Want to be strong, healthy, and happy, and feel 10 years younger? Then it’s time to pick up the weights. “Strength training is no longer about being buff or skinny,” says trainer Holly Perkins, author of Women’s Health Lift to Get Lean and founder of Women’s Strength Nation. “It’s as critical to your health as mammograms and annual doctor visits, and it can alleviate nearly all of the health and emotional frustrations that women face today. And it becomes even more critical once you hit 50.”
That’s because women lose up to 5% of their lean muscle tissue per decade, starting in their 30s—and that number increases after 65.
“I cannot stress enough how important muscle mass is to your life,” says Perkins. “There is a direct correlation between your health and the amount of muscle mass that you have. The more you build, the faster your metabolism hums, the tighter and firmer you get, and the easier it is to lose weight and keep it off.” It also decreases your risk for diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and makes you less likely to fall or become injured.
Of course, to Perkins—who is on a mission to get women weightlifting—the benefits go even deeper. “Something magical happens when you reach for a heavy object and are surprised by your own strength,” she says. “It’s an incredible feeling to climb a flight of stairs and feel powerful, or when you find that you no longer need the help of a man to move boxes. It’s time for women to find their power.”
High-five to that. Here are Perkin’s top 10 exercises—along with her explanations about what makes each so vital—to help you get strong and sculpted at 50 and beyond.
How to do it: “Every woman should do a full-body strength-training routine—such as this one—two days a week,” says Perkins. “Then, on top of that, you may add the other components of fitness like yoga, dance, walking, or swimming.” (Add one of these 3 new walking workouts that blast fat to your exercise routine.) You can complete all of these moves in one workout, or you can split them up if you’re short on time. The key is consistency. Aim to complete 3 sets for each move, and choose a weight that makes it challenging to complete the final rep of each set.
What you’ll need: While the gym is a great place to weight train, you can do these moves right at home. All you’ll need is a chair, hand weights, and a mat.
1. Squat to Chair
Why: “The best way to maintain and improve bone density is through exercises that involve your entire lower body,” says Perkins. “This move is considered a weight-bearing, compound, complex exercise, and is number one for bone health. In addition, the majority of age-related falls and bone fractures involve the pelvis. This move specifically targets and strengthens the muscles and bones of the pelvis.” (Here are 4 more strength-training exercises you can do with a chair.)
How: Stand with your feet shoulder-width distance apart and your toes turned out slightly. Extend your arms forward and keep them parallel to the floor throughout the movement. Bend your knees and reach your hips back as if to fully sit down on the chair. Lower your hips until you feel the chair underneath you, but don’t fully sit. Touch the chair with your butt, then immediately press into your heels and stand back up to the starting position. That’s one repetition. Aim to complete 10 to 15 reps.
2. Reverse Lunge
Why: “This move strengthens the direct movement patterns that govern walking, stair climbing, and the transition from sitting to standing,” says Perkins. “It strengthens your entire lower body and will help to keep you as active as you wish to be.”
How: Stand next to a chair or sturdy object to use for balance. Hold a 5 to 10-pound dumbbell in your right hand and place your left hand on the chair. Focus your effort on your left leg and take a large step backward with your right leg. Use the strength of your left leg to lower down until your right knee nearly touches the floor. Press into your left heel to push upward, and step forward returning to the starting position. That’s one repetition. Aim to complete 10 to 12 reps on this side and then complete the same on the other.
3. Seated Overhead Press
Why: “One of the weakest movements for all women of all ages is pressing upward overhead,” says Perkins. “Because of the reduced muscle mass at 50, this critical movement pattern is further handicapped. This move increases the lean muscle mass around your shoulders, reducing your risk for the neck, shoulder, and lower back injuries when pressing something heavy overhead.” (Try these 3 moves to sculpt strong shoulders.)
How: Begin seated with your back supported and 5- to 8-pound dumbbells resting at your shoulders. Sit up tall and ensure that your elbows are below your wrists. Press upward so that your elbows are in front of your body, and not out to the sides. End with the dumbbells directly over your head, palms forward, with elbows fully extended, but not locked. Slowly release down following the same pattern of movement, ending at the start position. That’s one repetition. Aim for 10 to 12 reps.
4. Standing Calf Raise
Why: “One of the greatest concerns as we age is the risk of falling,” says Perkins. “This move improves the stability and mobility of your feet and lower legs, and the ability to know where you body is in space. This sense is called proprioception and gives you control and power over your body.”
How: Hold a 5-10 pound dumbbell in your right hand, and place your left hand on a chair or sturdy object for balance. Shift your weight onto your left foot and lift your right foot off the floor. Stand with a long, tall spine and allow the dumbbell to hang at your side. Press into the ball of your left foot so that you move upwards onto your toes. Keep your left knee fully opened without locking it. Press upward as high as possible, then slowly lower back to the starting position. That’s one repetition. Aim to complete 15 reps on this leg, then switch and perform the same on the other.
5. Bent Over Row
Why: “Due to gravitational pull, we are constantly fighting a battle to keep our body upright with good alignment,” says Perkins. “This move strengthens all of the muscles in your back improving both bone density of the spine and proper integration of the spinal column. It also helps to fight off the decrease in bone that occurs over 50 and will keep your posture upright.”
How: Using 8- to 15-pound dumbbells, stand behind a chair. Place your feet under your hips and fold forward so that your head can rest comfortably on the chair or surface. Keep your knees slightly bent and your neck relaxed. Begin with your palms facing each other directly under your shoulders. Bend your elbows and pull the dumbbells towards you until your palms are next to your ribs. Draw the shoulder blades together at the top. Pause for two seconds, then slowly release back to the starting position. That’s one repetition. Aim for 12 to 15 reps.
Why: “This move is one of the number-one strengthening exercises that physical therapists use for back health,” says Perkins. “It strengthens your ‘posterior chain’ muscles that guide nearly every move you make, including your core, glutes, back, and shoulder muscles all at once while helping to open the hips and shoulders.” (Try these 12 hip-opening yoga poses for even more strength and flexibility.)
How: Begin with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Contract the muscles of your core and stabilize your pelvis and shoulders. Shift your balance onto your left knee and your right hand. In one movement, extend your right leg back behind you and your left arm out in front of you. Extend both as far as possible and hold for 2 seconds. Slowly release both back to the starting position. That’s one repetition. Immediately switch sides and perform the same with the left leg and right arm. Continue alternating sides for a total of 20 reps.
7. Chest Fly
Why: “The chest muscles (pectorals) for all women are particularly weak and underdeveloped,” says Perkins. “By increasing the mass in this muscle group you are adding a substantial percentage of lean mass towards your overall health. Additionally, the chest muscles are responsible for supporting breast tissue. This move will bring a bit more lift to your chest.”
How: Lie on the floor with your knees bent at 90 degrees and feet flat. Hold 5- to 8-pound dumbbells directly over your chest with your palms facing each other. Press your shoulders away from your ears and downward toward your hips to stabilize your core. With a very slight bend at the elbows, open your arms out to the sides until your upper arms touch the floor. Do not fully release the tension in your arms, or allow your wrists to touch the floor. Contract the muscles in your chest to return the dumbbells back to the starting position. That’s one repetition. Aim to complete 12 to 15 reps.
8. Dumbbell Pullover
Why: “This move improves your ability to pull heavy objects more safely and with ease,” says Perkins. “Plus, nearly all of my 50+ women first complain about the soft tissue that is on the back of their upper arms. This move directly targets the triceps muscles to bring more muscle and more tightness to this area.”
How: Lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hold a 10- to 15-pound dumbbell by one end so that the other end is on the floor when you extend your arms overhead. Begin with your core engaged, and draw your shoulders down away from your ears and toward your hips. From there, lift the dumbbell off the floor, keeping your arms long, and make a big arc over your body until the dumbbell is over your chest. Slowly lower the dumbbell back to the floor making the same arc. That’s one repetition. Without fully releasing the dumbbell to the floor, immediately lift it again and complete 12 to 15 repetitions.
9. Biceps Hammer Curl
Why: “The muscles of your upper arms are very small from a volume perspective. Due to the muscle loss that has occurred since your 30s (sarcopenia), these muscles are atrophied,” says Perkins. “It’s critical to keep your biceps muscles strong so that you are able to carry objects safely and easily. It’ll also make your arms look great.” (For more moves for sculpted arms, try this at-home workout.)
How: Stand with your feet under your hips and hold 8- to 10-pound dumbbells at your sides with your palms facing inward. Stand with a long, tall spine. Bend your elbows and bring the dumbbells upward toward your chest, keeping your palms facing each other. Pull the dumbbells up until they touch the front of your shoulders. Pause here for 2 seconds and contract the muscles in your upper arms. Slowly lower back down to the starting position. That’s one repetition. Aim to complete 10 to 15 reps.
10. Basic Ab
Why: “For women over 50, there is a propensity to develop a distended belly,” says Perkins. “This movement is fantastic for bringing the abdominal muscles inward toward your spine, making your ab muscles stronger and tighter.”
How: Lie on your back with your feet on the floor and your knees bent so that there’s a 90-degree angle at the back of your knees. Place your hands on your thighs with your upper body relaxed. On an exhale, slowly roll your chin towards your chest and lift up until your shoulders lift off the floor. Your hands will slide upward toward your knees. Continue lifting up until your shoulders are completely off the floor or your fingertips reach your knees. Pause at the top for 2 seconds, then slowly lower back down to the starting position. That’s one repetition. Aim for 20 to 30 reps.
JENNA BERGEN SOUTHERLAND