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Weight/Resistance training is not for women: Myth or truth?

Author: Swatik Mahendra
by Swatik Mahendra
Posted: Apr 17, 2020
strength training

Over the years, a lot of women have come up to me and asked several questions pertaining to weight or resistance training such as is weight training appropriate for women? Will resistance training make them bulkier? Shouldn’t women avoid heavy-load or high-intensity resistance training? Or the most commonly asked one being, isn’t weight training for men and not for women? This is why, I have decided to write this article to address the facts related to weight training in women and dispel any misconceptions along the way.

Let’s look at the impact of culture and gender stereotypes on resistance training:

Traditionally, strength and power have always been considered as masculine traits, whereas, being small, slender and frail considered as feminine traits. Such sex role stereotypes along with lack of research and information on effects of strength training in women has fed the misconceptions that have discouraged them from participating in physical activities and training optimally using resistance exercises to improve their quality of life or sport performance.

Inherent differences between men and women:

Despite the similarities, there are some significant anatomical and physiological differences related to body composition, strength, power, endurance and aerobic capacity between the genders.

When it comes to body composition, women have higher body fat than men, whereas, lower whole body and muscle mass. This is due to the reduced size of all three types of muscle fibers (Type 1, Type 2a and Type 2x). Because of the less total body mass, absolute force generation in women is lower than men especially in upper body and this is why women are considered weaker than men. But when strength is expressed relative to the muscle mass, these differences are negligible.

Research has shown women to have higher muscular endurance than men which might in part be attributable to different muscle fiber type composition in some muscles like thigh muscles; however, muscle fiber composition of most muscles is found to be relatively similar in both the genders. Women have less muscle power as compared to men and would require higher muscle fiber activation for same amount of power generation due to the smaller cross sectional area of muscle fibers and lower absolute force generation in women.

Women also have lesser comparative maximal stroke volume and cardiac output due to lower blood volume, hemoglobin and oxygen carrying capacity due to lower concentrations of testosterone (androgenic) hormone which is not only responsible for its anabolic effects and development of secondary male sexual characteristics but also for stimulating production of hormone erythropoietin which in turn stimulates formation of red blood cells in the bone marrow. The afore-mentioned cardiovascular differences lead to 5% to 15% lower maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 Max.) in women as compared to men with similar lean body mass. This is considered to the major cause of cardio-respiratory endurance related disparities between men and women.

So, what is the need for strength training in women?

Owing to the above mentioned differences between the two genders, women have greater capacity to improve strength, muscle endurance and power with resistance training. Especially, with the increased importance of upper body in functional activities of daily living and in various sports specific skills from sprinting to basketball shooting, the strength training of upper body has become more essential. Furthermore, to develop upper body strength women require higher muscle fiber activation that needs heavier loading and use of more exercise angles due to their smaller muscle fiber cross-sectional area. Total body power is another important factor in today’s lifestyle and sports for women. The change can be seen in activities like big power tennis serve where the upper body strength gains are directly proportional to the activity performance.

Are adaptations to resistance training in women any different than men?

Despite the afore-mentioned differences between the two genders, the adaptability to exercise training does not seem to be significantly affected by the sex. In simple terms, this means that with either aerobic or resistance training, men and women undergo similar improvements in their functional capacity provided they are given same exercise stimulus in terms of frequency, intensity, time and type of exercise.

To further elaborate on adaptations in women to resistance training, women who are similarly trained like men are capable of experiencing equal strength gains because their relative improvements in muscle force production is similar to that in men, regardless of the fact that the initial strength levels are lower among women. Alongside the improvements in strength, research has found that the hypertrophic responses to resistance training too are not gender specific and occurs at both the whole muscle and muscle fiber levels. This is why there are no differences in resistance/strength training prescription between men and women.

But why should women do resistance training?

Let us discuss the benefits of resistance or strength training for women. Research has established the several benefits to resistance training in everyone. Listed below are some of the benefits specific for women:

  1. 1. Increase in lean body mass due to increase in muscle mass via hypertrophy of muscle fibers and the whole muscle.
  2. 2. Decrease in nonfunctional body fat due to increased energy demands (provided the nutrition is being controlled).
  3. 3. Improved metabolic rate because of an increase in energy expenditure by the new-formed muscle and a decrease in body fat.
  4. 4. Increased bone strength and bone mineral density due to enhanced bone modeling with the stresses applied.
  5. 5. Reduced risk of osteoporosis due to increased bone mineral density (observed in pre and post-menopausal women).
  6. 6. Reduced risk of injury and increased joint stability because of stronger connective tissue.
  7. 7. Improved functional strength for daily living activities and performance of sport-specific skills.
  8. 8. Improved mental health status with improved self-esteem and confidence.

However, there are a number of factors that might have a negative impact on the strength gains which must be monitored such as use of inadequate training intensity or load, excessive use of machine weights and not progressing the resistance intensity or frequency.

Common myths and concerns related to strength training in women:

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, there are several myths related to strength training in women which have led to, either stopping them from strength training altogether or development of inadequate training programs that limit the benefits of strength training and in sports block their progress. Let us debunk some of the most common myths here,

  1. 1. Lifting weights or performing strength training makes women larger and heavier or bulkier: This is couldn’t be farther from the truth. Strength training does cause an increase in lean muscle mass and decrease in fat mass which might lead to minimal increase in overall weight as lean mass is heavier than fat. But studies have shown that strength training leads to increase in strength, no change or decrease in lower body girth and mild increase in upper-extremity girth. Though quite uncommon, there are several factors (not directly related to training) that might lead to larger than normal increases in limb girth and lean muscle mass in some women such as

    a. Higher than normal resting testosterone, growth hormone or other hormones.

    b. Greater than normal hormonal response to resistance training.

    c. Lower than normal estrogen-to-testosterone ratio.

    d. Genetic predisposition to large muscle mass.

    e. Ability to perform more intense resistance training with higher protein intake in diet.

  2. 2. Weight training is for men and not women, women should use different training methods than men: Women are generally advised to use machine weights and perform slow controlled movements than free weights, bodyweight &/or explosive movements out of fear that they are more susceptible to injuries. There is absolutely no evidence to support this but rather ample evidence that suggests both men and women should use appropriate techniques and progression models to avoid any injuries while training. Furthermore, strength training exercises should mimic the functional activities or sport-specific movements in terms of biomechanics and velocity to achieve maximum transferability. This can be achieved using closed-kinetic-chain exercises involving multiple joints and muscle groups because they develop inter-muscular coordination, proprioception and balance. For example, a step up is superior to a leg extension machine as it builds functional strength required for stair climbing or sprinting.
  3. 3. Women should avoid heavy-load or high-intensity resistance training: Regularly women are advised against lifting heavy weight and are rather told to lift light-weight dumbbells. These loads are often lower than necessary for any significant physiologic adaptations. Most women are able to train at higher intensities and volumes than previously believed. In fact, owing to their hormonal differences and changes with age they should ideally train with higher loads to cause physiologic improvements in muscle, bone and connective tissue and might occasionally need to train near their maximum strength levels to achieve these significant changes.

Strength training guidelines:

The basic guidelines for strength training programs in healthy adults in terms of frequency, intensity, time, type and progression of exercises should be followed for women as well as for men. However, there are some specific guidelines that should be kept in mind while developing strength training protocol for an adult women that have been outlined by Zatsiorsky VM &Kaemer WJ in their book "Science and Practice of Strength training" 2nd Edition, these are as follows:

  1. 1. Exercise programs should be well-designed and include exercises using free weights – barbells, dumbbells, etc and body weight resistance. Exercise intensities should be similar to that of men.
  2. 2. Women may continue to use exercise training machines but emphasis should be placed on use of free-weight exercises including foot-based lower body exercises such as squat, lunge, diagonal lunge, step-ups and lateral step-ups.
  3. 3. Incorporating upper body strengthening exercises which include multiple muscle groups is essential for women. This can include exercises such as bench press, incline press, latissimus dorsi pull-downs, pull-ups, and back extensions.
  4. 4. Once women develop a strength base, they should start using total body exercises such as push press, hang clean, power clean, clean and jerk and snatch.
  5. 5. A training program should always stress upon multi-planar, multi-joint, functional exercises because they develop inter-muscular coordination, proprioception, and balance and result in strength that transfers to sports and daily activities. For example, the squat and step-up exercises are superior to using the leg-extension machine because they offer functional strength for walking up a flight of stairs while carrying bags of groceries.
  6. 6. For all healthy adults including women, progression model for resistance training programs should be based on the individual’s target goals like strength, speed-strength, hypertrophy/bulking, weight loss, etc; physical capacity, and training status such as beginner, intermediate or advanced.

To sum up,

It has been well established that women can and should include strength/resistance training in their workout regimen. They are in not in anymore danger than men of higher injuries while training and would instead benefit from high-intensity resistance training similar to or more than men. Strength training helps women improve their joint stability, balance, body fat percentage, mental health and prevents from risk of developing osteoporosis.

On another note, several studies have established that the different phases of menstrual cycle do not affect the strength performance in women unless there are some associated issues like severe pain or amenorrhea. Also, women who perform resistance training during pregnancy have shown to have several benefits provided they do not have any associated conditions or contraindications. For further questions relating to these topics you can always contact our experts on website’s ask us page.

About the Author

I am an experienced Sports Physiotherapist and a Biomechanist who is currently working as a Consultant Physiotherapist for StratFit Fitness Technologies Pvt Ltd. I have previously worked in the UK & India as a physio. Contact : askphysio@stratfit.net

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Author: Swatik Mahendra

Swatik Mahendra

Member since: Mar 17, 2020
Published articles: 1

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