In this part of my Strength Training For Women series, I will cover the scientific basics of muscle building for women, make some clarifications on the role of testosterone and discuss the main differences between men and women when it comes to strength improvements and muscle building. Why? Because I have enough of weak, frail women. I want women to be healthy and strong!
For most people women are just a smaller, weaker version of men, not suited for physical work or sports. Skinny. Weak. Insecure. Strength training is considered dangerous for them. It will make women “manly”. And even if they do train, they won’t get results because, well, they are women. Destined to be weak.
Fighting this stupidity, I decided to start a series of articles covering female specific topics. This is the beginning.
Science to the Rescue
Luckily for us Greg Nuckols of Stronger By Science did a meta-analysis to once and for all give an evidence based answer to the question “Can women build as much muscles and strength as men?” If you are not familiar in what a meta-analysis is, you can think of it as a “study of studies”, where many research papers on a similar subject are used to answer a general question. If you want to take a look at this, click here for an in depth analysis.
The results are quite astonishing! Women build as much muscle mass as men (relative to their starting poing) and improve their strength at least as fast, possibly even faster, than men. Wow, let this sink in for moment! Also make sure to have this image ready the next time someone talks about women being the “weaker sex”.
A quick detour to biology
Often you hear that women can’t build as much muscles as men because they have much lower testosterone. We now know that this is only partially true: Testosterone determines your baseline muscle mass, not how much muscles you can build. This explains why women on average have lower muscle mass than men.
Also note, testosterone isn’t the only relevant sex difference here. There are sex differences in gene expression, sex differences in other anabolic hormones like IGF-1 (which may play a bigger role in women than men), and, obviously, sex differences in estrogen (which, contrary to popular belief, exerts anabolic effects in muscle tissue). Testosterone is only one piece of a much larger picture that only gets more confusing and convoluted the more you look at it. At the end of the day, it’s best to just remember the messiness of physiology and understand that outcomes (similar relative muscle growth and strength gains, supported by heaps of research) trump mechanisms (differences in testosterone levels) every time. – Greg Nuckols
Does it mean women can get as muscular as men? I can already hear the complaints of countless women: “I don’t want to look like a man!” or “I will get too bulky if I start lifting!” Women immediately have drug assisted pro bodybuilders in mind when they think about strength training, fearing to wake up looking like the female version of Ronnie Coleman after their first workout.
Guess what, it won’t happen! As long as you don’t take drugs like a professional bodybuilder, you can never reach such levels of muscularity. And even for them it is not easy to build muscles, they still have to put incredible amounts of work and dedication into it.
As a woman you have about the same muscle building potential as a man of your size and frame, but a lower base line muscularity to start from. As a man myself, I can tell you that it is still a long, hard road to muscles! Most natural male bodybuilders train 10+ years before they even think about stepping onto the stage. And they don’t go to the gym to do flow yoga and zumba, they are obsessed with building muscles, micromanaging every aspect of their life to reap optimal results.
By now you should wonder if there are any sex differences when it comes to strength training and muscle building. And despite there is a lot of common ground, there still are some specialties to be considered:
- Women tend to be more resistant to acute fatique. This means they can do more reps with a given percent of their one-repetition-maximum (1RM) than men, can do more straight sets with a fixed number of reps, or both. The most important factors for this are a higher proportion of type I muscle fibres, which are more resistant to fatigue, and having less absolute muscle mass which results in less muscle occlusion during exercise, improving clearance of metabolic waste products and better oxygen supply.
- Women may recover from training faster than men (one, two, three). The exact mechanism for this isn’t quite sure, but it could be the protective effect of estrogen on muscle tissue, helping to keep muscle damage at bay and speeding up repair mechanisms.
- Women may respond not as well to low load training (i.e. sets of 20+ reps). Despite low load training being as effective as traditional strength training, some research suggests that this may not be true for women. Ditch the tiny pink dumbbells, leave the Hot Iron class and get into serious strength training!
- Women have to deal with the menstrual cycle. During the luteal phase (the last half) of the menstrual cycle performance and recovery may suffer. If you have an autoregulative program, the program should take care of this anyways. If not, you might be better of shifting some training volume from your last half into the first half of the menstrual cycle. You could do this by simply adding or cutting one set of every exercise.
- Many women use hormonal contraceptives. Many birth control pills impair muscle growth by decreasing androgen activity, lowering growth factor levels and increasing cortisol levels. I know this is a very personal topic, but perhaps it is time to think about switching to a birth control measure that doesn’t interfere with your own hormones.
For all the females who are still in fear of getting “too big”: lifting weights doesn’t make women huge! Cupcakes make women huge. Go lift some weights, it is probably the best single thing you can do to improve your health, and don’t forget to keep your calories in check. You won’t get too big, I promise!
And for all the already lifting females who are trying to build muscle, but are concerned they won’t make good progress because they are women: you can build muscle just like a man, but you also have to be as consistent and dedicated as a man. Get yourself a good program, hire a coach and keep lifting. You can do it!
The next article of this series will cover practical considerations regarding training and nutrition. It will take some time to write, because there is much to be said. In the meanwhile you can share my article and spread the word of strong women. If you have any questions, I will happily answer them down in the comments.