My recent obsession with muscles started innocently enough. Waving goodbye to my daughter the other day, I glanced over at my arm, and, to my horror, my tricep was doing its own independent wave. There it was, just wiggling and jiggling away. Then, a few days later, I wanted some brined peppers on my avocado toast, and just could not open the jar. Not life-changing moments, but unmistakable reminders that muscle mass begins to deteriorate in your 30s at a rate of about five pounds a decade. This loss—marbling our muscles with fat like a fine steak—affects our metabolism, accelerating the dreaded middle-age spread, and puts us at greater risk of injury, not to mention osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Since I want to carry my own bags (and baggage) for years to come, I turned to certified personal trainer Christina Papadakis, for tips on starting a strengthening regimen.
I’m not keen on gyms. What kind of gear do I need to train at home?
You don’t need a lot: a mat, exercise ball, yoga block and weights.
I have worked out in the past, do I really need a personal trainer?
The Internet has provided us with a plethora of information. But are you in a position—a safe position—to follow those instructions? You might have laxity in a joint or a muscle imbalance or an underlying condition. The first thing is to consult a general practitioner, get a physical, and rule out anything that might be a hazard. Then seek the guidance of a physiotherapist or certified personal trainer. They can take your medical information, plus any discrepancies they come across, and devise a program specific to your body type, age and health obstacles. If you don’t do that you can end up hurting yourself, plain and simple.
Should I be doing higher reps with lighter weights or lower reps with heavier weights?
It depends on what you want to achieve. If you want to achieve big bulk—like a body builder—that’s heavy weight, fewer reps. When you want to achieve endurance, it’s lighter weights, more reps. Strength is somewhere in between. You should be able execute between 10 and 12 repetitions with good form.
I am anxious to get better at burpees (or actually do one properly).
You have to start small. Everyone wants to get to planks, box squats and all that good stuff. Those are gross motor movements and require multiple muscle groups to fire in a certain sequence. For instance, push-ups require a delicate interworking of chest muscles, back muscles and core. When you can’t access the right muscles or if one of the muscles in the sequence isn’t firing, you might compensate with another and end up injuring yourself. Start with a micro rather than macro approach, and work those individual muscle groups separately so you can learn exactly how it feels when each one is activated. A few weeks later, have a follow-up session with your trainer, who can assess and tweak the routine accordingly. It’s like building a house–you have to lay a foundation before you start putting up the posts.
So I shouldn’t be impatient. What other pitfalls should I watch out for?
Having unrealistic goals. The body doesn’t like change, so when we are attempting to modify it, we have to do it in a fashion that is slow, controlled and safe. And don’t underestimate the power of past habits. Be prepared that the demands and responsibilities in your life that once took precedent will again rise up. Working out is a lifestyle change, not something you check off your to-do list.
What do you say to ‘I don’t have time to work out.’
I hear that every day. But I have many clients who have critical illnesses, whose lifestyles have changed fundamentally because they have no choice — their ailments have redirected their entire lives. They often say that their biggest regrets have been that, when they were well, they made excuses for not doing something to better their overall health. It doesn’t have to be a large time commitment. It could be 10 minutes every day.
Kathryn Hayward is a fortysomething senior editor and a mom of two.
Originally published August 2018; Updated August 2021.