Use it or lose it: how to maintain your strength as you age

The old adage ‘use it or lose it’ has never been truer as far as maintaining strength, muscle mass and therefore function and quality of life, is concerned. Even though we often think and feel like we did when we were in our 20’s, our bodies, if left to their own devices, will start to decline and the signs of the ageing process reveal themselves all too clearly!

Figures show that loss of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, can start from the age of 30. After that, if left unaddressed, it’s possible to lose 3-5% of our muscle per decade ultimately resulting in falls, fractures, weight gain (and its associated diseases), and a loss of independence. Our health is everything and yet we so often take it for granted – until it fails!

For those of you who saw the fascinating 3 part BBC series How to Stay Young (if you didn’t it’s well worth a catch up), you will remember Kamini, the lady who lead a very sedentary life, often taking the car on the shortest of journeys. The MRI of her leg was a brilliant visual representation of the impact of neglecting to maintain strength  and how her lifestyle had caused dramatic muscle loss. As a result, although appearing relatively ‘slim’, her body fat percentage was an incredible 45%.

As Kamini discovered, the exciting thing is it really doesn’t need to be that way. There’s an easy solution that allows you to take control, slow down, and even reverse the process. It requires no medication and you can start as soon as you like. That solution is strength training. Many women are understandably put off by the idea of strength training, associating it with iron-pumping body builder types huffing and puffing in darkened corners of the gym. There is also a concern that it might increase bulk and change shape. Technically this is unfounded due to the hormonal make up of our bodies. Unless we are lifting very heavy weights and training specifically to bulk up, the only result you are likely to see is a stronger, leaner, trimmer body that is able to function more effectively. In fact, you don’t even need to use weights at all and you certainly don’t need to go to the gym. Strength gains can be had simply by using your own bodyweight. By loading the body in a way it is not used to, you can build muscle and what’s more you can do it anywhere, any place.

If you are new to strength training, here’s a selection of 5 super-effective exercises to get you going, together with some pointers to make sure you are doing them safely and effectively. Make sure you warm up before you start by marching on the spot and swing your arms, gradually increasing the range of movement as you get warmer. Do a few gentle repetitions of each exercise to check your form before you begin your main workout and stretch out at the end. Do check with a doctor if you have any conditions that may affect your ability to do the exercises safely.

  1. Squat (legs and bottom)

Squat technique

Start with feet hip width apart, tummy lightly drawn in, shoulders down and chest open.

Bend the knees and send the bottom to the back as if you are sitting down on a chair, keeping the weight in the heels as you do so (see photo).

Knees should stay back from your toes and remain the same distance apart throughout.

Go down as far as is comfortable but no lower than 90 degrees at the knees, before pushing the heels into the floor and squeezing the bottom to return to the start.

Repetitions: 12 – 15, building up to two sets with a short break in between. Once you have perfected the technique you can add weights if you wish.

2. Lunge (legs and bottom)

Take a big step forward, keeping the feet hip width apart so the pelvis stays level. Back heel comes off the floor as you do.

Drop down, bending at both knees making sure that the front knee stays back from the toes. (NB Lunges should be an up and down movement and not a forward and back one as this loads the knee).

Aim for a 90 degree angle at both knees but only go as far as is comfortable for you especially if you have knee/hip/ankle problems.

Push through the front heel and squeeze the bottom to come back to the start, taking care not to lock the knee.

Repetitions: 12 – 15 each leg and build up to two sets with a break in between. Add weights once you feel comfortable to increase the level of difficulty.


3. Tricep dips (back of the arms and shoulders)

Tricep dipsSit on chair that is stable (or get someone to hold the back of it for you) with your hands at the side of your thighs.

Keeping the shoulders down and the neck long, drop the bottom off the chair.

Bend the arms, making sure the elbows point to the back and not out to the side, ensuring you do not tense the neck and shoulders.

Push through the heel of the hand to come back to the start without locking the elbows.

It is easy to cheat on this one by simply bending your knees to drop down without moving your arms at all. The arms should be taking the whole body weight as they bend and the bottom/legs do not move apart from to drop as your arms bend – check yourself in the mirror.

NB This can be a challenging exercise so build up the number of repetitions gradually. Aim for 2 sets of 12.

4. Box press/press up (chest and arms)

Get on to hands and knees with your hands should be directly under your shoulders, but a little wider than chest width apart. Your knees are in line with your hips, back flat and tummy lightly drawn in.

Keeping the weight forward, bend the elbows, sending them out to the side and taking care not to drop the weight backwards. It should stay over your hands throughout.

Look at the floor so your head and neck stay aligned as you bend.

Push through the heel of the hand to come back to the start, keeping the elbows soft.

Work up to 2 sets of 12. As you get stronger you can progress on to a 3/4 press up and ultimately to a full press up

5. Superman (core)

Superman exerciseStart from the same ‘box’ position as above, but this time the hands are exactly under your shoulders.

Keeping the tummy drawn in, lift one leg out straight to the back without twisting, hollowing the back, or tipping to the side. It is only the leg that moves and not the torso. Imagine you have a tray of drinks on your back that you don’t want to spill! Alternatively you can rest a cushion on your back. Repeat with the other leg and then each arm.

If this is challenging, stick with it and work up to 12 repetitions. If you want to increase the difficulty, lift opposite arm and leg at the same time (see photo).

Alternate sides and build up to 2 sets of 12.


There’s no time like the present so give these exercises a go today and then set 15 minutes aside in your diary to do them 3 times a week and you’ll soon see the difference. Any questions, post them here and I will get back to you – I’d love to hear how you get on!




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