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Why Women Shouldn't Resistance Train Like Men
Yes, many women don't lift heavy enough– but there are important physiological differences between women and men
Note to readers: last week my previous article about using ChatGPT for meal plans was republished on In Fitness and In Health, a Medium publication. I would appreciate it if you would give it a look at click the applause button– that clappy hand button near the top– a few times. Because of the way Medium’s algorithm works, this really helps me get more readers, which will in turn allow me to write more articles here on my Substack.There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to weight training for women.
On the one hand, women who are totally new to weight training tend to go way too light, often sticking to those little under ten pound dumbbells you find in the mat section of the gym. Often they’re afraid of putting on too much muscle, which is silly– muscle is built gradually, so it’s not like you’re going to overshoot the mark all of a sudden.
Publications aimed at novice female weightlifters tend to play into this, writing workouts purely focused on bodyweight or super-light dumbbell exercises at high reps. In general, mass market publications are in the business of making money off of popular misconceptions rather than dispelling them.
On the other hand, I see a lot of serious trainers encouraging female clients to lift the same way as male clients. That is, the push the usual 5x5 set/rep schemes that tend to be the default for men. For reasons I’ll get into, I think this is an overcorrection.
Women certainly shouldn’t be afraid to lift heavy and lift often, but the devil is in the details- men and women should not be training with the same intensity, frequency, total weekly volume, or body part focus.
Difference 1: Aesthetic Goals
This part is fairly obvious- men and women have different aesthetic goals. I’m not in the business of telling you what your aesthetic goals should be– on the contrary, I think it’s fine for people to have their own aesthetic goals rather than just wanting to be as big and strong as possible, everywhere.
In general, men want to be bulkier than women, particularly in the chest, arms, and shoulders. Women generally want to stay thinner than men, with growth focused more towards the lower body, while the upper body stays lean without getting big.
Now, everyone should be training their whole body- there’s no excuse to completely neglect any body part. That said, it’s perfectly fine to emphasize some body parts of others, or to emphasize mass in some body parts, and strength or endurance in others.
Personally, I try to build more strength on my upper body and endurance in my lower body, and I particularly emphasize my shoulders. Cry “chicken legs” all you want; I’m not a bodybuilder, but just a guy who wants to look good while staying fairly athletic.
Women should remember that having a bit of muscle mass in the upper body keeps it looking toned, and that the chest and shoulders are the upper half of the “hourglass” or x-shaped physique that women are often aiming for. That said, if you want to emphasize some body parts over others, I think that’s fine and many trainers push back against it harder than they should.
Difference 2: Muscle Fiber Mix
All muscles are composed of a mix of fiber types. Type I, or slow-twitch fibers, are the ones you use for cardio and, to a lesser extent, low-intensity (lighter weights, higher reps) weight training. These fibers don’t get all that big, and they recover quickly after being fatigued.
Type II fibers are much stronger than type I fibers, but they fatigue faster and take longer to recover. You use them for sprinting and heavy weight training, and they account for most of the muscle mass you gain from weight training.
As you might guess, men have more type II fibers, and women have more type I fibers. This makes women less strong but more resistant to fatigue, and it has a few implications for how people should train.
First, women should train at slightly higher rep ranges than men. If you’re following a training program meant for men, add about 20-40% to the target reps for each exercise. That means the typical 5-rep scheme that’s seen as the default for male trainees works out to 6-7 reps for women, and 8-rep schemes for men work out to 10-12 reps for women.
Second and third, women can handle both a higher per-muscle training frequency, and a higher weekly training volume than men. That is, women can do about 20% more total sets than men, both within a given workout and over the course of the week, and they can train each body part about once a week more often than men.
Fourth, because Type I fibers recover faster, women don’t need as much rest time between sets, sprints, or other bouts of exercise as men do. In practice though, there’s usually no need to time rest periods- you can just rest until you feel ready to do your next set.
Finally, women don’t recover as well from explosive training- like sprints and plyometrics- as men do. Women should generally favor longer-lasting, less explosive forms of exercise, like steady-state cardio and slower-tempo weight training.
This is why I said at the start of this article that trainers often over-correct by pushing women to lift heavy. It turns out that by favoring higher rep ranges, women may be following some intuitive sense that their bodies respond better to higher rep ranges. Now, intuition isn’t always the best guide, and female trainees should still be graduating beyond those five-pound dumbbells after a while. But in this case, peoples’ intuitive understanding of the rep ranges that work best for them likely have some validity.
Difference 3: The Menstrual Cycle
Assuming they maintain a consistent lifestyle, men will have roughly the same hormone levels- testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone- day in and day out. The same obviously cannot be said of women.
During the follicular phase- the first half of the menstrual cycle beginning with the onset of menses- women have higher levels of estrogen and testosterone, and lower levels of progesterone. During the luteal phase- the second half, beginning with the end of ovulation- progesterone is dramatically higher, while estrogen and testosterone are generally slightly lower.
Now, it’s well-established at this point that testosterone is an anabolic hormone. Less well-known is that estrogen also promotes growth in both muscle and connective tissue. Even less well-known is that progesterone counteracts the anabolic effects of both testosterone and estrogen- it’s toxic to your gainz.
Logically, this would suggest that women are stronger, and able to recover from longer, harder training sessions, at certain times of the month. But is the effect really significant?
Yes, it is. Extremely significant, in fact. Not only do changes in hormone levels have an immediate effect on women’s muscle-building capacity, but it has been demonstrated in practice that this can be used to dramatically improve muscle growth.
In one such study by Reis et al, women trained one leg every 3 days. The other leg was trained every other day during the follicular phase, and about once per week during the luteal phase. The leg trained every 3 days gained an average of 13% in strength, while the leg trained with varying frequency gained 33%- 2.5 times as much.
There are two ways to utilize this in practice- vary your training frequency, or your volume per workout. If you want to vary your training frequency, raise your total training frequency by 1-2 workouts per week in the follicular phase vs the luteal phase- so 5-6 vs 4 workouts per week, for instance.
If you want to vary the number of sets per workout, they should be about 30-50% higher in the follicular phase compared to the luteal phase. Either way, total weekly training volume should be about 30-50% higher in the follicular phase than in the luteal phase.
Women don’t need to train like men- but they should train hard.
On a fundamental level, yes, women should train like men. They should lift weights, generally full body, and they should do some cardio. But once you get into the details, men and women should be doing a few things differently.
Aesthetically, it’s okay to focus on building up some body parts over others- but remember that you can train any given body part without training it in a way that builds a lot of mass. There’s no need to neglect any muscle group altogether.
Biologically, women are not as strong as men- in the sense of being able to lift as heavy, run as fast, or move as explosively- but they often have more endurance, and can usually recover faster. Women should train at lower intensities (speed, weight, explosiveness) than men, but they should train longer and more often.
And hormonally, women should vary their training load across the month, training longer and harder when their body is best able to recover from it.
Ultimately, women have about as much relative muscular potential as men do– an untrained man can about double his muscle mass with five years of proper training, and an untrained woman can also about double her muscle mass in the same time period. However, women won’t reach their muscular potential by training exactly the same way that men should train.