Strength Training for Women

Introduction

Traditional strength training was considered the domain of large muscular men in body building gyms. This perception was founded in the assertion that weight training made women masculine and too muscular. As societal norms have changed over time, so to has perception of women participation in weight training, but how far have we come?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics around 58% of females aged 18-64 years of age participate in physical activity, whilst only roughly 17% of these women participate in gym programs. Most of these women will only participate in cardiovascular exercise and not weight training, with only 1% of women participating in weight training. Of those that do participate in weight training around 80% only utilise light to moderate resistance. This means only 0.2% or 2 in every thousand women participate in weight training using heavy resistance.

Benefit of Strength Training for Women

The benefits of regular participation in a strength training program make it essential to all women. The benefits of strength training include:

-              Increased muscular strength and endurance

-              Increased lean body mass (muscle)

-              Increased metabolism (basal metabolic rate)

-              Decreased percentage of body fat

-              Improved posture and reduced incidence of lower back pain

-              Increased bone mineral density

-              Improved blood glucose control

-              Prevention and treatment of type II diabetes

-              Positive effect on self-esteem and self-confidence

-              Increased abdominal strength

-              Increased energy levels

-              Increased functional independence

-              Improved blood lipid (fats) levels and blood pressure

-              Injury prevention

 

Personal Training Gets Better Results

Research shows that the majority of women who train unsupervised in gyms select weights that are far too low for progression in muscular fitness, whilst women that train under the guide of a Personal Trainer report a higher rate of perceived exertion, have greater strength outcomes and were less likely to believe the misconception that weight training causes excessive ‘‘muscle bulk’’ than women who train on their own.

Women are not small men

When designing strength training programs, we need to consider that females have different anatomy and physiology to males. Not only are females built differently, their different physiology also means they respond differently to exercise. Exercise research has traditionally been conducted on male subjects, therefore much of what is known in relation to exercise physiology is bias and an understanding of exercise anatomy and physiology in relation to sex is incomplete. One of the reasons researchers exclude women is due to the potential influence of fluctuating ovarian hormones throughout the menstrual cycle.

The term female has both gender and sex connotation’s. In terms of female as a sex, this refers to a human with female reproductive organs, whilst in terms of gender a female is someone that aligns to the social constructs, behaviours, identity and characteristics assigned to a female. When considering physiological and anatomical considerations for exercise for women/females we refer to sex as the determining factor in relevant considerations.

The following section summarises the anatomical and physiological sex differences as well as their effects to exercise in terms of responses and adaptations.

Muscular

Factor: Female muscle contractions are slower and more fatigue-resistant

Exercise Implication: Females have an increased ability to tolerate endurance exercise

Factor: Females have higher proportion of type 1 muscle fibres

Exercise Implication: Type 1 muscle fibres are endurance fibres, therefore females have an increased ability to tolerate endurance exercise

Factor: Decreased testosterone in females

Exercise Implication: Hypertrophy (muscle building) training less is effective for females. General weight training unlikely to cause significant muscle growth

Factor: Females deplete glycogen at a slower rate

Exercise Implication: Females can maintain higher intensity for longer than males

Factor: Females have greater muscular imbalance

Exercise Implication: Females have a greater likelihood of injury when exercising

Factor: Females have higher estrogen than males

Exercise Implication: Females have great flexibility and joint range of movement (ROM) than men

 

Skeletal

Factors:  Increased bone density thinning after menopause. Females have smaller, thinner bones

Exercise Implication: Weight baring exercise required to maintain bone density. Females more prone to osteoporosis or osteopenia (low bone density).

Factor:  Women have wider hips than males

Exercise Implication: Higher risk of knee injury due to join angle

 

Hormonal

Factor:  Females have higher levels of Oestrogen

Exercise Implication: Decreased ability to work at higher intensity due to less oxygen uptake

Factor: Post menopause lower levels of Estradiol (an estrogen)

Exercise Implication: More prone to high blood pressure (consider exercise implication for high blood pressure). Exercise required to maintain blood pressure.

 

Respiratory

Factors: Females have smaller airways than men, even in comparison to lung size. Females have smaller lungs. Females have lower number of alveoli.

Exercise Implication: Decreased ability to work at higher intensity due to less oxygen uptake.

Factor: Females diaphragm fatigues more slowly

Exercise Implication: Increased mechanical ability to maintain higher respiration rate (they can control breathing for longer).

 

Cardiovascular

Factors: Females have higher blood vessel supply to organs. Lower mean arterial pressure at all workloads.

Exercise Implication: Greater ability to exchange gas (Co2 and O2) at the muscle during exercise (energy production)

 

Other

Factors: In general women store fat more subcutaneously, where men tend to store more visceral fat

Exercise Implication: It is more difficult for females to decrease body fat than males

 

It is important to understand that some of the above anatomical differences cancel each other out, or override other differences. For example, in the respiratory system women have a decreased ability to work at higher intensities due to less oxygen uptake, however this is offset by an increased muscular ability to maintain a higher respiration rate.

 

An overall summary of the major physiological differences is:

1.       Women cannot achieve muscle growth as easily as men

2.       Women cannot work at as high intensity as men

3.       Women can maintain endurance exercise longer than men

4.       Women have a faster rate of bone thinning than men as they age

5.       Women recover faster from exercise, therefore require short rest intervals

6.       Women have greater flexibility and joint range of movement than males

 

Interested in learning more about exercise, physiology and strength training for women? Contact an Education and Career Adviser to discuss options.

David Ball