When Kathy Mead Fronheiser hears women say they want to look “toned,” she admits she gets a little annoyed. “Women seem so comfortable with that word, but sometimes they don’t realize that all it means is gaining muscle and losing fat,” says Kathy, fitness coach and owner of Fit For You Nashville exercise studio.
What word does she prefer, then?
“I like ‘strong.’ It kind of drives me crazy that women are so afraid to be strong,” she confesses. “I’m getting on my soap box here, but I think it carries over to other parts of life; asking for a raise or saying ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’”
In the end, she says, call it what you want — fit, healthy, strong or toned — as long as you understand that building muscle is critical to maintaining health, especially as you age. In other words, women need to be doing some form of strength or resistance training, whether it’s using weights, bands or even your body weight.
“After the age of 30, we start to lose muscle naturally,” Kathy says.
It’s vital to replace that muscle for so many reasons, including improving bone density to offset our chances of osteoporosis and making it easier to perform daily activities, like carrying children, grandchildren or groceries. Muscle also allows the body to better utilize glucose, which is important for those struggling with diabetes or pre-diabetes.
“Think of it like Pac-Man,” Kathy says. “The more muscle you have, the more glucose it will eat up — chomp, chomp, chomp in your bloodstream.”
Muscle loss also slows our metabolism, which is defined as the number of calories we burn during the day when we are at rest. This metabolic plunge is one of the major reasons we put on fat as we get older.
“Even though you’re losing muscle and your metabolism is slowing down, you’re probably eating the same amount,” she explains. “It’s not like people say, ‘Let me take off 50 calories from what I eat each day because that’s how many fewer calories I’m burning this year as compared to last year.’”
Strength training allows you to create muscle, thus increasing your metabolism and burning more calories. And yes, Kathy concedes, if your goal is to get that “toned” appearance, strength training will help you get those nice, shapely arms and that well-sculpted bootie.
So, where do you start? Kathy recommends paying for one session with a personal trainer or going to a small group-training class where you can get personalized attention.
“I sometimes meet with people individually and start them on a workout, and then we may meet four weeks later,” she says. “Or, I offer a class at Fit For You called Strength Training 101.”
Even larger gyms, she says, typically offer a free fitness equipment orientation as part of your membership, so take advantage of that, and ultimately, find someone who can answer your questions. She tells clients they ideally need to engage in full-body strength training three non-consecutive days per week.
“You want to challenge your muscles because if you aren’t challenging them, they aren’t going to grow,” she says.
As you challenge your muscles to the point of fatigue, you cause small microtears in the muscle fibers.
“They rip apart, and they get stronger by rebuilding themselves,” Kathy says. “That’s the reason you want to take a day off in between lifting because you want to give them time to rebuild.”
Keep in mind, however, that strength training is only part of the equation when it comes to improving health and fitness. As Kathy explains, The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular fitness a week, which boils down to 30 minutes, five days a week. And if you think you’re “bulking up” due to strength training and that concerns you, you probably need to pay more attention to your diet and cardio training regimen. Kathy says people build muscle differently, depending on body type, but if you don’t watch what you eat and you don’t do cardio interval training on the days you’re not doing full body strength training, you’re not going to lose fat.
“If your goal is to look like Madonna or someone who is smaller and ripped, you have to lose the fat,” she says. “That comes down to full-body strength training and cardio intervals.”
While there are a million different ways to do cardio intervals, Kathy says the key is working out hard for one minute and then doubling that for your recovery time.
“So maybe, after a warm up, you run hard for a minute, and walk for two minutes over a 20- to 30-minute time period,” she says. “But you don’t ever want to go longer than 90 seconds for your higher intensity work because if you can go longer than 90 seconds then you are not working hard enough.”
Kathy cautions that you should always work up to interval training. Don’t start tomorrow, for example, if you haven’t exercised in a year. But when it comes to muscle strength, Kathy goes back to the fact that she tries not to be so looks-focused. As we get older and our bodies change, it’s more about how you feel, rather than trying to get yourself back into those jeans you wore 10 years ago.
“I would never say in class, ‘Let’s work on that bikini body,’” she says, “because if you never lose a pound, and you never change how you look, but you are stronger, and your bones are stronger, and you can pick up your grandchildren and play with them, that to me, is a success story.”