Should Women Train & Lift Weights Like Men? Only If They Want Results
It’s one of the most common misconceptions in fitness- the idea that women shouldn’t lift weights or train like men for fear of building man sized muscles and losing their femininity. It’s a misconception that is strongly supported by the media and fitness industry as it helps sell gender targeted activities and gym memberships- even though it prevents women from realizing most of their fitness goals. In a quest to maximize class attendances and boost enrollment, women have been bombarded for the past several decades with the idea that they can indeed get the strong, sculpted and toned body of their dreams from doing aerobics, Pilates or yoga, with a small amount of weight lifting thrown in for good measure- but using weights of a ridiculously inconsequential magnitude. The marketing gender bias is strong, and for good reasons. Gyms sell memberships to women based on classes that appeal to them and the quality, quantity (and even color) of the cup holding treadmills, Stairmasters and elliptical machines. Selectorized weight machines are designed to be as stylish and as attractive as possible to women, and with good reason. Women make up the majority of gym goers across the board here in the United States, with statistics showing them making up an impressive 66 percent of the total gym member population. The problem is, however that while classes and equipment are designed to attract a heavily female patronage- they do little to address their actual goals. Emphasis is, and always has been on sales- not results, so it isn’t surprising that most fitness related programs for women have little in the way of serious weight training as a selling point- regardless of how effective it might be.
While few women would look at the quality and quantity of barbells and dumbbells to determine whether a gym was right for them- it’s indeed the weights that they need to realize their goals of a tighter and more toned body. What works for men to build lean and sculpted physiques works for women as well- but sadly only a few eschew the scientifically absurd notions that women need to train differently or that weight training has a negative impact on femininity. The millions of women who remain frustrated by their lack of progress are a telling testimony to the fact that the light weight/aerobics approach doesn’t really work. In stark contrast however, the sculpted and undeniably feminine fitness models and in shape celebrities whose bodies most women consider as their ultimate goal all incorporate serious weight training to look the way they do.
Social Barriers In the Media To Women Lifting Weights
The gender gap here in developed countries may be closing in terms of employment and equal rights (to a degree) but in the physical world, women are still expected to do less. Consider for a moment a photo spread of a female fitness model or celebrity training in a magazine. Everyone is always smiling for the camera, while posing with uselessly light weights or taking a class or smiling on an aerobic machine. It is very rare that you will see a woman training with weights and grimacing with effort. It might not sound like much of a big deal, and one might argue that it caters to the female aesthetic- but think about what other ideas such images convey. Contrast those images with photos of Arnold in his prime working out, or any major male star who gets into ripped and muscular shape for a film. You’d be hard pressed to find a photo of them smiling at the camera in tights with light weights in their hand and if you saw it you would think that they were in some way belittling the hard work that went into their transformation and that they weren’t being taken seriously. Instead you see them training hard- which sends a very powerful message that inspires other men to do the same and thus they get the same results. Women don’t have that privilege in the media. Like it or not, body language is an important part of how we are influenced and women today, don’t have that message that it’s okay to work hard and sweat as most of the cues from the media are focused on training being fun and light activities. This works really well to sell but it lacks authenticity and I personally find it alarmingly hypocritical. Especially when the buffed women in the photos actually train as hard, if not harder than the men with weights to look the way they look but are not depicted as such.
The Impact Of Drug Use In Female Bodybuilding & Physique Sports As a Barrier To Women Lifting Weights
Back in the islands, weight training is considered a serious undertaking, by both men and women alike. In climates where you walk around half naked 365 days a year, coupled with festivals requiring little in the way of dress but lots in the way of sculpted abs and tight bodies, weight training is embraced as the defacto method to get that lean and hard body, regardless of gender. Growing up, the piece of advice I would hear given over and over to young women bent on getting their stomachs flat and their behinds tight was to go train with the boys. A visit to a hardcore gym back home will reveal not just men toiling away doing squats and deadlifts, but women as well. And make no mistake that those women- as hard as they train they aren’t masculine by any stretch of the imagination, but rather they sport the sleek and toned bodies that are the elusive Holy Grail for most. As effective as serious weight lifting may be for women interested in doing everything from firming up the back of their arms, to tightening their midsection and shaping up the back of their legs, it doesn’t sell. A fact compounded by the negative impact of modern female bodybuilding where drug use creates a rather daunting image of women with muscles popping out of muscles in an obviously unnatural way. Images like these go a long way in cementing the unfounded idea that if women train like men that they will eventually look like men, but nothing could be further from the truth. One of the first obstacles that must be overcome for women to understand the folly of such an idea is the truth about drug use in physique sports.
The majority of the world is unaware that there are two vastly incongruent worlds of bodybuilding. One, is where the use of anabolic steroids, growth hormone, insulin, thyroid medication and other drugs are not only used by competitors but encouraged. These are the women (and men) you see prominently displayed in the magazines- and quite frankly, the ones who most members of the general public find highly unattractive. It’s hard not to be affected by the image of a female bodybuilder, (and in some cases figure competitors) who look very much like guys wearing bikinis. My philosophy is and always will be to each his or her own, but the problem with such displays is that there is little done to educate the public- women in particular- that no matter how hard you train and how much you lift, you’ll never look like the women you see onstage at untested shows because it simply isn’t possible without an extensive array of drugs. The other travesty is that natural bodybuilding is virtually unknown to the public at large. Completely overshadowed by the freakish and out of this world physiques of untested competitions is the world of drug tested bodybuilding, where the women look not at all like guys in drag, but very much like the models you see adorning the covers of popular fitness magazines.
It would surprise most women to learn that the tight bodies of their dreams are attained regularly by those who train with weights as hard as the guys do. Female bodybuilding in its infancy, went a along way to inspire a whole generation of women hitting the weights to change their bodies during the 1980’s, but the specter of drug use brought such inspiration to a grinding halt, and the fitness industry, eager to not lose consumers, simply switched the emphasis from promoting weight training to more aerobic type and class oriented activities for women as a result. It makes sense, but it also raises some very important social questions about our society and the underlying trend of a submissive role for women in today’s world, but before delving into the social aspects, let’s look first at the physiology of the matter. Are women in any way different from men in terms of their body structure and is there any basis for a need for different approaches to exercise for them to get optimal results? These are valid questions and fortunately also ones that have been extensively researched over the years.
Men and Women- Hormonal & Structural Differences
It shouldn’t surprise anyone over the age of four that there are indeed major differences between men and women in terms of their body structure. In terms of metabolism, men are on average bigger and have more muscle mass than women, which accounts for them having an average metabolic rate of about 1.0 kilocalories per hour per kilogram of body weight. Women have slightly slower metabolisms than men, which among other things accounts for it being so much easier for them to gain weight when compared to their male counterparts. The difference isn’t that huge though, with the median metabolic rate for a woman being usually about 0.9 kilocalories per hour per kilogram of body weight. Women also have higher levels of estrogen than men do- a hormone responsible for not only female secondary sex characteristics, but structural functions such as increasing sex specific fat stores. Men have higher levels of testosterone, which among other things plays a key role in the development of male reproductive tissues as well as promoting increased muscle and bone mass. Both men and women have some level of circulating estrogen and testosterone, but the concentrations of estrogen are higher in women, while testosterone levels in men are far higher. Testosterone’s anabolic, or muscles building effects can make men more muscular and give them more potential to increase the size and strength of their muscles, while the lower levels and the differences in the way the female body responds to testosterone make it impossible for women to naturally build muscle mass or strength at levels comparable to men without the use of anabolic steroids- which are for the most part synthetic derivatives of testosterone.
Hormones aside, there are also important structural differences between men and women in terms of muscles. Studies of elite male and female bodybuilders show a clear difference in the maximum size of muscle fibers in men when compared to women. Men not only have muscle fibers that are twice as large, but also even among world class strength athletes, contractile muscle takes up less than 30 % of their total body mass in females than in males. Such research is invaluable as it puts to rest the idea that women who weight trained extensively would somehow sprout man sized muscles. In fact, studies continue to suggest that while females can significantly increase their strength through weight training, they are not able to increase their muscle size and density to the degree that men can. [5,6]
Do Women Respond Differently To Weight Training
While we have demonstrated that women do not and cannot under ordinary circumstances get muscles that are as big or as strong as men, the question thus remains whether there is a difference in the way women would respond to such exercise. Today’s party line states that women have more body fat than men(which is on average quite correct) and thus have to do more fat burning exercises like aerobics to lose weight along with high repetition weight training of low intensity. The problem with this popular ideology is that it has no foundation in the way our bodies work, nor does it take into consideration the mechanical stresses required for the toned and taut bodies that most women seek. Firstly, it has been proven that brief high intensity weight training burns more calories and contributes to a greater reduction in overall body fat than aerobic type exercises. [7,8]
It was first thought that aerobic exercise contributed to weight loss by burning calories during exercise and afterwards as well. However, subsequent studies have conclusively shown that the so called ‘afterburn effect’ is far more pronounced after a high intensity weight training type workout.[9,10,11] (Read my article on High Intensity Workouts and Fat Loss here). Thus. weight training of sufficient intensity not only helps you burn calories (and potential body fat) while training, but also stimulates an increase in overall metabolism during the recovery period after training at a rate significantly higher than aerobic exercise can. Weight training also increases muscle mass- which not only gives you the much coveted look of a chiseled and sculpted body- but also helps you burn more calories as a result of the consequent increase in muscle mass. (Read my article on Aerobics here.)
Women & Weight Training- Aerobics & Light Weight Lifting Won’t Give You That Tight & Toned Physique
Aerobic type exercises do not stimulate significant increases in muscle mass- with muscle adaptations occurring only at the beginning of a period of relative inactivity and even then, only in a very limited form. In terms of creating a tight and toned body, low intensity weight training is equally worthless as muscle can only be stimulated if there is an overload that it is not accustomed to dealing with. You can do 100 bicep curls with a user friendly looking purple 5 lb weight from now until the cows come home, but it won’t do a thing to make your arms any tighter. You can use female friendly leg abductor/abductor machines with light weights for hours on end- but you won’t get tighter legs. Without an intensity that signals to your body that it has to adapt to an activity by becoming stronger and bigger, basically nothing happens as you have to train with relatively heavy weights (within reason) and at an intensity adequate enough to spur your body to respond (kind of like how the guys train.) Read my article on How Muscles Get Bigger And Stronger for a more in-depth presentation of how our body responds to exercise.
Building muscle, thus, is indeed the Holy Grail and gender-wise, there is absolutely no evidence for women training with different exercises or different ways to build it. In fact, when looked at as relative changes, the percentage increases in cross sectional muscle area between men and women as a response to weight training is very much the same.[12,13] So if you want to really make significant changes in your body, you need to make weight training the central part of your routine- not an afterthought done at the end. In terms of exercises, forget about the light weight with high reps idea as it won’t get you anywhere, and instead focus on compound movements like squats, deadlifts, rows, presses and even power exercises like clean and jerks. You’ll be surprised not only how much your body will change, but that as your muscles grow and your body fat diminishes you’ll get smaller. That’s right, high intensity weight training makes women smaller- not bigger. Your muscles mass will increase some- just enough to enhance your curves, tighten everything up and create that svelte look, but the loss of body fat will indeed make you go down several sizes. Every woman I know who ever met a natural female bodybuilder or figure competitor was always amazed at just how small they were in person. Without drugs, it just doesn’t happen, but of course, you have to pay attention to your diet as well. It doesn’t happen overnight- but if you stick with it, I guarantee you’ll be more than pleased with the results.
1. 2008 IDEA Programs & Equipment Survey Results
2. Nelson LR, Bulun SE. “Estrogen production and action”. J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. Sept 2001
3.Mooradian AD, Morley JE, Korenman SG. “Biological actions of androgens”. Endocr. Rev. Feb. 1987
4. Alway SE, Grumbt WH, Gonyea WJ, Stray-Gundersen J.Contrasts in muscle and myofibers of elite male and female bodybuilders. Department of Cell Biology,
5. Brown CH, and JH Wilmore. The effects of maximal resistance trainng on the strength and body composition of women. Med. Sci. Sports Exercise 1974
6. Wilmore JH. Alterations in strength, body composition and anthropometric measures consequent to a ten week weight training program.Med. Sci. Sports Exercise 1974
7. Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism. Tremblay, A. et al., Physical Activities Sciences Laboratory, Laval University, Quebec, Canada Metabolism.1994; 43(7): 814-818.
8. High-intensity Interval Training: A Time-efficient Strategy for Health Promotion. Martin J. Gibala, PhD, Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, Ontario, Canada Current Sports Medicine Reports 2007, 6:211-213
9. Bahr R (1992). “Excess postexercise oxygen consumption–magnitude, mechanisms and practical implications”. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica. Supplementum 605: 1–70. PMID 1605041.
10. Bahr R, Høstmark AT, Newsholme EA, Grønnerød O, Sejersted OM (September 1991). “Effect of exercise on recovery changes in plasma levels of FFA, glycerol, glucose and catecholamines”. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica 143
11. Bielinski R, Schutz Y, Jéquier E (July 1985). “Energy metabolism during the postexercise recovery in man”. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 42
12. Alway SE, Grumbt WH, Gonyea WJ, Stray-Gundersen J. Effects of resistance training on elbow flexors of highly competitive bodybuilders. J. Appl. Physiol
13. Deschenes MR, Kraemer WJ. Performance and physiologic adaptations to resistance training. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2002
Kevin Richardson is an award winning fitness writer, one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity TrainingTM. Get a copy of his free weight loss ebook here. If you live in the New York metropolitan area and need help losing weight, building muscle or taking your body to the next level give Kevin and his team a call at 1-800-798-8420 or click here to get started.