A regrettable fact: women are more likely to underestimate what they can achieve physically than men.
And societal expectations, although slowly changing, remain unbalanced. A man capable of lifting heavy weight demonstrates physical prowess. A woman doing the same is often seen as misplaced.
Why does this prejudice exist?
Should women lift weights as men do?
What about turning into a She-Hulk?
Let’s find out…
The Often-Untapped Training Potential Of Women
Fact: The only difference between the strength training potential outcomes between men and women is the starting point. Men have a headstart in muscle mass and strength. After that, relative to their starting point, women gain as much muscle and sometimes more strength than men (1).
At the elite level, female athletes have 85% of the muscle mass of their male counterparts. The difference is largely explained by the higher body fat percentage that women naturally carry (2).
Contrary to common thought, the difference in testosterone levels between men and women does not seem to be a limiting factor in how much muscle women can build. Women have similar levels of IGF-1 and roughly 3 times as much growth hormone as men – both hormones understood to amplify the effect of training (3). Not only that, but the positive effects of oestrogen are woefully misunderstood and underestimated, and include:
- Aiding in muscle repair (4)
- Preventing muscle loss (5)
- Protecting tendons and joints
- Increasing metabolism (6)
Despite all this, and the increasing popularity of resistance training among women, many are not yet maximising their training potential. Expectations of female physical ability (although changing) are set at an undeservedly lower level across society. Further, too much time is spent on the treadmill or with mini-dumbbells, in the fear that weight training will lead to being “too bulky.” The reality is that in relation to both men and women, gaining “too much muscle” is a luxury afforded to the tiny proportion of people who are the genetically elite.
The Top 6 Benefits Of Strength Training For Women
1.You will look great
Strength training with an adequate caloric deficit and sufficient protein will lead to a gain in muscle mass and a loss in body fat (7). Contrary to popular belief, the resulting look for women is not a muscle-bound hulk, but a firm and feminine toning.
Strength training is a fundamental necessity within a fat loss program. Apart from preventing muscle loss and the gain in metabolic rate from muscle gain (marginal but relevant, see here), the difference in calories burnt between strength training and cardio isn’t that striking. Your favourite Zumba class is unlikely to burn the same amount of calories as a well-structured resistance training session (8). This is despite the feeling of sweating and breathlessness that comes with cardio.
A systematic review of research found that pure strength training is more effective than endurance training or even a combination of strength and endurance training for fat loss (9). Focusing on cardio alone means that while losing weight, you will lose both muscle and fat mass.
2.You will be stronger and more athletic
Whether this means greater ease with daily living (lifting the kids, groceries), or improved abilities with your favourite sport, the benefits are there for you to reap with strength training.
By increasing muscle mass, you will increase your ability to generate force during every movement that that muscle is involved in.
3.You will build resilience to injuries
Studies have shown that strength training is more effective than staying generally active or performing endurance training in the treatment of painful muscles (10). It allows you to build up strength in your connective tissue (ligaments, tendons) and increase joint stability, helping to prevent injury.
In contrast to high impact cardio modalities, strength training is very controlled, has almost no impact, doesn’t involve much training with maximal weights and incorporates a much greater variety of movements (less repetitive strain).
Another study compared the effectiveness of strength training to health counselling with ergonomics to improve posture and stress management as treatments of neck and shoulder pain in office workers. Surprisingly, it concluded that strength training was more effective at relieving pain in the shoulders and neck (11).
4.You will reduce the risk of osteoporosis
The hormonal changes that women experience as they get older results in a natural loss of bone density, and thus an increased risk of developing osteoporosis. Strength training increases bone mineral density (12). This slows bone deterioration and can help your bones grow stronger, reducing your chance of developing — or slow the effects of — osteoporosis.
5.You will improve your health
Strength training also offers many of the same health benefits as endurance training, such as reducing systemic inflammation in the body and improving cardiovascular health (13).
Muscle mass is also inherently protective against diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity (14). In other words, your body improves its ability to process sugar.
6.You will achieve a better sense of well-being
Strength training can benefit your psychological health in several different ways:
- You will feel a higher level of self-esteem and improved body image (15)
- Subjective well-being is shown to improve, decreasing depression
- Stress levels and anxiety are better managed
- A big plus: premenstrual syndrome becomes more tolerable (16)
Should Women Strength Train The Same Way As Men?
Whilst an evolutionary division of labour existed between men and women, it does not mean that women were inactive – far from it. . Women would walk for hours carrying their children, as well as heavy loads of food, water, and wood (17). This led to women developing a high level of endurance-based adaptations.
In turn, this means that women are more resistant to fatigue than men, and can generally do more repetitions at a given (relative) weight than men (18). Their muscles are capable of functioning for longer time under stress.
Practical Takeaway: A strength training program for women is likely to benefit from
- Higher repetition targets
- Possibly an overall higher training volume (i.e. a higher number of sets).
- A shorter rest interval between sets
Strength training in some capacity is fundamental for women looking to lose fat and build an attractive physique, with a myriad of additional benefits. If you’re a woman who’s resisted the iron for fear of ‘getting too muscley’ or intimidation from the male meatheads, it’s time to take a stand and lift.
About the author
After years juggling a senior banking career with my passion for fitness, I left finance to help busy professionals transform their bodies inside and out. As an online coach, I use a science-based approach to get you the lean, healthy physique you deserve.
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- 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(5), 314–321.
- Healy, M. L., Gibney, J., Pentecost, C., Wheeler, M. J., & Sonksen, P. H. (2014). Endocrine profiles in 693 elite athletes in the post-competition setting. Clinical Endocrinology, 81(2), 294–305
- Rosario, P. W. (2010). Normal values of serum IGF-1 in adults: results from a Brazilian population. Arquivos Brasileiros de Endocrinologia e Metabologia, 54(5), 477–481.
- Velders, M., & Diel, P. (2013, November 26). How sex hormones promote skeletal muscle regeneration. Sports Medicine. Springer.
- Hansen, M., & Kjaer, M. (2014). Influence of Sex and Estrogen on Musculotendinous Protein Turnover at Rest and After Exercise. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 42(4), 183–192.
- Melanson, E. L., Gavin, K. M., Shea, K. L., Wolfe, P., Wierman, M. E., Schwartz, R. S., & Kohrt, W. M. (2015). Regulation of energy expenditure by estradiol in premenopausal women. Journal of Applied Physiology, 119(9), 975–981.
- Westcott, W. L., Winett, R. A., Annesi, J. J., Wojcik, J. R., Anderson, E. S., & Madden, P. J. (2009). Prescribing physical activity: Applying the ACSM protocols for exercise type, intensity, and duration across 3 training frequencies. Physician and Sportsmedicine, 37(2), 51–58.
- Mary Luettgen, Carl Foster, S. D., & Porcari, R. M. and J. (2012). ZUMBA ® : Is the “fitness-party” a good workout? Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, (11), 357–358.
- Clark, J. E. (2015). Diet, exercise or diet with exercise: comparing the effectiveness of treatment options for weight-loss and changes in fitness for adults (18–65 years old) who are overfat, or obese; systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Diabetes & Metabolic Disorders, 14, 31.