Can you think back to the best days of your physique? You know..the time in your life where you felt the best, looked your best, and were really, really confident in all that heat you were packing in them jeans? (ICYMI: Talking about that booty).
Nine times out of 10, my female clients can think back to a specific time and place where they felt this way. They wax poetic about how snug their favorite jeans looked on them, how they could eat anything without considering weight gain, or simply how strong, athletic, or toned their physique once was.
There’s nothing wrong with looking back and thinking, “Damn, I looked really good then.”
Yet there’s a difference between appreciation for what once was and reckless nostalgia. The former acknowledges that at that moment in time you were:
- Likely younger and not fully developed as an adult
- Had less life stressors
- Lower career demands
- More time to devote to fitness, nutrition, and athletic endeavors
- More active in general
- Less muscle overall
- Broke AF as you navigated the space between post-college life and starting a desk job and probably ate like a toddler
When you add up any of the above during your 20s, body composition looks and feels entirely different. Bodies are resilient but youthful bodies in particular can bounce back like a rubber band from the most atrocious training and lifestyle habits.
A woman’s body is entirely different hormonally, psychologically, physically, and emotionally in her 30s, 40s, and 50s. The majority of women I’ve trained over the years fall into this age group and they are balancing highly stressful, demanding careers while managing households, starting or raising a family, along with a host of hormonal changes brought on by the mere joys of being a woman.*
*Sassy and sarcastic is my middle name, in case you’re wondering.
The older we get, the more intentional we must become to either maintain or change our physique and performance in the gym. The tactics that worked to lose those initial 10lbs five years ago aren’t the same ones needed to lose the extra 2lbs.
I recently turned 37-years young and as a fitness professional who also worked in corporate America for a
too f*cking long time, I understand how challenging it gets to maintain a physique when you’re chained to a desk for hours on end, stressed out of your mind. Add a global pandemic, changing hormones, and just the daily stressors of our humanity, and things can go south real quick on the physique and performance front.
Lifestyle matters the most in maintaining or creating your physique as you get older (Read: The Benefits of Muscle Building for Women). Love that barre class on Thursday nights? Great – but one hour a week of pulsing plies won’t make a dent in your physique nor will drinking lemon water magically “speed up metabolism” and change your life.
What’s a busy girl to do in these conditions then?
- Put on muscle (will get into this in a bit)
- Raise your non-exercise activity levels (also known as N.E.A.T.) throughout the day as much as possible
- Learn the proper nutrition style for your current body and/or activity level
- Decrease external stressors as much as you can – meditate, journal, get a therapist, buy blackout curtains – just do whatever you can to lower your stress
All this sounds simple enough except most people won’t do it. Instead, women will revert back to what used to work for them in their 20s – eating sad salads and clocking hours of cardio.
Patience is your no. 1 asset when it comes to physique and performance changes, especially as you get older and become more seasoned in the gym. Making changes sustainably at this stage in life is a slow and steady process that usually lasts months and then carries over into years. That’s a hard sell for the fitness industry! Can you imagine someone selling you a fitness program with “Here’s this simple and effective training program you have to do for the next 3 years to see massive transformation!”
No one would buy!
I want you to see what is reality when you dial it in on a few key things – lifestyle, exercise, and recovery.
Here’s a look at my physique changes in the first 30 days of the 5×40 Challenge – a 40-day fitness and lifestyle program I created this summer with a small group of people who wanted to kickstart their way to a leaner physique and new habits.
This is not a dramatic physique transformation but 30 days of consistency made a world of difference in three significant ways:
- All my clothes started to fit better – thank baby Jesus because who wants to buy new clothes with inflation this high, amirite?
- My strength went up significantly in ALL my lifts – Squat went from 145 to 170lbs (not a PR but significant in a small amount of time); banded chin-ups to bodyweight; hip thrust strength went up to 250lbs.
- Clocking in 5-8k steps a day lowered my cortisol significantly and I started sleeping better. Yay, more recovery!
For context, it’s worthing noting the following :
- In the “Before” photos, I had just made a cross-country move. I was sort of exercising 2-3x a week in the 4 months leading up to the move and was under extreme stress 24/7. I also barely slept during this time.
- In the course of those 30 days, I increased my caloric intake slowly to about 1,950 calories. Eating a whole lot more to align with my training and putting on muscle.
- At the time of the “After” photo, I was training 5x a week and walking at least 5K steps a day.
- The “After” photo was taken during my menstrual cycle which is only important because this is when the scale is the most unreliable for me. I gather the data anyway and move on. Overall, my weight dropped an average of 3 pounds within those 30 days.
Sum it up: Focusing on exercise, increased N.E.A.T., lowering stress, and adding more recovery led to incremental changes physically in the first 30 days. Eating more quality food consistently supported my training, recovery and contributed to significant improvements in performance.
That’s what sustainable progress looks like.
Most people need to manage their expectations better and exercise some patience when they’re starting a new program or creating new lifestyle habits that will ultimately change their physique or performance in the gym. This isn’t going to change overnight but I’d calculate that 4-6 months at this pace will put me on track to looking and feeling drastically different, and that’s exciting.
Muscles Matter, Too
Bodies aren’t built with a perfect routine or perfect meal plan over the course of a few weeks. It’s built over the course of months and years of “pretty decent” training and nutritional habits that you can maintain for the long-haul. The sooner you start adding muscle to your frame, the easier it is to maintain your physique as you age.
Your metabolism doesn’t “slow down” as you age but rather it adapts to the lower level of intensity you give it. By prioritizing muscle you’re revving up your metabolic engine to work harder for you, kind of like investing in the S&P 500 – make that money work for you, hunny!
Born Fitness writer and founder, Adam Bornstein summarizes this neatly in this article about metabolism:
[M]ore muscle changes the way that your body reacts to food. That’s because your muscles need the energy to repair, maintain, or grow. So, the more muscle you add, the more your body processes food and calories differently and makes it less likely that what you eat will be stored as fat.
There are many schools of thought on what it takes to change your physique and performance and I’d reckon each camp comes from their own unique perspective and experience. A traditional bodybuilder is likely going to hone in on nutrition (which is very important), and a training style meant for getting stage ready. A powerlifter is going to look at this from how strong you can possibly get in the big lifts, which also brings about amazing aesthetic results.
None of these styles are wrong – they’re simply different styles and methodologies. But if you look deep into any school of thought it always comes down to:
- Build muscle
- Get rest
- Eat more and better quality
- Improve overall lifestyle habits (activity level, stress, getting sleep, etc.)
- Rinse and repeat
While exercise will always be a major component, it is unlikely the only thing that will help you achieve the gains that suit where you are at right now. But damn, it sure is a great start.