Personal Training: Workouts for Women vs. Workouts for Men

Before I head out to Seattle, WA this weekend to teach at the IDEA Personal Trainer Institute West Conference followed by a one day seminar at Vigor Ground Fitness, I wanted to address some concepts and controversies about designing workouts for women vs. workouts for men.

Some personal trainers say that women should train like men while many other fitness books, programs and magazines are dedicated to a specific sex.

My goal with this post is to help you see through the confusion created by media claims and conflicting information by sharing with you with practical training strategies utilized in the Performance U approach for designing workouts for men and workouts for women; what we have each sex do differently in the gym and what they do the same in an effort to make workouts (for both Men and Women) more enjoyable and more effective!

Exercises for Men vs. Exercises for Women?

There are NO exercises for men or exercises for women, there are just exercises. We’re of a different sexes, but our bones, connective tissues, nerves, muscles fibers, etc., are all made up of the same raw material and function in the exact same way, regardless of your sex.

In other words, shoulder exercises, leg exercises, back exercises, etc., are the same for both Men and Women.

Workouts for Men vs. Workouts for Women: It’s Mostly How You Package It

I’ve written several workout programs that were featured Men’s Magazines and Men’s Workout books only to have those EXACT SAME workout programs also featured in a Women’s magazine or workout book produced by the same publisher. The ONLY thing that was changed from Men’s version to Women’s version were the terminologies used to explain the workout (i.e. the way the workout was packaged).

In the men’s version it said something like “use this workout program to build a stronger and more ripped body of an MMA fighter.”

In the women’s version it said something like, “use this workout program to shape a tight and toned body of a goddess.”  

Now, this common practice (by major workout magazines and book publishers) of using different (sex-specific) packaging for the same workout programs is in NO WAY dishonest or misleading. It’s done with the specific reader in mind; to speak to each sex in a way that they can relate to and can get excited about so they actually USE the workouts provided, as the training information these publishers (and article contributors like myself) work so hard to provide won’t do anyone any good if it’s not actually put into practice.

As you know, “Exercise is medicine,” BUT we are all much more likely to TAKE our medicine (i.e. use a particular workout program) when the medicine tastes good to us. Well, that’s exactly what these major fitness media publications are doing, they’re using strategic terminologies — Men= “Hard & Ripped”, Women= “Lean & Toned” — to make the medicine taste good to each sex.

This is a valuable lesson we’ve learned from the major fitness magazines and book publishers. In that, as fitness professionals, we meet clients where they are and give them the respect they deserve by tailoring the way we package information (i.e. speaking to them) in ways that they can related to, get excited about and buy into.

For example:  Let’s say we’re using a Leg Complex like this one:

– If we’re working with a serious athlete who’s looking to improve their performance, we might tell them we’re using the (above) leg complex to improve their “Power Endurance” so they can have “legs that won’t quit.”

– If we’re working with a female exercise enthusiast who’s looking to improve her physical appearance,  we might label this same (above) leg complex as a “Lower-body Sizzler” and tell her we’re using to “accelerate her metabolism” and “help improve the ‘shape’ of her legs.”

– If we’re working with a male client who’s looking to gain some size, we might call the (above) leg complex “Repetitive effort” training or label it as a “Leg Burn Out” and tell him we’re doing it create an insane muscle “pump.”

 All of those benefits (of doing that leg complex) stated above are true. We simply emphasize the particular benefit of a given exercise application that will resinate most with each individual. That’s what we call “strategic (personalized) motivation.”

Again, it’s simply making an effort not to just force the same medicine down everyone’s throat, but to make the medicine taste good to each individual so they can get excited about their training programs. And, if they’re excited about what they’re doing in training because they like why  they’re doing it (i.e. the packaging), they’re much more incline to stick with it. Not to mention more likely to put more (work) effort into the sessions.

A Focus on Developing the Sexy Muscles for Each Sex!

Although it’s important for all of us (men & women) to exercise ALL of our muscles, there are certainly specific body-parts that men like to focus on developing to look more manly, like: chest, arms & shoulders.

And, there are body parts that women often like to emphasize in their training to look sexier, like: Glutes, Legs & Shoulders.

Note: Of courses everyone wants abs, but great looking abs are mainly built in the kitchen with with what you do and don’t put into your mouth. I’ve I said in this post, “You can’t spot reducebut you sure as heck can spot enhance.”

When we talk about focusing on “developing” certain areas of the body that each sex may want to enhance the “shape” of, we’re really talking about adding muscle hypertrophy. Men are usually comfortable with training to gain muscle, but many women (unfortunately) think they’ll get bulky, which is just plain silly since women have roughly 100 times less testosterone then men do.  Plus, many men have trouble putting on muscle.

Put simply, more hypertrophy and muscle tone (i.e. shape) are the same thing! So, whatever term makes you or your clients more comfortable, the outcome is the same: You can’t build a perkier and rounder butt without building up (i.e. Hypertrophying) your glute muscles, nor can you build sexier shoulders and arms without building up (i.e. creating increased Hypertrophy  in) those muscles.

Additionally, muscle creates the shape of your body. So, if you don’t build muscle, you won’t enhance the shape of your body. You might drop bodyweight, but without building some muscle tone, that sexy, athletic-looking shape women want won’t be there to reveal once the body fat comes off. Not to mention, muscle is metabolically active tissue, meaning it’s the physical place (in your body) where fat is burned.

With that said, although “gaining muscles” and adding “muscle tone” are the SAME thing, to make the medicine taste good, instead of forcing this reality down the throat female exercise enthusiasts throats and potentially them uncomfortable – especially when the first start the training process – we simply tell them we’re lifting weights to help them “improve the shape of their body.” And, we tell the guys we’re lifting weights to “add mass.”

In other words, same training, but personalized (sex-specific) packaging!

Manipulating Packaging and Manipulating the Truth Aren’t the Same!

Adding muscle “shape” and adding muscle “hypertrophy” are just two different terms to describe the same thing. And, neither term creates a false belief about exercise, so we’re cool with client’s using whichever term makes them more comfortable.

Now, if a female hits us with, “I want to train in a way that makes my muscles leaner and longer.” We will absolutely inform them that this is based on misinformation because muscles are attached to your bones, so you can’t make your muscles longer unless you make your bones longer.

We’ll also inform her that 1) your muscles will either shrink, grow or stay the same, and 2) unless you have long arms and legs, it’s physically impossible to have “long” looking muscles. All we can do in training is work to increase muscle (i.e. improve shape and decrease body fat (to show off that shape).

How we Spot Enhance the Body-parts Each Sex Like to Develop

As I stated in this post, when we want to ensure maximal muscle development (Hypertrophy/ Shape) we’ll use 12-20 sets per muscle group (of approx. 8-15 reps) per week.

In other words, if you want to build up your shoulders, we’ll have you perform at least 12 total sets of shoulder oriented  exercises (compound and isolation with free weights and machines) per week, mostly using a weight load that you can do for at least 8 reps, and no more than 15.

This means that if your goal is to build up your shoulders, we’d have you perform  at least 4 different shoulders exercises for at least 3 sets each (mostly in the rep/weight range provide above).

If someone’s training plan calls for total-body workouts instead of body-part splits, we’d prescribe at least 3 sets of shoulder oriented training in every workout, and to train 4x per week  in order to get their minimum of 12 total sets.

Note: Keep in mind that in general we’ll apply these general sets/rep/weight per week recommendations to all of the body parts a client is looking to focus on developing.

On the other hand, for the body parts some one may NOT be looking to develop anymore, we may only hit those areas with  5-8 total sets per week per muscle group. This is done to still train the entire body and also to maintain the muscle they currently have in those areas (i.e. to prevent muscle loss).

Exercises for Women: Our Do’s and Don’ts

Women are naturally very quadriceps muscle dominant (1), which isn’t a bad thing it’s just a part of their design. So unless a female is training for a physique show or recommended by a physical therapist for post-rehabilition purposes, we’ll won’t have female fitness enthusiasts perform quadriceps focused exercises like leg extensions on a regular basis. And, compound quad strengthening exercises like traditional style squats and lunges are kept to a minimum while we focus on developing their glutes and hamstrings (to balance out the strength or their quads) with exercises like: RDLs, Good Mornings, 45 Degree Back Extensions, Hamstring curls (ball or machine), anterior leaning lunges, etc.

Additionally, according to our great friend Cassandra Forsythe PhD, co-author of The New Rules of Lifting for Women, “It is well known that most women carry much less lean mass in their upper bodies compared to men, so exercises such as pushups and pull-ups are a common weakness. Thus, it could be said that women should spend more time on these exercises than men, so that they can increase their strength in their upper bodies, which in turn does lead to improved self esteem and a sexy upper body (what girl doesn’t feel amazing after doing full pushups or pull-ups on her own?)”

Types of Weight Training Workouts for Men vs. Women

Women tend to enjoy, and are better physiologically built for faster paced, circuit type workouts, whereas men are better built for and tend to better enjoy slower paced workouts.

According to Dr. Forsythe in this article, Women do tend to be less powerful than men due to several factors such as lower muscle mass, lower lung capacity and smaller hearts, leading to lower stroke volumes. However, their ability to recover after high intensity exercise is often greater than men’s. This means, that women will often need less rest time after an exercise bout or set, and can get back under the bar, or back in the circuit sooner. So, exercise programs that prescribe significant rest periods may make a women feel bored.”

Dr. Forsythe also adds, “Many women would benefit from doing some lifting using lower reps and more weight to hit muscle fibers that are only stimulated with those types of lifts (hence, this is where women SHOULD train like men).

In other words, women recover faster than men (2, 3, 4), which is why women tend prefer faster paced workouts with less rest time between exercises. And, although ladies prefer higher reps (10-15+), doing some heavier lifts for less reps (4-8) can also be beneficial.

Men, on the other hand, since they naturally have more strength & muscle than women, are able to put more power wattage into each set, which often requires them to need more time to recover (rest) between exercises. So it’s not that women should do more reps than men, it’s that they can often tolerate a greater training density within a given workout because they’re unable to give as much energy into each rep as men due to the strength differences.

In general, guys can do very well with longer workouts where they do a single set or superset pairs of two strength exercises and then rest, while women may be just as productive doing sets of min-circuits of 3-5 strength exercises.

In other words, it’s important to understand that although men and women can do the same exercises, it how they’re applied (i.e. put together) in a workout program that can determine it’s effectiveness along with how much a man or women may enjoy (and tolerate) their workouts.

Summary and Additional Take Home Points

What men and women can do the same in their workout routines: We all can dedicate more time (more sets) to developing the muscles we desire to improve the shape (tone) of.

What women can do differently than men in their weight training programs: Women don’t need as much development in their upper-trapezius and quadriceps muscles. And, they are (physiologically) better suited to use use faster paced workouts with more exercises and less rest.

What men can do differently than women in their weight training programs: Men can keep their rest intervals (between strength exercise sets or conditioning rounds) a bit longer.

What women may want to do less of: Yoga and Long cardio sessions. Women are naturally more flexible and have better endurance than males. So, it’s a good idea to emphasize the fitness qualities – like strength & muscle development –  that you aren’t naturally inclined to, while you do just enough of the stuff you are naturally good at.

What men can do less of: Ignoring the body parts they can’t see in the mirror. It’s great to build up your chest and biceps. But, strengthening those mid-back muscles will give you better muscles balance and a stronger physical appearance. And, don’t forget about those glutes, which not only attract the ladies, but are also the mark of a powerful athlete. Check out my Add Mass to Your Ass article on MuscleMag.

Additionally, guys can use some good lower-body strength work, as guys are naturally stronger in their upper-body. Plus, you don’t want to be that dude on the beach wearing jeans because he’s got chicken legs.

Nick Tumminello’s Upcoming Speaking Schedule:

In SEATLE, WA on May 2-5 2013 teaching at IDEA Personal Trainer Institute West.

In TORONTO, CAN on June 1-2 2013 teaching at The Ultimate Fat Loss Seminar.

In IRMO, SC on June 22 2013 teaching at Sorinex Summer Strong.

In DALLAS, TX on June 28-29 2013 teaching at the TPEA National Summer Strength, Nutrition & Tactical Training Conference.

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