Women in Strength Training

Women in Strength Training

An Anvil Training Article by Daniel Hunt

When developing a training program for an individual, be they a beginner, intermediate or advanced - considerations specific to the athlete have to be applied. That’s a no-brainer, and not new information - but in an industry saturated with generic and recycled programming, it can be easy to get swept up in a training routine that isn’t optimal (or worse, is detrimental). You can apply general rules and methods to assist the general population to improve their physical performance - however, someone who is looking to optimise a training program for either themselves or others needs to identify the necessary variations for the desired benefits. Tailoring a program with a specific goal in mind is a standard means to an end, but across all programming - the method of doing so must be suitably structured around the individual athlete. Forgive me for sounding like the first paragraph in your Cert 3 in Fitness textbook, but through this article - I hope to shed light onto individual considerations that may be overlooked - namely, program considerations for women. Knowing why there’s value in a weight based exercise program will assist you in justifying the use of one to others who may be less knowledgeable in the positive benefits associated with strength, muscle mass and muscular endurance. 

Resistance training - that being the act of physically exercising using weights. Be it barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells or any other heavy thing you can move with your body - has for a long time been viewed as a ‘manly’ form of physical exertion. Most sports involve some form of it, and those that don’t still use resistance-style training to enhance their ability to perform. Modern times mean that old perceptions are changing and there’s now a strong representation of women in gyms and sports that were once considered out of their gender role. Research has shown the benefits resistance training yields - some of which apply better to females than males.

Females have differences in the way their bodies respond to resistance training - some obvious and some less so. In addition to that, there are existing cultural perceptions around ‘bulky’ women. In light of this, it’s important to have an understanding of training impacts that are not only physical, but also social.  By exploring both of these, I hope to provide the average female gym enthusiast some insight into why their hard work may or may not be optimal for their body. Whether it’s diet, technique, body composition or rep scheme - strength and conditioning for females can be tweaked to better suit the individual in ways that it otherwise shouldn’t be for males. With more opportunities for females to be athletes professionally or recreationally, there’s also more opportunities to train them. If you spend just five minutes online, you’ll find personal trainer roles as a at all-girl schools, for women’s sports teams and as a 1-on-1 coach at your standard commercial gym. Moving forward, I’ll be exploring some noteworthy considerations individually. 

“I don’t want to get too bulky”

You won’t. The old school stigma around women in strength-related training is one that should be answered bluntly. Not only is it incorrect, it's absurd. To quote our Lord and Saviour, Arnold Schwarzenegger, when he was told by someone that they never wanted to look like him - “You won’t”. Doing weights and expecting your body to look like a high level athlete’s isn’t how the human body works - man, woman, or non-binary. Thankfully, this idea is fading away as the benefits of resistance training for everyone establishes a stronger presence in the general population. It remains  pervasive enough for it to be an issue that a trainer will likely face at some point - especially if you’re working at a commercial gym. Telling a female client or athlete that unwanted hypertrophy isn’t something they need to worry about is all well and good - but why shouldn’t they worry?

Women aren’t training to become massive. Increasing muscular size (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) happens to everyone who conducts resistance training, just like strength and muscular endurance does as well. For anyone’s muscles to become large enough to be considered ‘muscly’ - there has to be a certain level of hypertrophy-focused training in their programming. So, for someone who’s concerned about looking bulky, certain realistic expectations have to be established and explained - if your goal isn’t to get big muscles, then you won’t. You will develop increased muscle mass, but that will be proportional to the increase in your physical activity, and the goal of the training. Hypertrophy is a specific type of training, just like strength and endurance - so unless you’re training specifically for it, becoming too muscular is a non-issue. 

Interestingly, studies are showing that muscle gain for men and women isn’t as different as once thought. While men may see a more absolute increase in their muscular size and strength -, everyone, regardless of sex, has very similar increases based on percentages. If you’re interested in a more dense read on the topic of muscular hypertrophy in men and women - Click Here

Arguably more important than the training someone is doing is their diet. If you were to look at a female athlete who participates in a sport where bulk may be beneficial to their performance - such as Powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting - caloric intake for these athletes is substantially different from the general population. Not only do you have to refine a training program to suit muscle gain, you have to do the same for the food being eaten outside of the gym too. Catering diet to the goals of an individual is an asset to any trainer looking to maximise the effect of their programming. Statistically, females are more likely than men to experience low iron levels in their blood(Ref. 1) - causing reduced energy levels that will detract from otherwise well designed approaches to goals. Recognising indicators for common dietary related issues may be the difference between a good result and a sub-par one. 

Body Composition 

The distribution of muscle mass throughout the human body differs between men and women(Ref. 2), with both sexes carrying most of the muscle mass on their lower body. This is not surprising, considering the amount of muscles in the legs and hip region. Women, however, carry a higher percentage of their total muscle mass on their lower body compared to men. The distribution for men is 42.9% in their upper body, and 54.9% in their lower body (the ~4cm separating the lower and upper parts is not included, hence why the percentages don’t add to 100%). In comparison, women have only 39.7% of muscle mass in their upper body, but 57.7% in the lower body. This difference in muscle distribution, as well as the differences in body structure - such as broader shoulders for men and wider hips for women - means that slight variations can be introduced into the way certain movements are taught to and performed by an athlete or client. For example - the conventional deadlift is conducted with arms straight down and gripping the bar. For a female with wider hips, it can be difficult to do so effectively without the hips impeding that straight line from the shoulders to the bar. By being aware of these anatomical differences, a coach/trainer/individual is better equipped to overcome any obstacles that may arise if a particular athlete’s body does not fit with generic lifting methods.

Why She Can Rep Your Max

Muscles are made up of fibres, and it’s generally accepted that there are two types(Ref. 3) - fast twitch and slow twitch fibres. You can break fast twitch fibres into more categories, but that is beyond the scope of what I want to cover in this article (though if you’re interested, feel free to explore the references below). Each type of fibre is better suited for certain kinds of exercising, with slow twitch fibres best for more endurance-based activities, and fast twitch better for short bursts of force. An individual’s muscle fibres adapt to the way they train their bodies - so, a 100m sprinter may have more fast twitch fibres in their muscles, whereas a marathon runner may have more slow twitch. 

In men and women, the quantity and distribution of these two muscle fibres differs(Ref. 4). Women tend to have more slow twitch muscle fibres - whilst females may not have the same contraction speed compared to men, the slower oxidative fibers and higher oxidative capacity of female muscles provide better endurance when exercising. This also allows them better recovery when their muscles are responding to fatigue. By understanding that women having greater muscular endurance than men, individually tailored programs and athlete fatigue can be more appropriately managed - as a good response to exercise volume both during and post-session can be used to facilitate a beneficial, injury-free outcome if used correctly.

Additionally, women appear to have higher eccentric-concentric strength ratios(Ref. 5). For example, imagine you conduct a one rep max on a bench press, and you measured how much weight you could effectively handle during the eccentric (downward) part of the movement. Then, you measure how much you could push during the concentric (upward) part of the movement. Dividing the eccentric total by the concentric would give you the aforementioned strength ratio - with a higher ratio indicating a greater gap between these two measurements. This means that females tend to be able to load themselves with more weight, relative to their one repetition max for that exercise - during the downward phase. A benefit of this is that there’s less chance they’ll crush themselves under a heavy bar, but more importantly - it has applications for overloading style training e.g. high box squats. Understanding the implications of the eccentric-concentric strength ratio can provide insight into when, and to what extent, an athlete may need to drop off after a failed attempt. Yes, they could lower it under control, but it didn’t go back up and some tweaking may be needed. 

Conclusion

Resistance training has been proven again and again to benefit the physical health of everyone who does it correctly and safely. As old stigmas around lifting weights fade away like icebergs, there’s never been more information or access around strength and conditioning training - and it has never been more important to identify ways you can tailor your training to the individual & their goals. Whether you train a specific sport, follow a basic program or just want to see what you enjoy the most - I will always recommend some form of weight training that can be tailored to achieve the end goal.

 Women have natural advantages available to them, that if used correctly - can better develop their physical performance and body image. Nothing in or out of the gym is ‘just for men’, and if someone is intimidated by a physically fit or strong woman - then the onus should be on them to educate themselves, and not on the woman to erase her hard work and prevent physically and mentally beneficial training for the sake of catering to someone else’s idea of what is culturally appropriate for women.

Train Smart. Train Hard.

References

  1. https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4364.0.55.008~2011-12~Main%20Features~Iron~402
  2. https://www.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/jappl.2000.89.1.81
  3. http://hydrodictyon.eeb.uconn.edu/courses/bio102/MuscleFibers.pdf
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4285578/
  5. Maximal Eccentric and Concentric Strength Discrepancies 

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(Article Edited, Proof Read, and Fact-Checked by Charlotte Officer)

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