This article has been updated with a lot of new information, summaries, and a new format to improve readability. If you’re not interested in a particular section skip to the part that applies to you! Alright, I’m already preparing my inbox for the angry emails, as this gets to be a touchy topic, but I’m going to do everything in my power not to turn this into some battle of the sexes. Instead, I plan to present the scientific facts as well as share my own personal experience in helping women work towards their goals. Ok, there might be one or two jokes thrown in, but this science stuff can get a little dry, right? I’ll address two different broad categories today:
– The Competitive Female Athlete
– The Female Looking to Improve Her Physique
Here are just some of the questions answered in the article:
- Do women need to fear becoming bulky if they train with the same relative loads as their male counterparts? Why or why not?
- Are isolation exercises more, less, or equally as effective for women as they are for men?
- Are women at lesser or greater risk for injury, is this risk equal during sport and during training?
- Does a female fat loss program look different than a male’s?
- How do I train for a narrower waist and an hourglass shape?
Ok let’s get the facts down and then we’ll talk about the implications for our two reference people, and how they may relate to questions we just posed. If the science bores you and you’d rather eat a moldy sandwich naked in the rain than read about physiology explained, skip down to our reference people to see it applied.
A meta-analysis (basically somebody analyzed all of the available studies to create a “master study”) of the current research shows that there is little statistical difference in the exercise programs tolerated by men or women; there is however, a difference in the return on investment for the work done (women will get less adaptation from the same amount of work, unfortunately) Here are some of the reasons why:
- Lower concentration of testosterone: all other things equal the higher concentration of testosterone the larger the anabolic effect (muscle building etc). Higher concentration of estrogen, among other things, means that women will generally have a harder time losing fat.
- More competition for testosterone at the receptor level: Simple analogy, we all know the fastest sperm wins and gets to express its genes; hormones and receptors (kind of) work the same way, except we’re going to put each type of hormone on a team. In men we have 120-150 players for testosterone, and 3 players for estrogen, in women, the teams are a little more equal but skewed in the other direction. If only one “player” gets to interact with the receptor, who do you think is going to win? We wont talk about progesterone, prolactin, aromatase enzymes or sex hormone binding globulin, but note that these also have a greater level of interference with testosterone in women.
- Especially in the upper body musculature, women actually have a lower muscle fiber count than men, again, no surprise here, but consider the impact. Almost all muscle growth happens via hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the swelling of muscle cells, meaning that the strands of muscle fiber are growing, adding a higher enzyme capacity, more contractile and connective tissue, maybe even an extra nuclei (think brain of the cell) etc., BUT NO NEW MUSCLE CELLS ARE BEING CREATED! Hyperplasia is the formation of new muscle cells, but currently we can’t even agree whether hyperplasia is real phenomenon; however, I think we can agree that even if the growth of new muscle cells is real, the effect size is small.
- There is also a statistical difference in the ability to recruit high threshold motor units (and the muscle fibers they innervate) in women, I hypothesize that this has to do with the androgenic (hormone) regulation of neural tissue, however this is just an educated guess and to the best of my knowledge has not been studied in context yet.
Lastly, due mainly to the influence of estrogen on the joint formation and composition, women are at a higher risk for catastrophic injury (meaning shit happened, and it happened instantaneously) at major joints. If there is impact (think running, jumping, sport contact with other opponents) there is a higher likelihood that women will sustain an injury, but due to the same influence of estrogen on connective tissue, women will usually display a higher degree of flexibility in low velocity movements. Whether this flexibility advantage translates into joint mobility at higher velocities is determined by a number of neural and structural factors, but the initial potential is usually greater in women.
Person #1: The Physique-Oriented Female
Alright this is where I think I’m going to get the most flack, but bare in mind that these are not my personal views on the ideal female physique, but a sum of the most common requests I have gotten from the female clients that I have trained. Before we get right to the science applied, here’s the basic prescriptions for women:
- Hit the upper body musculature with a variety of different angles and variations that change the point of highest mechanical tension within the muscle
- Stay out of the 65-85% HR rate (or medium intensity cardio) zone as much as possible. If you need to improve aerobic capacity use 1-2 weeks focused blocks every 6-8 weeks instead of constant endurance work
- Train with higher loads more frequently, use bigger multi-joint exercises more often
- Squat and Split Squat and drive through the heel not the toes
- Cue slightly less air on spinal loaded lifts (50% breath out after a deep breath vs 25% for males)
- Focus on the medial head of the deltoid, the lats, and the trees major to achieve the V-taper and visually decrease the size of the waist
- Do some loaded calf work
- Train the glutes and posterior hip muscles through multiple planes but focus on their hip extension role (the thrusting motion)
We know that women have less muscle fiber, especially in the upper body, so if we are going to create change we are going to want to fully stimulate the muscle, and we’re going to do this by hitting the muscle belly with different biomechanical angles and force directions; simply, we are going to use different exercises that create the highest tension in different areas of the muscles to maximize the growth potential of the muscles fibers that are already there. I touched on this concept in THE TRUTH ABOUT TONING PART 2 but the basic premise is that different exercises produce varying levels of mechanical tension in different areas of the same muscle, and that a recent study confirmed that the most hypertrophy takes place in the point of highest mechanical tension. Women will have to work harder for longer to get the muscle tissue gain they are after, especially in the upper body, also the ceiling for overall muscle gain is lower so the likelihood of achieving a look that is “too much” won’t happen by accident – it will have to be achieved by months to years of dedication. This is strike one against the “I don’t want to get big and bulky” argument.
Secondly, women are at hormonal disadvantage when it comes to building muscle and losing fat. Less testosterone and pathways that reduce testosterone’s effects mean that not only will women have a harder time gaining muscle but a harder time retaining it while trying to lose fat. We already know how important it is to keep muscle tissue while cutting fat from THE TRUTH ABOUT TONING PART 1 (basic summary, lean tissue is more metabolically active and will power the fat loss phase, the more you have, the faster you will lose fat) so what are we going to do about it? Stay out of the mid intensity aerobic training zones (60-85% HR Max)! Especially for women as they will not have as much testosterone guarding protein from being used as fuel source! Why on earth it became popular to just do mid intensity cardio for women just confounds me to a degree I cannot adequately explain. If you want to do cardiovascular training do it in small focused 1-2 week blocks, as aerobic fitness gains are relatively stable (4-6 weeks depending on current fitness level) and can be maintained with anaerobic work for even longer.
Because women will have a harder time recruiting the muscle fiber responsible for high intensity movement (which is also the muscle fiber with the highest potential for growth), isolation exercises will actually be of slightly lower value to female trainees. We need the neural stress to recruit those hard to stimulate muscle fibers and a tricep pushdown just isn’t going to cut it. So instead of a tricep pushdown and skull crusher superset, for women, a pull over into tricep extension and a neutral grip overhead push press is going to be far more effective at stimulating growth in the tricep muscle group. This is also a free pass to train females with higher loads. Sets of 15-20 are going to burn some calories and stress the muscle slightly, but again, they aren’t going to touch that hard to stimulate muscle fiber either. This is another one of those common female prescriptions that has absolutely no grounding in science (except for a total beginner, another article I promise). Most of the training should be spent in 5-8 rep range with large movements, 8-15 for some targeted movements as “finishers”; here you can use a few isolation exercises if you really feel they are necessary. Pro tip = high-threshold motor units are stimulated by both force and velocity, so movements done explosively are going to be very effective (for larger movements). Blood flow restricted training (pictured above) is the most effective isolation technique for women.
Now for the subjective stuff, generally physique-oriented women are going to come in and ask to “lose weight” and “tone” to achieve a lean look with a small waistline, flat stomach, with larger and toned glutes, lean and defined calves, a taper from the shoulders to the waist, and toned but not “manly” arms. What they are asking for, scientifically, is to lose fat and gain muscle in key areas to achieve a certain aesthetic shape, so if that is your goal, how are you going to achieve it, or if you are the trainer, how are you going to give it to them? Well we’ve already talked about how to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time in THE TRUTH ABOUT TONING PART 1 (soon to be republished in the same format), but what we haven’t talked about is how you can produce this look via training.
First of all you are going to want to avoid exercises or techniques that will widen the midsection, so instead of cueing deep abdominal (diaphragm) breathing, you are going to want to cue a tight midsection and keep slightly less air in the lungs while the spine is loaded (squatting or deadlifting etc.) For most males you would cue a deep breath forced 1/4 out and then locking the torso, for women you will want to cue the same deep breath, but force it 1/2 out so the stomach does not protrude. This does limit strength and slightly reduce spinal stability, but a necessary evil; you are not a powerlifter after all. Check for: flat stomach and narrow waistline (this is also heavily reliant on diet, some will have to work harder than others)
Squats and Split Squats 5-8 rep range, 3-5 sets. This will give you the lower part of the hourglass shape that many women are after. Higher neural demand than the leg press, and the strength will transfer to other lower limb movements, making those more effective as well. The leg press isn’t a useless exercise for aesthetics, but it’s not a replacement for dual and single leg squat variations; enough said. Supplement this with some lunges, glute bridges, Romanian deadlifts, hip thrusts, reverse hyper extensions, roman chairs, 45 degree back raises, and something for the hamstring group because you actually care about your knee health (can’t beat the glute ham raise for this). Check for: larger and toned glutes and the start of lean defined calves. Tip = drive through the heel and lean forward for more glute activation
Hit the glutes in both their extension role, abduction role, and their external rotation roles. Barring any injury, the glute muscles will produce the most force in their hip extension role (think jumping motion or for you dirtier minds…) so the bulk of your work should be in this plane; however, you will still want to use the glute muscles or more accurately the posterior muscles of the hips in their other slightly less powerful roles. Side lying leg raises and clamshells seem like pansy movements, and on their own they are, but supersetted into an extension based circuit, suddenly your butt will burn in a totally new way.
Broaden the shoulders by focusing on the medial head of the deltoids to increase the look of the “V-taper” to the waist, dumbbell side raises with the cheating method decribed in TRAINING TIP #1 (cheat up , 1-2s isometric, lower as slow as possible) and lateral swings would work well here. Lat and teres major development are going to further increase this taper effect. Wide grip pull-ups and lat pull downs are going to work wonders here. The compound work for the arms is an added bonus. Check for: Upper half of the hourglass effect, taper from shoulders to waistline, and toned but not manly arms
Lastly, most women will be quick to tell you that their legs look better in heels; they tend to force a contraction in the calves by forcing you into a loaded heel raise. So if you want to add some definition in the calves you are going to have to do some direct heel raised work after your squats/leg exercises, and probably at least 2x per week. Check for: lean defined calves.
Person #2: The Competitive Female Athlete
- Women can tolerate the same strength and conditioning plans as their male counterparts, but will get slightly less adaptation from the same amount of work
- Joint stability is slightly lower in women, therefore strength training is actually more important for women in sports as they will not naturally strengthen after puberty to the same degree
- Advanced women can train at higher relative percentages for longer periods of time without requiring as planned retaining or detraining load (deload)
- Train the feet to stabilize the structure. Do loaded barefoot training.
- Some bodybuilding techniques may be appropriate for training the female athlete to withstand impact on major joints
- If high performance in team sports is the eventual goal, endurance training needs to be limited in the adolescent years
Let’s start this off on a positive note, first of all women can tolerate the same exercise programs that men can. I can personally attest to this fact; while training athletes at Trinity Western University, there were sport specific programs, but no distinctions were made between male and female athletes.
Women are also theoretically at less risk for cumulative injury in closed kinetic chain movements (nerd speak for most exercises done in training, excluding sport specific practice and drills, think squats, presses, lunges, planks etc.) due to their connective tissue pliability, tendency to stretch instead of tear, and generally lower poundage used. Anyone who has done enough mobility tests can attest to the fact that the males are going to be the ones contorting in weird pretzel shapes and complaining while the females move gracefully through movement after movement. So, in general, you expect to spend less training time invested in passive stretches and static flexibility drills and more time on strength and conditioning and sport specific practice with a group of women vs a group of men.
Also, generally women can train at higher relative percentages for longer periods of time without needing to be deloaded; if you take a look at the training of Chinese weightlifting team, women are trained for up to 6-8 weeks without a planned back period of retaining or detraining loads. When they are deloaded, it is usually for longer periods of times (2 weeks vs 1 week). This may go hand in hand with the slightly reduced ability to recruit high threshold motor units, and may require a stimulus to be applied for longer periods to achieve adaptation of the central nervous system; however, I cannot state this scientifically but more as educated guess.
Joint stability is going to be a larger issue for women vs. men; a simple look at the disparity in ACL injuries will quickly highlight this point. Therefore it is even more important to train compound movements in ranges that will cause the skeletal system and the connective tissue to adapt (5 rep max range and above, or above 85% of your 1 rep all out max) with a focus on eccentric loading. Think of eccentric loading as developing the braking mechanisms that stop bones from exceeding the motion of the joint capsule! You are then going to train the nervous system to use this new strength at high velocity to create dynamic joint stability, although that is going to be saved for another article in the future. While on the topic of joint stability, it is imperative that with your female athletes that proper strengthening and joint stability precedes any plyometric or jump/impact based program! Stability starts at the feet, so don’t neglect them in your training; if nothing else, do some loaded leg work in bare/socked feet.
Muscle moves you, but it also has an important protective ability to dissipate energy away from the passive joint structures (by passive I mean the non-contractile stuff like joint capsules, ligaments, tendons that cross etc). In sports where there will be physical contact with another player or object, care must be taken to surround vulnerable joints with protective muscle; therefore, this may be one of the few times that bodybuilding techniques are appropriate in an athletic context. Ask a female volleyball player how their dominant hitting shoulder is feeling and you’re likely to receive a cold death glare worse than leaving toilet seat up, however, had the athlete been given proper physical training early in their career, many of these overuse/microtraumatic injuries could have been avoided. I can’t stress enough that once an athlete specializes (they have chosen 1 sport, or if the seasons are short, maybe 2 sports at different times of the year) they MUST do specific physical preparation for their chosen sport(s)! This is even more important for female athletes, as they will not naturally strengthen to same degree during physical development after puberty.
Ok, at risk of starting a novel, I’m going to be brief with the next few points. There is some evidence that in the developmental years that you can actually influence the fiber type spread of an individual, so if you want your group of young athletes to be successful marathon runners and poor at other sports then ensure they do a ton of aerobic work, make them run laps, and avoid any strengthening, however if you want explosive athletes who sprint faster, jump higher, and generally dominate their competition in team sports, train the aerobic system indirectly near the anaerobic threshold, and at very low intensities under 120bpm or less for long durations. More on this later as well, but since women are already at a fiber count disadvantage, can we please stop robbing them of their high threshold motor units that will make them ass-kicking athletes in the later years? Seriously stop these cross country style workouts trying to “get them in shape”
So there you have it; I will try to keep this article up to date as new information arises. Any questions just ask. Thanks for reading!