Take a look around any co-ed, big box gym and you’ll see a greater percentage of women on cardio equipment than men. You’ll observe the same thing at your local yoga studio. By contrast, back in the free weight area of the same gym, chances are the men won’t be outnumbered.
Times are changing, as more and more women are adopting strength training as part of their fitness regime. However, I’m still surprised by the number of women I consult with who believe strength training will make them “big and bulky,” like the models on muscle magazines. I wish this myth would just die already, and then stay dead. Whenever I hear this, I know an angel somewhere has lost her wings. Or, as we in the biz call them, her “lats.” Because here’s the thing….
Women naturally have less muscle mass than men, especially in the upper body. Unless they follow a progressive overload training protocol and have a caloric intake designed specifically to support muscle growth, they won’t come anywhere close to looking like a bodybuilder. They don’t naturally secrete the amount of testosterone required to achieve the size they fear. In fact, research shows women only produce 5-10% of the testosterone that men do.1
This isn’t to say that women can’t build muscle-they obviously can-but in the worst-case scenario, if an area becomes too bulky from increased muscle size, a simple tweak to one’s program can be made. And this is a good problem to have, because the added muscle helps to burn more calories when at rest, while increasing one’s metabolic rate, helping to reduce body fat. One pound of muscle burns approximately six calories at rest, while one pound of fat burns roughly just two calories.2
Dr. Cassandra Forsythe states that women are less powerful than men due to lower muscle mass, smaller hearts and less lung capacity, resulting in a lower stroke volume however they tend to recover faster from high intensity training than men.3
Additional strength training benefits for women include:
- Improved body composition. If curves are what you’re after, weight training is your answer. No amount of endurance exercise will create an hourglass physique, as it’s muscle that creates the curves.
- Lowered risk of heart disease.
- Increased bone density, decreasing the risk of osteoporosis, especially after menopause when the body no longer secretes estrogen.
- Becoming more insulin sensitive and decreasing the risk of type II diabetes.
- The combination of weights with cardio (such as complex or circuit cardio), means more calories burned post-workout than with cardiovascular exercise alone. Calories can be burned for up to 36 hours post-workout through a process called “Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption” or EPOC.
- Toned- There is actually no such thing as a “toned” muscle. There is however, muscle tone or tonus, which is a slight muscle contraction in it;s passive state.. Instead,create curves by building muscle through training in different rep ranges, using both heavy and lighter loads.
Things to keep in mind regarding female anatomy and biology and strength training:
- Premenopausal women who are not using birth control may find they’re stronger and able to train harder during the follicular and ovulatory phases of their menstrual cycle.
- Special attention to form is required during the ovulatory phase, as the body is more susceptible to injury during this time.
- During the luteal phase, it may be wise to put down heavier weights in favour of moderate loads, and incorporate endurance training.
- Women have a wider pelvis, creating a greater ‘Q-angle’ than men, so be on the lookout for a valgus collapse (knee caving towards the midline of the body during exercise). It is imperative that the knee stays aligned over the big toe at all times – otherwise ACL injuries can occur.
Hopefully, if you’ve been neglecting strength training to this point, you’re rethinking your gameplan going forward.
Confused about what type of program is best for you or unsure of where to begin? Read up on my Amplify Your Life program to see if it’s the right fit for you.
- ZiMian Wan et al. Evaluation of Specific Metabolic Rates of Major Organs and Tissues: Comparison Between Men and Women. Am J Hum Biol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2012 May 1.Published in final edited form as: Am J Hum Biol. 2011 May; 23(3): 333–338. Published online 2010 Dec 22. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.21137 PMCID: PMC3139779 NIHMSID: NIHMS256564