This may come as a bit of a surprise, but men and women are not the same.
They are not the same physically, they are not the same hormonally and they are often not the same psychologically. These differences can play a large role when it comes to strength training, and not just in the desired results, with women often concerned with bulking up and losing femininity.
It will have a bearing on the efficiency and effectiveness of their training programs.
To state the obvious, men and women have vastly different hormone profiles and with essentially every metabolic action in the body being hormone driven, these differences need to be catered too.
Testosterone is a potent anabolic hormone which is more abundant in men, leading to the ability for men to increase muscle size and strength substantially easier than for women. Secondly testosterone levels in men remain relatively constant during the adult years with a steady decline due to ageing.
Estrogen in women can be more complex, having a different effect on various body tissues. Similarly, to testosterone in men, estrogen is also an ergogenic aid, having a beneficial effect on muscular strength. Evidence shows the strength improvements associated with estrogen occur in the quality of the skeletal muscle rather than the size, whereby strength increases can be gained through improving muscle fibre contractile strength, as opposed to size of the fibre. Essentially what this means is that strength training can significantly improve muscular strength, yet it remains harder for women to bulk up.
The effects of estrogen do not negate the ability for women to increase muscle size, it merely assists strength gain through alternative pathways, which may be manipulated to achieve a desired result.
Having said that, over the years of training women in strength, a common statement particularly from women returning to strength training, is that they have been unhappy with muscle size increases in isolated muscle, such is the thighs or shoulders.
This is often a result of training volume, with either chronic inadvertent loading of the ‘problem’ muscle or inappropriate exercise programming.
Learning the ability to activate the target muscle when performing an exercise is important in ensuring strength and muscle size gains occur in the desired areas.
For example, learning the ability to target the gluteal muscles (butt) when squatting, as opposed to the quadriceps (front of the thighs). It is also important to remember there are hundreds of exercises for targeting specific muscle groups, and regardless of what Instagram says, the best ones are the ones you can perform effectively to achieve your personal goals.
Another effect of estrogen often overlooked, is its relationship with connective tissues such as ligaments and tendons. Estrogen has been shown to affect the laxity of ligaments and tendons, with higher estrogen levels shown to reduce connective tissue stiffness, giving women inherently better flexibility.
Although this may sound beneficial, it should be noted that an increase in flexibility is often associated with a decrease in stability. This phenomenon has been highlighted recently with ACL (knee ligament) injuries in female athletes, with women suffering 2 – 8 times more ACL ruptures compared to their male counterparts.
The relevance for strength training for women, is that often, joint stability is a limiting factor in performing an exercise under heavy loads. Whereby they may be stronger enough to lift heavier, yet they lose technique through joint stability, such as knees, hips and sacroiliac joint (lower back). Through a range of training options and loading strategies, the program design should accommodate increased joint laxity, while maintaining sufficient load to improve muscle strength and tone.
Methods may include pre-fatiguing – training a large muscle in isolation prior to performing a compound lift, super setting – pairing appropriate exercises performed consecutively or drop setting – lightening the load systematically as a muscle fatigues, as well as others. This will not only help avoid injury, but it will also ensure effective and efficient results.
To complicate things just a little more is the fact that unlike testosterone in men, estrogen doesn’t remain constant. It fluctuates with natural variances from 10 to 100-fold over the menstrual cycle, therefore the effects previously mentioned will be exacerbated at different time points. And all this on top of the energy rollercoaster, often experienced by women during their cycle.
The point being that women are different to men when it comes to strength training, and each women has her own unique genetics, susceptibilities, goals, and hormone profile. All of which, should be accounted for and utilised to the benefit of her training, and that copying a strengthening prescription designed for a man is probably not the ideal scenario.
Therefore, if you are getting back to strength training, beginning strength training or have been less than impressed with your current regime, perhaps it is time to talk to a trainer who has experience with strength training specifically for women (not necessarily a female trainer).