Should Women Train Differently To Men?

Should Women Train Differently To Men?

The short answer is no.

Women should embrace the same core training principles are men:

–       Applying progressive overload in the 6 to 15 rep range. This means ditching the soup cans and 2lb dumbbells which create no stimulus to change in the body.

–       Utilising perfect form. Women rarely have an ego when it comes to lifting like men do, so this is usually never an issue!

–       Using exercises that suit your body type, with a focus on compound lifts. Women should learn to incorporate more ‘bang for your buck’ compounds into their programs, instead of relying on clams and kickbacks!

This may not come as a surprise to you if you’re a regular reader of this blog, but this flies in the face of most conventional advice touted in the women’s fitness magazines, which are still typically geared towards fuelling the many myths and stereotypes surrounding female training.

The words ‘toned’, ‘shaping’ and ‘tightening’ are used on a near daily basis, instead of words such as ‘muscle’ and ‘strength’. It’s still baffling, especially given that ‘toned’ simply means having a decent amount of muscle mass with low enough levels of body fat.

That being said, we are coming into a new era where strength and muscle is slowly becoming embraced and desired among women. There’s still a way to go, but hopefully more articles like these can encourage more women to see the tremendous benefits of sensible, well programmed resistance training.

Which brings us onto the long answer.

While the core principles will remain the same, there are small, but key intricacies that differentiate how women should train optimally for maximum results:

[Note: These are general statements/rules; they are by no means applicable to all. Remember, 90% of programming will be the same, and this only makes up a (potential) 10% difference.]

1. More Total Volume 

Women will generally need more total volume than men. This is because their ability to fully recruit and stimulate their muscles won’t be as efficient as men can, so programming for slightly more sets and reps can be useful.

For example, if programming the squat for strength gain, you may ask a guy to aim for 3 sets of 5 to 7, whereas a woman may be better off doing 4 sets of 6 to 8.

Women also tend to have a higher proportion of type 1 muscle fibres that make them more fatigue resilient. It’s always surprising just how many reps women can perform with a given repetition maximum. If you have 90% on the bar for a squat, most guys would probably sneak out 2 to 4 reps, whereas most women would be able to knock out anywhere from 4 to 6 reps. As we slide down the percentage scale, we’ve found the gap only widens!

It’s therefore important to take advantage of this, and program in a slightly higher rep range compared to men (this doesn’t mean 50 rep sets with pink dumbbells!).

2. Less Rest Periods

Leading on from this point, women’s fatigue resilience within a set is also extended to between sets as well. If you want to see this in action, organise a training session with the opposite sex. If you’re a guy, be prepared to be very humbled. For the women reading this, expect to wait around while we’re gasping for air!

This happens because women typically won’t tax their muscular or nervous system as much as men might, as they’ll typically be weaker and carry less muscle mass (generally speaking… we don’t want to get into any trouble here!).

Women should absolutely take advantage of this though. Across any intensity, they have a higher ability to burn fatty acids than men, meaning they can train with low rest periods without sacrificing muscle mass or performance, and can instead burn more fat for fuel.

3. Higher Frequency

Women not only recover fast between sets, but also between training sessions. They have a naturally higher recovery capacity, so can handle much higher training volumes and frequencies without any detriment to their progress.

As a result, most women will benefit from training each muscle group at least two to three times a week. Body part splits that reduce the frequency beyond this typically aren’t as successful (e.g. day 1: legs, day 2: shoulders, day 3: back), and will slow down a woman’s strength and physique gains.

4. Different Focus Areas 

As you get a little more advanced as a woman, this is where programming really differentiates itself from men. Most women would prefer well developed glutes, hamstrings, back and shoulders, to help accentuate their curves and highlight the V taper. What they don’t want are thick traps, pecs and bulging VMOs (the muscle by the knee cap), and so this should be reflected in their programming as they advance and get stronger. 

5. Injury Prevention 

Due to biomechanical (wider Q angles) and lifestyle (high heels) differences, women will be more prone to injuries in certain areas such as the knees and lower back.

While we can’t do much about wide Q angles, which can be seen in the diagram below, what we can influence is the excessive use of high heels.

 

Credit to the Dynamic Chiropractic

This isn’t to say not to wear them, but more so to be aware of the postural impact it has on your body.

Some of the issues of constant high heel usage can be:

  • Mimicking being half-seated, putting hips and knees in a flexed position, and back in an extended position.
  • Loss in ankle mobility causing a cascade of problems up the kinetic chain (knee, hips, lower back, etc)
  • Tightening up of the lower back area as the body’s compensation method

Credit to Eric Dalton, PhD for the image 

To help remedy this, making sure you’re stretching your calves and quads regularly, along with including a heavy dose of posterior chain and single leg work into training will go a long way.

Potential Considerations…

Menstrual Cycle

A lot has been said about training and dieting in accordance with your menstrual cycle. But we’ve found that in the real world dealing with real people, very little changes. The main consideration during this period is whether you need to adjust your training intensity or not, and potentially change a few exercises.

Instead of making sweeping statements here though, what we’ve found is that there’s a large inter-individual variability in how women respond to their periods.

For those who are more affected, and feel more fragile during this time, it may be worth backing off the intensity a little and/or changing exercises to avoid any heavy spinal / hip loading.

The reason for this fragility in the body is due to the fluctuating female hormones. Estrogen and progesterone rise around this time, which can increase laxity in the joints. Similarly, women produce relaxin which can lead to women experience ranging levels of pelvic girdle relaxation. The reason is purely evolutionary and biological (to allow pelvis to widen to provide enough space for the baby to come out), but it may create instability and possible enhanced pelvic tilts which may offset normal muscle firing. This is all highly individual, so it’s best to play it by ear, and if you feel a bit off, you may want to back off the intensity.

Pregnancy

Relaxin’s effect is more pronounced during pregnancy, as the body prepares itself for the upcoming pregnancy. If you’ve not strength trained before pregnancy, we probably wouldn’t recommend starting now, given you’d be less in touch with your continuously evolving body. But if you are strength training (as most reading this blog will be), then there’s nothing to fear about training. The key is to listen to your body, be sensible, focus on maintenance, and not to suddenly ramp up your intensity.

Concluding Thoughts

90% of how you should train as a woman is the same as a man. Get stronger, use perfect form, and pick exercises that work for you. Train hard, do it consistently, and enjoy the benefits that strength training can bring to your body. If you can do these basics, then potentially considering some of the differences outlined in this article can help give you that extra edge.

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