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Should women train differently than men?

The answer:

Maybe and it’s complicated.

Strength training women vs men

Both men and women should incorporate cardiovascular and strength training into their workout plans using similar exercises. Men and women can do the same exercises, however there are some basic principles that apply to both men and women – and the application of these principles is where the difference lies. 

Let’s start with some myths…

Myth 1 - Women shouldn’t lift heavy weight because it makes them bulky. 

Answer - Not true. The hormone profiles and muscular composition in women make gaining bulky muscle mass more difficult in men than in women.  Women are perfectly capable of lifting heavier weights, although women tend to see better gains from light loads with more volume and frequency.

Myth 2 - You can reduce fat in targeted areas by working those muscles. Think losing belly fat by doing sit-ups.

Answer - Not true. You cannot spot reduce, sorry.  Everyone stores fat in different places on their body.  Losing fat by following a sensible diet combined with exercise is the best way to reduce fat. Your genetics will determine where the fat comes off and in what order.

Myth 3 - Cardio is the key to fat loss.

Answer - Not true. In fact, strength training will produce a more efficient weight-loss effect than an equal amount of cardio.

Myth 4 - One plan will work for everyone.

Answer - Not true. Everyone has certain strengths, weaknesses and health history profiles. A one-size fits all approach does not optimize individual potential for fitness gains and can be dangerous.

Strength training

Strength training

Men and women naturally gravitate to the exercise type and intensity that best suits their fitness needs. Men tend to instinctively train with a high intensity that includes heavier weights, lower repetitions, with faster movements and longer rest periods. Think sprints and heavy weight training.   

Women tend to be more inclined to do steady state cardio, lift lighter weights, increase repetitions with slow and controlled movement, and take shorter breaks. These instincts are good because it optimizes fitness gains based on different hormone profiles, protein needs, metabolic profiles and muscle fiber type and anatomical structure.

Strength Training Men Women
Load:   Heavier weights Lighter weights
Repetitions:   Less than 12 More than 10
Speed:   Fast, powerful movements Slow and controlled movement
Volume:  Less More
Rest:   2-4 minutes between sets 1-2 minutes between sets
Frequency:  48-72 hours rest 24-48 hours rest

Differences you might not know about

Load: The amount of weight.

Men respond more favorably to heavier weights around 65-85% of their maximum capacity. 

Women generally have more slow-twitch muscle fibers that respond better to lower loads - around 55-75% of their maximum capacity.

Repetitions: The number of times you perform an exercise.

Men respond better to less repetitions per set (12 or less). 

Women respond better to more repetitions per set (10 or more). 

The reason is men suffer higher metabolic stress than women and accumulate more metabolic byproducts, like lactate, in the blood. Higher metabolic byproducts limit the function of muscle in men. Women tend to suffer less metabolic stress and can handle higher repetitions than men.

Speed: Speed of movement combined with training load with determine the level of explosiveness in your training program. 

Men can handle and respond well to faster speeds and heavy loads.  Men typically have, and can develop more, fast twitch (Type IIa) muscle fibers than women. 

Women in general have a superior work capacity, but that typically disappears with explosive exercises.

Volume: Repetitions and sets in a workout.

Because women have more type I (endurance) muscle fibers, they respond better to lower weights and higher volume (more repetitions and more sets). Too much volume for men can lead to injuries, and overtraining that has a diminishing effect.

Rest: Men more, women less. 

Because men respond better to higher intensities (heavier loads, less repetitions and faster movement), that means they need more rest between sets.  The higher the intensity the longer the rest period required. Typically, men need 2-4 minutes between strength training sets and women will respond better with 1-2 minutes rest periods. 

Frequency: Amount of rest (days) between similar strength exercise for the same body parts. Just like rest, frequency is proportional to the intensity and volume of the workout. 

Men respond more optimally to high intensity workouts. If they are optimizing their workouts, they need 48-72 hours of rest before training that body part again.

With less intense workouts, women recover faster and generally do well with a 24-48 hour break.

Strength training summary

What does it all mean? Well, we’ve learned men can and should lift heavier weight. Women can handle higher repetitions and more sets.

Men are generally faster and more explosive. This means they need more rest and cannot train optimally as often as women. And for women, your optimal strength training program means you have to include more volume and do it more often.

What about cardiovascular training?

Cardiovascular training differences in men and women can be a tricky subject.

Cardiovascular training

Cardio Training Men Women
Steady State Not optimal Optimal
High Intensity Interval Training Optimal Not optimal

Because women have more slow twitch muscle fibers, they respond well to slower steady state movement over longer periods of time. Being lighter also offers an advantage because their body does not suffer as much force related stress in repetitive movements such as running. 

Men usually respond better to faster more intense cardio exercise. Think repetitive sprints and high intensity interval training. Because men tend to be heavier, they need to be aware of the force related stress with repetitive exercise such as distance running.  Men and women can both participate in endurance and high intensity interval type training program, they need to understand the intensity and loads associated with different cardiovascular activities and programs. 

Most importantly, be sure to choose an exercise activity that you enjoy first, and then optimize the training parameters for success.

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