So many strength workouts for women stray from actual strength and power development, emphasising lighter weights. This perpetuates the notion that the workouts men do somehow just aren't for females. But that isn't the case. Women can and should weight train just as intensely, and with the same exercises and programs, as men, if they want to.
In general, building muscle and strength aren't cakewalks for anyone — women or men. They take incredible amounts of proper nutrition, training, mental stamina and dedication. For women though, some psychological and societal barriers make the process a bit more complicated and difficult.
Is Weight Lifting Right For You?
Hell to the yes. At least, that's what I like to tell every one of my girl friends.
We often say that strength training is better for weight loss and for building the often coveted leaner and stronger physique than cardio is. The benefits extend beyond physical beauty, too. Through more weight lifting, you can become crazy strong, be able to lift heavy things (super handy for moving and grocery shopping), and more importantly, feel empowered to be more secure and confident about yourself.
Ultimately, however, it boils down to fitness goals — be it aesthetic or performance — and more importantly, personal preferences. The current trend shows that ladies seem to be more keen on developing a bodacious behind and maybe killer arms, whereas guys gravitate toward a rounded chest and overall more massive upper body. This brings me to the next point.
Will Lifting Heavy Make You Look Bulky?
I cannot tell you how many times I've read, been told, or heard that I should stick to light weights and avoid heavy-arse lifting like you would an Ed Hardy-wearing pick-up artist at the bar. "You want to look lean, not bulky," they say. Bulky, in this sense, is simply a value judgement: what appears to be bulky to someone else may seem pretty normal for another. (For the record, I'm ok with people telling me I look a bit on the stronger side. This photo, for example, is the visual progress I've made with lifting heavy weights.)
So, I cannot promise you that you absolutely won't look "bulky," but instead I'll tell you two things:
First, you won't automatically grow intense tree-trunk thighs or boulder shoulders like those you've probably seen on the internet. You just won't, at least not through drug-free means (and certainly not in a short period of time — we're talking years here). Even if ladies did receive unnatural boosts, the training and many years of dedication involved cannot be imitated by a nice Instagram filter or flattering angles; it's damn hard work that you've got to do day in and day out, plain and simple.
Admittedly, some ladies (myself included) can be genetically predisposed because of their body type to get more pronounced muscle in certain areas than in others, and thus may look bulkier. That goes for everyone though — guys included — because no two trainees will respond the exact same way to the same training. (Because genetics, work ethic, training history, diet and all that jazz are different for everyone.)
And lastly, of course, if you find that you're getting bulkier than you'd like — you can always back off the weights a bit. Nothing is permanent, and you have a lot to gain.
The Physiological Differences Between Women And Men
Beyond the obvious differences in reproductive organs and the fact that we generally just look prettier while lifting, there are physical, metabolic and hormonal differences between men and women that can influence how we train. We women have:
- Less muscle mass overall: To no one's surprise, the average woman tends to have less muscle mass than the average man. More specifically, the gender-based difference in muscle mass is more measurably apparent between upper body and lower body.
- Lower metabolic rate than men: This is true due to the point above, but a study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition seems to suggest that energy expenditure between genders of normal body weight is largely the same after accounting for muscle mass and activity. To be clear: the difference in metabolic rate stems more from differing body composition (the ratio of fat free mass to fat mass) and size rather than from being one sex or the other.
- Different fat distribution: The pear-shaped contour (dubbed gynoid) of the female body means we tend to carry more weight (and consequently, more muscle relative to the upper body) around the hips and below. Those areas tend to store a specific type of fat called subcutaneous fat, which seems to pose less of a danger for metabolic disorders than does visceral fat.
- More estrogen, less testosterone: Greater naturally-occurring testosterone levels in men contribute to their larger percentage of muscle mass relative to women. It's the reason we won't get that "jacked." On the other hand, higher estrogen levels give us a few advantages. For one, a study in Human Physiology suggests that estrogen provides significant protective effects against muscle soreness. Yeah, we still get sore, but not that sore.
- Different make-up of muscle fibres: Our body's muscles are differentiated between type I and type II muscle fibres, referred to as slow- and fast-twitch fibres, respectively. A study conducted at Ohio University found that women have a higher percentage of type I muscle fibres compared to men. This means our muscles, paired with greater capillary density, can receive more nutrients and are better suited to handle conversion of glucose and fatty acids into energy.
- Higher fatigue threshold: Women appear to preferentially burn more fat when under metabolic stressors such as exercise, which in turn, may explain how we may be able to endure workouts for longer.
So men aren't necessarily stronger than women due to gender alone. The strength gap becomes a lot more narrow, or possibly non-existent, if a man and a woman follow a similar training plan and have similar amounts of muscle and fat.
In fact, when looking at the genetic muscular and strength potential — or the prediction of how much muscle and strength someone can gain in the long-term based on one's own genetics — for a woman, it's about 75-85% that of a man's. In other words: "If a dude can squat 400-500 pounds within a few years of smart, consistent training, you should expect to squat 300-425 pounds if you're the same weight," according to Strengtheory owner Greg Nuckols.
How To Alter Your Weight Lifting Routine
All right, so all of that is fine and dandy. But in real world context, what do those bullet points mean for a woman looking to get stronger and feel more confident?
The really short answer is, according to Greg: "More of everything [than men]: More reps, more weight (relative to max percentage of any given movement), and more frequency." Basically, women typically need more of those various training stimuli than men do for similar results.
And based on what we know about our physiological differences, particularly with the proportion of type I fibres, the female body is prime and ready to kick arse at "more." Put simply: we are more resistant to fatigue and can handle greater intensity and volume (amount of work performed) than dudes in general. Jessi Kneeland of ReModel Fitness says, "A woman can (and should) push herself to do more reps at higher percentages of her 1-rep max (that is, maximal amount of weight performed for one rep) than a man would likely be able to do."
Obviously, increasing more weight and more volume at the same time will not happen overnight, but it would benefit you to train with greater intensity, and not be afraid to do so.
JC Deen from JCD Fitness says he mostly uses the same training template as men when advising a female client, although he does emphasise certain movements over others, depending on the goal, to "create as much of the hourglass illusion as possible." JC adds that he loves programming for women because they tend to handle a lot more volume for longer, which typically produces more favourable aesthetics in his coaching experience. Both JC and Jessi agree that when training females, they avoid including excess ab or core work in favour of getting them bigger strength numbers.
If you're interested in getting into a more serious lifting program, I highly recommend looking into such resources as:
- Strong-arse ladies like Jen Sinkler, Jessi Kneeland, and Nia Shanks
- Juggernaut Training Systems
- Girls Gone Strong community
- Bodybuilding.com's female training bible (where, full disclosure, I work as an editor)
For short-term muscle and strength gain, any well-structured strength training program will work really.
Training Around Monthly Cycles
Believe it or not, different phases of a woman's monthly cycle can actually impact strength, energy, recovery, and even injury risk. That's not to say the menstrual cycle completely overrides individual performance and overall training strategy, but it does have an influence. For many, the negative effects of menses seem to perceptibly change performance only by a nose hair. I myself feel lower-than-usual motivation levels in the days leading up to my cycle, but find my gym performance to be largely unaffected before and during. Without a doubt, this will be different for everyone, but it is something interesting to consider.
When working with her female clients, Jessi approaches it more from an emotional place of readiness, saying:
"Being emotionally or physically drained is not a good place to come from when you're pushing your limits, so I just ask them to tune in and trust the feedback they're getting."
On the other hand, Strengtheory offers a much more comprehensive guide to training with the menstrual cycle and contraceptives in mind. While it's rarer among non-competitive female strength athletes to optimise their training to this extent, the information therein is still pretty awesome for curious minds.
Strong Like A Girl?
A large majority of the training differences between men and women can be explained primarily by body composition, muscle fibre types, and a few structural differences (wider hips, for instance). So, train like your guy friends would if you want and show them how it's done.
Just as Jessi asks her clients, I ask you: Are you ready to get a personal record today?
Lifehacker's Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.