Should Women Train Differently to Men?

There are obvious biological differences between men and women, but does this affect how you lift weights? Should women train differently to men? Or can men and women follow the same workout programs?

Go online, and the articles tend to be split perfectly down the middle in regard to this question. There are some excellent answers for training differently and some excellent answers for training the same. As always, the truth tends to live in the grey area between the two extremes. Neither side is wrong, but both sides need to be a little more flexible in their approach.

In this article, we will look at some of the arguments for and against training differently and then deliver our own answer.

Four Reasons Why Women Should Train Differently

There are many reasons cited as to why women should train differently, but they can all be boiled down to the four reasons listed below.

Women Are Able to Perform More Reps and Respond Better to Endurance Training

One of the areas in which women are often able to compete with men is in ultra-endurance competitions. There are many reasons for this, but this is partly due to having a greater ratio of slow-twitch muscle fibres than men (on average). This means that women are better suited to long-duration exercise than they are short-duration.

This is why women frequently win mixed ultra-endurance competitions, yet no professional woman sprinter will come close to Usain Bolt in his pomp.

This does not mean that if you hand an average man and an average woman a barbell, the woman will automatically be able to perform more bicep curls in a row. But, if you instead ask them to perform bodyweight squats until exhaustion, the woman will often outlast the man.

This is down to muscle fibres, as mentioned before, but also due to women being lighter than men (on average), meaning that they can perform more reps lifting their own body weight.

What this means for training is that women may benefit from higher-rep sets, while men may suit lower-rep sets.

Women also tend to require shorter rest periods between sets, though this is again partly due to lifting lighter weights (which puts less pressure on the nervous system).

Women Have 37-68% Muscular Strength of Men

There is a huge range of muscular strength capabilities within both genders, but on average, women tend to have 37-68% of the strength of men [1]. What does this mean? Not too much when it comes to experienced gym goers, but at the beginning of a lifter’s journey the exercises that are available to men and women may be different.

The strength difference is most pronounced in the upper body, when it comes to squatting and deadlifts, women are often able to lift similar weights to men. But pressing movements such as the bench press or shoulder press can be significantly more difficult.

If you were creating a training program for a woman and a man, both of whom were completely new to the gym, then you might start with a barbell bench press for the man, but a dumbbell bench press for the woman (the barbell itself weighs 20 kg which many women struggle with at first).

It’s not a huge difference, and they are both bench presses, but this is a perfect example of how you can’t treat men and women exactly the same in certain situations.

Of course, any experienced personal trainer will be able to name a number of women who crushed the bench press in their first sessions, and there are many men who take weeks to build up the strength to lift an empty barbell.

Women Often Have Different Goals to Men

It’s very difficult when writing articles such as this to avoid generalisations. The goals of three women joining the gym at the same time can be completely different. There can be one who wants to lose weight, one who wants to become a powerlifter, and one who is training for the marathon.

But it is also true that many men and women do tend to have different goals, even if they amount to the same thing. For example, if you started an exercise class called “tone”, you would get a near-100% female clientele. If you started an exercise called “Bulk”, you would get a near-100% male clientele.

Both classes are based on building muscle, but they have different approaches. Toning is about building muscle and burning fat simultaneously, often using higher-rep sets. Bulking is about building muscle by creating a calorie surplus, and you can expect some increases in body fat too.

This last reason is a little weak compared to the previous two. It’s a generalisation, but as a personal trainer who has trained hundreds of women, the number of women who stated that their goal was to get super strong can be counted on one hand.

As such, I would create training programs that catered to their specific goals, and this was almost always to “burn fat and tone up”.

Women Can Give Birth and Have Menstrual Cycles

This is a slightly different reason from the others, as your menstrual cycle should not affect the specific exercises that you perform when in the gym. But the menstrual cycle can make a huge difference to your gym performance.

Studies have found that women are able to lift heavier weights and perform better in the gym when they are in the pre-ovulation part of their cycle [2]. There is also evidence that strength and endurance drop during the post-ovulation part of the cycle [3].

Women who have given birth may also have to deal with certain factors that won’t affect men. Diastasis recti, where the abs separate during pregnancy, is just one example. There is a reason why many personal trainers take specific courses before training women who have recently given birth.

Obviously, not all women have/will give birth, and not all women have menstrual cycles, but anyone who is creating a training program for a woman needs to ask these questions and edit the program accordingly.

Three Reasons Why Women Should Not Train Differently

Now that we’ve seen the arguments for women training differently let’s take a look at the counterarguments. At the end of the article, you can decide which arguments make the most sense for you.

Muscles are not Gender Specific

Both men and women have pectorals, lats, quadriceps, abdominals, hamstrings, biceps, and triceps. Muscles are not gender specific, and there are more inter-sex variabilities than there are differences between sexes.

If you want to train your biceps, then a bicep curl is the right exercise whether you are a man or a woman. If you want to build stronger hamstrings then you should perform a Romanian deadlift no matter what gender you are.

There are some exercises that men shy away from in fear of looking girly (glute bridges, for example), and there are some exercises that women avoid because they think that they are too masculine (barbell bicep curl, for example).

But both men and women should be training their glutes and their biceps, so why avoid the best exercises for each muscle? It’s silly, and goes back to school days when boys and girls were/are often separated.

Great Programs for Men Will Also Be Great Programs for Women

Take a look at the following program that is made for men:

  • Seated Leg Curl Machine 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Barbell Deadlifts 3 x 6-8 reps
  • Walking Lunges 4 x 20 reps
  • Barbell Bench Press 3 x 6-8 reps
  • Assisted Pull Ups 3 x 10 reps
  • Seated Shoulder Press 3 x 8-12 reps

It’s fine, right? Full-body, lots of compound movements, and not too long. Now, state exactly why a woman would not be able to make gains using this program. Any reason? Nope, nothing. You could possibly argue that the program is a little short, and that most women would suit slightly higher reps. But the exercises and the bones of the program are decidedly genderless.

Whenever people argue about training men and women differently, they are usually (inadvertently) talking about professional athletes. Who need very specific coaching. But 95% of gym goers shouldn’t be worrying about exactly what is “optimal”. They just need something that is fun, challenging, and offers a decent 45-60 minute workout.

This brings us neatly to the final point …

Most New Gym Goers Have the Same Strengths and Weaknesses

While there are differences between men and women, most of these differences only become noticeable after a few months of regular training. The vast majority of new gym goers will never even reach this point!

Instead of worrying about whether men and women should be training separately, the thinking should be about how we as an industry can help both men and women to develop a love of going to the gym.

This requires the following:

  • Effective training programs catered to NEW gym goers
  • Supportive environments where people feel comfortable
  • Realistic goals that can be achieved within a 8-12 week period

Once you get people past that 8-12 week period, you can begin to edit workouts for the specific person. But until then, it is mostly unnecessary. Make changes to suit an individual’s needs (i.e. this person has poor core strength, so swap assisted pull-ups for lat-pulldowns) but most people can follow the exact same workout in their first few weeks.

Should Women Train Differently to Men?

If you want the best results, then you really should be following a program that is designed specifically for you. However, if you are brand new to lifting and you don’t have any injuries, then you can follow a basic program whether you are a man or a woman.

Follow programs that align with your goals and capabilities rather than ones that are based on your gender.

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