In my gym owner and personal trainer role, I’ve been introducing women over 50 to the benefits of strength training for 35 years.
It hasn’t always been easy.
Strength training, you see, brings with it some baggage – like images of powerful men pushing huge amounts of weight overhead or pimple-faced teenagers repping out biceps curls to pump up their ‘guns.’
It’s not exactly what women over 50 think of when it comes to exercise.
But it should be.
In this article, I’ll lay out the research-backed reasons why strength training should be part of an exercise program for women over 50. I’ll then describe the 12 most effective strength training exercises I use with women in their 50s and show you how to program them for maximum results.
Understanding Strength Training
Strength training is any type of exercise that uses resistance to work your muscles. The main types of resistance used for strength training are:
- Free weights – barbells and dumbbells
- Cable machines
- Resistance bands
A repetition, or rep, is when you do an exercise a single time. A number of reps done in a row make a set. For each exercise, you will do a specific number of sets and reps. These will be recorded as 3 X 10, indicating that you do three sets of 10 reps.
The key to improvement is gradual progression. The reason is that your body will only respond when it is being challenged. The body is adaptable, so when it gets used to the workout you’re doing, it will no longer be stressed.
Muscle and strength development is a response to stress, so to get stronger muscles, you need to constantly make the workout harder.
You can increase your intensity in four ways:
- Increasing the reps
- Decreasing the time between sets
- Adding resistance
- Doing a more advanced version of the exercise
Strength Training Benefits for Women Over 50
Recent studies have uncovered new and exciting health and anti-aging benefits from strength training as we get into our 50 and beyond. Here’s an overview:
Muscle and Strength Gain
The stronger your muscles are, the better your functional movement and balance will be. Yet, women lose 3-8 percent of their muscle mass every decade over the age of 30. This makes their muscles smaller and weaker. 
Those losses, however, are by no means reversible. Strength training will help reverse the effects of age-related muscle and strength loss.
A 2016 study aimed to investigate the impact of strength training frequency on lean mass and strength improvements in individuals with prior strength training experience. After eight weeks, the 19 participants (7 women, 12 men) had an average increased lean mass by 0.99 kg (2.0%) and showed significant strength improvements on the chest press (7.0%) and hack squat (24%). 
Stronger muscles will help you to avoid falls.
You have two types of muscle fiber:
- Type I
- Type II
The most powerful muscle fibers are the Type II fibers. These fibers produce force suddenly as needed.
When a person with healthy, strong Type II fibers starts to lose their balance, those powerful fibers are able to do their job and produce a counterbalancing force to help the person regain their balance.
Increased Bone Density
Women in their 50s are prime candidates for menopause. During this transition life stage, many women experience a significant loss in bone density. This increases the risk of osteoporosis.
Studies have shown that bone mineral density increases with strength training. A 2014 study aimed to investigate the musculoskeletal effects of strength training on adult women, with a focus on bone mineral density.
Thirty healthy women were randomly assigned to either a training group or a control group. The training group completed 12 weeks of weighted squats with a load of 85-90% of maximum strength.
In the control group, lumbar spine and hip bone mass increased by 2.25 and 1%, respectively. There were no bone density improvements in the control group. 
Reduces Bad Cholesterol
There are two types of cholesterol in your body;
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL)
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL)
LDL is considered bad cholesterol because it clogs up your arteries. HDL, on the other hand, helps to remove excessive amounts of cholesterol and is considered to be good for you. Strength training increases HDL and lowers LDL levels.
Lower Blood Pressure
Strength training will lower your blood pressure level. It does this by stimulating the release of a hormone called Interleukin 6, which promotes the creation of new blood vessels.
More blood vessels effectively increase the size of the container that your blood is housed in. This lowers your blood pressure.
Many of my clients have normalized their blood pressure in as little as three months after starting a strength training program.
The glucose stored in your muscles is used for emergency situations, such as strength training. The glucose that is stored in the liver keeps your blood sugar normalized.
When you do strength training, you are using up the glycogen in the muscle cells. The depleted muscle glycogen levels then have to be replaced. This results in improved insulin sensitivity and better glucose transportation into the muscle cells.
A breakthrough in relation to strength training and the reversal of aging took place in 2007. In that year, Dr Simon Melov identified 179 genes related to aging that reverted back to their youthful levels of expression after just 26 weeks of strength training.
Dr. Melov used a technique called false discovery rate to find genes in humans that were expressed differently in youth than they are in old age. He identified nearly 200 such genes. He then took elderly people and put them through a strength training program over a period of 26 weeks. The average strength increase that resulted was 50 percent. He also identified 179 genes related to aging that reverted back to youthful levels of expression. 
Strength training can enhance your flexibility and mobility. That’s because it increases the range of motion, allowing you to fully extend and contract the muscle.
A 2021 meta-analysis compared the effects of strength training and stretching on increasing range of motion. Eleven previous studies were analyzed, with the researchers concluding that strength training was as effective as stretching at increasing a muscle’s range of motion. 
12 Best Exercises for Strength Training for Women
The following dozen exercises will work all areas of your body. They have been selected to help offset the most common effects of aging that women over 50 experience.
You don’t have to join a gym to do these exercises. By investing in some basic equipment, such as dumbbells and ankle weights, you can do your strength training at home.
1. Dumbbell Squat
Muscles Worked: Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, a pair of dumbbells in your hands, and your arms by your sides. Point your toes slightly outward. Maintain a neutral spine, pull your shoulders back and your head up.
- Hinge your hips to descend to a quarter squat position.
- Push through your heels to return to the start position.
As you get more comfortable with squatting with resistance in your hands, go down a bit lower until you reach a parallel squat position.
If you have difficulty maintaining an upright torso position, try squatting with your heels elevated. Place a three-quarter-inch thick block of wood (or a book) under your heels.
2. Calf Raises
Muscle Worked: Calves.
- Stand nice and tall, pulling your shoulder back and maintaining a neutral spine position. Hold a pair of dumbbells in your hands at your sides.
- Without bending your knees, rise up on your toes to bring your heels as high as possible.
- Hold the top fully extended position for a two count.
- Lower back to the start position.
Once you have been doing this exercise for four weeks, I recommend increasing the range of motion and intensity of the movement by standing on a roughly two-inch high platform. This could be a block of wood, a stair step, or even a book.
3. Dumbbell Chest Press
Muscles worked: Pectorals, front deltoids, triceps.
- Lie on a flat bench with a pair of dumbbells resting on your chest.
- Extend your arms directly above your chest with your palms facing away from you. The dumbbell ends should be touching each other in this starting position,
- Lower the dumbbells to your chest. In the bottom position, your arms should form a right angle, with your upper arms parallel to the floor.
- Push back to the start position, touching the dumbbells together in the top position.
4. Dumbbell Front Raise
Muscles worked: Deltoids, trapezius, rhomboids.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Maintain a tight core, pull your shoulders back, and head up.
- Pivot from the shoulder joint to lift your right arm up to shoulder level. Do not bend your elbow.
- Lower under control.
- Repeat with the left arm.
- Alternate arms to complete your rep count.
5. Bent Over Dumbbell Row
Muscles Worked: Latissimus dorsi, rear deltoids, trapezius, erector spinae
- Stand holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart.
- Maintaining a neutral spine and pulling your shoulders back and down, hinge at the hips to bring your torso down to a 30-degree angle to the floor.
- Extend your arms down at an angle to full extension. Feel the stretch through your lat (upper back) muscles in this position.
- Row your arms back as you squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the elbows back.
6. Dumbbell Bicep Curls
Muscle Worked: Biceps, forearms.
- Stand with a pair of dumbbells held at your sides. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, maintaining a neutral spine and pulling your shoulders back and down. Your palms should be facing your body.
- Keeping your elbow in at the side of your body, twist the right wrist so that the palm is facing forward.
- Curl the right arm to the shoulder. Squeeze the bicep in the top position.
- Lower the arm under control. Turn the palm back to face the body.
- Repeat on the other arm.
7. Leg Extension (Ankle Weights)
Muscle Worked: Quadriceps.
- Sit on the edge of a chair and strap ankle weights around your lower legs. Sit up tall with your hands on your knees, maintaining a neutral spine and pulling your shoulders back.
- Starting with your heels stacked directly under your knees, extend one leg out in front of you. Stop just short of lockout.
- Lower the leg under control back to the start position.
- Perform all your reps on one leg before doing the other leg.
8. Sliding Leg Curl
Muscle Worked: Hamstrings, glutes.
- Lie on your back on a smooth floor with your legs extended and toes pointed up so that just your heels are making contact.
- Lift your hips into the air and pull your heels back toward your butt.
- Extend your legs back to the start position.
9. Dumbbell Lunges
Muscle Worked: Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Maintain a neutral spine, pull your shoulders back, and hold your head up.
- Take a large step forward with your right leg.
- Drop your rear knee until it is a couple of inches from the floor. Your front thigh should be parallel to the floor.
- Push through your front thigh to return to the start position.
- Perform all your reps on one leg before doing the other leg.
10. Seated Shoulder Press
Muscle Worked: Deltoids, trapezius, rhomboids.
- Sit in a chair with your back hard up against the back support and holding a pair of dumbbells in your hands. Maintain a neutral spine position, pulling your shoulders back and down and keeping your head up. Hold the dumbbells in a palms-facing forward position at shoulder level.
- Press both hands up above your head to touch at full arm extension.
- Lower under control and repeat.
11. Seated Lateral Raises
Muscle Worked: Deltoids, trapezius.
- Sit on a chair with a pair of hand weights at your sides. Maintain an upright posture with a neutral spine, shoulders pull back, and your chest up.
- From a starting position with your palms facing your thighs, hinge at the shoulder joint to bring your hands out to the sides and up until they are level with your shoulders. As you bring the arms up, turn your wrists so your palms are facing the ceiling.
- Lower your arms under control to the start position.
- Do 12 reps.
12. Seated Torso Extension
Muscles Worked: Abdominals, lower back.
- Sit on the edge of a chair with your knees bent at a right angle so your heels are directly under the knees. Sit up straight, maintaining a neutral spine position, with your shoulders pulled down and chest up. Cross your hands over your chest so that the fingertips are touching the opposite shoulder. Pull in your tummy to tighten the stomach area.
- Extend back with your torso until you feel the back of the chair behind you.
- Pull back to the start position, focusing on the core coming forward. Do not round your back at any time.
Circuit Workout Program
Perform the following exercises as a circuit where you move from one movement to the next with the minimum amount of rest between. Take a few breaths, have a sip of water, and then move on to the next exercise.
- Dumbbell Squat
- Calf Raises
- Dumbbell Chest Press
- Dumbbell Front Raise
- Dumbbell Bent Over Row
- Dumbbell Bicep Curls
- Leg Extension (ankle weights)
- Sliding Leg Curl
- Seated Shoulder Press
- Seated Lateral Raises
- Seated Torso Extension
Do 12 reps per set. After two weeks, add an extra round of the circuit. Rest for two minutes between rounds. After another two weeks, add a third round.
This workout for women over 50 should be performed three times per week. Space your workouts two days apart. So, if you do your first workout on Monday, the second should be on Wednesday and the third on Friday.
There are a lot of misconceptions about strength training for women over 50. This FAQ addresses the main ones to help you separate fact from fallacy.
Will strength training make me look masculine?
No, strength training will not make you look masculine. Women are not capable of developing muscle to the same degree as men. Strength training will help you develop an athletic, feminine physique rather than a masculine one.
Do I need to ‘kill it’ with the weights to get results?
While you do need to put the work in to get results, you don’t have to go crazy. That will only lead to overtraining, which will result in you going backward.
The belief that you need to sweat blood makes a lot of people too scared to even start strength training. Don’t become one of them. The best time to start an exercise program is right now – and, yes, you can do it at your level.
Should women do strength training differently from men?
No, women and men should not strength train differently. Men and women have the same muscle insertion and attachment points, and the fibers travel in the same direction. So, the same exercises will work equally well for both.
Strength training is one of the most important things that women over 50 can do to improve their fitness, help turn back the hands of time, and retain their independence.
This article has provided you with the why and the how of strength training in your 50s and beyond.
Now it’s over to you!
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