How Should Women Approach Weight Training and Exercise?

Some people suggest women should focus on high volume training and cardio. Others suggest women should train heavy for low reps. Which is better for women?

There are two opposing camps when it comes to the question of whether women should train like men.

On one end of the spectrum, there are people who say that women should spend their time doing aerobic activities—like running and yoga—and leave the heavy lifting for men.

The argument is that not only are our bodies built differently, but also that we don’t want to get “too bulky” from weightlifting.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who say that everything is fair game. Women and men should train the same. After all, we’re all human.

Where do these opposing views come from? And who is right? Let’s explore some of the evidence and settle this once and for all.

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We are Built Differently

It is no secret; men and women are built differently. At the genetic level, women have two of the same kind of sex chromosomes (XX), and men have two different kinds of sex chromosomes (XY). Our genetic differences manifest themselves in numerous ways, such that there are significant physiological, musculoskeletal, and biomechanical differences between men and women.

Related: Muscle & Strength’s 12 Week Women’s Workout Program

For example, while untrained men and women have similar muscle fiber type distribution, women tend to have larger type I fibers1 that increase in quantity in response to strength training2. Type I fibers, also known as slow-twitch fibers, are used in endurance-related activities such as high-repetition resistance training and long-distance running.

Implications for Performance

As we are built differently, we often perform differently. Women tend to have greater flexibility and balance, but women also tend to have lower strength, aerobic capacity, and anaerobic capacity and power3. Women also tend to fatigue slower4,5 and recover faster5,6, which may be due to estrogen’s potential to aid in muscle repair7 and recovery8.

Women are even prone to different types of injuries because of our biomechanical differences. For instance, in weightlifting, women tend to suffer more foot and leg injuries and more accident-related injuries overall but fewer sprains and strains10.

Some responses to exercise, however, are not as different between the sexes as we might assume. Although women tend to have higher body fat3 and lower baseline muscle mass, our increases in muscle mass in response to strength training may not be that different from men, and women may even see greater increases in strength9.

Resistance Training for Women

What Does This Mean for Training?

Women are built differently from men, and we tend to perform differently than men. Does this mean we need to train differently? While our biological differences certainly do not mean women should stick to certain forms of exercise and men should stick to others, it does mean that adjusting our training in gender-specific ways may allow us to tap into our full potential and take advantage of our strengths.

High Reps, High Volume

More type I muscle fibers, slower time to fatigue, and a decreased need for recovery mean that women can handle higher repetitions and higher volume. Women may have already noticed this.

Maybe you are able to handle up to 3 leg days a week, while male friends may only be able to manage 1-2 leg days per week. There is no reason for every strength training workout you perform to be high repetition, high volume; in fact, that might be more harmful than helpful.

However, women should recognize that we may excel at these types of workouts. We may need to integrate more heavy, low-repetition days to see significant improvements, while high-repetition, high-volume workouts may seem to come more naturally.

Running, Spinning, and Swimming

The same adaptations that make many women excel at high-repetition, high-volume workouts also make us excel at long-distance running and other forms of aerobic exercise, such as running, spinning, swimming, kickboxing, and stair climbing.

An added bonus is that women may exhibit greater mood improvement in response to aerobic exercise than men11. Even if you have no desire to increase aerobic capacity or performance, it might be worth adding some aerobic activity to your workout routine for the mental health benefit.

Flexibility and Training for Women

Yoga and Dance

In addition to the advantage with type I fibers, the tendency to have better flexibility and balance means that women often excel at activities like yoga and dance. If you’ve never tried these activities or think you aren’t good at them, you might just find that you can improve faster than your male friends and soon incorporate some flexibility and balance related drills into your exercise routine with ease.

On the other hand, you might prefer to spend your time strengthening other weaknesses, even if improvements do not come as quickly.

Practice Makes Perfect

The differences between men and women do not mean we should limit our training styles to those in which we excel. First of all, just because women tend to have more type I muscle fibers or tend to be better at flexibility and balance does not mean that these tendencies will hold true for you.

You might excel at lifting in the 3-5 repetition range 3 times per week for your workout routine and taking more time for recovery. There are men who naturally excel at yoga, and there are plenty of women who naturally excel at powerlifting.

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Second, genetic potential is an important component, but what we consistently do each day is what matters most. Just as a healthy lifestyle can outweigh a genetic predisposition for an illness, performing an activity regularly can outweigh a genetic predisposition to be unexceptional at that activity.

So, if you’ve ever thought, “I don’t have the body type for that,” think again. Use the examples mentioned in this article to hone in on your strengths but also to improve your weaknesses.

Related: Are You Weaker Than You Think? Here's How to Get Stronger

The fact that females are generally built to excel in certain types of activities doesn’t mean that you need to perform those activities! Training for your goals is good, but doing what you love is best. If you want to get strong or toned, you must lift heavy. If you want to compete in a marathon, you must run. If you love the feeling you get after you do sprints, do them!

Summary

The main takeaway from this article is that women do not need to stick to different forms of exercise. We can tweak our training program to maximize our progress. This might mean that we can incorporate high-repetition, high-volume training several days per week without feeling like we are overtraining.

But it also means that we can incorporate extra low-repetition, heavy lifting because we know that we might need to work extra hard to see the progress we want. Just because women tend to have less strength doesn’t mean a woman can’t be the strongest person in the world. She just might need to practice more to get there (or be a genetic anomaly).

While research shows that women may be more likely to be built or to perform a certain way, keep in mind that this research is often conducted on small samples for a short period of time. Sometimes the best approach is self-experimentation to see what works best for you and what you actually enjoy. The best exercise routine for you is one that you absolutely love doing.

References
  1. Staron RS, Hagerman FC, Hikida RS, et al. Fiber Type Composition of the Vastus Lateralis Muscle of Young Men and Women, Fiber Type Composition of the Vastus Lateralis Muscle of Young Men and Women. J Histochem Cytochem. 2000;48(5):623-629. doi:10.1177/002215540004800506
  2. Martel GF, Roth SM, Ivey FM, et al. Age and sex affect human muscle fibre adaptations to heavy-resistance strength training. Experimental Physiology. 91(2):457-464. doi:10.1113/expphysiol.2005.032771
  3. Allison KF, Keenan KA, Sell TC, et al. Musculoskeletal, biomechanical, and physiological gender differences in the US military. US Army Med Dep J. June 2015:22-32.
  4. Hunter SK. Sex differences in human fatigability: mechanisms and insight to physiological responses. Acta Physiologica. 210(4):768-789. doi:10.1111/apha.12234
  5. Fulco CS, Rock PB, Muza SR, et al. Slower fatigue and faster recovery of the adductor pollicis muscle in women matched for strength with men. Acta Physiol Scand. 1999;167(3):233-239. doi:10.1046/j.1365-201x.1999.00613.x
  6. Judge LW, Burke JR. The effect of recovery time on strength performance following a high-intensity bench press workout in males and females. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2010;5(2):184-196.
  7. Velders M, Diel P. How Sex Hormones Promote Skeletal Muscle Regeneration. Sports Med. 2013;43(11):1089-1100. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0081-6
  8. Hansen M, Kjaer M. Influence of Sex and Estrogen on Musculotendinous Protein Turnover at Rest and After Exercise. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. 2014;42(4):183. doi:10.1249/JES.0000000000000026
  9. Walts CT, Hanson ED, Delmonico MJ, Yao L, Wang MQ, Hurley BF. Do Sex or Race Differences Influence Strength Training Effects on Muscle or Fat? Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008;40(4):669-676. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e318161aa82
  10. Quatman CE, Myer GD, Khoury J, Wall EJ, Hewett TE. Sex differences in “weightlifting” injuries presenting to United States emergency rooms. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(7):2061-2067. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b86cb9
  11. Mcdowell CP, Campbell MJ, Herring MP. Sex-Related Differences in Mood Responses to Acute Aerobic Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2016;48(9):1798. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000969