Weight Training for Women: Should Women Lift Differently Than Men?

Some of the biggest workout myths and misconceptions, which continue to get recycled by personal trainers, the media and bro-science, have to do with weight training for women and women’s workout in general.

I have an upcoming article on LiveStrong that will bust many of these women’s workout myths. That said, I’ve recruited Cassadra Forsythe, female fitness expert and author of The New rule of Lifting for Women, to do some myth busting of her own and give us the skinny on the question: Should Women Strength Train like Men?

Cassandra will be one of the presenters (along with Bret Contreras, Bill Sonnemaker and Myself) on the 2nd Annual STRENGTH CRUISE – Feb 14-18th, 2013. Rooms are starting at only  $279 base fare. Contact Caryn Graham (our travel agent) to book your room at (877) 741-2784. The 2013 Strength Cruise Conference Website/Registration opens Oct 8th!

Before I give Cassandra the floor, here are two great fitness information resources for women:

This study published in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, showed that women who did about 10hrs a week of moderate exercise (recreational physical activity) had a 30% LOWER RISK OF BREAST CANCER.

– My “Triple Threat At-Home Workout” is in the Fall 2012 issue of Oxygen’s Off The Couch! issue, on pg.56-61, which is in stores now and will be for the next few months.

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Weight Training for Women: Should Women Lift Differently Than Men?

By Cassadra Forsythe, PhD, RD, CSCS

Should women lift differently than men? This is a loaded question because argument could be made for both Yes and No answers.

On the yes side of things: Women do have strength and physiological differences compared to men, so it could be said that when a program is made for a woman, it should focus on their unique weaknesses and metabolic advantages/disadvantages.

First, 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?).

Then, metabolically, 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 and she’ll add in  an “active rest” just to keep her body happy.

Women do also often carry more body fat than men, and are usually not as interested in performing max reps of an exercise, so the amount of volume they prefer to perform is often higher than a guys. In terms of lifting, their rep range is often more desirable in the 8 to 15 range. However, many women would benefit from 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).

Most women’s goals for exercise are not to increase muscle size per se, but instead to increase muscle definition, without adding a lot of bulk.

In terms of exercises women are most attracted to, it tends to be those that improve upon areas that women are looking to enhance or minimize. For example, many women want to enhance the roundness and firmness of their glutes, but not make their butts bigger (Guys may like Big Butts, but women can’t fit into most jeans if their butts are too large).

Then, they want to make their breasts perkier, but not end up with a “man chest”. Also, women want a flat defined tummy, but not usually one that is super muscular (yet, a very muscular mid section is usually more about genetics than exercise as we all know).

All women also want tight arms, but not “large guns”. So, they’re typically not going to spend hours of exercise working on the “gun show”, but instead, perform higher reps of some direct arm exercises (in conjunction with pushups and pull-ups of course), to enhance definition.

Many people want to know what research supports these claims or notions, but one must remember that science doesn’t have the money or time to look at questions like, “What exercises are best for women?” unless there is a clinical implication for it. For example, money will be spent to determine the best training programs for women to prevent them from developing an ACL (knee) injury, which are very common. So far, exercise physiologists have determined that improved the strength and firing capacity of the medial hamstring muscles, helps prevent knee valgus, which leads to ACL tears in athletic women (reference below). Or, funding will be developed to understand what exercise protocol helps overweight women lose the most fat. Also, metabolic differences between men and women are investigated, which does show improved recovery in women, and differences in substrate metabolism during and after exercise. But, to pay money to research simple questions like “What are the training differences between men and women?” very rarely, if ever happens. So, much of the knowledge that is shared here is from the experience of exercising women across the world, plus the experience of the trainers that work with them.

Scientific References and Sources on Women’s Workout

1. Tarnopolsky MA. Gender differences in metabolism; nutrition and supplements. J Sci Med Sport 2000;3:287-298

2. Esbjornsson-Liljedahl M, Bodin K, and Jansson E. Smaller muscle ATP reduction in women than in men by repeated bouts of sprint exercise. J Appl Physiol 9-1-2002;93:1075-1083.

3. Esbjornsson-Liljedahl M, Sundberg CJ, Norman B et al.  Metabolic response in type I and type II muscle fibers during a 30-s cycle sprint in men and women. J Appl Physiol 1999;87:1326-1332.

4. Carter SL, Rennie C, and Tarnopolsky MA. Substrate utilization during endurance exercise in men and women after endurance training. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2001;280:E898-E907.

5. Siegel L, Vandenakker-Albanese C, Siegel D. Anterior cruciate ligament injuries: anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and management. Clin J Sport Med. 2012 Jul;22(4):349-55.

 Author bio:

cassandra b 151 1Cassandra Forsythe, PhD, RD, CSCS is the author of two popular nationally publicized books for women, “The New Rules of Lifting for Women”, and “Women’s Health Perfect Body Diet”.

Her passion lies in encouraging women and men of all shapes, sizes and life stages to exercise seriously and with purpose. Most recently, she has become an advocate for super fit pregnancies following her own ultra-fit gestation.

She runs her own group fitness facility in Connecticut, which has transformed the bodies of hundreds of women and men across the state. You can find out more about Cassandra and her fitness facility at www.cassandraforsythe.com

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