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How to Build Muscle in Women Over 45

By Judy Fisk

The 40s and the 50s are landmark decades for women. Although the average age of menopause is 51, the years leading up to a woman's final period are often marked by myriad physiological changes, including a decrease in muscle mass. Starting a strength-training program at or beyond age 40, including post-menopause, can help you reverse the process of age-related muscle loss -- crucial for staying injury free and maintaining an active life.

Benefits of Strength Training

Many of the changes that commonly occur in older women -- including weight gain, increased joint stiffness, loss of muscle, weakening of the bones and a decrease in the ability to balance -- aren't inevitable byproducts of aging. In fact, these changes might have more to do with inactivity than with the natural aging process, notes The New Harvard Guide to Women's Health. As you move into your 40s and beyond, strength training can help you maintain a healthy weight, preserve joint range of motion, slow the rate of bone loss, and improve your balance and coordination. These big pluses help you to avoid or manage difficult health conditions and maintain your independence in the decades to come.

Gearing Up

If you haven't exercised in a while, get clearance from your doctor before starting a strength-training program. Once you have your doctor's OK, design a workout schedule. Plan to strength train two or three times a week, with a day off between sessions to allow for muscle healing and growth. As a beginner, start with lower weights and a higher number of repetitions. Plan on 12 to 15 repetitions of every exercise, using weight that results in moderate to significant muscle fatigue by the end of the final rep. As you gain strength and your connective tissues adapt to the added stress, try gradually increasing the weight and reducing the number of reps.

The Basic Routine

Begin every strength-training session with a brief warm-up. Start with several minutes of low-intensity aerobic activity -- such as brisk walking, high-knee marching or jogging -- to raise your core body temperature and increase circulation to your limbs. When you break a light sweat, perform dynamic stretching -- including butt kicks, arm and ankle circles, and light leg swings -- to further prepare your muscles and joints for intense activity. Once you're warm, spend 30 to 40 minutes on strength training. You can work your upper and lower body during every session, or perform upper- and lower-body workouts on different days. Ideally, you'll perform one or two sets of every exercise, resting for 30 to 60 seconds between sets. Finish every session with a light stretching routine that targets the main muscles you worked.

Exercises to Include

You can design a thorough and effective resistance routine around basic body-weight exercises that target all the main muscle groups. Squats, lunges, step-ups, mountain climbers and vertical jumps develop strength in your quadriceps and hamstrings. Toe raises -- against a wall or on the edge of a step -- build calf muscle. Pushups work your upper body -- including your biceps, triceps, shoulders and chest. To work your core muscles -- including your abs, hips and back -- rely on a combination of crunches, planks, bridges and back extensions.

Dumbbells, kettlebells, ankle weights and resistance bands bring variety and challenge to the mix. You can add leg extensions and hamstring curls for the fronts and backs of your thighs; lateral leg lifts for your hips; biceps curls; triceps kickbacks; and lateral flyes for your chest.

Safety Considerations

As a mature adult, your muscles might not adapt to training as quickly and easily as they did when you were younger. If you experience extreme muscle soreness as a result of training sessions, try using less weight, and give yourself more time to rest between sets and exercises. If you experience other adverse symptoms -- such as dizziness or nausea -- at any point during your workouts, back off and check that you're breathing properly. Exhale during the pushing or lifting phase of an exercise and inhale during the lowering or release phase. Holding your breath can cause your blood pressure to rise, which is particularly dangerous if you have cardiovascular issues. Never compromise on form; sacrificing technique for extra reps could result in injury and put your muscle-building goals on hold.

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