a minute and help a girl out? 

Of the information I’m already sharing here, what types are most valuable to you? (e.g., workouts, how-to posts, fitness and nutrition information, motivational kicks in the butt etc).

Are there other types of posts that would be even more valuable to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thanks to all of you who regularly (or semi-regularly 😉 ) read, comment on and share my online offerings. You make me feel valued. I hope that I do the same for you.

5 midlife fitness posts you need to read before January 1st

In a perfect world, we’d all maintain our regular fitness routines and healthy ways of eating through the December holidays.

Nobody would gain an ounce and gyms wouldn’t be any busier January 1st than they were the week before.

Fitness professionals wouldn’t need to launch new programs aimed at ‘resolutioners’ and nobody’d be looking for Boxing Day sales at Lululemon.

In reality, the average North American will have gained 5-7 pounds during the month of December and be looking for ways to take it off and improve their fitness come New Year’s Day.

But starting and sticking with a new fitness and nutrition program is never easy.

Not only does it require persistence and perseverance, but preparation of the mental kind.

If you’re planning on heading back to the gym next week and want to maximize your chances of success, you’ll want to read the following posts. Particularly if you’re a midlife exerciser wanting to avoid injury and frustration because you’re not seeing results as quickly as you’d like to.

Get your mindset right, your expectations in check and you can’t help but reach your goals!

5 midlife fitness posts you need to read before January 1st
  • Create a flexible fitness plan > Given that the gym is likely to be a busy place for the next month or two, give some thought beforehand as to how you might have to adapt and modify your program if space is tight and equipment unavailable. You’ll be less likely to ditch the gym if you have a backup plan in place.
  • Essential stretches for midlife exercisers > Stretching is really just another component of a comprehensive fitness program. Spend as much time stretching post-workout as you do warming up pre-workout. Heading to a group fitness class? Don’t duck out before the instructor finishes with ‘mat time’ 🙂

Need a little help figuring out how to put it all together?

My online fitness program for women over 40 is all set to begin a new 3-month session. Registration is open now, with January 1st programs set to go out December 31st. (Click here for more details about the program, happy client testimonials and a link to the registration form >> 40+ Online Group Registration)

A winning combination of professional exercise instruction, life-stage-specific nutritional guidance, unparalleled group support and accountability and a coach who isn’t shy about challenging limiting beliefs and helping her clients recognize the many positive changes they’re making to their lives.

Why finishing 2016 strong is your best new year’s fitness strategy

This is the time of year when all good fitness bloggers share their strategies for getting through the holidays without gaining too much weight or losing too much ground at the gym.

Much of this advice centres around tips for navigating party food (‘eat before you go out’, ‘alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks’, ‘avoid second helpings’, ‘offer to bring a salad’…) and squeezing in short bouts of non-exercise movement under the guise of having family fun (‘go skating together’, ‘climbing a tobogganing hill burns 300 calories an hour’, ‘ head to an indoor pool and swim laps while the children play’…).

While I believe these bits of advice can be helpful (and I’ve written many posts myself, chock full of tips for avoiding holiday weight gain and carving out time for your Christmas-day workout…), I also think that they completely miss the mark when it comes to really helping people stay focused on their fitness and health goals for the long term. Helping them find not just a new year’s fitness strategy, but an approach that will work for months and years to come.

Most of us start the year off strong.

successful midlife exercise program

That’s why the gym is so full in January and your Facebook feed has been covered with ‘New Year’s Fitness’ offers for the past month.

We implement the tips and ‘micro’-strategies offered up, but can only do so for so long before we begin to lose motivation and revert to our previous state.

As the year draws to a close, we fizzle out, hoping, at best, to ‘maintain the status quo’ at the gym or strive for ‘zero net gain’ on the scale.

What if we finished the year as strong as we began it?

What if we shifted our mindset to value seeing a project through to the end?

What if we recognized the importance of being someone who finishes what she starts?

What if we no longer created a ‘new year’s fitness strategy’ each and every year?

I’m guessing that January would be just another month on the calendar. (And we’d see improvement in a lot of other areas in our lives…)

successful midlife exercise program

A month in which we’d continue to progress our workouts, improve our health and see the numbers on the scale shift in the direction we’d like. Without the dramatic increase (and subsequent equally dramatic decrease…) in the number of people at the gym.

I challenge you to think back to your January 2016 goals, intentions and resolutions. Be it weight loss, improved health, squatting your body weight or doing five consecutive push-ups.

Remind yourself why those goals were important to you.

If they’ve become less of a priority as the year elapsed, re-instate them to the top of your to-do list for the remainder of the month.

By the time 2017 arrives, you’ll already be well on your way to have re-established positive habits. Long before the January exercisers have done their thing; starting and stopping for another year.

Finishing the year strong is surely your best strategy for ensuring a fit, healthy and successful 2017 and beyond…

P.S. Although the next session of my 40+ Online Women’s Fitness program does begin on January 1st, it’s by no means a ‘seasonal’ program. We’re just continuing on with the work we’ve been doing all year. New participants ‘arrive’ monthly, start by setting some goals, and choose versions of the exercises and workouts that are appropriate for their fitness level.
If you register now, you’ll instantly receive an introductory workout you can use to ‘finish 2016 strong’ and be ready to hit the ground running in the new year. Details and a link to the registration form can be found here >> 40+ Online Fitness Training