Should Women Train Differently Than Men?Jun 28, 2016
Should women train differently than men? The answer to this question is far from black and white.
There are some principles of strength and conditioning that remain constant whether training a male or female. However, the biological makeup of women causes some factors to be different than a man.
First I will address the YES, or why women should train differently.
- Women tend to be more flexible, particularly while pregnant and post-partum. While men may need to focus on mobilizing their tight hips or distracting their shoulders prior to exercise, this may not be warranted for some women. If you know that you are hypermobile, or double jointed, you will not need the same mobility work for your joints. Rather, your time would be better spent practicing motor control. Controlling end range movement is always important, particularly when moving under weight. I’ve used the example before, avoid crashing into the bottom on a squat! Dr. Danny broke this concept down very nicely in his previous blog post “How to Dramatically Improve Your Squat”. Check it out!
- “Core” work is important! The core I am referring to is not just the six pack abs but the entire canister: diaphragm, pelvic floor, abdominals and posterior spinal muscles. Women tend to have more pelvic health issues than men—this could be because they report it more but is more likely due to posterior chain weakness, poor motor control and post-partum effects. Interestingly enough, the pelvic floor has been found to be weaker in athletes than non-active women! But don’t forget the other dimensions of the core. Here are a few suggestions for adjuncts to warm up and training schedules.
- Diaphragmatic breathing- Many times athletes become upper chest breathers which is essentially using neck muscles to assist with breathing. Ideally, we want to be belly breathers. When inhaling deeply, the abdomen and lower thorax should expand before you see chest rise. Again I am going to point you to Dr. Danny’s last article because he explains a step-by-step approach to practicing this technique!
- Posterior chain strength- Hamstring, hip and low back strength are essential for a balanced core. Women may be prone to decreased posterior chain activation due to boney makeup of the pelvis, hips and knees. Pregnant or post-partum women will also see a change in posterior chain strength due to the shift of the low back into increased lordosis, or sway back. Different postures are assumed when the center of mass is moved due to the baby bump.
- Unilateral training- This is a great way to engage the core, specifically the obliques and deep core (transversus abdominis) during training. Having a weight on one side of the body puts force on the torso making it want to rotate. There are some specific “anti-rotation” exercises (Pallof press, for example) but this can be integrated into those posterior chain exercises! Reverse lunges with a front racked kettlebell is one of my favorites. If the kettlebell is in the front rack on the right, then the right leg lunges backward. Unilateral training is also a great adjunct for upper body training.
- Pelvic Floor health- Training the external rotators of the hip has been shown to improve pelvic floor function. So even though they are not a “pelvic floor muscle”, they are deep inside the hip and have a direct connection to the pelvic floor. The monster walk is a great example and many people are familiar with the exercise. I like to warm up with some version of these before I squat or run. You can walk sideways, forward or backward. Also, for those weightlifters out there, you can set up in a split jerk stance and walk sideways as well! This will give the deep hip external rotators some strengthening time while also getting fired up for lower extremity functional movement.
- Women are able to perform resistance training for more reps at the same percentage. So when Jack hits reps at 80% of his max, Jill can hit more at the same percentage of her max! This may be due to muscular architecture or neuromuscular control but regardless, don’t be afraid to tweak training protocols or rep counts if it feels too easy!
- Women have the ability to recover more quickly within training sessions and from day-to-day workouts. Estrogen has anti-catabolic effects that allows improved muscle repair and reduces protein breakdown during exercise. It has also been shown to improve metabolic profiles effecting triglycerides and glucose levels.
NO- Reasons why women should not train differently than men
- “Weight training will make women look like men.” This statement is simply not true. Our biology is different, so the amount of muscle that we can naturally put on is not in the same realm as men! Men produce 10x the amount of testosterone as women. Testosterone is the hormone responsible for the anabolic effects of muscle and strength gains.
- Don’t be afraid to add resistance training to your workouts. As I mentioned before, it will not make you look “manly” but also it is a wonderful way to increase bone density and further improve lipid profiles.
So what do you do with this information? For most of you, continue to train as you were. However, it will behoove you to add some extra warm-up drills, “core” exercises and closely analyze your motor control. However, do not cut yourself short on the intensity. Remember, women can perform more reps at higher weight and yes you will maintain a feminine figure! Keep the intensity high for greater metabolic impact and don’t skip the weights.
Thanks for reading!
-Dr. Jackie, PT, DPT, CSCS
Mata, John D et al. Sex Differences in Strength and Power Support the Use of a Mixed-Model Approach to Resistance Training Program. Strength and Conditioning Journal 38:2 April 2016.
Tuttle, Lori J et al. The Role of the Obturator Internus Muscle in Pelvic Floor Function. Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy. 40:1 2016.
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