Efficient strength training for women. Facts and myths!

In this article I will try to answer many questions and doubts, such as: do women have to have their own training plan, or can they base on those for men? Do the physiological differences influence women's and men's workout? Current boost of popularity of training (including strength training) and fashion for being “fit” brings a lot of wrong advice and misinformation. Strength training for women is often demonized and it is filled with bans introduced by the “training police”: “Squats – no, they can harm knees”, “Deadlift – no, too much stress for the spine”. It would be best if women didn't touch barbell or dumbbells and they would only focus on the machines or use other sophisticated utensils made to waste time.

Misinformation appears even in words used by trainers and fitness instructors. In fact, when we talk about “sculpting”, “toning”, “firming”, “improving shape” or “shaping” - these are the processes concerning building muscle mass (i.e. “muscle mass training”!). Body is not a magical phenomenon consisting of unknown elements.

In order to change your body:

  • get rid of body fat (which can be found all around your body – subcutaneous tissue – adipocytes, also in muscles – muscle triacylglycerol, and in liver, or around inner organs – visceral fat). The most efficient way of losing body fat is changing diet, strength training with large load (>75% max) and interval training. Aerobic training doesn't have to be the best choice, but cardio machines are a very bad choice – they may cause adiposity. Why? Read the article about cortisol and its influence on the body, as well as the research on interval training.

  • build muscle mass (no matter how you call this process - “sculpting”, “toning”, “slimming” or “firming”).

According to L. Sieminska: “Almost 65-70% of fat in the body can be found in the subcutaneous tissue, the remaining 30-35% is the fatty tissue around viscera, retroperitonaelly, in the area of genitals, mammary glands, within liver, pancreas and skeleton muscles.”

Of course, women who hear “muscle training” can immediately imagine a bodybuilder weighing 120 kilos or a professional shot-putter. That's why using misguiding words is so common for naming strength training.

What's the strength training plan for women?

Nick Tumminello used to create a lot of training plans for men published in the media and in books. Later on, he ascertained with surprise that the same workouts were put by the same publisher in books and magazines for women. The only change the editor made – were the words. For men: “use this workout to build stronger and more sculpted body”, for women: “use this workout to shape, outline and tone your body”.

Whereas, both, man and women can use... exactly the same training plans. Men and women need intensive non-aerobic effort.

In 99.9% of cases, women coming to the gym are directed straight to:

  • strength machines (only chosen ones, as exercises may cause injuries),

  • stationary bicycles, treadmills, steppers and other “cardio” equipment,

  • “pink dumbbells”,

  • group classes – yoga, pilates, spinning, body pump, barbells, aerobics, aero-boxing, aqua aerobics, zumba, “perfect abs”, etc.

Whereas, the fastest way of building beautiful shape is easily available – barbell and dumbbells – free weight exercises.

Summing up: there are no contraindications for you to choose classical strength training based on free weights. Classes “just for women” usually bring poor or no effects.

In the first part you found out that strength training for women and men can be identical – the same complex exercises, using free weights. From the unknown reasons the instructors in clubs tell women to go to the “cardio zone” or exercise on the machines – instead of encouraging them to do strength training using free weights.

If someone sends you to workout on machines, you have to know that:

  • you will build muscle mass much more slowly than using free weights,

  • the less muscles you build, the worse your body will look,

  • the less muscles you build, the more slowly you will lose body fat! (this way you limit fat burning during the day – lower resting energy expenditure).

The dependencies mentioned above concern both, strength machines (from which majority are isolated exercises useless for women) and cardio.

Remember that when you start strength training, you have much less muscles and much more fat than an average man (the differences in the amount of body fat and muscles are caused by genetics). This causes that losing body fat is slower and gaining muscle mass for women is difficult (minimal amount of testosterone and DHT).

To make it all more funny, women often don't accept the truth stated by other women: “how did you shape your buttocks? - I did squats with barbell”.

What should I do to have such thighs? Do squats, lunges and deadlift”

The same story continues with abs, arms or calves. It often happens that the representatives of the “beautiful sex” coming to organized classes think that the instructors gained strength ans mass because they were practicing aerobics, body-pump, riding bike, running on a treadmill or “performed exercises with pink dumbbells”. In general, behind the well-built bodies there is a pluriennial intensive strength training with the use of free weights, and the classes are just a form of recreation, complement, fun – right next to the proper effort.

Such evaluation of the instructor's body makes as much sense as connecting running with the increase of mass, strength and muscle power. Many athletes have bodies which are given as an example. But achieving such appearance requires years of hard work during training and strict diet. The whole life of sports people goes around sport – it's hard work 24/7.

Women should use large or small load?

Another wrong common belief is about “using small load and large amount of repetitions of each exercise to sculpt the body”. As I mentioned before, there is no such term as “sculpting the body”. It was typical for the old-fashioned “sculpture” training to “Shorten breaks between sets, using small load and exercising 6 x a week”.

The facts are following:

  • muscles react well on the range of 8 – 15 repetitions (building muscle mass and strength),

  • large load (>75% of max load) have the biggest influence on the hormonal system (growth hormone, testosterone),

  • the advised load ranges between 75-85% of maximum load (1 maximal repetition, e.g. of squat with 40kg load, optimal load to strength work is about 30 – 34 kg),

  • too big amount of repetitions (>20) and small load (<60% of max load) is a great way of losing muscle mass (or the “conversion” of the most precious muscle fibers), especially during reduction of body fat,

  • the less muscles there are in the body, the slower the metabolism (REE) and the slower process of losing body fat,

  • the more muscles you build, the more sexy and fat-free body you will gain! (forget about “gaining muscle mass” - without steroids, it's impossible to build too much muscles),

  • some muscle fibers and motorial units react only on large load. Omitting the “strength range”, you will never use your genetic potential in total,

  • each muscle group is built in different way – the percentage amount of fast- or slow-twitch muscle fibers; in order to stimulate the growth of strength and mass, you should differentiate the amount of repetitions,

  • the composition of muscles depends on genetics and implemented training,

  • majority of group fitness classes don't influence much the percentage amount of muscles in women's bodies, therefore, when body fat is taken under consideration, as well as the improvement of appearance, such classes are ineffective.

Summing up: against common belief, women can and should use low range of repetitions, e.g. 3 – 6 – especially during barbell squats, deadlift or pull-ups.

The best effects can be achieved with holistic approach – using the range of 3-6, as well as 13-16 repetitions (or, e.g. 5-10-15 repetitions). Particular percentage of maximal load is connected with the number of repetitions.

Do women need the upper body workouts?

Yes. You can only benefit from doing e.g. barbell rows, deadlift, dumbbells press lying and sitting (chest and shoulders), biceps curl (triceps, biceps) and other basic exercises. Remember that the machines are the slowest way of improving the appearance of the body.

Women's upper bodies are generally much weaker – e.g. during pull-ups or dumbbell press lying they have a lot of problems. The more time you spend on training upper body – the smaller strength disproportions you will have between that part and legs.

Conclusion? The exercises on the upper body need to be emphasized. You don't need separate session for abs – the multi-joint exercises are the best for the core - rectus abdominis, obliques and back (erectors, deep muscles).

What about cardio/aerobic classes (stationary bikes, steppers, cross-trainers, treadmills)?

Dozens of studies point that such training is inefficient. “In one of many available studies the interval group lost 2.5 kg of body fat during 15 weeks – doing three workouts a week, 20 minutes each; another group of ladies did 3 sessions of low intensity lasting 40 minutes – they lost no fat” [Trapp, 2008]. You should choose concrete interval training, not aerobic one.

Paradoxically, excess amount of aerobic training leads to fattening of body – by influencing cortisol and gathering the interstitial fat (main source of energy during aerobics) – chosen studies.