Train Like a Girl

While men and women’s hormones and physiology are at opposite ends of the spectrum, it doesn’t necessarily mean their training programs need to be. STRONG journalist Angelique Tagaroulias investigates how to tweak your training program for you (and your lady parts), without reinventing the wheel.

We’ve all seen it. Men: report to the weights room. Bring scary-sized dumbbells and perform alternating bicep curls in front of the mirror. Don’t forget to grimace and grunt, and stare at your own ‘bigness’ while you’re at it. Women: see you at the treadmill or squat rack, and nothing in-between, because booty and fat loss are life. 

The long-term health benefits for females who resistance train are endless – from a faster metabolism and greater bone density to improved mental health – and the education and attitude toward women who lift is improving. Yet the way men and women train tend to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. 

The question is: should they be?

While the fundamentals of strength training are the same for both genders – compound lifts, support work, good nutrition and steadily lifting heavier (aka. progressive overload) – the majority of fitness advice is based on research performed on men. Training shouldn’t be about reinventing the wheel, but tweaking your training according to your female-specific goals and physiology can get you optimal results in less time. 

Why, bunny, why?  

Results from a recent Roy Morgan survey revealed numbers are fairly evenly split between the sexes in-gym, yet up to 76 per cent of those participating in group exercise classes such as boxing, spin, yoga and Body Pump were female. Go figure. 

A lack of confidence and a fear of looking like the Hulk are two factors contributing to our reluctance to pick up a heavy barbell, say our experts, but it’s a fear that’s often unfounded

“Typically, men are more muscularly developed than women and carry less body fat due to differences in sex hormones and physiology,” says body transformation and strength and conditioning coach, Joey Cantlin (@joeycantlinpt).

woman doing bulgarian lunge
Image: Stephanie Sanzo

Women have much lower levels of testosterone, one of the hormones responsible for growth of bones and muscle mass. So unless you’re training and eating like an athlete, you’re unlikely to gain more than half the amount of muscle as your male counterpart. Research published in Human Movement Science found that novice female weightlifters gained just 500–700 grams of muscle following a structured eight-week program of back squats and deadlifts, twice per week. 

Add to this our lower ratio of fast twitch muscle fibers, and you can resistance train seven days a week without fear of ‘getting big’.

“Every muscle has a combination of different muscle fibres and each fibre type has different qualities in the way they perform and how quickly they fatigue,” explains recomposition specialist, Keegan Thornhill. “Type 2A and type 2B are our faster twitch fibres; these are designed for speed, power and strength, and create bigger-looking muscles. 

“Females are predominantly designed for endurance, so have more type 1 muscle fibers, creating far smaller looking muscles as they grow.”

Twitchy subject

This higher percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers also impacts how you train. More endurance fibers recruited mean women are more resistant to fatigue, and can perform more reps at a given intensity. That’s right – your muscles are tougher than the boys’. 

“Compared to fast-twitch fibres, slow-twitch ones respond better to a higher rep range. In other words, for a female to optimally stimulate her muscles, she needs to use a slightly higher rep range compared to male lifters,” says trainer and founder of Result Based Training gyms, Travis Jones (rbtgyms.com). 

While using a range of rep ranges will help to stimulate muscle growth and ensure a balanced training program – yes, you still need to lift heavy! – Jones suggests performing up to 80 per cent of your sets at a rep range of 10 to 15.

Resilient muscles and higher rep ranges also mean there is less need to rest between sets, according to a review published in Sports Medicine

“If you’ve been told to wait for minutes on end before attacking your next set, abandon that belief – you may be wasting your gym time,” says Jones.

“Instead, recharge for 60 to 90 seconds between sets on big compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts.”

The golden ticket

Beating plateaus and improving muscle mass – male or female – also requires progressive overload, or gradually increasing the stimuli you provide to your body. According to exercise scientists from the American College of Sports Medicine, progressive overload is the most important variable for results when resistance training. And yet it is one of the most overlooked elements for female beginner lifters. 

Mariko Whyte
“How getting strong improved my mental health” Mariko Whyte
image credit: @thefunksolbrother

Here’s how to get it done:

Avoid: using the same weights for the same number of sets and reps, week after week.

Do: gradually aim to increase the stress on your muscle, session to session, to force your muscle to adapt. It won’t always be possible, but it should be your aim.

How: 

1. Increase load. If you squat 20kg for eight reps, aim to increase to 22.5kg for the same reps in your next session. From there, aim to do 25kg for eight reps, continuing the progression, suggests Jones.

2. Turn up the volume. Increase the number of reps or sets you perform with the same weight. Instead of squatting 20kg for eight reps, use the same weight for nine reps. Aim for ten reps in your next session, and so on.  

Key lady lifts

Regardless of whether your goal is to take out a CrossFit comp, lift big at a powerlifting meet or just look fit for summer, the compound lifts that utilize the most muscle groups are key. Why? Bang for your buck. 

Here’s a couple of our expert’s favorites: 

SQUAT

Target areas: quads, glutes

woman doing pistol squat
Image: Alexa Towersey

Best bit

The quads are made up of four muscles and the glutes three, so the squat – which targets the lot – provides epic bang for your buck no matter your goal, says Cantlin. 

Variations

Whether it’s shapely glutes, strong legs, chiselled hamstrings or simple calorie burn you are after, there’s a squat for your goal. Do more of the variations that best target your weaker areas. 

Back squat: With the barbell on your shoulders, this move requires greater recruitment of the power of the glutes. 

Low bar squat: If your goals are powerlifting focused, a low bar squat will likely be the best choice. Rest the bar on the rear of your shoulders to increase load in that area of your back.

“This style requires your torso to be at a slightly forward lean (targeting the quads), allowing you to lift more weight because of the more even distribution of force being generated from the hips and knees,” says powerlifting coach Alex Deken (@alexdekenpl). 

Front squat: The barbell sits across the front of your shoulders, placing greater emphasis on your quads, and requiring lighter load than the back squat. This thigh-building move is easier on your back and knees, so it’s great for women who are more prone to knee injuries than men. 

Split squat: A loaded stretch, great for lower-body mobility – particularly the hip flexors, a common weak area for women and prevents the glutes from engaging properly. 

Take a long step forward and elevate the other foot on a bench behind you; all weight should be in your front foot, and ensure your upper torso is upright (ribs stacked on hips) and core braced. Descend, flexing your knee and sitting back at the hip, to lower your body down until you nearly reach the floor. Drive through your heel to return to starting position.

Box squat: Like training wheels for hinge movements and great for beginners! Position a box or chair behind you at knee height, place your feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointing slightly outward, lower your body until your glutes rest on the box for one to two seconds. Drive through the quads, keeping your core tight and ribs locked down. 

Sumo: The wider stance works to target the inner thigh and glutes. Start with your feet about 30 centimeters beyond your shoulders and toes pointing out at 45-degree angles. Drop into a squat until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground.

Stance secrets

Women tend to have dominant quads, so emphasizing glutes and hamstrings is important. 

 “A wider stance is necessary for greater glute activation during back squats, according to research,” says Cantlin. Place your feet slightly wider than your shoulders. 

DEADLIFT

woman deadlifting
Image source: Shutterstock

Main target areas: glutes, hamstrings, posterior chain (back of the body)

Cantlin’s fav move

Females shouldn’t go past the deadlift, says Cantlin, thanks to its activation of the glutes and hamstrings for a shapely posterior chain. The deadlift also involves the upper back, increasing strength, stability and muscle mass in the area, and reducing the likelihood of injury. 

Variations

Sumo deadlift: involves more quads than the conventional deadlift. 

“With the wider stance, the sumo deadlift requires a higher degree of hip mobility, and a greater level of recruitment from the external rotators and the abductors of the hip,” says Deken. 

“This is not only going to allow you to lift heavier loads, it will also create a more balanced physique due to the more balanced contribution coming from the glutes, hamstrings and quads.”

Remember to engage

To fast-track your results with deads, learn to engage before you initiate the lift. “It’s the only exercise that doesn’t begin with an eccentric (downward) phase, starting from the floor instead. This presents a challenge as you don’t get to ‘feel’ the weight on the way down, so you must be able to create tension before initiating the lift,” says Deken. 

To do this, engage the lats by pulling your shoulder blades down, creating tension in the upper body and helping with the pulling motion. 

“One of the biggest mistakes I see women make is lifting before taking the slack out of the bar, which allows you to feel the weight before initiating the lift. Pull up on the bar as much as you can without the weight coming off the floor and you should hear a ‘chink’ sound,” adds Deken. 

“This will allow you to lift heavier loads, safely. In creating tension by taking slack out of the bar, you’ll get feedback through your entire body – if you feel a strain in your lower back, you can assume that you’re not in the right position to lift.” 

Cycle your training

There’s no point denying that ‘that time of the month’ can often have an impact on how you feel, how you train and, ultimately, the results you get. Trainer Ashleigh Boehm is a strong advocate for training with your cycle – rather than ignoring it or pushing against it. 

Here’s her top tips for each phase: 

  • Follicular phase (days 1-14): Oestrogen levels are high, aiding strength, confidence and focus, along with less injury risk – so use to your advantage! “This phase is characterized by a higher tolerance for pain, as well as increasing levels of endurance,” adds Boehm.

Train for it: 

Aim for three to four days of full-body training with a moderate-heavy load in a strength/hypertrophy rep range (one-12). Focus on major compound lifts, coupled with low-intensity cardio, such as walking, in between workouts.

  • Ovulation (days 12-17): A large surge in luteinising hormone causes the release of eggs, and oestrogen and progesterone peak. The results? Strength levels and power skyrocket.

 Train for it: This is a good time to test 1RMs and get your low rep, heavy work in! Risk of injury is also slightly higher, so proceed with caution. 

  • Luteal phase (days 14-28): Oestrogen levels drop and progesterone takes over as the predominant hormone. “Your work capacity, pain threshold and general energy levels may start to diminish,” says Boehm.

Train for it: This is a good time to scale it back. Try two to three days of full-body training with a lighter load and higher reps (15+). Include one to two metabolic conditioning or HIIT sessions, and active-recovery sessions involving yoga or walking.

A word on menopause

Research published in the journal Sports Medicine found that women’s estrogen levels decline during menopause, leading to an increased risk of injury and slower recovery post-exercise. Building mobility – or your ability for joints to move freely – can help to keep you healthy and lifting bigger numbers, for longer. 

In the lower body, the most common mobility issues include ankles, calves, adductors and hip flexors. Tight hip flexors inhibit the ability of the glutes to engage, according to STRONG Australia head trainer, Alexa Towersey (alexatowersey.com). This can lead to a host of join and soft tissue injuries, particularly in the lower back. 

Try incorporating these simple mobility exercises into your routine to help mitigate the damage: 

  1. Deadbugs: If squats are the king of compounds, deadbugs are the king of core exercises. Perfect for strengthening your core and hip flexors, and teaching core and pelvis control. There are a host of variations available, so find one that allows you to keep your back flat against the ground. 
  2. Kettlebell marches: will strengthen hip flexors and your core, while improving coordination. 
Angelique Tagaroulias is a communications professional with background in magazine…

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