Women and Strength Training

I want to address the topic of strength training and women in this article and hopefully clear up a few misconceptions. Over the last few years, I have had several women ask me about how they should best approach resistance training and they are about always surprised when I recommend they train with the exact same exercises as a man would do, the only difference being the amount of weight used as a starting point.

Women who regularly train with weights can improve their health, develop a healthier self esteem with a higher degree of self confidence, reduce their risk of degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis and they can enhance their athletic capabilities. In the past, some women have questioned the value of strength training and have even avoided it because of social stigmas, and or the fear of getting too big.

You might even believe that training with a barbell is too hard for a woman to attempt.

Current evidence clearly displays that women are perfectly capable of tolerating and adapting to the stresses of strength training, and the benefits of doing so are quite substantial. An excellent example of how strength training benefits women, even those who are older, is our very own Brenda Sue whom I have been training via online videos for the last year and a half. Brenda Sue asked me for weight training advice and I took her on as a trainee. Despite being a 62 year old female, I began her on the same training program I would any young man, only at a lighter starting weight. Her strength gains have been remarkable to say the least, and it is incredible how much it has improved every other area of her life through being stronger physically and mentally. These qualities bring on a higher sense of self confidence which simply makes the tasks we face every day seem much easier. Brenda Sue has learned that if she can rise back up from a heavy squat, then she can tackle anything else that comes her way.

Sex differences, body size and composition.

Obviously because of differences in strength between men and women, some approaches to strength training might need to vary by a small degree. That being said, there are many men who are weaker than many women when they begin strength training too so this is not as large an issue as some might believe.

Before puberty, there are essentially no differences in height, weight and body size between boys and girls. As the children begin going through puberty, the differences between boys and girls becomes more evident primarily because of hormonal changes. During puberty the production of estrogen in girls increases fat deposition and the development of breasts. Whereas testosterone in boys increases bone formation and protein synthesis. Though estrogen also stimulates bone growth, boys have a longer growth period, and thereby adult men tend to achieve greater stature than women. On average, women tend to have more body fat and less muscle than men. Women also tend to weigh less than men, yet require a higher amount of body fat for good health than a man requires. Anthropometric measurements of adults indicate that men have broader shoulders relative to their hips and women tend to have broader hips relative to their waists and shoulders. The broader shoulders of men can support more muscle tissue and can also provide a mechanical advantage for muscles acting at the shoulder. Yet, again I still maintain there not be weight training programs that have to be different solely because of the differences in the sexes as our anatomies and physiology is not that different. We might have a difference in our build, yet we have the exact same muscle groups, our cardiovascular systems are also the same. Women prove every day they are just as capable of performing the same physical tasks as men. In a world where my fellow men feel they need to prove their manliness, I will tell you straight up that I would rather work with a woman who can physically pull their load than with a weak man who cannot. This was true both when I was in the military and during my period as a maximum security correctional officer.

Strength and power output.

When comparing training induced changes in muscular strength between men and women, it is important to distinguish between absolute and relative measures. In terms of absolute strength, women generally have about two thirds the strength of men. The absolute lower body strength of women is generally closer to male values, as compared to the absolute values for upper body strength. Gender related differences in body composition. anthropometric characteristics, and fat free mass distribution can partly explain these differences.

When compared on a relative basis, gender related differences in muscular strength are greatly reduced. Because the average man and woman differ considerably in body size, it is useful to compare gender differences in strength relative to body weight, fat free mass and muscle cross sectional area. When expressed relative to body weight, the lower body strength of women is similar to that of men, while their upper body strength is still somewhat less. If comparisons are made to fat free mass, differences in strength between men and women tend to disappear. It is interesting that but there is data that suggests that eccentric strength may be more similar between men and women than concentric strength when compared to relative fat free mass.

When strength is expressed relative to muscle cross sectional area, no significant difference exits between genders, which indicates that muscle quality is not gender specific. Granted that the muscle fibers in men and women are also similar in fiber type distribution and histochemical characteristics, never the less men tend to have larger muscle fiber cross sectional area than women. Notwithstanding the importance of these observations, we need to remember that there is a wide range of strength abilities and that in some cases differences between two women may in fact be greater than the difference between a man and woman.

In terms of absolute strength, women are generally weaker than men because of their lower quantity of muscle. When compared relative to muscle cross sectional area, no differences in strength exists between genders, which indicates that muscle quality is not gender specific.

Strength training for women.

Despite gender related differences, men and women respond to resistance training in similar ways from pre-training baselines. Although the magnitude of change in selected variables may differ to some degree, the overall value of resistance exercise for women extends far beyond an increase muscular strength and includes favorable changes in other important measures of health and fitness.

Being as the physiological characteristics of muscle between the genders are the same, there is no sensible reason why weight training programs for women need to be any different from that of men. In fact, because the muscle groups involved are the same for men and women, resistance programs should be designed to improve the performance of the muscles involved regardless of gender. It is a misconception that weight training programs for women should be any different from those of men. It is also a misconception that women lose flexibility and become bulky from weight training. The only difference required between weight training programs for men and women is generally the amount of weight used for a given lift.

Ladies next time you balk at the idea of strength training, consider female Olympic athletes such as gymnasts who are able to perform 40 pull ups and competitive female weight lifters who can lift over two times their body weight. These outstanding female athletes display what is possible through strength training. For another excellent example of what is possible when a woman commits herself to “Life under the Iron”, take a good hard look at our own Brenda Sue for inspiration. This little lady is 62 years old, weighs about 135 pounds, and can deadlift 190 pounds, and will soon surpass 200. Brenda Sue has become strong without becoming bulky, her health and level of fitness are that of a twenty something, her self esteem and confidence levels are at an all time high.

I will place this topic on our new forum where you can comment or ask either of us questions. I am positive Brenda Sue will share some of her fitness secrets with you there. Lets get the forum up and rolling!

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