Should women train in the same way as men if they want to lose fat, get strong, and improve athletic performance?
In general, women and men will get the best results with the same basic training practices: similar exercises, similar progressive overload and similar set-rep schemes. Women can deadlift, squat, box jump, sprint and bench press just like men can, and their athletic performance will benefit in similar ways.
Training can help women lose fat, build muscle, get strong, and increase speed. It builds bone, enhances brain function, and improves metabolism. It’s critical for optimal athletic performance and can help an elite female athlete become a champion.
However, a close look at gender differences in response to physical training shows there are many subtle but significant differences in how women respond to exercise that affect their success in the gym or in the athletic arena. This article discusses 11 surprising differences in men and women’s responses to exercise and provides tips for optimal results.
#1: Women and men have equal strength potential.
Women and men have equal strength per cross-sectional area of muscle, which means women have the potential to develop the same level of strength as men. However, because they tend to have less muscle mass and are naturally smaller, they tend not to be as strong as men.
In absolute terms, women tend to have 40 to 60 percent of the upper body strength and 70 to 75 percent of the lower body strength of men. When strength is measured relative to muscle mass, the strength discrepancy disappears.
Practical Application: That women have the same strength and muscle gain potential as men (relative to muscle mass) reinforces the benefit of using the same training principles as men: Favor multijoint, ground-based lifts and use traditional strength (intensification), hypertrophy (accumulation), and power set-rep schemes to enhance performance and improve body composition.
#2: Hormones play a role in developing strength in women, but not in the way most people think.
A common misunderstanding is that women aren’t as strong or as big as men because men have more testosterone. In fact, testosterone differences between women explain differences in strength development among them, but women’s lower testosterone does not account for the significant strength and muscle differences between men and women.
Research shows that resting testosterone levels are of great importance in the potential for both sexes to develop muscular power and strength. Higher testosterone levels in women lead to greater strength and power development with training, and pre-competition testosterone levels predict competitive performance and chance of winning.
Practical Application: For both women and men, baseline testosterone levels are an important indicator of the trainability of an individual. A woman who is closer to the upper limit of her testosterone threshold may have an advantage over other women in developing strength.
#3: Men and women recover differently from strength training and may need distinct rest intervals.
In a recent study that compared the effect of 1-, 2- or 3-minute rest intervals in an upper body workout with the goal of completing 10 reps per set the women in the study were able to complete significantly more reps than men did, regardless of the rest interval used.
Another gender difference was that men experienced much greater drop-offs in power and velocity than the women as the sets progressed. Altogether, the results point to a faster recovery among women than men.
Researchers suggest trained women recover faster than men because they have reduced ATP depletion, lower blood lactate, lower epinephrine and lower glycogen depletion of type I muscle. In addition, females’ higher estrogen levels may influence faster recovery, although the mechanism behind these differences is not entirely understood.
Take note that there is evidence that untrained women recover more slowly than men and may need longer recovery intervals.
Practical Application: Trained women don’t need as much rest between sets as men to attain a certain volume load, a difference that should be considered when programming workouts. In addition, pairing agonist/antagonist exercises with short rest periods can reduce fatigue and maximize volume load.
#4: Women respond differently to high-intensity training compared to men.
Women have a lower power output but a tendency to push themselves harder overall.
A recent study that tested self-selected training intensities during a HIT workout in trained men and women found that women had significantly higher heart rate maximum values than men, indicating they may push themselves harder due to an accelerated recovery between work intervals.
Researchers think women rely on aerobic pathways for energy production whereas men rely more on anaerobic pathways. In addition, the women demonstrated higher rating of perceived exertion values but produced lower peak power output, which is a result of their smaller lean body mass.
Overall, this suggests that men have an advantage over women in very short and intense work bouts, whereas women have an advantage at longer work bouts. Estrogen is thought to play a role, though its importance is still unclear.
Practical Application: For HIT training with work intervals of 1 minute or longer, a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio provides adequate recovery for both sexes. Women will tend to produce slightly higher cardiovascular strain and perception of effort than men over the course of the workout, but this does not require longer recovery times.
#5: Women have different strength ratios within distinct muscle groups.
Women tend to have different strength ratios compared to men within specific muscle groups that affect their movement patterns and injury risk. For example, untrained women may have a strength imbalance between the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles of the calf that is not evident in men, and this can put them at greater risk of falling.
Both trained and untrained women tend to have a strength imbalance between the hamstrings and quadriceps (stronger quads, weaker hamstrings) that can lead to poor movement patterns and chronic pain. Women also tend to have more flexible ligaments and a smaller ACL ligament notch, increasing the risk of ACL tears and ankle injury.
Finally, women have a slightly larger Q angle than men. The Q angle is the angle from the lateral edge of the pelvis to the knee. This leads to higher angular stress on the knee during athletic movements.
Practical Applications: To focus on training the posterior chain, do full-range, fairly heavy (preferably over 80 percent of maximal) lifts such as deadlifts, squats, step-ups, and back extensions.
To improve soleus strength in the calf, do seated calf raises with a long eccentric (lowering the heel) phase.
#6: Women favor burning fat during exercise but favor using glucose (carbs) for energy at rest compared to men.
There are significant metabolic differences between men and women that influence the location and quantity of body fat, as well as the ability to lose body fat.
First, at rest the use of fat for fuel is lower in women compared to men, as is the tendency to store dietary fat as fat after eating. In general, sedentary women are going to always favor the use of glucose for energy, making it harder to lose fat.
Second, during exercise, women use more fat than men use, which will improve their bodies’ overall ability to call on fat for fuel because it increases metabolic flexibility. However, such a small portion of total daily calories are burned during exercise that the increased fat burning doesn’t offset resting glucose burning.
Third, because women burn more fat during exercise, they will have less glycogen depletion than men will have by as much as 25 percent. Therefore, glycogen replenishment guidelines used by men need to be adjusted for women.
Practical Application: If you are a woman who wants to lose body fat, you must exercise to improve your body’s ability to use fat for energy.
Female athletes who need to replenish glycogen must experiment with carb intake guidelines to identify the optimal dose because recommendations tend to be based on male physiology.
#7: Women respond differently from men to weight loss diets and to training programs geared at fat loss.
For untrained overweight populations, aerobic exercise tends to be more effective for fat loss in men than in women. In one study, men lost fat but women experienced no change in body fat. In a review of many studies, men were found to lose much more weight than women lost in response to dietary restriction coupled with aerobic exercise.
Scientists suggest women’s unfavorable response is caused by their bodies’ response to the excess stress of dieting and aerobic exercise. The combination leads progesterone, which is the hormonal precursor to testosterone and estrogen, to be used to produce cortisol. The effect is hormonal imbalances that inhibit fat loss.
A fat loss model that has been more effective for women is to perform anaerobic training with weights and intervals. One recent study showed that concurrent training allowed women to lose significant fat in the lower body, which is noteworthy since the hips and thighs are known as tricky fat loss areas for women due to the high concentration of alpha estrogen receptors that promote fat storage.
Practical Application: Do anaerobic-style training regularly with a progressive strength training program. Perform intervals for additional fat loss and be as active as possible throughout the day.
Make stress reduction a priority! Be cautious with calorie restriction because restricting calories too much can lead to high cortisol production and inhibit fat loss.
#8: Women naturally have different body compositions from men, which influences fat and muscle percentages.
Women tend to have more subcutaneous fat, which is near the surface below the skin, whereas men have more visceral fat, which is located inside the body around the organs. Each gender loses fat from the area where they have the most of it (women lose more subcutaneous fat and men lose more visceral fat). Excess visceral fat is more dangerous to health than excess subcutaneous fat.
Unfortunately, women also tend to have larger fat cells and smaller muscle fibers than men have. However, with strength training, women can significantly increase the size of their muscle fibers to a similar degree as men can (but because women start out smaller they don’t get as large as men in absolute terms!).
For example, one study found that women increased the size of the type IIA muscle fibers by 45 percent, the IIB fibers by 57 percent, and the type I fibers by 15 percent. This rate of growth is comparable to the rate men experience.
Practical Application: Lift weights to increase muscle mass for a higher metabolism if you want to lose fat. Factors that reduce or eliminate the benefit of training include using loads that are too light, not increasing the weight progressively, and using weight training machines exclusively.
#9: Men tend to have higher force output and ability to use the stretch-shortening cycle than women have.
Men tend to be better able than women to use the stretch shortening cycle (SSC) that is involved in jumping; however, there are large individual differences in women’s use of the SSC. For example, one study showed that men were able to jump 11 percent higher than women after values were normalized for body mass. Men had a higher rate of eccentric force development, which allowed them to produce more concentric force for a higher vertical jump.
Scientists suggest trained men’s more favorable use of the SSC is due to having bigger body dimensions and diverse tendon lengths, angle of muscle fiber pennation, and fascicle length compared to women. In untrained individuals, muscle imbalances may influence SSC use as well.
Practical Application: To increase jump height regardless of gender, focus on increasing concentric force output by minimizing time spent in the eccentric phase for better use of the resultant speed of stretch. Strength training with an eccentric-enhanced component will improve muscle architecture by altering pennation angle and/or fascicle length.
For sports, base jumping and SSC feed off the requirements of the sports. Basketball and volleyball players require diverse use of the SSC from softball or soccer players.
#10: Women outperform men at ultra endurance events.
Women have greater long distance endurance capacity than men, and studies suggest they have an increasing performance advantage at running distances above 66 km.
The reasons for this are women’s greater use of fat for fuel, differences in muscle damage and oxidative stress, and differences in temperature regulation. For example, since women experience a 25 percent glycogen sparing effect by burning more fat, it will take much longer to deplete total fuel stores.
Practical Application: Experiment with glycogen replenishment protocols to ensure you are getting enough carbohydrates. Remember, most guidelines are based on male’s glycogen refueling needs, which may be greater than women’s.
#11: Don’t rely on research performed on men to identify how women should train or fuel their bodies.
There’s an extreme gender bias in research on exercise physiology, perhaps due to early work suggesting there were no differences in metabolism or muscle morphology. This assumption proved to be wrong.
For example, there’s evidence that female animals experience less muscle damage and inflammation from training compared to men, but human studies are far from conclusive. Scientists suggest that it’s an example of pervasive and extreme gender bias to conclude that women’s higher estrogen makes them less susceptible to exercise-induced muscle damage.
Practical Application: Seek out research and advice based on female physiology and metabolism if you are a woman or are coaching women. Be skeptical of advice based on research performed on men, particularly when it comes to metabolism and fat loss.