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Should women train like men?

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For generations women have been perceived as being the
weaker sex. But it is simply not true. Strength and
speed are not a monopoly of the male gender. Women and
men have the same capability to develop strength and
speed. Relative to fat-free body mass, women have
nearly the same strength as men. If one were to take
the same muscle unit from a woman and a man and put it
in an identical artificial environment with the same
growth media and the same stimulation, the muscles
would grow at the same rate. However, in the body the
hormonal and metabolic environment varies between men
and women. Women have smaller muscle fibers and
ordinarily have less overall muscle mass.
Nevertheless, women are gaining in rate of competitive
performance on a par with men in both speed and

There really are no specific gender-oriented strength
training programs. Generally, what works for men also
works for women. As mentioned previously, women have a
similar biological ability to develop strength as men
do, but will not acquire the same muscle mass due to
hormonal differences. Nevertheless, women will derive
the same benefits from most exercises that men do.

However, gender differences exist in the response to
strength training and there are several biomechanical
issues to consider for many movements. We will examine
the hormonal and physiological responses of women to
strength training and also biomechanical issues and
how they relate to training programs.

Hormones and the Body

The sex hormones largely contribute to the various
gender differences in most physiological responses to
training. Although both genders produce both
Testosterone and estrogen hormones, the relative
ratios are significantly different. Men normally
produce higher levels (approximately 10 times that of
women) of testosterone and lower levels of estrogen.
Women produce the opposite. Most of the professional
female bodybuilders that grace the pages of muscle
magazines, gain their extreme muscle mass with the aid
of supplemental anabolic/androgenic steroids.
Federally classified as Schedule II drugs, their usage
carries legal ramifications as well as potential
physiological side effects.

Adolescent females begin to secrete larger amounts of
estrogen shortly at puberty, which has a significant
impact on body growth. The pelvis widens, breasts
form, and the body begins to lay down body fat.
Estrogen also increases the rate of bone growth, which
halts within two to four years after the onset of
puberty. Consequently, the female adolescent grows
rapidly for a few years after puberty and then stops

On the contrary, although testosterone secretion in
men stops at birth, it resumes at puberty. The young
male has a longer growth period and attains greater
height. The higher rate of testosterone in young men
produces increased muscle mass and bone compared to
women. As well, men develop broader shoulders,
narrower hips and greater chest girth. Men also tend
to deposit their body fat in the abdominal and back
area whereas women carry their body fat on their hips
and thighs.

Although both testosterone and estrogen are anabolic
(promoting the process where smaller units build
bigger units in the body), testosterone is primarily
responsible for increases in muscle tissue
hypertrophy. This, however, does not mean that the
female has little or no ability to gain muscle mass
and strength. Although weight training for women has
been historically disfavored because of its supposed
masculinizing effects, it is now well recognized as
valuable in developing strength and overall fitness.

Muscle and Strength

In terms of contractile characteristics and the
ability to produce force, muscle is identical in both
males and females. The differences that exist in
strength levels are primarily a function of total
muscle mass. Only 24 percent of the typical female
body is muscle mass, whereas the male is 40 percent
muscle mass.

Strength of the lower female body is similar to men’s
when relative to body weight and lean body mass. Men
are stronger in the upper extremities due to their
greater development of muscle mass in that area.
Because of this and the fact that a female typically
use the muscle mass in her lower body to a much
greater degree then she uses the muscle mass of her
upper body, the female is seldom as strong in absolute
measurements as the male.

Reproduction Cycle

The major issue in regards to physiology and women in
strength training is the reproduction cycle. While
there is little data to show that continuing an
exercise program after becoming pregnant is harmful
(although the intensity may have to be decreased),
there is some debate as to whether pregnancy is a good
time to begin anything but the mildest exercise
program. Considering the stress that a new exercise
program can cause by itself, starting an intensive
training program after becoming pregnant is usually
considered a poor idea.

Because of the hormonal effects of pregnancy,
especially towards the end, movements requiring very
large joint ranges of motion (such as deep squats) are
contraindicated. The effects of hormones such as
relaxin are to increase joint and ligament laxity,
which can increase the risk of injury during certain
movements. Obviously, pregnant women should not
continue to perform exercises that cause them pain
during pregnancy.

Various hormone levels constantly change during a
woman’s menstruation cycle. While many studies that
measured physiological responses of the menstrual
cycle in women during exercise found no performance
changes, any changes most likely depend on the
individual and her specific conditions. Some women
suffer more from cramping, PMS, or heavy bleeding than
others and this may impact their performance.

Several coaches suggest their female athletes log
their menstrual cycle and associated physical and
emotional states. They can also chart their exercise
and athletic performance to establish strongest and
best training days and when they are impaired. This
will facilitate modifying a training schedule by
planning for strenuous sessions and peak training and
when rest is needed.

Factors that can be altered are volume (number and
duration of repetitions), intensity (speed and load),
and difficulty (skill level and injury risk).
Nutritional considerations should also be factored to
optimize recovery and fuel stores. Considering that
testosterone peaks around ovulation, it may be
beneficial to plan for peak strength training loads at
this time.

Anatomical and Orthopedic Concerns

Women have a higher incidence of postural and
orthopedic issues. The main anatomical structural
difference in the female is that the pelvis is wider
in comparison to the males. The female frame is
broader, more tilted, and is designed to accommodate
child bearing. Many women also have postural problems
that can impact their movements. This and other issues
will be discussed.


Ideally, the quadricep muscle would pull directly
upwards on the patella (kneecap). However, since the
upper leg attaches to the lower leg at an angle, it
does not. The difference between the straight line of
pull and the actual line of pull of the quads on the
patella is referred to as the ‘Q-angle.’ As a
consequence of having wider hips, women typically have
a greater Q-angle than men, which may predispose them
to incorrect tracking of the patella and knee
problems. A woman with a wide pelvis or hips may find
a narrow stance squat uncomfortable and put increased
stress though the joints. Thus, women should be sure
their knees track over the second largest toe to avoid
negative knee stresses.

Females also tend to have a weaker vastus medialis
(the inner muscle of the quads) than males. However,
strengthening the muscles, ligaments and tendons
surrounding the knee joint will provide the extra
stability that the female needs.

Bar Placement:

Women may have problems with bar comfort during squats
because of less overall upper-body strength and
lower-trap mass.

Joint Instabilities:

Joint laxity occurs in women more than men due to
hormonal differences. Some studies report a higher
incidence of injuries in female athletes during the
premenstrual cycle possibly due to the hormone
relaxin. Therefore, some movements such as deep squats
may be problematic at certain times during the
menstrual cycle.


Postural considerations should be assessed before
embarking on a weight-training program to avoid
injuries. An anterior pelvic tilt from childbearing or
poor postural habits should be corrected by improving
the tension relationships in the low back and the
abdominal muscles.


Another postural factor is hyperlordosis (exaggerated
inward curve of the low back) that is commonly seen in
women who routinely wear high-heeled shoes. The calf
muscles often shorten and pull the knee into
hyperextension with an anterior pelvic tilt as an
adaptation to wearing high heels. If this posture is
not corrected, some movements could cause injuries due
to muscle imbalances.

Abdominal Musculature:

Some women who have had Cesarean section childbirth or
surgeries often lose the ability to tense and maintain
a tight abdominal musculature. This capability is
crucial during many movements such as the squat and
deadlift as it supports the low back musculature and
is core to maintaining correct form. The trainee must
relearn the ability to adequately contract the
abdominal muscles to perform movements safely.

Low Back:

While there are really very few gender differences in
specifically training the low back, women should be
encouraged to train their low back in addition to
their abdominal musculature to achieve a balance of
low back and abdominal strength.

Surprisingly, those women who wear high-heeled shoes
often have chronically tight low back musculature and
would benefit from stretching these muscles and
conditioning their abdominal musculature. In contrast,
many women have a tendency to overdo abdominal
exercises while neglecting their low back. This can
ultimately lead to strength imbalances in the low back
and hypertonic abdominal musculature, which contribute
to low back strain. Women should be encouraged to
include low back and abdominal training and using full
range of motion in their overall core-conditioning
program to correct postural problems.

Other than hormonal, postural and reproductive issues,
the physical differences between men and women are not
significant enough that women should train differently
than men. It is important for the athlete and coach to
remember that all athletes are individuals and may
respond differently. Just as with men, woman wishing
to learn weight-training movements should first be
assessed for posture, muscle imbalances, joint
stability, flexibility and hormonal status. Thereupon,
a competent instructor should teach proper technique.
Adherence to precise execution of the movement should
be the utmost priority rather than weight. If the
weight training is performed correctly, it is one of
the most valuable and safe exercises for strength and
conditioning for women as well as men.