Sarah Davies, 51, is not your average bodybuilder. The mother of one, who works full-time, picked up her intense training routine in midlife and “fell into it by accident”, she says. 

“I’d struggled with my weight from when I left school and discovered alcohol, boys and Chinese takeaways,” she says. “Throughout my 20s and 30s, I did all kinds of cardio, from running and aerobics to Zumba and spin classes. I played with the weights a bit, but it just never stuck as I didn’t really know what I was doing.”

It was only when Sarah joined a new gym at 44, along with her husband Clifford, an IT consultant, that she began to take weight training seriously. She found it helped hugely with early menopause symptoms and her mood. “There’s just something about whenever you start shifting weights, it’s really empowering and the more you can do, the more you want to do.

“They had resistance training classes on a Saturday and Sunday, and I really enjoyed lifting weights – in fact, I liked it so much that I signed up for sessions with a personal trainer so I could learn how to use all the equipment properly,” she says. Sarah started attending two to three hour-long personal training sessions per week and would go for an extra one or two slots on her own.

“One of the girls at the gym made a passing comment that I should think about entering a bodybuilding competition,” she says. Sarah initially laughed off the comment but mulled it over when her personal trainer told her she could do it. “I just thought, what have I got to lose?” 

Sarah has never looked back. Having already won first place in a natural bodybuilding competition (where entrants don’t use performance-enhancing drugs), she plans to compete again this summer and now trains other women to get fit through Undeniable Women’s Coaching

Alongside her renewed approach to fitness, she has also overhauled her diet – focusing on what nutrients she needs for fuel and eating over 3,000 calories a day to maintain her healthy body weight. 

“Before, it was wine, chocolate, buns and I didn’t pay any attention to what I was eating,” she says. “If I didn’t eat fruit or vegetables for a few days, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind. 

“There wouldn’t have been an awful lot of protein – breakfast and lunch would have been mainly made up of carbs. Now, it’s a really conscious decision to make sure that everything I’ve eaten is really balanced.”

While most women aren’t looking to compete in bodybuilding competitions, weight training has many benefits, especially for those in midlife. Here’s what you can learn from a bodybuilder’s lifestyle if you want to get fitter and stronger. 

Pick a routine – and stick to it

“I never exercise for more than an hour and 20 minutes at the very most,” she says. “If you’re there any longer, it’s likely because you are doing too much, resting for too long between sets and generally wasting time – and let’s be real, nobody wants to be in the gym any longer than they have to be.”

Sarah works remotely as a manager at a broadband company, so she makes her way home to log on for 9.30am. Evenings are for family time with her husband and their daughter. 

“What I am strict with is sleep,” she says. “It’s very rare that you’ll find me downstairs in the living room after 10pm. I want to be in bed by 9pm. I listen to my audiobook for 15 minutes and then I’m off.”

“On my rest days, I really am resting – it’s feet up on the sofa, catching up on whatever I want to watch on Netflix or spending more time with my family.”

Don’t be afraid of the weights rack, but take it easy

Most women find heading to the weights rack intimidating, and many are worried that strength training will make them bulkier than they want.

“Unless you are actively trying to get big, you don’t need to worry about being more bulky than you would like,” Sarah says. “You really have to be trying to gain serious muscle – training hard consistently and eating enough to support the growth.”

As for fears of being laughed at, Sarah has some reassurance. “Everyone in the gym is too focused on themselves and their bodies to bother themselves with what you’re up to.”

Sarah’s workouts are designed to make sure that she can exercise five days a week without running into injury, so she focuses on a different muscle group each day. For the average woman who is looking to start strength training, however, she advises that you forget leg and arm days and opt for a full-body workout instead. 

“If you are just starting out, don’t get caught up in the whole push day, pull day, leg day thing,” Sarah explains. “You want to pick something that you can commit to. If you’re planning to strength train once or twice a week, go for bigger movements, get a programme that covers your full body and focus on getting your form right. 

“Once you’re familiar with the moves or have a physique goal in mind, you can then tailor your sessions to address your needs. 

“Plenty of women want to focus on their legs and glutes, because they’ve seen people on Instagram squatting with heavy weights and displaying strong quads and thighs. If you’re comfortable squatting with weights and have experience then that can be great, but if you’ve never tried before, don’t put a bar on your back and start squatting straight away. That’s a road to injury,” Sarah explains. A few sessions with a personal trainer can be a great investment for beginners, she adds. 

Before that, though, start slow. “If your step count is 5,000 a day now and you don’t exercise at all, then small changes can make all the difference,” Sarah says. “Before signing up for a gym membership, try to increase your movement to perhaps 7,000 or 8,000 steps a day and then look at your week to see how many sessions you can realistically commit to.”

Though it can be tempting to hit the gym even on rest days in the euphoric months of seeing your first gains, it’s crucial to rest, she adds, otherwise your muscles can’t repair themselves and you won’t get stronger. 

Focus on how you feel, not how you look

Despite Sarah’s physique, her motivation to work out comes not from her appearance but from how exercise has helped her balance her moods and tackle the menopause. 

“I went through menopause early in my 40s and had just about every symptom in the book. I had struggled with anxiety and depression right from my late teens up to menopause too, which only worsened things,” Sarah says. 

“People assume that you hit middle age and it’s all downhill from there, and yes, you will experience the fat redistribution and the drop in your oestrogen even if you’re lucky enough to avoid the worst of it when it comes to symptoms.

“With a little bit of work though, you can push back against that,” says Sarah. “It’s not just about your appearance but about keeping your muscles strong and your bones healthy, which weight training helps you do more than any other exercise.”

Take in more protein and keep the carbs

Sarah eats a whopping 3,700 calories a day to maintain her physique. Most of us don’t need anywhere near that many calories, but her attention to whole foods and macronutrients (fats, protein and carbohydrates) is something many of us could learn from.

“If I want a bar of chocolate, then I won’t tell myself that I can’t have it,” she says, “but when you’re eating enough protein, you’ll find that you’re much more satiated and won’t always want to reach for the unhealthy stuff.” 

Getting sufficient protein is crucial, Sarah says. Increasing the amount you eat is essential for muscle growth, as our muscles need the amino acids in protein to repair themselves. Even if you aren’t trying to build muscle, however, protein is much more satiating than carbs or fat, leaving you less likely to reach for unhealthy snacks or up your portion sizes. 

According to the British Heart Foundation, adults need to eat around 0.75 grams of protein each day for every kilo of their body weight – around 45g of protein for an average-sized woman, or 55g for men. Sarah believes that most women are eating less protein than they need, but getting enough can be much easier than it may seem and is often a case of adding to meals you already enjoy. 

“This idea that carbs are bad for you is something I can’t stand. I eat about 575g carbs a day, compared with 170g of protein and about 80g of healthy fat. Within that I basically eat whatever I want, but wholefoods rather than burgers and kebabs.”

Watch what you drink

We’re all used to hearing that alcohol is the silent killer of fitness progress. It’s not just the empty calories from wine and cocktails but how it changes your diet in the days after a big night, explains Sarah. 

“When you’re feeling a bit groggy, you’re going to crave foods that you might otherwise have denied yourself. Drinking makes it so much harder to eat mindfully and work towards your goals, whether you want to get stronger or slimmer,” Sarah warns. 

“If I want a couple of glasses of wine at the weekend, then I’ll go for it, but that does get incorporated into my calorie count for that day. You don’t have to give up drinking if you’re trying to get fit – just don’t go overboard. Try sticking with spirits and low-calorie mixers and do it mindfully.”

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Sarah plans her meals well in advance, allowing her to stay within her macros – and her budget – with ease. 

“On Sundays I prepare my lunches for the first four days of the week,” says Sarah. “Usually that means poaching chicken breasts, roasting vegetables, all of that goes in the fridge or freezer. For breakfast, overnight oats are my go-to – they take two minutes to make and I never get sick of them.

“Because I know exactly what I’m going to eat, my shopping lists are planned to a tee,” Sarah adds. “I don’t do aimless wanders around the supermarket. If something isn’t on my list, it doesn’t go in the trolley. Not having those extra things in the house makes it so much easier to resist cravings.”

As told to Lauren Shirreff

Sarah (@sarah_teamundeniable) is a coach working with Grace Jones (@gracejonescoaching). She works with women who are struggling with body image and dieting during the menopause.


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