The Best Strength & Ab Exercises to Do During Menopause
Nosediving estrogen levels, weakening bones, loss of muscle mass: As any woman in the throes of menopause (or already on the other side) can attest, the experience can certainly do a number on your body. But while menopause itself may be inevitable, its effects don’t need to be. “Strength training is a really effective tool for combatting the physiological effects of menopause,” says certified trainer Linda Melone, C.S.C.S., founder of AgelessAfter50.com. Let’s discuss why this is, then we’ll go through specific moves—with easy how-tos.
What's So Great About Strength Training?
It builds muscle mass, which naturally starts to decline in our 30s. And muscle mass is the friend with benefits you need: 1) It jacks up metabolism, which helps burn calories and fat…even when you’re not exercising. 2) It fortifies bones: As you challenge your muscle groups, they pull on the attached bones, which strengthen in response. Important, since estrogen—which helps protect against bone loss—drops precipitously in menopause. 3) It helps with balance (the staying-upright kind). With newly weakened bones, a fall that once may have simply left you feeling embarrassed may now land you in a cast.
It's Never Too Late to Start
Never exercised before? Starting a routine at midlife is still smart. Not only might it alleviate some symptoms (such as hot flashes and bone loss), but a 2019 British Medical Journal study also found that middle-aged and older adults who get even the minimum recommended amount of exercise each week—150 minutes of moderate physical activity—are more likely to outlive their sedentary counterparts. Melone recommends doing the following moves two or three times a week. Start with one set of each move (12 to 15 repetitions of a move = a set), working up to three sets.
The Move: Squats
They’re efficient, recruiting all the major muscles of the lower body—the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and more—in a way that mimics the squatting motion you naturally use throughout the day, such as when sitting down and rising up from a chair. You’ll build muscle mass, which is key during menopause because of the natural muscle loss that occurs with age, and “you’ll also be less prone to injury as you move throughout your day,” Melone says. “Stronger muscles protect joints and reduce the risk of tendon and ligament strains.”
Squats: The How-To
Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Engage (meaning tighten) your abdominals while raising your arms out in front of your body for balance. Keep your weight in your heels as you lower yourself towards the floor, bending at the hips and knees. Push your glutes out as if you’re about to sit down on a low toilet. Once your thighs are parallel to the floor, pause for a second or two before slowly standing back up, pressing down through your heels. That is one repetition. As the move gets easier, you can hold dumbbells for added challenge.
The Move: Crabwalk
This one is also great for your glutes, which, if you sit at a desk (or lie on a couch) for hours a day, are more likely than not in need of strengthening. (Chronic inactivity can lead to something called Dormant Butt Syndrome, which is just a catchy way of describing underactive glute muscles.) Add in menopause, with the muscle loss that comes with it, and your booty is apt to make a disappearing act—and weak glutes increase the risk of back pain.
To wake up your tush, you’ll need light- to medium-resistance bands. (Melone likes the Spri brand. Start with the lowest resistance.)
Crabwalk: The How-To
Tie your band into a loop and step inside it. The band should rest around your ankles. Standing with your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight ahead and knees slightly bent, take a step to the right with your right foot until the tubing is pulled taut and you feel its resistance. Now step your left foot toward the right and repeat, walking sideways for about 20 steps, then repeat in the opposite direction. That is one set. Note: Keep your knees slightly bent the entire time.
The Move: Foam Roller Stretch
“After menopause, women are more prone to have bone loss and rounded posture,” says physical therapist Jill Hoefs, MPT, founder of Body Align Physical Therapy in New York City. Hoefs encourages women to lie on a foam roller to stretch their chest muscles and improve posture.
Foam Roller Stretch: The How-To
Place a foam roller on the floor. Carefully lie down, with your face up and your back along the roller, so it is aligned with your spine. Your head should be resting on the roller. Knees are bent, feet placed on the floor for stability. Stretch your arms out to the side in a goal post position. Relax for three to five minutes in this position. (FYI: This move pairs perfectly with your favorite Netflix show.)
The Move: Lateral Shoulder Raise
Along with poor posture, post-menopausal women are at risk for shoulder pain and injuries, so Melone recommends the lateral shoulder raise to help strengthen the vulnerable shoulder joint. This move works by targeting the deltoids—the muscles on the tops of your shoulders. By shoring up your shoulder muscles, you strengthen the joints there. This move can be deceptively tough, though, so don’t go at it with too much weight in your hands.
Lateral Shoulder Raise: The How-To
Standing with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, let your arms hang down by your sides, holding light dumbbells or soup cans with palms facing in. Maintaining a slight bend in your elbows, raise both arms up and out to the side until they are parallel to the ground. Your thumbs should be pointing down when you get to the top of the lift; imagine you are holding pitchers of water, pouring them out at the top. Hold there for a second or two, then slowly lower arms back down to starting position. That is one repetition.
Moves to Fight Menopausal Belly Fat
Women at midlife tend to gain weight in their bellies. The media has termed this phenomenon “middle aged spread” and “meno-gut,” among other delightful nicknames (shut it, everyone!). But stomach fat is dangerous for your heart, according to multiple studies. In fact, in a study recently presented at an American Heart Association session, researchers found that postmenopausal women who carried fat mostly in their torso were three times more likely to develop heart disease compared with those who mainly carried fat in their legs.
Combat belly fat with the next two moves: cardio to increase your overall calorie burn, and targeted abdominal exercises to build strength.
The Move: Interval Cardio
Relaxed, steady-state cardio—the kind where you spend 30 minutes on an elliptical machine, scrolling through your phone and barely breaking a sweat—won’t do. What you want is interval cardio, also known as High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). “These workouts alternate bouts of high-intensity, all-out effort with easier, lower-intensity periods,” Melone explains. Switching between high and low effort produces something called EPOC, “which sounds like a Star Wars character but is actually short for ‘excess post-exercise oxygen consumption,’” she says. In simple terms: “HIIT produces an afterburn effect where your body keeps burning calories even after you’re finished exercising.”
Interval Cardio: The How-To
Try this beginner, 20-minute program twice a week: Warm up for four minutes by walking at a comfortable pace. Walk at a brisk pace for 60 seconds. Walk at a moderate pace for 60 seconds. Repeat for two more cycles. Walk at a brisk pace for 90 seconds. Walk at a moderate pace for 30 seconds. Repeat for two to four more cycles. Cool down with a few minutes of slow walking.
You can substitute other forms of cardio, such as swimming or recumbent biking. Just follow the same basic formula, starting with a warm-up, then alternating faster and slower bouts of activity before cooling down.
The Move: Standing Crunch
“Building strength means increasing muscle,” Melone says, “and muscle burns more calories at rest than fat, so by increasing your metabolism this way, you're indirectly helping decrease fat around the middle.” Many of her clients age 40+ prefer standing abdominal moves to crunches done on the floor because they can easily be sprinkled in throughout the day and, well, they don’t require you to lie on the floor! Standing crunches are also easier on your neck than traditional ones, and they challenge your balance, which can suffer during menopause.
Standing Crunch: The How-To
Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Place your fingertips lightly behind the base of your head, elbows out wide so you can barely see them in your peripheral vision. Lift your right leg off the ground, bringing the knee up and across your body as you twist from the torso, moving your left elbow down toward the right knee. (They don’t need to actually touch.) Return to starting position and repeat with the left knee and right elbow. That is one rep. Focus on keeping your ab muscles engaged, feeling a crunching sensation as your knee and opposite elbow come closer.
- Minimum Weekly Exercise Recommendation: American Heart Association. (2018). “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids.” heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults
- Physical Activity and Mortality: The BMJ. (2019). “Physical activity trajectories and mortality: population based cohort study.” bmj.com/content/365/bmj.l2323
- Dormant Butt Syndrome: The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. (2016). “Dormant Butt Syndrome May Be To Blame For Knee, Hip and Back Pain.” wexnermedical.osu.edu/mediaroom/pressreleaselisting/dormant-butt-syndrome-mmr
- Abdominal Fat and Your Heart (1): Journal of the American College of Cardiology. (2016). “Association of Changes in Abdominal Fat Quantity and Quality With Incident Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors.” sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0735109716347805?via%3Dihub
- Abdominal Fat and Your Heart (2): Harvard Health Publishing. (2018). “Belly fat linked with higher heart disease risk.” health.harvard.edu/blog/belly-fat-linked-with-higher-heart-disease-risk-2018072614354
- Abdominal Fat and Your Heart (3): American Heart Association. (2019). “Belly fat raises risk of heart disease, stroke in older women despite normal BMI.” heart.org/en/news/2019/03/06/belly-fat-raises-risk-of-heart-disease-stroke-in-older-women-despite-normal-bmi