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?

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Creating a successful midlife exercise program | Part 1

This post is the first in a two-part series. Partly because it’s a long one to write (and hence, read…), but also because twelve things is a lot to do at once. I challenge you to start implementing the points outlined below right now, before reading the follow up post and acting on the rest.

It’s a common lament among the 40-plus crowd; weight gain, muscle loss, lack of energy and injuries that just won’t go away.

Even women who’ve exercised for years and long followed sound nutritional practices complain that their trusted routines are no longer working to keep ‘menopot’ at bay.

While it’s true that midlife hormonal fluctuations can negatively effect metabolism, (how your body burns and stores the calories you eat), there are things you can do to mitigate their effects. ‘Tweaks’ you can make to your fitness program that maximize your results (and the likelihood that you’ll be able to keep on exercising safely for years to come).

successful midlife exercise program

Strength training: the secret to midlife fitness success 😉

Below, I share my six of my top twelve recommendations for creating a successful midlife exercise program (you’ll have to come back next time for the remainder).

Note that the general principles are applicable to all exercisers, at all ages and stages of life, even if the specifics are aimed at peri-menopausal women :-).

Tips for creating a successful midlife exercise program
  • Understand your midlife body. Information is power. The more you know about what’s happening to your body, the easier it is to work with the changes rather than against them.

Estrogen, progesterone and testosterone frequently start to decline around age 40. As a consequence, calories are more readily stored as fat, fat is less easily accessed as fuel and muscles become harder to build.

Changing the emphasis of your fitness routine from cardio to strength training may help preserve muscle mass and metabolism, as well as reducing midlife bone density loss.

Get the full hormone story here >> Hormones and weight gain after 40 | The biology of aging

  • Create goals that aren’t just about weight loss. Changing hormones and a slower metabolism means that weight loss won’t happen as easily or as quickly as it might have happened in your 20’s and 30’s. Focusing solely on the bathroom scale is likely to leave you feeling frustrated and ready to give up.

In addition to body composition change goals (weight loss, % body fat), I encourage my clients to also create Habit and Performance goals.

Habit goals (for example, exercising three times per week, drinking 32 ounces daily, eating breakfast every morning, walking for 30 minutes each day) are often the easiest to achieve and make us feel successful and empowered.

Performance goals (for example, running a 5k, doing 12 consecutive toe pushups, squatting your body weight) push us to become ‘more’ and are tangible evidence of improved fitness.

successful midlife exercise program

Four of my ’50 by 50′ goals are Performance-based

And the best thing? When we achieve our Habit and Performance goals, body composition change tends to follow.

Need some help developing your new habit? >> The science of creating new health and fitness habits

  • Get your mindset right. The body achieves what the mind believes. Limiting beliefs and negative thinking will only get you more of the same. Creating a successful midlife exercise program often requires a shift in how we think.

A common midlife mindset around exercise and nutrition is what I call the ‘all or nothing’ approach. As in, ‘If I can’t get a full hour’s workout in, there’s no point in going to the gym’ OR ‘I’ve already wrecked today’s meal plan, might as well have dessert tonight and start again in the morning’.

All or nothing usually leads to nothing. Followed quickly by a feeling of defeat and then actual giving up.

Try these adopting these mindset shifts as part of your new exercise plan. Think of it as fitness for your brain >> Mindset shifts for midlife fitness success

  • Focus less on what works for everybody else and more on figuring out what works for you. Sometimes it feels like everybody else has figured out the key to midlife fitness success but us. Surely, if we do what she’s doing (Crossfit, Pilates, carb-cycling, intermittent fasting, the ketogenic diet or two hours of cardio each day), we’ll get the same results.

The thing is, we’re all unique individuals, with unique goals, fitness levels, hormonal profiles, likes, dislikes and abilities. What’s popular isn’t necessarily the program or plan that will work for you. You may not enjoy it. It may fall out of vogue. You may get injured doing it. Fitness doesn’t need to be fashionable to work.

successful midlife exercise program

While flipping tires may work for her, Crossfit may not be the best workout for you…

It does, however, need to be sane, safe and pleasurable >> Everything you need to know to be a fitness success

  • Harness the power of your calendar. When you schedule an appointment with your dentist or doctor you write in on your calendar. In part, so you don’t forget to go (since they’re nearly impossible to re-schedule promptly…), but also, because you value the service your dentist and doctor are performing for you.

Why not value the service exercise does for you equally?

Making an exercise appointment with yourself indicates that you recognize and value the role of fitness in your life. Make that appointment and keep it. (Again and again and again if you’re serious about making the exercise habit a regular part of your life.)

successful midlife exercise program

Schedule your workouts in pen; so you can’t erase them!

For tips on creating an exercise schedule that works for you click here >> Get out your calendar now

  • Emphasize the warmup and stretch. Now, more than ever, your body needs a proper warmup before you exercise and lots of time for gentle stretching when you’re finished. Not only to prevent injury, but also to counteract our modern sedentary lifestyle and the shortened muscles it creates.

The good thing about warmups and time on your mat? They tend to be more pleasurable activities than burpees or H.I.I.T. :-).

For an in-depth explanation of the benefits of a good pre-exercise warmup (and a link to a real-time video warmup you can follow along with) click here >> A pre-workout warmup for midlife exercisers

Need some suggestions for post-workout stretches? Here are a few of my favourites >> Essential stretches for mid-life exercisers

Click here to read the second post in this series “Creating a successful Midlife Exercise Program: Part 2”. Six more suggestions for helping you start and stick with a fitness program through midlife and beyond…

Have you found an approach to fitness and exercise at midlife that’s working for you?

Have you used any of the above six guidelines to help you create a successful midlife exercise program?

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Create a flexible fitness plan

There’s nothing worse than arriving at the gym, detailed workout plan in hand, only to find the equipment you need already occupied.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting a few minutes for your turn. Or asking the woman resting between sets of lat pulldowns if you can ‘work in’.

flexible fitness plan

She looks super friendly. I wouldn’t hesitate to ask to ‘work in’!

Other days, you can just tell that the guy in the squat rack plans on doing his entire workout there.

And those times when the gym is so crowded there’s no space left to claim? Super frustrating.

For many of us, just getting to the gym is a big deal (feeling a bit of ‘gymtimidation’? Here are some tips for increasing your confidence in the weight room). Having to then figure out what to do in place of the program we’d planned on is enough to discourage us from getting off the elliptical or even starting our workout in the first place.

The best solution to all of the above challenges? Creating a flexible fitness plan.

In this case, ‘flexible’ doesn’t refer to how ‘bendy’ you are (although stretching does need to be a regular part of your exercise routine). Instead, it means being creative and knowledgable enough to modify your program on the fly.

Let me explain.

Olympic bar back squats are the first exercise on your program. But ‘squat rack guy’ is doing five hundred sets of dead lifts there (and then plans of staying put for a biceps workout…). Today, you might substitute another squat for your back squat, looking around to see what other equipment is available to get the job done. Sure, your dumbbell squats might not be as heavy as you’d like, but you can always perform some extra reps or slow the tempo down to achieve the same result. (Need some alternate squat suggestions? Here are a few of my favourite squat variations).

Next you’re headed to the lat pulldown machine. But your gym only has one and it seems like there’s always somebody sitting on it. You can perform the same exercise on a cable and pulley machine or by wrapping a band around the chin-up bar and banging out a few assisted pull-ups. (Here’s a short video demo of band-assisted pull-ups).

flexible fitness plan

I’m still working on these. They’re one of my ’50 before 50′ goals

The key is to know which muscle group(s) a particular exercise is working and being armed with a few alternatives before you get to the gym.

Not sure what to substitute? If you’re working with a trainer, ask her for exercise alternatives (I give my 40+ Online Fitness clients a choice of three moves per exercise; moves that often include different equipment, as well as different levels of intensity). If not, find an online resource (I like Bodybuilding.com) or a book (Women’s Health Big Book of Exercises illustrates dozens of variations of the ‘big’ lifts) and do a little research.

Other suggestions for creating a flexible fitness plan?
  • alter the order of your exercises; just because back squat is the first exercise in your program doesn’t mean that you always need to start with it.

While your trainer (or program writer) had a good reason for placing it there, switching up the order of exercises from time to time won’t hinder your progress. Better to do those squats later on in the program (even if it means your legs have been pre-fatigued by another exercise and you don’t add as many plates to the bar) than to skip them entirely.

You may notice that certain exercises become more (or less) challenging when you vary their order in your workout. Personally, I enjoy it when I feel an exercise a little bit more than usual 🙂

  • switch up cardio and strength workouts; if you perform cardio and strength workouts on separate days, substitute one for the other on a day when either the cardio machines are full or there’s no room on the weight room floor.

If you perform them both within the same workout, switch the order to maximize your access to the equipment. Although there are circumstances in which the order you perform these components of your workout makes a difference, if your options are ‘reverse the order’ and ‘skip weights (or cardio) entirely’, worry less about the effects of order and more about getting the whole workout done.

flexible fitness plan

My current favourite cardio machine

  • take it to the halls (or track or out-of-doors); many gyms and rec centres have alternate places you can perform your workout. If space is limited in the gym, grab a few pieces of equipment (again, you’ll need to know which exercises to substitute for the exercises in your program that require barbells, cable and pulley machines and the squat rack) and head out into the hall or up to the walking track.

Some facilities will even let you take equipment outside (walking lunges in the parking lot or TRX training at the soccer field, perhaps). Check with the weight room attendant before you make off with equipment though; we want to ensure that your membership doesn’t get revoked…).

  • jump into a group fitness class instead; most gyms offer group fitness and spinning classes in addition to cardio machines and a weight room. Typically, these will be happening at the same times the gym is busy (mornings and evenings are the most popular times for exercise and facilities managers schedule their classes accordingly). If you’re new to strength training, group fitness classes are a great place to start.

Given the popularity of resistance training, it’s a good bet that many of the classes your facility offers will include (or consist entirely of) a strength training component. Turn the frustration of a busy gym into an opportunity to learn some new moves and get instruction on proper form.

While it’s always a good idea to have a written workout plan before you hit the gym, there are days when you’ll need to be flexible to get it done. A flexible fitness plan, as it were!

Not on my email list? Click this link and watch for your first email from me >> Fitknitchick Email Updates

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Seven steps to midlife fitness success

I have a client. Her name is Jill. And to me, she’s the epitome of midlife fitness success.

midlife fitness success

This is not Jill. But it could be. She loves to hike.

She’s not a fitness model.

Although she’s strong, she doesn’t have six pack abs or buns of steel. While she enjoys hiking, cycling and weight lifting, she doesn’t run marathons or do triathlons or spend excessive hours in the gym. While focusing on a mainly healthy diet, she still enjoys marshmallows and chocolate and breadsticks at Ruby Tuesdays.

She possesses all of the characteristics I believe one needs to make fitness a life long habit and is the perfect example for becoming a raging (in the ‘good’ way, not the other, more ‘hormonal’ way) midlife fitness success.

Seven steps to becoming a midlife fitness success

Sself-motivated. Jill has goals and knows why those goals are important to her. She doesn’t need daily reminders to fit her workouts in and plan healthy meals. She’s an independent exerciser who just needs to know that somebody has a long term plan for helping her progress towards those goals and is checking in with her regularly for accountability. I’m happy to be that person for her.

Uunafraid. She’s not afraid of trying new things. Many of us get stuck in a fitness rut. We do the same things over and over again, even if those things don’t seem to be moving us any closer to our goals. In the year we’ve been working together, I’ve given Jill lots of new things to try; new exercises, new ways of putting those exercises together, new ways of approaching nutrition. She’s willingly tackled them all (although she usually has lots of questions about the new approach first, see Ccurious, below…). I love that becoming stronger motivated her to plan and set out on her first solo overnight backpacking trip (too bad about the raccoons 😉 ).

Cconsistent. She rarely misses a workout. Even when she’s on holidays, at the lake or in the midst of the ‘busy time of year’ at work. Sometimes those workouts are shorter than planned, but she knows that doing something is better than doing nothing. She’s also got the longest MyFitnessPal streak I’ve ever seen; over 360 days without missing a log-in!

Ccurious. Jill loves to read about nutrition and exercise. She often emails me with questions about things she’s read. Sometimes I have an answer, other times her query motivates me to do a little research myself. Her inquisitiveness shows me that she takes ownership of her health and fitness; a key component to becoming a long term regular exerciser.

E easy-going. She’s patient and realistic about how long it really takes to see the results of regular exercise and good nutrition. She’s kind to herself when she stumbles and is able to laugh at small setbacks and behaviours that seem hard to change. While her goals are important to her, they aren’t all-consuming. Fitness and nutrition are priorities, but they don’t over-shadow the other priorities in her life (the perfect recipe for making oneself crazy and alienating those closest to us).

Ssnaps back quickly. Jill is resilient. When she gets off track (typically with nutrition, as is the case for most of us), she rebounds quickly. Re-commiting herself to whatever our current nutritional goals are and planning and prepping meals to support those goals. I appreciate her dedication to reducing packaging wherever possible and making things ‘from scratch’ rather than buying ready-made!

Sself-reflective. One of the things I love most of all about Jill is her willingness to self-reflect and anticipate and ask for exactly what she needs. During our bi-weekly coaching calls we often look back on how much has changed over the year we’ve been working together, particularly when it comes to mindset and expectations. We’ve moved from focusing primarily on weight loss (25+ pounds in a year) and muscle ‘toning’ to setting new performance standards on her ‘big lifts’. I’m looking forward to seeing where she’ll go with her (current) 135 pound dead lift!

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of our coaching relationship. I’d like to congratulate Jill for all of the successes she’s had this year and wish her many more in the year to come!

midlife fitness success

Happy Anniversary Jill! Enjoy your cake. Note the serving size and the fruit 😉

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Returning to fitness as a beginner

For the past week, I’ve been trying to decide what to focus on as I return to fitness after the loss of my daughter.

I know that I need to get back to regular strength training (I can already see muscle loss and a quick push-up test confirmed that I’ve lost strength as well).

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I know that I need to challenge my heart and lungs (while daily walks are a great way to add movement and reduce stress, they aren’t quite intense enough to stave off cardiovascular de-conditioning).

I know that I need to stretch more (my lower back has been bothering me from too much sitting and my achilles tendonitis has been flaring up despite having been away from step class for a month).

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I know that I need to return to a more balanced way of eating (the past month has been fuelled primarily by comfort foods; breads, pasta, baking and way too much wine).

I know that I’m not drinking enough water (it’s easy to tell; just check the colour of your urine).

I’ve been looking over past programs that I’ve written for myself and I have to say, my heart just isn’t into body-part splits or HIIT or pre-exhaust supersets. Not to mention that I’ve de-conditioned enough to make those inappropriate until I’m stronger and have more energy.

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I’ve come to the conclusion that the best place to start is back at the beginning.

Returning to fitness as a beginner. Following a program that’s short in duration and doesn’t require more than two or three days a week. Focusing on simple nutritional swaps and being more mindful of my body’s need for water and whole foods. Re-creating the exercise and eating habits that have kept me healthy and happy for many years. One step at a time. Day by day.

 

 

 

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5 Must-Have Exercise Books For Your Fitness Library

Whether you’re brand new to weight-lifting or a seasoned pro, getting better at your sport often means doing a little research. Spending some time watching exercise videos, or better yet, reading exercise books to learn a new exercise, improve your exercise form or find a new program to follow.

Traditionally, most of the strength training titles published focused almost exclusively on the goals and needs of men. In particular, young, virile, testosterone-fuelled men.

Don’t get distracted…Keep reading!

The needs of women were largely overlooked. Especially the needs of women who aren’t so much interested in getting ‘bikini ready’ (the focus of most fitness magazines) as ‘training for the sport of life’. Getting stronger, yes, but also becoming more capable of doing all the other activities we love, for today, tomorrow and a long time to come.

Fast forward to the mid-2000’s, where strength training titles for females exploded.

About time.

Fitnitchick’s 5 ‘must-have’ exercise books for your fitness library

 

Women’s Health Big Book of Exercise (2010; Adam Campbell)

A huge tome, not meant to be lugged back and forth to the gym (that would be a workout, in and of itself…), but perfect when you need to look up an exercise or find an alternative version of an old one that you’ve tired of.

The ‘Big Book’ is organized according to body part (Chest, Back, Shoulders, Arms, Quadriceps and Calves, Glutes and Hamstrings, Core and Total Body). For each major muscle group, the ‘main moves’ (that is, the fundamental moves that need to be mastered) are described first, followed by variations of each exercise that can be performed with different types of equipment (body weight, barbells, dumbbells, cable and pulley machines, stability balls and even the TRX suspension trainer).

Each and every exercise is illustrated, with easy-to-follow exercise descriptions and form cues. There’s even a section of ready-made workouts at the back (‘The Best Workouts for Everything’), including workouts for athletes, pre-natal women, body-weight only fans and my favourite, crowded gyms.

 

The Female Body Breakthrough (2009; Rachel Cosgrove)

One of the first strength training titles specifically aimed at getting regular women into the weight room. In addition to a 16-week, progressive resistance program (a program that I return to whenever I get tired of my own programming and want to follow somebody else’s lead…), Rachel Cosgrove’s book also includes advice about mindset, exercise nutrition, hormones, goal-setting and emotional eating.

The workouts are well-illustrated and there are plenty of testimonials to her approach scattered throughout the book; perfect for those day when you need a little motivation, inspiration and re-assurance that the program works. And for those of us who love it when fitness professionals cite actual research studies to back their claims, a list of references to original research in the fields of physiology, sports medicine and endocrinology.

 

The New Rules of Lifting for Women (2007; Lou Schuler with Cassandra Forsythe and Alwyn Cosgrove)

Another title dedicated to encouraging women to take strength training seriously (the subtitle of the book; “Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess”…).

This books combines 16-weeks of progressive resistance training with a wealth of information on nutrition and eating for fat loss (including a variety of sample meal plans and recipes to support them).

The workouts are functional in nature (squats, lunges, dead lifts, rows, push ups) are rely heavily on standard weight room equipment (dumbbells, benches, barbells, cable and pulley etc.).

I love that the workouts are fairly simple in their design (typically 5-8 exercises, performed in super-set style) and don’t require more than 40-50 minutes in the gym. All exercises are illustrated with detailed instructions on how to perform them safely and with good form. This is another title that I’ve used extensively in my own training.

 

Kettlebells for Women (2012; Lauren Brooks)

Ever since I took my first kettlebell workshop, I’ve been enamoured with this relatively new-to-the-big-box-gym-goer tool. I love how it makes me feel strong and capable and bad-ass (despite the wrinkles and grey hairs…).

Because they’re not just simply a ‘weight with handles’, I recommend that all newcomers to kettlebell training either get some in-person instruction or find a good book or video to read and study before they set up for their first swing.

I think Kettlebells for Women is the perfect place to start. Beginning with a brief history of kettlebell training, the author outlines the benefits of using kettlebells (both in addition to and in place of traditional dumbbells and barbells) and provides suggestions as to the weight of bells the user should purchase (or have available to them) to maximize the benefits of her workouts.

The remainder of the book outlines a 12-week progressive resistance program. It includes 15 different workouts (with levels from beginner to advanced) and illustrated explanations of each exercise, including the exercises most frequently associated with kettlebell training; swings, cleans, windmills, snatches and the Turkish Get-Up.

The only downside to kettlebell training? The expense of the equipment. And the more frequently you do the workouts, the more quickly you’ll outgrow your equipment 😉

 

Ultimate Booty Workouts (2013, Tamara Grand aka Fitknitchick 😉 )

If you’re a relatively new visiter to this website, you won’t know that I published my first ever fitness title a little over a year and a half ago. Although titled ‘Ultimate Booty Workouts’, the book is much more than just an exercise program for building a better butt.

In it, I outline my fitness philosophy for women, including the importance of goal setting, tips for finding motivation, non-aesthetic benefits of strength training, nutrition to support your efforts in the gym as well as tips for measuring progress off and on the scale.

The program itself focuses on the core and lower body (hamstrings, glutes, calves and quads), with suggestions for incorporating upper body training and cardio into the 12-week program. All exercises are illustrated (you may recognize one of the models… hint, hint), as are the suggested warm up moves, stretches and foam rolling exercises. There are even blank workout templates for you to photocopy and take with you to the gym.

Curious as to what it was like to actually write a fitness book AND model for the photo shoot? I shared my experiences here and here, respectively.

 

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Books make great Christmas presents. Especially the last one 😉

Do you have any titles to add to my fitness library?

Any books that have been particularly helpful to you as you progress with strength training?

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5 Exercises for a Strong Lower Back

Whether you’re brand new to strength training or have been lifting weights for years, chances are you’ve had some experience with lower back pain. (If you are a newbie, congrats!  Here are some great ‘get started’ with weight lifting posts for you to read).

exercises for a strong lower back

Not the ‘OMG I can’t move my legs’ pain; that’s indicative of a serious injury and needs medical attention stat.

But rather that nagging ache that comes and goes and forces you to take a few days off training, seek some relief on the heating pad and pop an Advil or two before bed.

Most lower back pain is mechanical in nature. Meaning that it’s not caused by injury per se, but  by muscles that are weak, inflexible or out of balance with the muscles around them.

The most likely culprits?

Weak or inhibited glutes, weak abdominals, tight hamstrings and tight hip flexors. The very same muscles that are required to perform the exercises that form the foundation of most strength training programs; squats, lunges, dead lifts and overhead presses.

exercises for a strong lower back

Ineffective recruitment and coordination of the lower body’s ‘power muscles’ increases the stress and force on the lower spine, setting the stage for a variety of conditions ranging from mild muscular strain to ruptured disks.

The good news is, most lower back pain is preventable. Try adding the following five exercises to your regular strength training program to strengthen your lower back and reduce your risk of injury.

The added bonus of a strong lower back? Your’ll likely be able to squat heavier and dead lift more.

exercises for a strong lower back

5 exercises for a strong lower back

Bird dog

Come on to all fours, with hands under shoulders and knees under hips. Tighten abdominals and simultaneously lift and extend the right arm and left leg so that they’re both parallel to the ground. Keeping hips square and level, hold for 3 to 5 seconds before returning to the starting position. Pause and repeat with the left arm and right leg. Continue alternating until you’ve competed a total of 8 to 10 repetitions.

exercises for a strong lower back

Hip bridges

Start by laying on your back, with knees bent and feet on the floor. Tighten your bum cheeks and belly to lift your torso up and off the floor. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Lower, rest and 8 to 10 times.
exercises for a strong lower back

Modified clam shells

Lay on your side with hips and knees bent at a 90 degree angle. Top knee and ankle should be directly over the bottom knee and ankle. Flex your feet and using the side of the top leg, lift the top leg up to open the hip. Imagine that your bent legs are the top and bottom shells of a clam and your pelvis, the hinge. Slowly lower and repeat. Complete 10 to 12 repetitions on each side.

exercises for a strong lower back

Front plank

Come into forearm plank, on either knees or toes. Forearms will be on the floor, parallel to one another, with elbows directly underneath shoulders. Tighten abdominals and glutes to lift and hold your body in a straight line. Keep shoulder blades retracted to encourage the muscles of your upper back to participate in the exercise. Hold for 30 s. Rest and repeat twice more. (Once your toe plank is solid, you can make this move more challenging by lifting one foot off the ground and turning it into a 3-point toe plank).

21DayPlankDemo

Prone chest raise

Lay face down on a yoga mat, with legs wider than hip distance apart and feet flexed. Place hands behind your head, with elbows bent and fingers interlace. Inhale, then exhale as you use your glutes and lower back to lift your chest up and off the floor. Pause at the top before slowly lowering yourself back to the ground. Rest and repeat for a total of 8 to 10 reps. (Once you get good at this one, you can progress to the back extension machine in the gym).
ProneChestRaise

 

Of course, don’t forget to book-end your workout with some stretching for those overly-tight hamstrings and hip flexors. You can find sample hamstring stretches here as well as the essential stretches every midlife exerciser needs to be doing here.

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How much weight should I be lifting?

One of the biggest challenges women face when they start a strength training program is figuring out how much weight they should be lifting. (New to strength training? Here’s a list of posts I’ve written to help you get started).

how much weight should I be lifting via fitknitchick.com

Most err on the size of caution, lifting less weight that they’re capable of either because they fear getting ‘bulky’ or they just don’t realize how strong their bodies actually are (how heavy is your purse? your groceries? your toddler? that giant bag of dog food you carried from the car to the house?).

The thing is, muscles require adequate stimulation to get strong.

They quickly adapt to the loads we lift regularly and stop increasing in size and strength unless we consistently up the challenge (we all hit plateaus from time to time; here are tricks for busting through them).

Given that loss of muscle mass contributes to midlife weight gain, you want to be sure that you’re lifting heavy enough to actually see the results of your efforts in the gym.

Most of the women I work with via my online fitness groups and 1-on-1 fitness coaching program have two primary goals; to build muscle and lose body fat. (If you’re looking for an online fitness coach who specializes in midlife women, I’m your girl and just happen to have two spots opening up in my practice later this month. Click through the link to read about the service and apply to work with me).

As a consequence, I typically program them in the 8 to 12 (or ‘hypertrophy’) repetition range.

That is, I ask them to perform somewhere between 8 and 12 good form repetitions of each exercise in their workout (the exact range depends on what we’re focusing on in each particular phase of their program; lower rep ranges for strength phases, higher rep ranges for muscle building and leaning out).

how heavy should I be lifting via fitknitchick.com

 

Because I don’t train my clients in person, I give them detailed instructions to determine whether their weights are heavy enough.

How much weight should I be lifting?

For example, during week 1 of a program that requires a client to perform 10 to 12 dumbbell chest presses I’d ask them to do the following;

  • choose a weight that they think they can manage 12 repetitions with (most will under-estimate)
  • attempt to perform 12 good form repetitions
  • evaluate their performance and adjust accordingly
  • if they managed all 12 repetitions and feel that they could easily have performed at least 4 or 5 more, increase their weight on the next set, attempting to find a weight that they can just reach 12 reps with (I usually recommend increasing weights by no more than 10% at a time; of course, depending on the dumbbell options available to you, this may not be possible).
  • if they were only able to perform 8 good form repetitions, stick with the same weight until they’re consistently reaching the upper value of the repetition range (12 reps) for the required number of sets
  • if they managed fewer than 8 good form repetitions, lower their weight on the next set, again attempting to find a weight that they can just reach 12 reps with

Note that this is a bit of an iterative process. Sometimes it will take you several sets (and more than one workout) to determine your current ‘best’ weight for an exercise.

Think of this period of figuring things out as additional preparation time. You’re teaching your body how to properly perform the exercise and learning how to listen to any messages it’s sending you about joint mobility, range of motion, bilateral asymmetry and weakness.

After several workouts, you’ll probably notice that you’re able to perform more repetitions with the weights you’ve chosen. That’s great! A sure sign that you’re getting stronger. And an indication that you need to progress your workouts.

Rather than simply performing more repetitions with the same weight (remember the number of repetitions you perform is specific to your goals), try increasing your load.

You may find that the new, heavier weight only allows you to complete 6 or 8 or 10 good form repetitions.

That’s okay. Continue with this weight until you can again, perform 12 reps (or the upper limit of your prescribed rep range) for the required number of sets.

A couple of caveats:
  • DON’T try to increase weights on every exercise in your workout at once. That’s a recipe for exhaustion and injury! I typically try to progress 1 to 3 exercises per workout. Some weeks I’m more successful than others.
  • DON’T sacrifice form for reps. Doing extra repetitions with poor form will only slow your progress.
  • DON’T expect gains to be linear. Sometimes a big weight increase will be followed by a month-long plateau. And holidays and illness will frequently force you to return to a lower weight than you’d been lifting previously.
  • DO view lifting heavier as a good thing. Increasing muscle mass and functional strength are important contributors to overall health and aging well!

 

Which exercises have you progressed your weights on lately?

 

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The “All you need is a bench (and your smartphone)” Workout

Disclaimer: The post (and the accompanying video workout) was sponsored by Corning® Gorilla® Glass. As always, opinions, errors and bad puns are my own.

There are three things that I never set foot on the gym floor or in the aerobics studio without;

  • A written plan; Whether it’s an outline to a group fitness class, a new program for a personal training client or my own workout for the day, having a plan is key to keeping the intensity up, the chit-chat down and the workout on track.
  • Water; I use workout time to fit in 1/2 to 3/4 of a litre. I sweat a lot when I’m exercising and use rest breaks between sets to rehydrate and stay energized.
  • My smartphone; Used for playing music and timing intervals in group fitness classes, tracking clients’ measurements and appointments and jotting down the reps, sets and loads completed in my own workouts, my phone is never more than an arm’s length away.

bench workout

Given the intensity of my workouts, the hard surfaces I often train on and the record number of people in the gym this time of year, I know that it’s only a matter of time before my phone goes flying off the back of the treadmill, gets dropped mid-burpee or stepped on by the guy on the bench next to me.

bench workout

Since my phone is essentially my brain’s back-up drive, containing not only all of my professional contacts’ information, but the calendars of my husband’s travel schedule and three children’s activities, I do worry about the potential damage such drops might cause. (Although I’m always up for an ‘excuse’ to upgrade my device… 😉 ).

Apparently, I’ve been worrying needlessly.

Turns out that the touch screen on my phone has Corning® Gorilla® Glass; a strengthened material that’s made by dipping glass into a molten salt bath of potassium nitrate. Potassium ions in the salt bath diffuse into the glass, creating a hardened compression layer on the surface. A layer that helps to protect the phone from damage when dropped.

In lab tests, Gorilla Glass 4 survives up to 80% of the time when dropped from a height of three feet (about the distance from the ‘phone ledge’ on most treadmills and ellipticals to the floor) and boasts improved damage resistance against sharp contact (like drops on the concrete in my carport, where today’s workout video was filmed).

The “All you need is a bench (and your smartphone and Gorilla Glass 4)” Workout

Today’s workout requires only that you have access to a bench and a smartphone; the bench for the workout itself and the phone to time your work and rest intervals.

Set your interval timer for 9 rounds of 45 s work and 15 s rest (18 intervals if you’re planning on going through a second time).

Perform AMRAP (as many reps as ‘pretty’) of each of the following exercises in the allocated interval (45 s), rest (15 s) then move on to the next exercise. See the video below for demonstrations of each exercise and my favourite coaching cues.

  • Lateral bench step ups (left foot on bench)
  • Bench push ups
  • Lateral bench step ups (right foot on bench)
  • Bench tricep dips
  • Split lunges (left foot on bench)
  • “Walking” plank
  • Split lunges (right foot on bench)
  • V-sit with leg lifts
  • Box jumps

Always begin each workout with a brief warm up (5 minutes or so of light calisthenics and range of motion joint movements). End with a stretch, focusing on the major muscle groups, including glutes, hamstrings, quads, chest, back and shoulders.

 

If you’ve enjoyed this workout, please take a minute to ‘Like’, ‘Comment’ and ‘Share’. Positive feedback makes the world go ’round!

 

Disclaimer: Although I am a Certified Personal Trainer, I am not YOUR Personal Trainer ;-). Interested in working with me? Check out the online fitness services I offer. I’d love to work with YOU!

Corning® Gorilla® Glass has been used on nearly 4 billion devices from 40 major brands. Is it on yours? Click here to find out.

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Corning® Gorilla® Glass. The opinions and text are all mine.

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