At his gym in a converted warehouse in Sydney’s Matraville, strength and conditioning coach Peter Bolsius trains clients whose ages range from the 20s to the early 60s – including women in their 50s who can deadlift a barbell as heavy as 100 kilograms.
Older women hefting big weights may not be a common sight in most gyms – but they’re not rare either.
“It’s no longer unusual to walk into a gym and see a woman who’s over 50 swinging a kettlebell or putting a barbell on her shoulders,” says Alisha Smith, the learning and development manager of Australian Fitness Network which trains and accredits fitness instructors.
And there are so many reasons why women should.
“The stronger you are, the more you can do,” says 55-year-old Bolsius from Mojo Strength. “Being strong also makes you independent. If you need to lift something heavy you can just do it – you don’t have to wait for someone to give you a hand. People in their 50s and over are a huge untapped market. They’re realising they can be in better shape than their parents were at this age.
“But we have to get past this ‘but it’s too heavy’ mentality,” he stresses. “It’s OK to lift heavy weights if you learn how to do it correctly. If you can deadlift properly then you can pick up heavy objects safely and lifting a heavy grandchild, for example, is no problem. It also means you’re accustomed to lifting – unlike someone with a sedentary lifestyle who’s likely to injure themselves if they try to lift or move something heavy,” he says.
Not every 50-something woman needs or even wants to deadlift 100kg but it’s good to know that it’s possible. It also busts a lot of preconceptions about what an older woman can do.
“We have a couple of women in their 50s who can easily bang out 10 perfect push-ups from the toes and five chin ups or pull ups. Many teenage guys can’t do that,” Bolsius says.
“So many people are also in this headspace of ‘I can’t do this at my age’,” adds Smith. “Yet strength and power training can have a huge impact on ageing not just at a physiological level but at a cellular level. So many people think walking is enough and although it’s good cardio exercise we also need to work on our strength, power and flexibility if we want to maintain speed, agility balance and reaction times as we get older.
‘We need to train older people like we train athletes because they’re in training for life.”
It’s not news that strength and flexibility matter as we age, but we’re less familiar with the need for muscle power – the ability of muscle to contract quickly and forcefully. If you twist your foot or trip on a step it’s muscle power that helps you regain your balance and stay on your feet, Smith explains.
But muscle power tends to decline earlier and faster than muscle strength.
“Muscle has two kinds of fibres and it’s the type 2 or fast twitch fibres that play the biggest role in power development. These fibres start to decline anywhere from the age of 20, but really begin to accelerate from middle-age so it’s common to have up to 40 per cent less of them by the time you reach your eighth decade. The great news is that you can help maintain them with resistance training that involves lifting or pushing a weight multiple times at a range of different speeds,” she says.
“Muscle power is one of the most important factors for maintaining independence as we get older. With loss of power your walking speed slows, your stride gets shorter, your balance is reduced and the everyday stuff just get harder.”
So where do you start if you want to build muscle strength and power?
“Any gym should be able to help you and the best approach is to let them know what your goal is whether it’s to do a triathlon or lift a grandchild or just maintain power and strength for as long as possible,” says Smith. “Some people are intimidated by the idea of going to a gym and getting out of your comfort zone can be scary. One option is to go at the quietest times like mid-morning or early afternoon when there are fewer people or more available staff. But there are also trainers who work in smaller studios or even in clients’ own homes which might be a good start. Then there are women only gyms like Fernwood or Curves which are good if you don’t want to lift heavier weights.”
And no one expects any beginner to lift a heavy weight straight away. Building strength and power is a gradual process, Smith explains.
“First you need to build muscle strength, then you need to make sure the connective tissues like ligaments and tendons are strong and flexible and then you can start to build power.”