I started weightlifting in my 50s and I'm fitter than ever - here's how I did it

Joanne Mallon reveals how to start weightlifting as a beginner, whether you've got a gym or not

Illustration of two women with barbells, example of how to start weightlifting
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you'd asked me about how to start weightlifting when I was younger, I would have looked at you confused. As a child, I was anything but sporty. Instead, I was the awkward girl who got picked last for games. As an adult, I joined a gym in my 40s and threw myself haphazardly into various fitness classes - still the awkward girl at heart. I was getting fitter but I wasn't particularly strong. Up until I was 50, I couldn't manage a full press-up. 

And yet, on my 53rd birthday, I went to the gym and did 53 full, up-on-the-toes press-ups, ran for 5.3k on the treadmill, and then I did a 53-second plan with a 5kg weight on my back. Since I took up weightlifting, I'm stronger than I've ever been.

Weightlifting, also known as weight training, strength training, or resistance training, is a sport that can be suited to anyone's needs. You can even do Pilates for strength training. It offers significant mental and physical health benefits too, particularly for those approaching menopause. From my experience, this is how to start weightlifting. 

How to start weightlifting 

1. Find out what you like

In my late 40s, after an intense period of computer-based desk work, I started to get aches in my right shoulder - the first signs of repetitive strain injury (RSI). I was advised to start strengthening my arm muscles - and to not spend so much time on the computer - so I began going to lunchtime Pump classes at my gym. 

At my gym, Pump classes involve lifting lighter weights repeatedly to music. I was apprehensive at first but it turned out to be a friendly class full of fellow women over 40 getting strong together. Plus, I enjoyed it more than any other class I'd done, especially once I discovered that you only need to lift weights twice a week to build muscle.

2. Learn what you enjoy

Chucking around big heavy lumps of metal is surprisingly satisfying, I discovered, particularly if you're at a point in life where you're being bombarded with messages that it's all downhill from here, as I was. There's a real connection between feeling physically strong and feeling mentally strong, and I found that the classes benefitted my mental health as much as my physical health. When something makes you feel good, you tend to want to do it more.

Turning 50 a couple of months later really focused my thoughts. I went on a mission to get as fit as possible for the next decade, because as personal trainer Hattie Blackstone (opens in new tab) says, "weightlifting will help you gain muscle strength and allow you to perform everyday activities independently and confidently into your later years." Or, as I like to think of it, I’m doing this so I can wipe my own bum when I’m 90.

And as a busy person, I could see that weightlifting was going to be the best use of my time. It's the ultimate multi-tasker: every time I lift a dumbbell, I'm decreasing my risk of osteoporosis, building muscle, increasing my metabolism, and improving my physical and mental health all at once.

Joanne Mallon weightlifting, swinging a kettlebell to head height

(Image credit: Joanne Mallon)

3. Focus on technique

Although I knew the basics of weightlifting from doing Pump classes, I realized I need to learn more. Strength training is similar to yoga or Pilates, in that there's a little theory to learn to help you do it right. 

"Technique is always your number one priority," says Julia Buckley (opens in new tab), a trainer who's been working with women for over 10 years and runs an online gym community, says, as a poor weightlifting technique could have disastrous consequences for your back or knees. 

However, as a hardcore introvert, it took me a long time to actually speak to anyone in the real world about this. Instead, I started by reading a few books on strength training and I followed a program set out in The New Rules of Lifting for Women (opens in new tab) by Alwyn Cosgrove to start with. As a one-program book with suggested weekly workouts, it can take up to 6 months to complete but it's so worth it. 

From here, I progressed to watching YouTube and Instagram videos to learn how to use the squat rack and how to bench press. Some options I'd recommend include Kate Rowe-Ham’s Owning Your Menopause app, (opens in new tab) which includes a 4 week beginner’s course to get you started, or Julia Buckley’s online gym (opens in new tab), or YouTubers such as author of Fit at Any Age, Susan Niebergall (opens in new tab).  

Joanne Mallon weightlifting with a barbell her shoulders, going into a lunge

Joanna Mallon learnt how to weightlift via reading then took her skills into a group. 

(Image credit: Joanne Mallon)

4. Find a community

Eventually I joined an all-women weightlifting group, after seeing a flyer the trainer had pinned to my gym's noticeboard, and now I go to that every Tuesday. Working with a small group of like-minded women helps us all to feel confident in the predominantly-male space of the weights area. 

Group sessions are also much more affordable than one to one personal training and a fun way to work out in the company of other women and make some gym buddies.

5. Don't be put off by weightlifting's reputation

The weights area of the gym has a reputation for being an intimidating space for women. Yet, in the hundreds of weightlifting sessions I’ve done, I’ve never once been the only woman in the weights room. And now I’m adding to the population as my daughter has asked me to teach her how to do it too.

If you are feeling nervous about stepping into a gym though, remember that you have as much right to be there as anyone else. It's not a competition - just a room of people trying to become healthier and nobody is looking at you or judging you. As I learned, the harshest judge will always be yourself and you alone have the power to change that. 

Joanne Mallon weightlifting with two 4kg dumbbells

(Image credit: Joanne Mallon)

Do I need to join a gym to start weightlifting?

Yes, you could join a gym if that appeals. Personally, as someone who works from home, I enjoy getting out to the gym for a mental and physical break. It may also help you beat any nervousness when you're starting out, as all gyms offer new members induction sessions with a personal trainer. Use this as a time to ask questions and work out a routine that works for you, and remember, everyone was a beginner once so don't compare your day one with those who've been coming for years. 

You could also learn how to start weightlifting from home. If you chose to home workouts, personal trainer Julia Buckley recommends starting with a set of 5kg dumbbells - and crucially - a mirror in the room so you can check your form. “The weight needs to be heavy and challenging," she says. "You should be struggling to get to 10 repetitions of whatever exercise you’re doing.”

Post-pandemic, many personal trainers have shifted to working online as well. So, if you’re working out at home and want to learn how to start weightlifting, it’s easy to get remote help to check that you’re doing it right.

Joanne Mallon is one of the UK’s most experienced life and career coaches, and author of several self help books, including How to Find Joy in Five Minutes a Day. An experienced journalist, she has written for The Times, The Guardian, Daily Express, Psychologies, Sainsburys magazine, Woman and Home, Spirit & Destiny and a wide range of other magazines and websites. She presents the podcast 5 Minutes to Change Your Life.