When it comes to resistance training, there are few subjects overflowing of bro-science than that of women and training. But you can’t blame the bros, because there is actually very little research focusing on healthy women and training. But there are a few myths that, although still running rampant around the gym, science can dispel. This article is aimed at helping empower you women of Power Athlete Nation by giving you the knowledge necessary to kick in the door of your local gym and tell every Brad and Chad to shove it while you head to the weight buffet.
Lifting Will Make You Bulky
Just like their male counterparts, women succumb to the laws of thermodynamics. That is, you need an energy surplus in order to create mass. Even simpler, you’ve got to eat more than you burn. You can lift thousands upon thousands of reps at the heaviest weights, but if you don’t eat a diet to match the effort you will not gain significant mass. The key term there is “significant mass”. If you’re new to lifting, and you begin to train using a sound resistance training protocol (such as any one of the many Power Athlete programs CEO John Welbourn personally writes) you may in fact gain weight. But gaining weight only matters to you and to any weight-class specific sporting arena. Outside of that, no one really knows or cares what you weigh because all they have to go off of is the eyeball test. Muscle, being a denser tissue than adipose, will take up less space for a given weight. So even if you do add a couple el-bees to the scale, the chances of adding MASS, that is physical matter, aka “bulk”, are slim (@ingob).
Simple Truth: lifting doesn’t make you bulky, eating more makes you bulky.
Don’t Fear the Fat
While it takes added calories to add mass, this doesn’t mean women should shy away from calorie-dense fats. In fact, women actual seem to metabolize fats better than their male counterparts (1). This can be explained, in part at least, by the effects that certain hormones have on men and women. Epinephrine, better known as adrenaline, stimulates higher fat metabolism in women than men (2), which is important since exercise stimulates the release of epinephrine. More intuitively, women typically have higher body fat percentages than men, which means fat would be a more readily available fuel source in women. This is further supported by the differences in the distribution of body fat between the sexes. Typically, women store fat around the hips, which allows for a more rapid utilization of the stored energy due to the proximity of the stores to the largest muscles of the body (quads, glues, hamstrings). Unlike women, men will store fat in their abdomen, which is linked to a greater cardiometabolic risk (3).
Simple Truth: women are engineered to burn fat.
Try to Keep Up, Boys
Having an increased affinity for fat metabolism also comes with some performance benefits. Namely, it aids in the resistance to fatigue. When this is paired up with the increased ability to regulate anabolic hormones better due to increased fat stores, it starts to become apparent why women are able to push longer than men (4). This has been anecdotally known in the world of sports performance for some time. Back when I was coaching aquatic Power Athletes, 100 out of 100 coaches would say that their women could train harder than their men. And Chad might be thinking right now, “But women don’t lift as much, so of course they can go longer.” While women may not have the same ABSOLUTE strength as their biological counterparts, their RELATIVE work capacity is greater (5). For any given percentage of maximum, women can bang out more reps. The sport of fitness has brought this one to the forefront.
Simple Truth: Women have bigger engines.
Pump Up the Volume
So, women have a tendency to burn more fat and can push longer at higher intensities. Both of those are components that allow for women to handle more overall volume. But maybe the biggest player here is what makes them, biologically, a woman. Estrogen, the female sex hormone, is anti-catabolic. That means, it aids in muscle repair and reduces the damage caused by exercise. O’Hagen et al displayed this in their research utilizing heavy eccentrics (6). If you’ve messed around with heavy negatives, you know how real it can get. Lots of swelling, plenty of DOMS, but the gains are even greater. These researchers showed that, while the hypertrophic response between men and women were similar after 20wks of training 3x per week, women smashed the men in strength gains. Like…116% gains by women compared to 46% gains by men. Essentially doubling their strength capacity over 20 weeks. Since the stimulus for each individual was made to be the same intensity, this means women were able to recover quicker between bouts in order to crush training.
Simple Truth: Women can turn it up to 11.
Steady as She Goes
Now, so far, we’ve built up how women can do anything men can do better. When it comes to STRENGTH training, that rings true for the most part. But, when it comes to conditioning, we may want to rethink how we approach our women. Jules, my man from Englewood, said it best in the documentary Pulp Fiction: Look at the big brain on Brad! The motor cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for movement, is in fact larger in men (7). This creates a more efficient neural network in men to perform explosive movements at high intensities than women. As I stated above, in STRENGTH training women reign supreme, but it’s in power training that women may find themselves coming in second. From a programming standpoint, this just means that it takes less of a dose for a response. In fact, where it takes men ~48 hours to recover from heavy sprint days, women take ~72 hours (8). I’m not saying shy away from explosive training in women but be smart about it. Especially when it comes to conditioning. If you are cranking out sprints, jumps, and Olympic style weightlifting derivatives for time, be mindful of how long you take before you hit another session like that. More long rides on the assault bike, tempo runs, or steady state cardio will be the ticket to condition women.
Simple Truth: Women should go long and strong in their conditioning.
Women have often been seen as the second tier when it comes to the weight room. And, while there are certain considerations that should be made in terms of programming, women can do almost everything men can do, and do it better. Women are not softer. Women are not dainty. They need heavy weights, and they need them often. Aside from the benefits that the woman will directly receive, you’ve got to remember that the next generations athletic potential is determined mostly by genetics…like, 70% is determined by genetics. And until we make like seahorses and have dad carry the baby, it’s our responsibility to the future to keep our women as fit and strong as possible.
1. Tarnopolsky, M. A. (2008). Sex differences in exercise metabolism and the role of 17-beta estradiol. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 40(4), 648-654.
2. Schmidt, S. L., Bessesen, D. H., Stotz, S., Peelor III, F. F., Miller, B. F., & Horton, T. J. (2014). Adrenergic control of lipolysis in women compared with men. Journal of Applied Physiology,117(9), 1008-1019.
Karastergiou, K., Smith, S. R., Greenberg, A. S., & Fried, S. K. (2012). Sex differences in human adipose tissues–the biology of pear shape. Biology of sex differences, 3(1), 13.
3. Hunter, S. K. (2014). Sex differences in human fatigability: mechanisms and insight to physiological responses. Acta physiologica, 210(4), 768-789.
Maughan, R. J., Harmon, M., Leiper, J. B., Sale, D., & Delman, A. (1986). Endurance capacity of untrained males and females in isometric and dynamic muscular contractions. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 55(4), 395-400.
4. O'hagan, F. T., Sale, D. G., MacDougall, J. D., & Garner, S. H. (1995). Response to resistance training in young women and men. International journal of sports medicine, 16(05), 314-321.
5. Sowell, E. R., Peterson, B. S., Kan, E., Woods, R. P., Yoshii, J., Bansal, R., ... & Toga, A. W. (2006). Sex differences in cortical thickness mapped in 176 healthy individuals between 7 and 87 years of age. Cerebral cortex, 17(7), 1550-1560.
6. Keane, K. M., Salicki, R., Goodall, S., Thomas, K., & Howatson, G. (2015). Muscle damage response in female collegiate athletes after repeated sprint activity. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2802-2807.
Ben grew up a football player who found his way into a swimming pool. Swimming for four years, culminating in All-American status, at a Division III level, Ben grew to appreciate the effects that various training styles had on performance and decided to pursue the field of Exercise Physiology. After receiving his M.S. from Kansas State University in 2013, Ben moved on to Indiana University - Bloomington to pursue a PhD in Human Performance. While in Bloomington, he spent some time on deck coaching swimming at the club level, successfully coaching several swimmers to the National and Olympic Trials meets. He also served as the primary strength and condition coach for some of the post-graduate Olympians that swam at Indiana University.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.
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