Men and women are different in many ways. Some significant differences relate to our hormones, structure, size, and physical abilities.
As such, prevailing wisdom suggests that women, as the smaller and weaker sex, need fundamentally different training programs from their male counterparts.
But, how true is that idea, and should women train differently than men? If so, how should their workouts differ?
Is It Necessary for Women to Train Differently Than Men?
The short answer is that women should train differently than men. But, the differences in training programs between the two sexes aren’t as profound as some people would imagine.
First, women shouldn’t restrict themselves to the pink dumbbells that usually gather dust in some long-forgotten corner of the gym. Second, women shouldn’t only do isolation exercises like bicep curls and lateral raises to ‘tone their arms.’ Third, women shouldn’t do most of their workouts on the treadmill or elliptical machine.
Designing the optimal weight training program for a woman will involve a few tweaks related to exercise selections, sets, repetition ranges, and recovery periods. But, the fundamental elements that make a training program effective will remain the same.
Men need moderate intensity, a mixture of compound and isolation exercises, enough training sets, a good training frequency, and proper recovery periods to grow and get stronger. Women are similar in many ways, and changing any of the variables too much would result in a sub-optimal training program.
Let’s look at the subtle training differences between men and women and what these mean.
The 4 Things That Determine Training Differences Between Men and Women
Much to most men’s surprise, research suggests that women possess superior abilities to recover from training. While there could be many reasons why that is the case, one plausible explanation is estrogen––the primary sex hormone in women.
On average, women have nine times more estrogen than men, which carries some benefits. For one, women are less likely to experience muscle protein breakdown due to physical activity. Second, women’s muscles tend to recover quicker after training when compared to men.
As a result of these two things, women can handle more training and recover better, often experiencing less muscle soreness.
2. Upper/Lower Body Strength
According to some studies, women possess a slightly better strength potential in their lower bodies. More specifically, some research suggests that women have around 52 percent the strength of men in the upper body and 66 percent in the lower body.
For example, if the average man can bench press 100 kilos after two years of solid training, the average woman should be able to bench around 52 kilos. But, if that same man can leg press 140 kilos, a woman should be able to press, on average, 92.5 kilograms.
The above could be one reason why many women enjoy training their lower bodies: they are simply better at it and excel more quickly.
Fatigability goes hand in hand with recoverability. In this context, it refers to women having a higher tolerance for training volume than men. The reasons for women’s lower fatigability are numerous and relate to metabolic functions, muscle fiber type and distribution, hormones, and more.
For example, one reason women can tolerate more training is that they possess a higher ratio of type 1 muscle fibers (slow-twitch). These fibers produce force more slowly and are better suited for endurance-based activities.
Another reason relates to blood flow and muscle perfusion. According to research, women have better blood flow to their muscles, which offers two benefits. First, it’s easier for oxygen and nutrients to travel to the working muscles. Second, women can clear out metabolic by-products from their muscles more quickly, reducing the risk of build-up and the accompanying fatigue and burning sensations.
Aside from making women better at high-repetition training, these findings likely mean that women can also get away with shorter rest periods between sets.
4. Comfort at Higher Intensities
The final difference between men and women is more psychological and can be overcome through exposure. But, doing so might be easier said than done.
Men are simply more comfortable with weight training and heavy lifts. In contrast, women are more conservative with their training loads and prefer the mid to high-rep ranges, which plays to their strengths, as we saw above.
How a Training Program Might Differ Between Men and Women
Now that we’ve gone over the primary training differences between men and women, let’s look at what these would mean in a practical sense. In other words, if we take a program we’ve designed for a man and want to tailor it for a woman, what differences should we make?
Man’s Sample Full-Body Workout
- Flat barbell bench press – 3 sets of 5 to 8 reps
- Pull-ups – 3 sets of 5 to 10 reps
- Barbell back squat – 3 sets of 5 to 8 reps
- Barbell row – 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
- Seated dumbbell overhead press – 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
- Dumbbell Romanian deadlift – 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
- Bicep curls + triceps extensions (superset) – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps
The above is a simple full-body workout that trains all major muscles in the body. The workout is suited for men because it emphasizes the upper body and features plenty of heavy sets that preferentially target and develop type 2 muscle fibers.
How The Workout Might Differ For a Woman
Let’s now take the above workout and tweak it for a girl:
- Flat dumbbell bench press – 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps
- Pulldowns – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps
- Barbell back squat – 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps
- Hip thrusts – 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps
- Seated dumbbell overhead press – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps
- Dumbbell Romanian deadlift – 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps
- Lying hamstring curls + Glute bridge (superset) – 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps
The number of sets remains the same, but repetition ranges are higher, and we’ve replaced most movements. We’ve also shifted the emphasis to the lower body instead of doing as many sets for the back, chest, and arms.