Gray Hair, Huge Muscles: Why Older Women are Bulking Up

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Smiling senior athletes doing kettlebell squats during a fitness class

In their 50s and beyond, women are boxing, bodybuilding, and lifting barbells

By Caitlin Carlson -WSJ

When Katherine Waters-Clark, a 64-year-old real-estate agent in Winchester, Mass., was growing up in the 1970s, her mother discouraged her from any sort of physical activity because it wasn’t “ladylike.”

Then in her 50s, she noticed women her age working out at the athletic center where her twin daughters played sports. She signed up with a trainer to learn Olympic weightlifting, which includes advanced exercises that typically involve using a heavy barbell.

“I was 40 to 50 pounds overweight and could barely do one squat,” she said. She lost weight, gained muscle, improved her bone density, and flipped her mindset that she could become an athlete despite her age and what she was told growing up. “I remember when my trainers started referring to me as their athlete. I almost turned around saying, ‘Who me?’”

For many women over 50, there is a new playbook for aging. Strength-training workouts, boxing, Olympic weightlifting, and even mastering pull-ups are helping them build muscle, bone density, and mind-body confidence in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. Workout brands and studios report a growing number of older participants and members signing up for their services.

For CrossFit Open, a sporting competition, 11,700 women between ages 50 to 59 signed up to compete in 2024, an increase from around 8,300 in 2021, the company said.

At Fhitting Room, an East Coast fitness studio that offers strength classes that revolve around the kettlebell, 6% of new clients were in their 50s and 60s, up from 2.4% of new clients in 2013. “While these numbers are relatively small, they are on the rise and will continue to grow as the large cohort of clients in their 40s continues to train,” said founder Kari Saitowitz.

Katherine Waters-Clark at a weightlifting competition.

Debbie Laurenzano, 57, tried Orangetheory Fitness, which is known for group classes that encourage participants to stay in a certain heart rate zone, for the first time while going through menopause. She’d gained weight, was dealing with mood swings and hot flashes, and wondered if the strength-cardio hybrid classes might help combat those symptoms.

“I just took the leap of faith, did it, and fell in love with the energy, getting my heart rate up, doing the rower, the treadmill, and the weights on the floor,” she said.

She started going religiously—so much so that after retiring as a banker, she began working at the front desk. She loves talking to the women her age who come in. “Go at your own pace,” she tells them.

Doctors recommend women build muscle as they get older, but this advice is somewhat new.

“I think there has been a really big shift,” said Dr. Deborah Gomez Kwolek, a menopause expert and primary care doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital who talks to all of her patients about the importance of strength training. “In the last 20 years, there’s been a rise in stressing to the patient about lifestyle—not just prescribing pills—to help them age successfully and lower their risk of serious diseases.”

Doctors say strength training is good for building muscle mass (which decreases as a woman ages), bones, and balance. It also helps with weight management, pain management, mental health, and functionality, such as squatting down and standing back up again. To get these benefits, Dr. Kwolek recommends that her patient’s strength training once or twice a week at a minimum.

It was hearing a message along these lines from her doctor that inspired Lisa Detanna, 62, to become consistent with exercise and healthy eating. She was thriving as a private wealth adviser at a major investment firm, but she was eating poorly and not exercising. In September 2023, her doctor told her she’d need to make drastic changes to her lifestyle if she wanted to live a long and healthy life.

Today, she wakes up at 4 a.m. five days a week so she can get in 30 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of strength training in her gym in her garage.

She lost weight and her skin, hair, and nails became stronger. Her joints don’t ache as much and she sleeps soundly every night. “I can go to sleep in two minutes after putting my head on a pillow,” she said.

Other women are motivated to increase their fitness because they don’t want to age such as their parents. Debra Dannheisser, 73, lost her mother to a heart attack when her mother was 74, and she’s Dannheisser’s primary motivation to keep exercising. “My mother started working out toward the end of her life, but it was a different generation, and you can’t make up that many years of no exercise really fast,” said Dannheisser.

Dannheisser’s fitness journey began in her early 50s, sitting in a sweaty boxing gym outside of Atlanta while her son worked out.

When her son’s trainer suggested she get off the sidelines, she figured, “Why not?”

When she retired from teaching, at 64, she became more committed and started boxing three days a week. “It makes your arms look fabulous,” she said.

During Covid, she moved her workouts to her unfinished basement. Every wall is covered with posters of famous boxers, and there are pairs of dumbbells, a heavy leather ball she throws against a wall, a boxing bag, and a speed bag. She gets her workout plans in an app, created by a trainer she has twice-monthly Zoom calls with.

Angela Gargano, 34, an Austin, Texas-based trainer and founder of Pull-Up Revolution, a program that helps women learn to do pull-ups, has seen an increase in women over 50 reaching out to her.

Teresa Burkett began strength training after her divorce at age 51. 

One of these women was Teresa Burkett, 64, in Sunbury, Ohio. Burkett began strength training after her divorce at 51. She was so inspired by the female bodybuilders in Oxygen Magazine that she inquired about competing herself. At her first figure competition, “I realized I had no muscle,” she said. She met a bodybuilder who offered to teach her how to lift weights. She also started working on her pull-ups: “When I met my now husband, we put a pull-up bar between our kitchen and our dining room and had little pull-up challenges,” she said.

She competed in four more competitions, winning first place in the masters figure over 50 category in 2015. “I used to focus so much on the thought of getting old,” said Burkett. “I had a lightbulb moment where I thought, It’s not our gray hair and our wrinkles that makes us look old. It’s the lack of strength and muscle, and we have some control over that.”