Should women train differently to men?

Posted by for Strength

So much workout advice is out there is geared towards men, but does that mean women can’t follow it? 

When it comes to strength training, there are generally two main arguments: one is that there is no difference between women and men, so they should train the same. The other is that women are fragile and need a completely different approach. Of course, neither are fact, but the first statement is at least closer to the truth. 

Part of the problem with working out the best way for women to train is that research into our gender is lacking. But let me set the record straight, once and for all: women are not delicate flowers. It’s important for us to challenge ourselves.

A lot of women are under the impression that they need to be lifting light weight and high reps to strengthen their bodies. Generally speaking, muscle growth is similar in low-load, high-rep training and high-load, low-rep training so long as you train until failure, where the body simply can not push out another rep. If the weights are really light, you’re more likely to stop from boredom than muscle fatigue, so will never reach that point. 

But there’s another reason why women might want to opt for heavier weights too: one study that actually did compare high and low-load training in women found that we gained more muscle when following a high-load (6-10 reps) training protocol compared to a low-load (20-30 reps) protocol. This seems to be one of the few training differences between men and women. Women get better results with heavier weights and fewer reps, whereas for men it doesn’t seem to matter how many reps they choose.

Another thing to note is that women may recover faster than men from training — one theory for why might be that oestrogen has a protective effect on muscles, which might be accelerating recovery and repair from training. What this means for you in terms of your training is that you probably won’t need to rest for five or six minutes between sets — but also that you could probably get away with fewer rest days. However this is something you’ll need to work out on a personal level, as only you know how long you need to recover from anything. This will also come down to how well you’re resting and sleeping, and how well you’re eating to fuel your body. 

So while there are differences between the way men and women might train for optimal results, it’s probably not what you might expect. And if you aren’t already convinced, remember that lifting weights and building muscle can help with self-esteem, self-efficacy and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. This is especially important for women, who are at a higher risk of osteoporosis as they get older. Women tend to lose up to 3% bone mineral density per year around the menopause if they lead sedentary lives (and are not on HRT). Lifting weights and staying active can help mitigate this decline.

Strength training is a game of patience. It takes a long time to build muscle, so just be consistent and take each day as it comes. Interestingly, relative strength gains tend to be larger in women compared to men (in the short term), especially when it comes to younger women and upper body strength gains. So you’ll probably find you get stronger fairly quickly at the start, even if you don’t actually look any different yet.

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