Heavy Lifting, Part I generated some vocal criticism: “You’ve got to be kidding! I’m already getting up early to work out. I don’t have time for anything else!”
I hear you. I don’t want to embrace this aging stuff either. I would prefer to bypass menopause, not to lose muscle mass or bone density, not to slow down, and not feel like I have to work harder for smaller gains. I would prefer to just step out the door and run.
My bones have other ideas. Research shows that “chronic runners” (people like us who spend a lot of time running) lose bone mass in menopause, and experience rates of osteopenia and osteoporosis equal to women who do not exercise.1,2
I’ll pause for a moment to let that sink in.
As we approach menopause, our risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis may be equal to or greater than women who do not exercise.
That didn’t make sense until I dug into the physiology. Skeletal muscles and the heart respond well to gradual and consistent training. Bone, on the other hand, has a “lazy zone,” where it just doesn’t respond to stimulus. Running, whether on trails or pavement, isn’t enough of a stimulus. To build bone density, I have to push beyond the lazy zone, into the load zone.
In other words, I have to lift heavy. My choice is simple: ignore the physiologic changes and pretend I’m the runner I was, or acknowledge them and add heavy lifting to my workouts.
Transitioning from Body Weight to Barbells
Fortunately, heavy lifting doesn’t need to be a huge time suck. In Heavy Lifting, Part I, I talked about barriers to heavy lifting and introduced five key movements. Those five movements are specifically designed to build muscle strength and bone density in areas—hip, pelvis and lumbar spine—most prone to osteopenia and osteoporosis.3 Here’s a quick review:
- Core exercises activate muscles in the trunk of the body, from the collar bone to the pubis.
- Squat exercises engage the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, groin, hip flexors and calves. Place your feet a bit wider than shoulder width, weight balanced on two feet and slightly forward. Push your hips back while keeping the back neutral and bending at the knees and ankles. Keep your heels and toes on the ground, chest up and shoulders back. You should be able to squat until your knees are bent at 90 degrees.
- Hip Hinge targets the gluteus maximus, hamstring and lower back muscles. To practice this motion, stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width with your toes pointed out slightly. Keep your back neutral, then hinge at just the hips.
- Pull and Push, the last two motions, are a bit simpler. Pull uses the back and shoulder muscles to draw the weight toward you. In a push, you engage the chest muscles to move weight away from your body.
Part I also included a table with sample bodyweight workouts. You may want to continue those workouts, using resistance bands and TRX straps, to build foundational strength before transitioning to heavy weights. Ultimately, though, you have to add weight. This is where gyms are handy because having a full rack of kettlebells, dumbbells and barbells at home is expensive and takes up a lot of space. Plus, being at the gym connects you with other athletes, which is motivating.
There are a number of gym types, each with its own culture and rules. Talk to other female athletes and you’ll get a sense of which ones are welcoming. And this is definitely the time to be with your training partner, so you can explore the equipment and facilities together and support each other. Feisty Media’s Lift Heavy Shit: A Beginner’s Guide to Strength Training4 has a great summary.
Sample Weight Workout
As you move from body weight to lifting heavy, keep these things in mind:
- Stay focused on form. If you are unable to maintain proper form, pick a lighter weight.
- Be patient. Give yourself permission to use lighter weights while you work on form and build foundational strength.
- Pick a start weight. This can be tricky with new exercises. I often start with lighter weights on the first set, to ensure my form is good. Then, for sets two and three, I add weight until my lift is about 70% of my one-rep maximum. If I can’t maintain form, I remove weight.
- Decide how many reps and sets you are going to do. Most studies support 3 sets of 4-8 reps for each exercise. Early on, it can be helpful to pick a lighter weight and do 3 sets of 10-12 reps.
- Rest 45-60 seconds between sets, 90-120 if the exercise is challenging. If you are tired, increase the rest time.
- Limit weight increases to no more than 10% per week.
- It’s normal for muscles to feel full after the workout, but you should not be sore, especially 24-72 hours later. If you are, decrease the weight.
- Keep a training log, to record your progress and make notes about how you feel.
Here are three sample workouts, with exercises broken out into the five key movements.
Workouts modified from Lift Heavy Shit: A Beginner’s Guide to Strength Training, at https://www.feistymenopause.com/liftheavy. Used with permission.
My lifting translated into stronger and faster downhill running, and less fatigue during long runs. It was gratifying to look back at my training log and workout times and see the change. I’ve also found I need to adjust frequency during the season. Three weight workouts in a week is ideal. During heavy training or travel, getting in two workouts is excellent, and often all I can manage.
- Ng CA, Gandham A, Mesinovic J, Owen PJ, Ebeling PR, Scott D. Effects of moderate- to high-impact exercise training on bone structure across the lifespan: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Bone Miner Res. 2023 Aug 9. doi: 10.1002/jbmr.4899. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 37555459.
- Hawkins SA, Wiswell RA, Jaque SV, Constantino N, Marcell TJ, Tarpenning KM, Schroeder ET, Hyslop DM. The inability of hormone replacement therapy or chronic running to maintain bone mass in master athletes. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 1999 Sep;54(9):M451-5. doi: 10.1093/gerona/54.9.m451. PMID: 10536648.
- Winters-Stone KM, Snow CM. Site-specific response of bone to exercise in premenopausal women. Bone. 2006 Dec;39(6):1203-9. doi: 10.1016/j.bone.2006.06.005. Epub 2006 Jul 28. PMID: 16876495.
- Feisty Media. (2023). Lift Heavy Shit: A Beginner’s Guide to Strength Training. [Pamphlet]