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Should men and women exercise differently?

October 10th 2015 / Rich Sturla / 2 comments


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Struggling with those pull-ups? You could have a viable excuse, but that doesn’t give you a Get Out Of Jail (Gym) Free Card...

As a fitness specialist and owner and director of Personal Training at Specialist Body Transformation & Sports Fitness PT Studio, Results Health & Performance (RHP), I draw on the ethos of ‘creating bodies that perform as well as they look’ and my experience of working with a wide range of men and women means that I spend my days tailoring fitness approaches across the sexes.

I try really hard to cut through the often confusing and conflicting viewpoints portrayed across society to explain when and why women should train the same as men, as well as where different approaches are advantageous, giving you practical examples to make your own fitness routine more enjoyable and effective.

I’m really passionate about empowering women to look, feel and perform at their best. Intelligent training, diet and recovery helps women get stronger, leaner, more athletic and develop a balanced, healthy and toned body.

Firstly, and this is important; let’s not make sweeping generalisations between men and women when it comes to how we should exercise. As easy as it is to whip out the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ quip, in reality everyone is different and unique in their physical and mental make-up, so it’s not right to broadly classify a man or woman as dead-cert to thrive using a particular training approach.

With this in mind, I certainly don’t subscribe to the dumbing down of women’s fitness. My approach to training women differs slightly from the way I train men but the principles are the largely the same. For example, lifting weights, as is commonplace in most male exercise routines, is one of the best ways women can improve their health and physique. Strength training, weightlifting, resistance training - whatever you want to call it - helps women get stronger, leaner, more athletic and develop a balanced, healthy and toned body. This message is thankfully becoming more widely-accepted, but much work still remains to undo decades of damaging women’s fitness stereotypes and spread positive, smart female exercise and diet information.

Debunk the myths

I regularly admire my female RHP clients’ tremendous work ethic, perseverance and ability to use their bodies in exceptional ways. They exceed limits imposed by the fitness mainstream and harbour a mental toughness that propels and motivates them to be strong, empowered women. Yes, there are considerations for female training that are different to men but women are as (some would argue relatively more!) physically capable than their male counterparts.

Although women have amazing potential for strength, athleticism and lean body composition, there are many women themselves that believe that some of the most effective forms of exercise should be limited to men, often due to outdated cultural and mainstream media messages, such as ‘lifting weights will make you bulky’.

Excess body fat is what makes women appear ‘bulky’, not having lean muscle. Lifting weights will not make you big (the exception being women who use anabolic steroids).

The way women are naturally designed hormonally means that when you lift weights intelligently, you will burn fat from the areas you don’t want it, and keep toned muscle in the areas you want it. The more lean muscle a woman maintains, the more calories she will burn at rest. In short, lean muscles speed up your metabolism, resulting in more effective fat loss. Most women simply do not possess the level of testosterone necessary to support a bulky physique. Ask any man that is trying to bulk up – it’s hard!

It is often the same things that women are cautioned against for fear of bulkiness that are in the fact the things that will give them the kind of tone and sculpted appearance that they’re after in the first place.

Focus on getting stronger

Strength (and strength training) is not a male-only thing. There is something to be said about a strong, efficient body. It moves with grace and confidence, and the strength that the body achieves permeates the mind; this confidence inevitably translates to other aspects of life.

From a fitness point of view, focusing on building strength and seeing your numbers go up is highly motivating and a great way to love your workouts as you progress week after week.

Think of strength as a glass, and the water inside the glass as all the ‘qualities’ we train for: athleticism, health, physique improvement, etc.

The smaller your glass, the less ‘qualities’ you’re able to express or improve. You can’t be ‘athletic’ (or perform day-to-day physical tasks) without having a foundation of strength. You can’t boost your metabolism or burn more fat in your training without building the strength to progressively work harder and smarter.

The larger you make your glass (strength), the more water (physical qualities) you’re able to place inside your glass. Strength is the foundation for improving performance and physical qualities.

Set motivating, performance-driven goals

Spending an hour on the treadmill three or four times a week is about as motivating as sticking pins in your eyes for most women. It’s one reason why long-duration cardio is inferior to resistance training for building a stronger, better looking and healthier body.

Even if you just want to lose body fat and look better in your clothes, I highly recommend setting motivating, performance-driven goals like ‘Perform 5 Push Ups’ or “Deadlift my Bodyweight’. You will be more motivated to train consistently. All of my female RHP clients with the primary goal of losing body fat focus on getting stronger and improving their performance in the gym. They have more fun, enjoy training, increase their confidence, and within a short period of time realise their clothes are too big and they love the way they look.

Same, but different…

There are no ‘exercises for men’ or ‘exercises for women’; there are just exercises that are the same for both men and women.

We’re different sexes, but our bones, connective tissues, nerves, muscles fibres, etc., are all made up of the same raw material and function in the exact same way, regardless of gender.

In most cases, men and women should train very similarly (note this doesn’t say ‘identically’). Certain exceptions such as pregnancy would involve another discussion entirely.

Aesthetically speaking, men and women usually have varying goals, yet they’re often achieved with very similar programs. Men often want to be ‘muscular’, and many women want to be ‘toned and shapely’. The thing is; you can't have sexy or shapely anything without striving to develop and maintain lean muscle, which boosts your metabolism, burns calories and fuels fat burning.

In practice, this means exercising 3-5 days per week, using compound, combination and full body movements, such as:

Full Body Resistance Training (e.g. squats, lunges, deadlifts, pull-up variations, push-up variations, rowing variations and overhead press variations), as well as:

Kettlebell Training (e.g. swings)

Interval Training (e.g. battling Ropes, boxing bag, rowing machine).

Nevertheless, it is still too simplistic to say that men and women should train completely identically. Despite the overarching principles being similar, when we look at the science, research and facts that underpin the best coaching practices, there are certain genetic, anatomical and physiological differences between men and women that must be accounted for to gain the maximum results from your fitness regime.

Female-specific exercise

Women do have strength and physiological differences compared to men, so when an exercise program is designed for a woman, it should focus on their unique physical characteristics and metabolic advantages/disadvantages.

Women are naturally very quadriceps (thigh) muscle dominant, which isn’t a bad thing; it’s just a part of the female design. So unless a woman is training for a physique show or it is recommended by a physiotherapist for post-rehabilitation purposes, female fitness enthusiasts are well-advised to avoid performing quadriceps isolation exercises like leg extensions on a regular basis.

In addition, to avoid overly targeting muscular development in the quads, women should place a premium on training the posterior chain (back of the legs/body) with sumo or Romanian deadlift variations that target the hamstrings and barbell bridges which focus on the glutes.

With squats, I have my female RHP clients take a wider stance and make sure they groove a proper hip-hinge pattern. This is accomplished by learning to sit back during the descent with your hips to load the posterior chain muscles, rather than bending at the knees first and placing bias on the quads.

To target the quads, I emphasise hip-dominant exercise variations, like reverse or lateral lunges, instead of forward lunges and step-ups. A seemingly innocuous tip such as a slight forward lean when performing lunges can make a big difference here. Leaning forward targets the glutes and hamstrings, while upright posture with vertical shins places more emphasis on the quads.

Additionally, it is well known that most women carry much less lean mass in their upper bodies compared to men, so exercises such as push ups and pull ups are a common challenge. Thus, women should spend proportionately more time on appropriate variations of these exercises (e.g. incline push ups, band-assisted chin ups) than men, so that they can increase their relative strength in their upper bodies.

Women tend to enjoy, and are better physiologically built for faster paced, circuit-style workouts, whereas men are better built for and tend to more enjoy slower paced workouts. Women do tend to be less powerful than men due to several factors such as lower overall muscle mass, lower lung capacity and smaller hearts, leading to lower stroke volumes. However, their ability to recover after high intensity exercise is often greater than that of men. This means that women will often need less rest time after an exercise bout or set, and can get back into the next exercise sooner and avoid boredom or losing workout intensity if rest periods are too long.

Women recover faster than men; this is why women tend prefer faster paced workouts with less rest time between exercises. And, although ladies often prefer higher reps (10-15+), doing some heavier weighted lifts for less reps (4-8) can also be beneficial to activate fast-twitch muscle fibres that are only stimulated with those types of lifts.

Men, on the other hand, since they naturally have more strength and muscle than women, are able to put more power wattage into each set, which often requires them to need more time to recover (rest) between exercises. So it’s not that women should do more reps than men, it’s that they can often tolerate a greater training density within a given workout because they’re less able to give as much energy into each rep as men due to the strength differences.

In general, men can do very well with longer workouts where they do a single set or superset pairs of two strength exercises and then rest, while women may be just as productive doing sets of mini-circuits of 3-5 strength exercises.

So, it’s important to understand that although men and women can do the same exercises, it how they’re applied and structured in a workout program that can determine its effectiveness, along with how much a man or women may enjoy their workouts.

Train the same, but with tweaks...

Despite long-standing, pervasive women’s fitness stereotypes that have impacted female exercise habits for decades, the tide is turning and positive information is becoming readily available.

Women can benefit enormously from adopting similar training methods to men; embracing intelligent resistance training to become stronger, leaner, more athletic and develop a balanced, healthy and toned body.

In most cases, men and women should exercise in a similar way, with the same guiding fitness principles. With these foundations in place, use the tips outlined above to adjust the finer nuances of your female fitness regime to benefit the unique physiological characteristics of a woman and make your workouts more effective and enjoyable.

Thank you very much for reading – I hope this information makes a positive improvement to your understanding of your health & fitness. Please feel free to share this with anyone else you know will enjoy and benefit, or comment below too.

For more female-focused health & fitness information from Female Fitness Expert Rich Sturla, check out his Specialist Body Transformation & Sports Fitness PT Studio, Results Health & Performance (RHP), and Online Personal Training RHP Training App at www.resultshpgym.co.uk. gtg-project-me-article-banners.jpg

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  • Rich Sturla
  • October 12th 2015

Thank you Melanie! I'm delighted to hear you've enjoyed and benefited from this article. I'm very passionate about spreading high quality women's health & fitness information; a big thank you to GTG as always for featuring my work. For anything else, please do get in touch with me - rich@resultshpgym.co.uk.

  • Melanie Harrison
  • October 11th 2015

I think that this is one of the very best articles posted since this website was set up. Very impressed. I come across so many women who think weight training will make them look like Mr T (showing my age!) but it is absolutely the best way to shrink and get some definition. Thumbs up, GTG x

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