Welcome back to my Strength Training For Women series. This time we will take a closer look on how to apply the gender differences I discussed in Part I of this series. I am happy you came back to learn how to build muscles. It’s a great decision to get stronger, build up, improve and stop the mindset of “becoming less”: eating less, exercising in a less “manly” way, exhausting yourself less. Now it’s time to grow!
Make sure you have given Part I at least a quick read as I am not going to explain again in detail why certain mechanisms are different for women. I will mention the most important differences and explain what they practically mean for you.
Resistance to Fatigue
Due to the resistance to fatigue of women they generally can do more reps with a given percentage of their 1 Rep Max. While most men can do about 5 reps with 85% of their 1RM, women might be able to do more reps. I’m not a huge fan of percentage based training programs, but they still exist and they have their merits, so if you follow them, you might need to adjust some numbers. For example, your program might call for 5×5 with 80% of your 1RM. But 5 reps with 80% may be just a little bit too light for you, so perhaps you should do rather 5×6.
You might also encounter strength programs calling for a certain rep target, like your 5RM. They usually work with a percentage of your 1RM in mind, just like normal percentage based programs. Remember that those percentages are usually quite reliable when working with men, but for women things may change a little bit. So if your program tells you to do a set with your 5RM weight, they have 85% of your 1RM strength in mind. But as a woman can do slightly more reps, this would mean you would have to put more than 85% of your 1RM on the bar. This leads to a higher training stress, which women generally manage quite well due to faster recovery, but it still might be too much or defy the purpose of your training system. It would probably be a better idea to pick your 6RM instead of your 5RM.
Some training programs call for straight sets, like 4×10. They usually manage fatigue by the volume you are able to lift before you have to drop weights. As a woman this might leave you slightly “undertrained” as you are more resistant to fatigue. In a training system like this, it could be a good idea to slightly up your training volume, for example to do 5×10 instead of 4×10.
The female metabolism allows for better recovery after workouts. This means you can train more often than a man. While many men quickly hit a recovery wall, woman usually can handle higher training frequency.
While not everybody needs to train very often, women have the luxury to choose so if they like. Full body workouts several times a week are nothing unusual for strength training women. A better recovery also means you absolutely do not need to worry about overtraining, a subject that is needlessly discussed in womens fitness media. Goal number one is to work hard, only then you earned the right to think about overtraining.
Nevertheless, don’t make the mistake to interpret superior recovery as an excuse to let it slip on lifestyle factors like sleep and healthy diet! A healthy lifestyle is the basis of any serious trainee, so make sure you get them right straight from the beginning.
Need for Serious Weights
For reasons I cannot fathom, many women love their Hot Iron, Body Pump, whatever classes at commercial gyms where they spin their wheels endlessly with (often pink) baby weights. Please don’t! Emerging evidence rises that women get worse result than men when training with light weights.
You need real weights and exercises that really target a muscle. I often see women doing strange compounded lifts like “lunge into lateral raise” and it drives me crazy! If you take a serious weight for lunges, you cannot use them for lateral raises! If the weight is right for lateral raises, your lower body will laugh at them when you use them for lunges. Do your lunges, but do them right!
Another problem I often see is that women use cardio machines trying to grow muscles. All those “booty girls” on the stair master make me cringe … cardio just burns energy, it will not make your muscles grow (except if you are an absolute beginner and even then, weights are more efficient). If you want to grow a certain muscle, choose an exercise where you feel the muscle work, take a serious weight (anything from 8-20 reps if taken to failure) and work, work, work. Take advantage of that amazing female metabolism that allows you to work more and enjoy the gains!
During the luteal phase (the last half) of the menstrual cycle performance and recovery may suffer. As long as you are using an autoregulative training plan of some sort, this is taken care of by the autoregulating incorporated into the system.
A simple method would be doing a 10RM: as you do your workouts, you choose a weight that allows you to do 10 reps and not leave anything “in the tank”. On your good days you will be able to progress nicely, and as your performance increases during the luteal phase, you will be able to do less reps than usual. This okay, it will still lead to hypertrophy, don’t worry!
Another method to periodize around the menstrual cycle could be implemented by doing more training sessions during the follicular phase, and less sessions during the luteal phase. Although this is a nice approach, it may be difficult to realise in real life as most serious strength trainees already do the maximum number of training sessions they can squeeze into their schedule. But for some people this might work just fine, so give it a try.
The female metabolism is an awesome engine: resistance to fatigue and superior recovery mechanisms make for a powerful combination and let women grow at least as much as men as long as they are willing to do the work necessary.
Gender differences are easily incorporated into most autoregulative training plans, so as long as you don’t blindly follow a cookie cutter plan, you are good to go. Make sure you use serious weights and hit them hard.
If you need help with setting up an autoregulative training, just apply for online coaching here!