Why strength training is a must for perimenopausal women and how to work it into your routine

perimenopause strength training

Worried about dwindling workout results? Noticing weight gain, despite the healthy habits? Hormonal health expert Dr Nicky Keay explains why strength training is a game-changer during perimenopause…

From revving up your metabolism to supporting your bone health – adding more strength exercises into your routine can really help to take the edge off some of the most difficult parts of the perimenopause. 

To help you reap the biggest benefits, we ask Dr Nicky Keay , hormonal health specialist and clinical lecturer at UCL, why strength training is essential during perimenopause. Plus, we share some simple advice on adding strength into your week.

What used to work for me isn’t giving the same results – what’s going on?

Perimenopause is an important lifestage for women when your ovarian hormones – oestrogen and progesterone – begin to decline, leading to a host of symptoms such as an irregular menstrual cycle, hot flushes and low mood. You can read more about the detail of what is happening, here .

The hormone changes you’re experiencing won't prevent you from getting the results that you want

Researchers have also linked declining oestrogen levels to a decrease in metabolic rate (the way you burn energy), a loss of lean muscle tissue, a loss of bone density and an increased risk of weight gain – all of which probably explains why you feel like you’re fighting against your usual routine and habits.

What’s the answer?

Rest assured that the hormone changes you’re experiencing won't prevent you from getting the results that you want. 

Dr Nicky encourages you to look at this time as an opportunity to shake things up and prioritise yourself. “Remember: your hormones are doing their best to keep you healthy – so, if they change, it’s more than worth adapting your exercise and synchronising it to what’s happening in your body,” she says. “And strength training is an excellent place to start.”

Our study says…

Kicking us off in our list of strength-training benefits is the wonderfully named LIFTMOR study of women in their late 60s. “Those that did supervised strength training improved their bone health and maintained their height, compared to women who did non-strength exercise,” explains Nicky. “This is a really positive and inspirational study that shows that it’s never too late to tune into your hormones and take positive steps to work in harmony with them.”  

So, what exactly is strength training? 

Strength training – or resistance training – simply means working your muscles by pulling or pushing against a force. This force can be:

  • Your own bodyweight, like when you do a press-up or squat

  • Weights like dumbbells or kettlebells

  • Weight from a weights machine in the gym 

The best part is that you don’t need to become queen of the squat rack if you don’t want to. Start with little hand weights, a light kettlebell, or introduce resistance bands to your workout. According to the NHS , gardening, hill-walking and yoga all count too. 

With strength workouts, you carry on burning energy even after you’ve stopped doing strength exercise

Why is strength work so effective during the perimenopause?

“Strength training particularly helps with our metabolic health – which starts to dwindle from perimenopause,” says Dr Nicky. “The reason for this is that it engages lots of different muscles, which is really helpful for burning energy more efficiently. Plus, with strength workouts, you carry on burning energy even after you’ve stopped doing strength exercise.”

In turn, having more lean muscle (or having a lean body mass) and less fat has also been strongly linked to fewer vasomotor perimenopausal symptoms – that’s the hot flushes and night sweats.

A recent Swedish study found that women who did resistance training three times per week saw the frequency of their hot flushes reduced by 44%. The theory here is that strength-focused exercise improves our vascular function, helping us to better regulate our body temperature.

Then there’s that loss of bone density, which makes you more susceptible to injuries. “Bones love oestrogen, so as your levels decline, we’re also at greater risk of osteoporosis, the brittle bone disease,” says Dr Nicky. “Strengthening and loading your skeleton with resistance training improves your bone health in the long-term. Even women many years after menopause have seen big benefits – it’s pretty amazing.”

But I don’t want to bulk up…

Fear not. Bulking up is actually a very hard thing to achieve for women and requires years of specific training, dedication and eating a surplus of calories. 

By introducing or adding in more strength training, the reality is that you’re more likely to build more lean muscle and reduce fat – which gives you that longer, leaner and more ‘toned’ look. 

“Because our testosterone levels (the main muscle-building hormone) are much lower, women will also never be as naturally muscular as men,” says Dr Nicky. 

Okay, how do I adapt my perimenopause workout routine? 

This depends on your starting level. If you’re a regular gym-goer or you already weight train, this might look like gradually and safely upping your weights to help you up your game. If you’re completely new to strength training, it’s best to slowly introduce more exercises - Shelley Rudman, strength coach, has created some really good beginner strength classes in the Jennis programmes.

Wherever you’re at, we could probably all do with a reminder that there are different types of fitness beyond just cardio, too. Here are some of Dr Nicky’s guiding principles to help you change things up:

1. Pause and review

Whatever your fitness level, it’s worth stepping back and spending some time reviewing your current routine. “Perimenopause can actually be a positive time, giving us the opportunity to re-think your workout regime and shape it around what your body needs and what makes you feel good,” says Dr Nicky. If you run 4 times a week, you could start by changing one of those sessions to a dumbbell workout, for example. 

2. Start simple

You don’t need very heavy weights or to overhaul your entire routine. Tailor your workout according to what you feel comfortable lifting. Try simple upgrades like adding light dumbbell weights to your normal HIIT class, or ankle or wrist weights when running.

3. Add more bodyweight moves

“If, like me, you’re a reluctant strength exerciser, you could focus on simple bodyweight exercises – think planks and squats – or try group classes like Pilates or Barre that use resistance bands.”

4. Don’t skip the warm up

To avoid injury and to keep progressing over time, your warm up and cool down is really important at this time. 

5. Get serious about rest and recovery 

If you’re used to intense training, this might be a difficult one to hear, but trust. “Don’t underestimate the power and importance of matching what you’re doing with rest for your body to recover and reap the benefits of what you’ve just done,” says Dr Nicky. “Especially when your perimenopausal hormones are a little bit Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and all over the place.”

6. Get sleep smart

When we hit perimenopause, our hormone spikes and things like night sweats and hot flushes can play havoc with our sleep quality. Good quality sleep is vital and “you actually get fitter when you’re asleep,” says Nicky, so if you need sleep support, try breathwork sessions for sleep and anxiety. There are also good yoga sessions that can help to reduce cortisol and contribute to better sleep hygiene.

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