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Female-Specific Training: Impactful or Old-Fashioned?
There isn’t really a simple yes-or-no answer to this question. Most importantly, as a trainer, you should be working with each client based on their individual and unique needs, goals, limitations, and strengths.
That being said, the answer to whether or not gender-specific training is best is probably somewhere between yes and no:
- In general, men and women can and should use the same training plans. There is no reason, for instance, that women can’t or shouldn’t do powerlifting or bodybuilding.
- On the other hand, there are certainly some differences in physiology, hormones, body composition, and more that make tweaking training plans by gender sensible.
When working with clients, consider each person as an individual first. But also keep in mind some of the general ways you can make training more effective and efficient for females that may be different from how you would train a male client.
Is Female-Specific Training an Antiquated Idea?
It certainly can be, depending on how the trainer interprets it. There was a time when women were thought to be incapable of strength training like men and actively discouraged from trying.
While that idea has been debunked, it’s still common to come across some trainers, but especially clients, who believe women can’t train in the same way or to the same degree as men.
The idea that women can’t train as hard as men, lift heavy weights, or do traditionally male sports is antiquated. In training both men and women, you should follow the same basic guidelines:
- Include both strength training and cardiovascular workouts.
- In addition to strength and cardio, work on flexibility and balance, agility, and power, for overall fitness and athletic performance.
- Working out isn’t always fun, but it’s important to use various training types, sports, and workouts that keep clients engaged. Tailor workouts to each client’s interests.
- Train clients according to their goals and lifestyles.
From there you can make tweaks, but never treat a female client as if she is limited or assume she can’t or won’t want to do any particular type of workout or sport.
Women and Strength Training – Myths and Truths
Perhaps the biggest misconception in training women is they can’t or shouldn’t lift, or they cannot lift as much or in the same way men do. Yes, women have less testosterone and this hormonal difference will always give men the strength advantage. But it doesn’t mean women can’t be strong.
Strength training is important for everyone. It builds muscle, increases muscle strength, improves endurance, improves body composition, and increases metabolism for better fat burn. Building strength also improves functional movements and reduces injury risk.
You should encourage every woman you train to incorporate strength training, tailored to her specific needs and limitations, of course. Many women and even some trainers are still hesitant to lift, and some typical myths persist:
Myth – Strength Training Always Means Bulk
A major factor that holds women back from weight training is that they believe it will make them look big and bulky. The truth is that it takes a lot of work and a huge time commitment to get ripped like a bodybuilder.
Assure female clients that they would have to spend hours in the gym to look like that. What lifting will actually do for them is make them stronger. Having stronger muscles also helps anyone burn more fat throughout the day, a big motivator for many women who come to the gym for training.
Read this ISSA post on lifting to help convince your female clients that strength training won’t bulk them up or make them look too masculine.
Myth – Women Should Always Do Higher Reps with Smaller Weights
Weight loss and fat burning are big goals for a lot of female clients, and a misconception persists that they can achieve this by using small weights and a lot of reps as strength training. The reality is that to build stronger muscles that can burn more fat, you need to lift heavy weights.
There may be reasons to incorporate this kind of training, to use smaller weights with a higher number of reps per set. However, women should lift heavy too, and this should be the focus of training for strength and weight loss.
Myth – You Can Spot Reduce and Tone
Another way many women have been trained incorrectly to think about strength workouts is that they can spot train certain parts of the body. This isn’t true. You can’t lose fat on around your upper arms by simply doing strength training of the biceps and triceps. Fat is lost and gained throughout the body in patterns determined by genetics, age, and, yes, gender.
How to Tweak Training Plans for Women
With the myths about women and lifting corrected, you can consider the ways in which men and women are different. While their overall training plans should be similar there are some considerations to make when training women. These are just tweaks to a general fitness plan.
Female-Specific Training to Prevent Injury
Because of some differences in body structure, women are more prone to certain types of injuries. For instance, because of the different angles in the leg bones that increase knee joint shearing forces, women are more vulnerable to ACL injuries (1).
To help female clients prevent ACL injuries, do exercises to strengthen the vastus medialis, or VMO muscle, which stabilizes the knee. Use front squats that dip below parallel and seated leg extensions to build up the VMO.
Lower Rest Periods
Because women are better at endurance, they can go longer during a training session and require less recovery time between exercises and sets.
By decreasing rest periods during exercises, you can help female clients get results faster. They’ll get a bigger load during a training session and be able to do more in less time. This is an advantage women have over men, so use it.
Give Women More Weight Lifting Reps
While doing 20 or 30 reps with lighter weights is not the way to train most of the time, you should give women a few more reps than you would your male clients. Women can generally do more in one session and maintain good form, so as with smaller rest periods, take advantage of this. As long as form is still good, push for more reps per set.
The reason women can do more reps is because their higher proportion of type I muscle fibers gives them better endurance. So doing more reps is also beneficial because it works with what women have, with their strengths.
Spend More Time on the Core for Better Lifting
Men have thicker abdominal muscles. This is one reason they are better able to lift heavier weights, especially using compound movements that rely on core strength. When doing training focused on core muscles, men increase strength there more quickly and easily.
What this means is not that women have to be limited, but that they will benefit from spending more time on core strength than men. Give your female clients extra core sessions so they can make more gains in exercises like deadlifts and squats.
Women can do one thing men can’t—give birth—and postpartum they may need some extra help building back ab strength. Check out this ISSA blog post to learn how to give those clients a more effective core workout that gets results.
Women Need to Work on Explosive Power
Studies show women are better at endurance in exercise than men. This is probably because women have more type I muscle fibers and less type II fibers than men. So, they can do more reps in strength training (unless the weight is close to their one rep max) and go longer in steady-state cardio in most cases (2).
Because they have fewer type II muscle fibers, though, women are not as good at explosive movements. Focus on plyo exercises that are real power moves, like squat jumps and low hurdle jumps to improve power and force in your female clients.
In lifting, add in resistance training with heavier weights and fewer reps to build strength and power. This will help them recruit more motor units when working out, which is important to progression.
And remember, training exercises for power are not just for your female athletes; power exercises benefit all clients.
Focus on the Individual
Yes, women and men are different in many ways, but most importantly every individual client you work with will be different from the next. Keep in mind some of the small things you can do to make a female client’s training program more effective but always put the individual first and never limit a woman in the gym.
What all clients can benefit from is working with a trainer who can perfect their form and help them stay injury-free. Try the ISSA’s Corrective Exercise Specialist certification course to help your client workout safely.
- Cheung, E. C., Boguszewski, D. V., Joshi, N. B., Wang, D., & McAllister, D. R. (2015). Anatomic Factors that May Predispose Female Athletes to Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 14(5), 368-372. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26359837
- Maughan, R. J., Harmon, M., Leiper, J. B., Sale, D., & Delman, A. (1986). Endurance capacity of untrained males and females in isometric and dynamic muscular contractions. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology. 55(4), 395-400. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3758040