By Karyn Gallivan, MS, ATC, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, NASM-CPT
Contributor, Sports & Fitness Network
One of the largest demographic groups that we see as personal trainers, strength coaches, exercise physiologists, and fitness personnel is women whose goal is to lose “belly fat.” They have a desire to get out from under the “pre-diabetic” label, and to gain more energy. That’s is the focus of this short discussion. In addressing all of these issues, one of the most important things to add to the program is strength training. At around the age of 40, it is typical for an adult to start losing muscle mass, so, a concerted effort to maintain or even gain muscle mass is needed.
First things first, however. Before going into some of the details about strength training, it is important to gain a better understanding of perimenopause and its challenges. Perimenopause can be characterized by the roller coaster of estrogen dominance and low levels of progesterone, which can create issues with blood pressure, body temperature, mood, erratic periods and an increase in the symptoms of PMS. These hormonal changes also include modulating cortisol and insulin levels. It is not uncommon for women to experience an increase in weight gain –especially in the abdomen and hips. All of these hormonal issues and their resulting symptoms also may cause sleep disturbances, which only makes it more difficult for women to control their weight.
So, the goal of the fitness professional is to help these women regulate as many of these symptoms/systems as they can in order to mitigate these drastic fluctuations women experience. Research has shown that it is important to include activities that will improve bone mineral density and regulate estrogen as much as possible through a comprehensive fitness program that includes a balance of exercise (especially including strength training), sleep, stress management, and diet improvement.
A fitness program for these women should include moderate intensity cardiovascular conditioning. An aerobic activity that incorporates change-of-direction movements should be included. Activities that include directional changes add to the bone saving benefits weight-bearing exercise.
Regarding strength training, it is imperative to include an intensity that is high enough that will improve strength, overall metabolism, and bone density. This would include higher resistance and lower repetitions than what most women are used to. Of course, there should be a sufficient base level of fitness that includes lifting lighter weights before working with a higher intensity. Higher intensity weight-training means sets of 8-10 with a weight that can only be lifted 8-10 times. This is in contrast to sets of 15-20 with very light weights, that most could ultimately lift 45-60 times before resting. In order to achieve the hormone regulating, bone mineral density, and metabolic benefits that weight training can provide, higher intensities are required. A basic, comprehensive program would include exercises to address muscles of the upper back, compound exercises, as many standing exercises as possible, and activities that include core strength and flexibility activities. Strength training can provide many benefits, but be sure to have your clients work with an intensity that will actually make a difference.