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As a woman who’s not afraid to sweat it out in the weight room, you probably consider an athletic body, with curves sculpted by sets and reps in the gym, to be your ideal physique.
But your iron-pumping sessions do more than just make your body look a hundred times better than “skinny.” As the proud owner of strong, lean muscles, your body also functions better. In fact, building lean muscle tissue is actually one of your best defenses against diseases, harmful fat accumulation, and many of the health risks associated with aging. The bottom line: those dumbbells are making you fit on the inside, not just out.
You already know that lifting is like an extra battery boost for your metabolism, since muscle tissue helps you burn more calories throughout the day and stokes your calorie-burning engine to burn more fat. A body with more muscle and less fat is key — and not just for cosmetic reasons. “People think that fat just looks ugly, but the fact is, it’s metabolically toxic,” says Vonda Wright, MD, author of Fitness After 40 (Amacom, 2009), and an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh. “It isn’t just hanging around, taking up more space. What fat does is it produces toxic chemicals (like too much estrogen), which not only leads to metabolic imbalances, but can also contribute to the development of cancer.”
Even before you were old enough to say “biceps curls,” researchers were busy linking body fat to disease. But now, new studies are looking at the other end of the spectrum, discovering not only the ways in which fat deteriorates your health, but also how muscle can help boost it. One remarkable study was published late last year in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, with University of California, Los Angeles researchers linking muscle tissue with type 2 diabetes. Specifically, they found that the most muscular study participants were 28 percent less likely to have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes compared to the least muscular participants. “We want to keep our lean muscle so we don’t become insulin insensitive, gain weight and develop diabetes,” explains Wright.
For women especially, lifting days are important — not just right now, but in order to “bank” muscle for the future. “You lose muscle mass and strength each year starting around age 50,” says Michele Kettles, MD, MSPH, the executive vice president and chief operating officer at Cooper Clinic. Women who avidly weight train throughout their lives are more apt to keep their lean muscle mass as they age, instead of experiencing the weakness that comes with muscle loss and frailty.
“We need to stay strong and have lean muscle so that we can continue to be functional, do everything that we want to do, not feel weak and not get injured later,” Wright advises.
In order to stay in action later — and boost your health now — you need to commit to pumping iron. By keeping a date with the weights, you can achieve the ultimate in health and fitness: a body that looks good and performs optimally for life.
Women vs. Men
More women are lifting weights than sequestering themselves to cardio classes compared to 20 years ago. But do we build muscle the same way as men? The answer is, simply, no.
“One of the reasons why men and women gain and lose muscle at different rates is because testosterone is very important in muscle building and bone building, and men have much more of it than women,” says Dr. Wright.
Women start off with less muscle than men because we don’t have as much testosterone. We have less absolute volume of muscle, but Wright’s research shows that when women remain “chronically active” (consistently active throughout their lives), we are able to maintain our lean muscle mass relative to our bodies in the same way that men do. So if you were to compare men’s and women’s rate of muscle loss, there is probably a difference because of the change in estrogen and testosterone. The key is to compare women to women — specifically, active women to sedentary women. When you do that, you’ll find that “active women are capable of maintaining their lean muscle mass and strength,” Wright says.
So, should we train differently than men? Wright says no. Doing the same workout isn’t going to morph you into your beefy counterpart. “There is no reason why a woman should think that she will bulk up, unless her genetics dictate that,” she says. “Some women are just going to get more defined — it’s genetics; it’s like wrinkles and cellulite: two things that we can’t control.”
Build More Muscle!
Boost your muscle gains with these techniques, based on the most effective, time-tested strategies and the latest scientific research. Ready, set, sweat!
1. Time your postworkout meal. Within 30 minutes to an hour after your workout is when your muscles are receptive to replacing glycogen stores and protein.
2. Aim for at least 20 grams of protein at each meal. Research shows it is the perfect protein portion.
3. Fail. Don’t stop at a set of 12 if you can do 15 reps — take your sets to the point where you can’t do another rep with good form.
4. Choose weights that challenge you. Picking easy, light weights means your body has no reason to grow stronger. If a workout calls for 10 reps per set and you can get to 12, 15 or more, you’re definitely lifting too light.
5. Don’t perform workouts you hate. The best workout to build muscle is a challenging, resistance-based one that you love.
6. Don’t fixate on cardio. Spending an hour or so on the treadmill is an easy way to say you got a workout in. However, the perception that cardio is the best method for losing body fat is false. The truth is, it’s an inefficient way to train: cardio will burn calories for the amount of time you’re training, and perhaps an hour or two after you stop. But building new muscle will help your body burn more fat all day long, even once you’ve left the gym. Make sure most of your workouts include significant resistance-based exercise.
7. Consider beta-alanine. This supplement may help you perform high-intensity exercises longer. The harder you train, the more benefits (read: more muscle mass) you will experience, according to 2010 research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
8. Eat apples. The high concentration of ursolic acid in an apple’s peel could decrease muscle atrophy — muscle wasting after inactivity — suggests an animal study conducted at The University of Iowa. Add apples to your salads and sandwiches.
9. Follow your natural sleep patterns. Obeying your circadian rhythm will allow your muscles to function better, according to a review published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
10. Alternate your rest between sets. Brazilian researchers found that longer rest intervals during large muscle–group sets and shorter rest intervals during small muscle–group sets not only help fight off fatigue, but allow you to maintain a high intensity through each set. Switch it up.
You asked, we answered.
Q: Is there a way for me to measure my muscle mass?
A: When you do a true body composition test, you get your percentage of body fat and the percentage of everything else, answers Dr. Wright. For women, our fat should be between 20 to 23 percent (lower in fitter gals). If you want to know what your body composition is, have your body fat measured, because that is a true assessment. The gold standard for body composition (and for women over 50, it’s easy to get) is a DEXA scan. It tells you muscle, it tells you fat, it tells you everything. The next best thing is the air displacement method (like the BodPod), and equally sensitive is the water displacement test. All of these are more accurate than calipers or home body-fat scales.
Q: Is there such a thing as muscle memory?
A: Each strength-training session creates muscle memory that can be tapped into later if you ever slip into the sedentary set, according to research out of the University of Oslo in Norway.
According to Kristian Gundersen, lead researcher of the study, our muscles “remember” their former strength and may do so indefinitely. Specifically, building muscle generates new nuclei, which are small factories that will produce new muscle mass. And even when we lose muscle mass — like after an extended bout of choosing the couch over our running shoes — the nuclei remain. It’s those factories that give muscles a head start when you start exercising again. But here’s the catch: you need to start now. Your muscles’ ability to remember diminishes the older you get.
Q: Can I build muscle after age 50?
A: There is never an age where you cannot build muscle mass and strength, says Wright. Case in point: one study of 90-year-old subjects living in a nursing home put them through eight weeks of high-intensity resistance training. After the two months, the nearly centurions had gained 174 percent more strength. It may take more time to gain muscle in your 50s than it did back in your 20s because your body has less estrogen and much less testosterone, but building muscle in your 50s and beyond is definitely possible and can benefit your health in numerous ways.
Challenge all your muscles with just one workout.
Each one of your muscles performs a specific function, contributing to your overall fitness and health. Reap the benefits of a stronger, leaner and better body by tackling these moves, each targeting a different muscle.
Shape up from head to toe by performing three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions of each exercise as a full-body workout. Use a weight that is challenging enough to make the last couple of reps difficult but not impossible.
Your core is the central “powerhouse” of your entire body. Maintaining core strength keeps you functional.
Your move: Hold the plank on your elbows for 1 minute
Strong shoulders help to propel you forward in certain activities, like running, helping you to maintain proper posture and form while avoiding injuries.
Your move: Overhead presses
Tight and weak chest muscles can contribute to poor posture and pain. You want nicely stretched chest muscles.
Your move: Flat-bench dumbbell flyes
Strong arms allow you to move your own body, as well as lift objects over your head.
Your move: Alternating dumbbell curls and dumbbell kickbacks
A weak back can lead to posture problems, which can then lead to mobility problems. Maintaining a strong back helps keep the muscles along your spine flexible and strong, which helps prevent injuries and pain.
Your move: Bent-over rows
Fit, strong legs help you with balance, speed and endurance. Strong leg muscles also help keep you safe from knee problems and injuries.
Your move: Jump squats
If your goal is to tone while upping your fat burn, perform these exercises as a circuit. Perform 15 reps of each move back-to-back using a lighter weight. Repeat up to three times, with 60 seconds of rest between circuits.