aging · nutrition · weight lifting

Muscle loss is in the news again

A rock, painted white, with the words “as strong as a wolf” painted on it. Seen outside the athletic centre at the University of Guelph.


But this time with a weight loss angle.

See my past posts: Protein, age, and muscle loss.  and Want to keep muscle after 40?: Eat all the protein and lift all the things

It’s a thing that I care about. 

And I hate the idea that some people, especially women, might welcome it, because it means weight loss.

From an article in the Globe and Mail, by Alex Hutchinson, We need better guidelines to deal with age-related muscle loss.

“You might be relieved to hear that the creeping weight gain of middle age – a pound or two (0.5 to 1 kilogram) a year starting in your 20s, on average – eventually grinds to a halt. By the time you’re in your 50s, you’ll typically start slowly shedding weight. Don’t celebrate yet, though. There’s a good chance that the weight you’re losing is muscle – precisely what you need to hang onto to stay metabolically healthy and independent into old age. “

Why does this happen? Partly because we exercise less but that’s not the whole story. The article talks about ‘anabolic resistance.’ Our bodies no longer, as we age, respond the same way to strength training and protein. Like insulin resistance in diabetics our bodies no longer respond as effectively to protein and to exercise. We need more of both, not less, as we age.

There’s also a concern about the kinds of protein and when we eat them.

Writes Hutchinson: “It’s not just how much you eat. There’s some evidence that spreading your protein across three meals triggers more muscle growth than just downing a massive steak at dinner. And protein quality matters too, with certain amino acids such as leucine playing an outsized role in muscle growth. That means animal proteins such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy tend to pack a bigger punch than plant proteins, although Oliveira emphasizes that variety is also important.”

It’s a challenge to eat the 1.0 to 1.5 g of protein per kg of body weight per day that’s recommended. 

What about exercise? What should we do to stave off muscle loss?

“The overall picture from existing research is that full-body resistance training with loads that get progressively harder over time, two to three times a week, is optimal for older adults. One study published last year found that two harder workouts plus one easier one produced the best results, perhaps because older strength-trainers simply couldn’t recover quickly enough to do three hard workouts each week.”

See you at the gym! Maybe we can go for a protein shake after? 

fitness · gender policing · stereotypes · weight lifting

Give Me Strength (Guest Post)

Some of my favourite images from sports photography can be found in Howard Schatz’s 2002 book, Athletes. In his provocative work, Schatz photographs Olympic athletes from various sports in black, form-fitting clothing. Arranging them side-by-side, Schatz reveals the various shapes of the athletic female body. There are many ways of reading these images—I am not here to claim they are unproblematic—but the aspect I choose to focus on is how all of these women, in their varying shapes and sizes, represent strength.

I think society has a terrible time accepting physically strong women—women whose musculature is visible and takes up space. (The recent events surrounding Venus Williams come to mind.) We have adjectives for these types of bodies: “broad,” “big-boned,” “stocky,” and “handsome,” for example. But none of these words is meant to be flattering. (Brianne of Tarth, anyone?) As a 6’0’’ woman myself, I struggled well into my thirties with the question of how to be present physically in a room. I knew I wasn’t petite, small, or particularly fragile. I took up space—a lot of it.

For me, everything came to a head when I turned 36 and gave birth to my third child via c-section no. 3. The doctors who prepped me for surgery marvelled at my enormous baby bump, as if it were something glorious and Amazonian. I’ll never forget their astonishment when my beloved Quinton arrived, weighing in at 11 pounds, 1 ounce. I had given birth to a toddler. As for me, postpartum I had never been so heavy nor so chronically in pain. So, I decided I should do what any 36-year-old classically-trained musician would logically do: I decided to take lessons. I hired myself a brief stint with a personal trainer.

I arrived at the gym assuming my trainer would put me on the treadmill—what I had previously been urged to do to “slim down”—and yell at me in an emotionally-uplifting and inspiring way. (Reality tv wouldn’t steer me wrong, right?) But after five minutes of warm up, my trainer turned off the dreaded machine and led me to the free weights. She walked me past the familiar, dainty weights I had compulsively selected in past group exercise classes, and instead handed me the heavy “barbells” from the middle of the rack. Incredulous, I lifted. After a few sessions, it felt great.

In the first weeks working with this trainer I gained fifteen pounds…of muscle. And I grew strong. She quickly learned that we shared an interest in facts and physics. Together, we talked about everything from nutrition, to metabolism, to body mechanics. Herself being 5’4’’ and a competitive body builder, she looked at me and saw a remarkable template. It turned out, the construction of my previously-loathed body meant that I could actually accomplish some pretty remarkable things. She helped me to understand that my metabolism prioritised muscle and would grow it and protect it prior to burning off fat. This celebration of my construction was surprisingly new. And the strength training was far more effective in slimming me down than anything else I had ever done.

My trainer changed my life. She taught me what strength looks like—male or female. So many bodies that I would have previously thought were “bulky” actually belonged to incredibly strong, powerful women. I was astonished—considering myself a fairly educated individual—at how little I understood about the female body. And as I eliminated my fear of weights and of growing bulky, I also began to enjoy being myself a lot more than I had before. Exercising gave me a hobby that helped me moderate anxiety, eliminate chronic pain, play with my children without fear of “putting my back out,” and embrace failure as something amazing. In fact, failure in the gym is key. It is the best way to make you stronger.

Three years later, I still lift, although this summer I began running again as a chance to tackle new challenges. I cannot imagine life without regular exercise, and I talk with my children about strength and being strong. I fear, as a society, that there are far too many instances to undermine women’s ideas of strength, which, as Schatz’s image reveals, can come in many forms. And make no mistake, one doesn’t need to lift the heavy stuff to be a power house; strength manifests itself in remarkably different ways. Improving how I celebrate strength has been essential to improving my outlook on life, making me all the more excited to drive toward that next failure.

Kimberly Francis is Acting Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the University of Guelph, where she is also an Associate Professor of Music and a passionate feminist musicologist. She’s not ashamed to say that Taylor Swift, Guster, and many, many tracks from Big Shiny Tunes can all be found on her workout playlist.

fitness · training · weight lifting

Sam lifts heavy things in the wild

Sweaty selfie of Sam from moving day. Wearing a light purple tank top. Extremely messy hair. Smiles.

So usually I lift heavy things in the gym, either on my own, with a personal trainer, or lately with my son Miles who is starting university at Guelph next month.

That’s controlled and deliberate lifting. You know how much a thing weighs and you make a plan to lift it x number of times for y number of sets. Though sometimes the math is complicated. The other day I was lifting a 55 lb bar with 40 kg weights.

Lately though I’ve been lifting heavy things in the wild. What do I mean?

Well, here are some examples.

Tonight, I needed to move a washer and dryer set from the back lawn into the shed. We had a wheelie thing underneath it to get it as far as the shed so no problem but then there wasn’t enough clearance in the shed to get the thing and the wheels inside. Miles and I lifted it. I was cautious at first to make sure I was okay with the weight and then once I knew I was fine, carried it into the shed and set it down being careful not to trap my fingers.

Earlier this week Sarah and I had to get the Snipe into the water and out again on our own. We use a trailer and cradle and there’s a ramp into the water but the boat isn’t light. It weighs about 381 lbs. We did it!

And then there are all the boxes of books I’m moving here there and everywhere. My books don’t fit in the new house so some are going to my office at university and others are going to Goodwill. Books aren’t light!

Now lifting actual things is in many ways harder than lifting weights in the gym. Real objects are awkwardly shaped and when you set them down on the floor you need to be careful you don’t squish your fingers. Actual things rarely come with handles. You need grip strength to hold them. We’ve blogged about real world strength here.

Sam’s dog Cheddar napping on the top step in front of a giant heap of boxes of books. When it comes to moving, Cheddar is no help!

This everyday stuff is a big part of why I train with weights, I can lift heavy things in the wild, not just in the controlled environment of the gym.

Yes, it’s for bone health. Yes, it’s to maintain muscle as I age.

But it’s also for practical things like moving washing machines, sailboats, and books.

How about you? Do you enjoy your strength in practical everyday ways?

Fear · fit at mid-life · fitness · Martha's Musings · motivation · training · weight lifting · yoga

Little steps leading to big leaps

This past month has been one focused on change. We went from a relatively cool June to a muggy July seemingly overnight and training in the heat has been difficult.

My trainer and I have been experimenting, from shifting when I train so I can manage the heat to trying different deadlift and bench approaches. I am still following my trainer’s lead regarding my program, and it’s a relief to let someone else take the reins of planning and directing. People hire me for my expertise in communications and let me take the lead all the time, so I’m perfectly fine relying on my trainer’s knowledge and experience to show me the way forward in the gym.

IMG_5893
Picture shows a person wearing flowered gym tights and grey sneakers in the sunshine

 

It’s a choice that has let me successfully continue with powerlifting as a training focus for almost five years. In that time, I’ve managed recovery from a hyperactive hip joint, a shoulder with attitude, and a knee that constantly whined for attention.

So when Vicky said let’s try a few things, I said okay and we carried on with me lifting heavy things and putting them down, albeit in some very different, challenging variations. We used bands, blocks, pins and posts. We took apart processes and put them back together, and not always in the same way.

I wasn’t always excited about change in the gym. I really worry about reinjuring various parts so I tend to look at new moves with suspicion and a decided lack of enthusiam. However, I trust my trainer and when she proposed deficit deadlifts, I said yes. When she added bands, I said yes, and kept my fingers crossed they wouldn’t snap mid lift. When she proposed pinch presses for bench, I said yes and hoped like heck it didn’t mean I was the one who got pinched. (I wasn’t).

Each shift made the lifts more challenging and I quickly mastered the new ways of lifting, despite how weird it all felt. Each shift meant I had to change the way I carried out my work compared to the traditional approaches.

I find deficit lifts challenging as everything tends to get squished the closer you get the floor and it isn’t so easy breathing either. I quickly discovered I needed a new way to fill my lungs as the heavier the bar the more energy and breath I needed.

I tried a couple of different moves and workarounds until I felt as comfortable as I would ever feel shifting a lot of weight around. I had to do the same thing with bench presses and squats too.

Well, those tiny changes had a big impact. After three weeks of tiny steps, Vicky brought me back to traditional deadlifts and bench presses. I’m thrilled with the results — new personal records in bench and deadlift for four repeats at 100 pounds and 200 pounds respectively.

When I think on it, all my progress has come from tiny steps: from making that first decision to hire a trainer and actually walk into the gym to the actual nurturing of trust in the process, the trainer, and myself.

Each stage builds on the next, creating a space where gains in strength and comfort are possible. Most importantly, I have seen changes in how I have made fitness a part of my life. I added swimming last year when my neighbourhood pool reopened and this summer I took up yin yoga.

When I did the latest survey on my Carrot app, I was delighted to see how much time each week is now devoted to a specific physical activity. The old joke asks “how does one eat an elephant? The answer: one bite at a time. Or in my case, one step at a time, consistently.

— Martha lives and trains in St. John’s.

 

weight lifting

Bigger, better, stronger? On women and weightlifting

There are various myths around size and fitness that just have to die. Take the myth that thin equals fit. Go die a fire-y death! How about the myth that large women can’t run or bike? Go jump off a cliff!

But the one that I find just puzzling is the idea that large women aren’t strong.  From the BBC: “Rebecca Roberts is “morbidly obese”, according to Body Mass Index (BMI). She’s also one of the UK’s Strongest Women. Newsbeat has been speaking to people who say that “bigger is better” – and that their size is an advantage in their jobs. Rebecca has overcome bullying during her childhood and says she’s learned to embrace her bigger size and weight.” See Bigger is better’: The weightlifter

But why is the strength of bigger women a surprise to us?  It really shouldn’t be.

We’ve written about it here. See Big women and strength.

Among other things it’s why there are weight classes in competition. The strongest women overall are also the largest. It’s why it’s sometimes to useful to think of strength relative to your body weight. You can disagree about the numbers but it’s why strength benchmarks use bodyweight as a guide.  According to 9 Essential Strength Benchmarks for Women you should be able to deadlift 150% of your bodyweight and bench 75% of your body weight.

That’s more meaningful than thinking of it in terms of bears. (I can deadlift something between a black bear and a panda, FWIW.)

But even large women known for their tremendous physical strength aren’t immune from the pressure to look smaller, to be lean and trim.

I was shocked when  U.S. Olympic weightlifter Holley Mangold decided to take part in the Biggest Loser. Read about it in this post From the Olympics to the Biggest Loser? Say it ain’t so Holley.

In the end she didn’t do that well on the show,Ousted ‘Biggest Loser,’ Olympian Holley Mangold.

And she didn’t make the next Olympic team, U.S. Olympic women’s weightlifting team complete; no Holley Mangold

There I wrote. “We say “strong is the new skinny.” But really, few people mean that. The strongest women, like the strongest men, are big. That’s why lifting has weight divisions. And we tend not to see pictures of strong women like Holley on the “strong is the new skinny” fitspo posters.”

I think we ought to start admiring really strong women and having a mental image of them when we say, “Strong is the new skinny.”

Here’s one more, closer to home. See B.C. nurse still the strongest woman over 40 in the world

At 42 years old, Ferguson has only been taking part in strength competitions for two years — earning  gold in the Master’s division of the North American Strongman Championships in 2015, then going on to claim either the top or runner-up positions in numerous other competitions in B.C., Canada and North America.

To win in Raleigh, Ferguson had to lift metal logs, run with a 500 lb. yoke on her back and deadlift a car as many times as possible in 60 seconds.

 

I’d like to be able to deadlift a car. It’s Bike to Work Month again and lots of people in my newsfeed are sharing this older clip of a very strong man moving a car out of the bike lane. A girl can dream! #goals

fitness · fitness classes · holiday fitness · holidays · walking · weight lifting

Working out onboard, staying active on a cruise ship, part 2

So far here on the ship I’ve found a few fitness options on board. We only have two days out of twelve total when we’re at sea. But when we had one, I wandered around scoping out my options for staying active.

First, there are fitness classes. There’s yoga and spin and social walking/jogging groups.

Second, there’s a salt water pool. I described it as a wave pool (it’s very wavy) but Susan pointed out that it’s likely just the motion of the boat causing the waves. It’s salt water, which I like, and not too warm. I like that. I was worried it would be hot.

Third, there’s the walking/running track above the pool. It’s busy in the morning and there are some serious runners and walkers up there.

Fourth, there is a gym. It’s got some weight machines, two benches, all the dumbbells, treadmills galore, one rowing machine and some elliptical trainers.

So what did I do?

First step, as always, everyday was knee physio in our room.

Second, I did a lot of lifting with dumbbells in the gym. One weird thing is that the ship’s motion is a lot more noticeable when you’re lying on a bench with fifty lbs over your head. There’s a lot of extra stabilization involved.

Third, I jogged in the salt water pool and chatted with some Australian women about the South Pacific. Like, why are you here? Isn’t it warm at home? Aren’t a lot of the birds and plants the same? They were fascinated by the islands and their history and this is a great way to see them.

I’d count this fitness activity on our day at sea as a success.

fitness · Martha's Musings · Metrics · weight lifting

Changing how I think one plate at a time

 

An athlete wears red sneakers with a kettle bell next to their feet

Two weeks ago, I had a day in the gym that was perfect. Every motion flowed like silk. After having a pause for the holidays, getting back in the groove felt great.

Last week, while my form was still on point, the flow was uneven. I finally understood what competition commenters mean when they say a lifter grinds out a set.

The amount of effort to move the plates was huge, at least for the first lift of the set. The speed picked up for each one after that first time, but still over the course of the session, my trainer and I could see that my brain and my legs were fighting each other on my first approach to the bar.

These weren’t lightweights, but neither were they really heavy ones either. And yet, they resisted movement. Each time I started a set, I dragged that bar over my shins, knees to finally come to rest at the hip.

My trainer made a couple of suggestions on modifying my approach. She showed me three different ways people set up at the bar. We split one approach into smaller steps, and I worked through each one to finally find the right stance for me.

I was so excited I wanted to try a whole new set, but alas, it was the end of the session, and I knew too well that my unrestrained enthusiasm could lead to a wrong move and that could lead to injury. As I had just reached one year without any complaint from the wonky hip, I had to concede. But at my next session, I promised myself, I would remember the tweaks and try them again.

That same day I received cartoon celebrating the knowledge we gain from failure. The cartoonist observed “Failure just means not yet.” It made me think a little more deeply about the reluctant bar.

Had I just kept on getting smooth as silk lifts with these lower weights, what would have happened once I aimed for the higher weights I want to try this year? Without learning some of the tricks and tips to adjust or modify my approach before trying again, I might have stayed stuck for a whole lot longer and experienced significant frustration at not moving forward (or upward as the case may be).

I’m trying to document some of these insights, along with the PRs and the key anniversaries (yay one year without a recurrence!) so that I can see all the ways I am moving forward even when it feels by only one metric like I’m not. What are other ways we can measure progress or changes in our fitness that are meaningful and realistic?

— MarthaFitat55 enjoys powerlifting even when the bar fights her command.