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Female Specific Weight Training – Why Females Should Train Differently to Men

woman rest in between weightlifting sets

If you’re a female reading this you’re in for a treat!

The online fitness world can be very biased, well, at least for women.

You see, 99% of the fitness content available is tailored towards men, with most of it being written by men, who have only ever worked or trained with other men.

They may argue that women should train the same way as men do. This is true to some extent; women should obviously focus on basics such as increased protein intake, weight training, sleep etc.

However, when it comes down to programming and actual exercise there’s a list of things females need to take into consideration if they want to get stronger, improve their physiques and stay injury free.

This article provides the gender-specific differences and helps the female readers take their training one step further, or, improves any male personal trainer’s knowledge for his female clients.

Here we go…

Women Should Squat to Parallel and do More Pre-hab Exercises

Firstly, women have different bone structure and hip angles.

Compared with their male counterparts, women are at a 2 to 10 times greater risk from ACL injury (Cheung et al., 2015).

A main reason for this is because of increased posterior tibial and meniscal slopes. Here is a visual:

q anlge

The result is more valgus and shearing forces at the knee joint, which increases the likelihood of injury.

A muscle called the Vastus Medialis (VMO) helps stabilize the knee when valgus forces are placed upon it, so, a strong VMO helps prevent ACL injuries for women.

What to do:

To help strengthen the VMO and include more hamstring activation, women should be encouraged to squat below parallel if form and flexibility permits (which it normally does), as well as include pre-hab exercises such as knee extensions and step ups.

Try these 2 specific exercises to blast your quads and improve the VMO:

4 x Heel Raised DB Front Squat, 12 reps, tempo: 3:0:1:0 (90 seconds rest).

4x Seated Leaning Forward Leg Extensions, 15 reps, tempo 2:0:1:2 (90 second rest).

Women May Benefit From Higher Reps

When it comes to trained individuals, women tend to have a greater percentage of type I muscle fibers, whereas men tend to have more type II fibers (Hunter, 2014). Type I muscle fibers are the slow twitch fibers used for lighter, higher rep work or aerobic exercise.

This phenomenon also explains why women tend to burn more fat during exercise and handle carbohydrates / blood glucose better. Additionally, it explains why women tend to be more resistant to fatigue (Fulco et al., 1999).

At the same strength levels, women are able to complete more reps than men (Maughan et al., 1986). Simply, a man might be able to complete 6 reps @ 85% 1RM, whereas a woman may be able to complete 7 or 8 reps at the same intensity.

For these reasons, women may be more suited to higher rep training to maximise the use of their muscle fiber types.

At the same time, some low rep strength work is still important, to focus on mechanical tension and central nervous system adaptions.

For these reasons, I carefully periodized the rep ranges, intensities and tempo for every single exercise, workout and training block in the 90 Day Bikini Transfromation Challenge. This has allowed people to simultaneously gain strength, tone up and shred fat with a mix of mechanical  and metabolic workouts.

What to do: Women may wish to focus more of their workout on higher rep training, using 10 – 20 rep ranges. As mentioned, women should still incorporate some lower rep training, to develop the type II fibers and central nervous adaptations / strength.

 

Note: If you want over 15 done-for-you workouts utilizing these strategies you can get 60% off the 90 Day Bikini Challenge by clicking here. 

Here is an example workout that combines a series of rep ranges to target different mechanisms of growth:

Exercise 1 (e.g. Squat): 4 x 6 reps.

Exercise 2: (e.g. Hack Squat) 3 x 10 reps.

Exercise 3: (Stiff Leg RDL) 3 x 10 reps.

Exercise 4: (e.g Leg Press) 3 x 15 – 20 reps.

Exercise 5 & 6 Superset (e.g. Leg Curl & Leg Extension) 3 x 20 reps.

Women May Benefit From Shorter Rest Periods

For a variety of reasons ranging from sex hormones, muscle fiber type and neurological differences, women are able to complete the same amount of relative volume with less rest in between sets.

Decreasing the rest periods that women use wold allow them to add additional volume to a session and increase metabolic stress and cell swelling, which may be important factors in building muscle (Schoenfeld, 2010).

This is also a great way to add more volume into the workout, which we know is an important factor in muscle growth and adaptations.

Furthermore, shorter rests and more total volume will help burn fat and additional calories, helping women tone up and drop fat at the same time.

What to do: If you usually rest for 2 minutes between sets, cut that rest period down to 60 – 90 seconds in some of your sessions.

Women Should Train to Increase Explosive Power

As women train closer to their 1 rep max (5 reps or less), they have a poorer work capacity and can perform less reps compared to their male counterpart (Maughan et al., 1986). Additionally, when it comes to doing explosive movements, women struggle to complete as many reps and the reps are of lower quality (Flanagan et al., 2014).

As mentioned, this is partly due to the fact that women have less type II fibers (Hunter, 2014), which tend to be more explosive. However, it is also due to a smaller motor cortex, the area of the brain that controls movement (Raz et al., 2001).

If women fail to develop this area, it may limit their ability to recruit maximum motor units and constantly progress the amount of weight they lift, known as progressive overload (a key factor in gym progression).

What to do: Working to strengthen a weakness, women should experiment with some sets / sessions  that are more explosive / power based.  Doing sets of 2-6 reps at 35-50% (power) and 85-90% (strength) may be beneficial and tick all the boxes when you combine it with normal, higher rep training.

 

Don’t skip the weights! The results of one of my WBFF Bikini Clients who performs weight training 5 – 6 times per week! 

Get some of the exact methods, diet and workouts she used here.

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Women May Benefit From More Steady State Cardio

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is known as a time-efficient mode of exercise, providing superior gains in both training and health adaptations for less time (Gibala & McGee, 2008; Gibala et al., 2012).

Thus, it would still be wise to include some form of HIIT on occasion for women, especially if they are crunched for time.

However, there is no need to limit yourself to HIIT only, slower intensity cardio can still be of benefit!

Research shows that after doing HIIT, women had a harder time building muscle building than men. This means lots of HIIT may interfere with a females’ gym / weight training performance, unless it is set up and periodized appropriately.

By doing more steady state cardio, women can still burn the fat without compromising  performance in the gym. As you can see, although HIIT is great, it may not be ideal all the time. A combination of HIIT and steady state may be the best compromise.

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 5.56.28 AM

The combo of HIIT and Steady State is a powerful tool, it’s one of the top protocols members love in the 90 Day Bikini Transformation Challenge. By combing both, you can increase the release of stored fatty acids followed by MAXIMUM oxidation of the released fat with steady state cardio.

This is an extremely under utilized approach if you want rapid fat loss, You can get the exact protocols my clients use – CLICK HERE.

What to do: Include a mix of steady state and HIIT into your fitness routine. If you do cardio 3x per week, you can do (1) low intensity bike or run for 30-60 minutes (2) a bout of 8-10 sprints with 1 minute rests in between (3) a 20-minute tempo run with 30 seconds of fast running, with 30 seconds of slow running.

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Women May Benefit From More “Core” Work

In general, women can use a similar weight as a male of equal size, when performing isolation or fixed exercises such as the hip thrust or leg curl weights. However, when testing this on a large compound movement such as the squat, they may have a harder time keeping up.

Theoretically, if a man and woman had the same cross sectional area and muscular neuromuscular efficiency, they would be able to express the same amount of force production (Häkkinen & Häkkinen, 1991).

However, men tend to have thicker abdominal musculature, specifically the transverse abdominis and obliques, which can better support the pelvis and spine.

As a result, in general men are able to use more weight on exercises that put a large demand on the abs, such as squats and deadlifts.

What to do: Add in extra “core” work such as heavy farmers walks, weighted carries, paused squats and front squats to strengthen the transverse abdominis and oblique musculature.

Women Should Experiment With Sumo Deadlifts and Wide-Stance Squats

Women tend to have broader hips, as shown in the figure at the start of this article.

To take advantage of this, women should try including exercise variations that capitalize on greater hip mobility such as sumo deadlifts and wide stance squats.

What to do: Widen your stance on squats and deadlifts instead of using narrow stance positions.

woman rest in between weightlifting sets

Summary

As you can see, there are some distinct differences between a mans and woman’s physiology. This isn’t to say a workout program should be on the opposite end of the spectrum, simply, they are points you must consider if you want to optimize a program.

This is by no means a post to encourage women to lift with light pink dumbbells, I actually recommend women lift just as heavy as men with the addition of some higher rep work.

The benefits of higher rep, metabolic work combined with low rep strength work will provide the best of both worlds, improving fitness, strength, joint health, bone density and cardiovascular (heart / lungs) fitness.

For cardio, I’m still a big advocate of Interval Training, just understand that it may impact your routines and ability to recover, like for men, achieving a balance between HIIT and steady state cardio is KEY.

In terms of biomechanics, again I am not saying a woman should never do a narrow stance deadlift, they should test different variations and pay attention to their hip and bone structure. It makes sense to pick exercises that fit YOUR body, rather than putting your body in an un-natural position, right?

As you should see, there is never a right or wrong answer. What’s great for one person can be terrible for another.

Consider these points and test what works for YOU, as an individual!

belly fat

References 

Cheung, E. C., Boguszewski, D. V., Joshi, N. B., Wang, D., & McAllister, D. R. (2015). Anatomic Factors that May Predispose Female Athletes to Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury. Current Sports Medicine Reports14(5), 368-372.

Fulco, C. S., Rock, P. B., Muza, S. R., Lammi, E., Cymerman, A., Butterfield, G., … & Lewis, S. F. (1999). Slower fatigue and faster recovery of the adductor pollicis muscle in women matched for strength with men. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica167(3), 233-240.

Flanagan, S. D., Mills, M. D., Sterczala, A. J., Mala, J., Comstock, B. A., Szivak, T. K., … & White, M. T. (2014). The Relationship between Muscle Action and Repetition Maximum on the Squat and Bench Press in Men and Women. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research28(9), 2437-2442.

Gibala, M. J., & McGee, S. L. (2008). Metabolic adaptations to short-term high-intensity interval training: a little pain for a lot of gain?. Exercise and sport sciences reviews36(2), 58-63.

Gibala, M. J., Little, J. P., MacDonald, M. J., & Hawley, J. A. (2012). Physiological adaptations to low‐volume, high‐intensity interval training in health and disease. The Journal of physiology590(5), 1077-1084.

Häkkinen, K., & Häkkinen, A. (1991). Muscle cross-sectional area, force production and relaxation characteristics in women at different ages.European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology62(6), 410-414.

Hunter, S. K. (2014). Sex differences in human fatigability: mechanisms and insight to physiological responses. Acta physiologica210(4), 768-789.

Maughan, R. J., Harmon, M., Leiper, J. B., Sale, D., & Delman, A. (1986). Endurance capacity of untrained males and females in isometric and dynamic muscular contractions. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology55(4), 395-400.

Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research24(10), 2857-2872.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

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Rudy Mawer, MSc, CISSN

Rudy has a 1st class BSc in Exercise, Nutrition & Health and a Masters in Exercise & Nutrition Science from the University of Tampa. Rudy currently works as a Human Performance Researcher, Sports Nutritionist and Physique Coach. Over 7 years he has helped over 500 people around the world achieve long last physique transformations.

He now works closely with a variety of professional athletes and teams, including the NBA, USA Athletics, World Triathlon Gold Medalists, Hollywood Celebrities and IFBB Pro Bodybuilders. If you would like to get in contact or work with Rudy please contact him on social media.

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