While there is no doubt in my mind that women can do everything men can do, it’s good to note that we may in fact benefit from training differently due to differences in our hormones and our anatomy and physiology. This does not mean that women need to forgo being strong and fit, or training hard, it just means that there are ways women can get more out of their training that may differ from their male counterparts:
While women should be able to perform the same lifts as the guys, some modifications may be necessary to suit the female body shape. Since women generally have wider hips, a wider stance for certain lifts, like squats and deadlifts, will be beneficial to reduce the valgus (inward) force on the knees.
Women also, have a naturally greater anterior pelvic tilt (bum out posture), which accentuates the curve in the low back. This can lead to a weak posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, & calves) and increased pressure on the low back during heavier lifts, potentially causing low back pain. Having awareness on proper form, and appropriate core and hamstring strength is extremely important to avoid injury, so investing in a coach may be worthwhile. Be careful if you regularly wear high heels, as this tightens and weakens the posterior chain, making core and hamstring strength even more important.
As many men started lifting weights at a younger age than women, it is common that females may have a weaker core and ability to activate certain muscles, especially glutes, when starting out. I like to build core and glute strength with Pilates style exercises, to promote proper activation and reduce compensation, which men would benefit from too!
In trained men and women, muscle fiber types can have a massive effect on the individual’s athletic abilities. Women generally have more type I fibers, or slow-twitch fibers, which are used for endurance exercises and take longer to fatigue (ex. distance running, high rep weights). On the flipside, men generally have more type II, or fast-twitch fibers, which are used in short bursts and explosive, movements but tend to tire more quickly.
Higher estrogen levels mean women also tend to recover faster than men, as estrogen is an anti- catabolic hormone. Estrogen also aids muscles to repair, reduces the protein breakdown during exercise and protects muscles against damage. Because of this and a larger distribution of slow-twitch fibers, women are therefore more resistant to fatigue than men and can generally do more reps at a given intensity with shorter rest periods. To get the most out of training, women typically benefit perform more reps per set as a result.
While most women are capable of having great endurance, our nervous system tends to be less effective than guys when it comes to explosive movements. Men can generate force quicker due to the difference in muscle fibers and having more muscle mass.
But, when it comes to high intensity, women tend to be able to maintain a higher intensity for a longer time than men can, under a submaximal load. Not only that, but women generally have the ability to recover quicker between intervals than men as well. That being said, our hormones are highly affected by training intensity, so too much high intensity can take a toll on our bodies. It can result in too much cortisol (a hormone that causes us to store fat), potentially leading to reduced functioning of our adrenal glands, thyroid, and nervous system. So, HIIT is great but in moderation to maintain optimal health.
Fortunately for men, they don’t have to deal with the never ending undulation of hormones that women face with menstruation. Because of the continuous rise and fall of sex-hormones, women experience a plethora of symptoms that affect training outcomes and performance. Since women experience these hormonal changes over the course of the month, their exercise plans may need to change as well.
Many women feel strong and perform really well for the first half of the cycle, when the female sex-hormone, estrogen, is at its highest. This is a good time to test heavy lifts, increase weights, or perform HIIT training, as the body will not only experience a higher pain tolerance, but greater confidence and motivation. Due to high levels of estrogen, the body will respond more efficiently to resistance training leading to greater, faster muscle gains.
In the second half of the cycle, estrogen levels decrease and progesterone increases, which can lead to fatigue, mood changes and other symptoms that can affect performance in the gym. During this phase it may be necessary to back off of the heavy lifting and increase endurance & cardio training at submaximal loads, as the body is more efficient at burning fat in this time. The body will likely retain water in this phase as well, so exercising will help sweat out excess fluid.
Despite all these recommendations, it is important to listen to your body and pay attention to how it is feeling. We are all different, so finding an exercise routine that is optimal for your body is all part of the fitness journey!
Words by Victoria Burdon, exercise scientist and expert for Zova
Victoria Burdon discovered her natural sporting ability at a young age in her home town of Regina, seeing her excel in wide variety of sports throughout elementary school. While attending high school in Denver, Colorado, Victoria focused her athletic efforts on volleyball and synchronized swimming, the latter which she continued at a collegiate level in St. Louis, Missouri. While competing collegiately, Victoria completed a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science with two minors in Nutrition and Biology and undertook a strength and conditioning internship working with collegiate athletes.
With firsthand strength and conditioning experience as an athlete and also as a coach it was a no brainer for Victoria to pursue her passion in the industry. Shortly after graduating University Victoria relocated to Sydney, Australia and explored different avenues of the fitness industry before finding herself at 98 Riley Street Gym.
Victoria is now the host of fitness and workout app Zova’s new ‘Celebrity Classes’ feature which will launch its first episode on March 19th, 2018.
Images via @zovafit