When it comes to strength training, men and women tend to settle into two distinct camps. But do we really need to train differently? The answer is a little more complicated than ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
Strength Training For Men vs. Women
To understand how men and women should approach strength training, you first have to understand the differences in our physiology (a.k.a. how our bodies are structured and function).
“Women are not just ‘little men,’” says exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., author of Smarter Workouts. Notable differences in our bodies drive our fitness.
For starters, women tend to start out with less strength than men. (Roughly a third less, to be exact.) Research suggests this is almost entirely due to differences in muscle mass, which men naturally tend to have more of. (You guessed it: about a third more.)
In addition to having different amounts of muscle, men and women may also have different proportions of different types of muscle fibers. Women may have a slightly greater proportion of type 1 slow-twitch muscle fibers (which power endurance) compared to men, who have a greater percentage of type 2 fast-twitch muscle fibers (which power strength).
Plus, because of differences in body size and proportions, men and women also start off with differences in upper- and lower-body strength. While a lot of women feel stronger in squats and deadlifts, men often have a more natural knack for bench presses and pull-ups.
Let’s Talk About Hormones
Beneath many of these differences lies one critical factor: hormones.
First, testosterone. This male sex hormone is considered ‘anabolic,’ meaning it promotes growth, strength, and muscle mass. As you probably know, men have significantly higher base levels of testosterone than women.
Women, on the other hand, have significantly higher levels of the female sex hormone estrogen. Estrogen has long been considered ‘catabolic,’ meaning it supports muscle breakdown. However, researchers now believe it actually plays a role in staving off muscle damage and supports muscles’ ability to use glucose for fuel, says Greg Nuckols, B.S., exercise sports scientist with Stronger By Science.
When men strength train, it triggers increases in testosterone, which then help them increase their strength and pack on muscle. While women don’t experience the same effect, training triggers other hormonal changes in their bodies.
In fact, women experience notably higher levels of human growth hormone—another hormone that promotes tissue- and muscle-building—than men, according to Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning by G. Gregory Haff, Ph.D. and N. Travis Triplett, Ph.D.
“While training produces larger increases in testosterone in men, it produces higher growth hormone responses in women,” McCall says.
Ultimately, these spikes both help the body recover from exercise and support increased muscle mass and strength.
Women, Periods, And Strength Training
Another differentiating hormonal factor in men and women’s physiology and fitness: periods.
In fact, women’s menstrual cycles are perhaps the biggest hormonal influence on their strength training results.
In one small 2014 SpringerPlus study, women who concentrated on strength training during the first half of their menstrual cycles (the follicular phase, between the first day of the menstruation and ovulation) gained more strength and muscle mass than women who concentrated on training during the second half (the luteal phase).
Why? Experts believe that lower levels of progesterone—which counteracts estrogen’s muscle benefits—during the follicular phase helps women avoid muscle damage and recover better, explains Nuckols. Meanwhile, elevated progesterone levels during the luteal phase may negatively impact muscle and recovery.
How Men And Women Respond To Strength Training
Despite these differences between men’s and women’s bodies, our responses to strength training are actually more similar than you might think.
While men’s slightly greater proportion of type 2 muscle fibers may support their high-intensity and power performance, the actual implications for training are quite small, says Nuckols.
Though men do experience larger absolute strength and muscle gains (think total pounds lifted and total muscle size), both sexes experience similar relative gains.
So, if you compare a guy’s strength gains relative to his starting point with a woman’s strength gains relative to her starting, they’ll be pretty similar.
Nuckols has seen it in action: Put a man and a woman on the same strength training routine and most of the differences in their results will come down to their starting body composition (a.k.a. muscle and fat mass), he says.
In fact, one 2018 U.K. study found that when men and women trained their quads for eight weeks, the women actually surpassed the men in both relative gains in muscle mass and strength.
In the end, two men’s training results are likely to be just as—if not more—variable than those of a man and a woman, McCall says.
What’s This Mean for Your Strength Training Workouts?
In the end, claims that men should strength train one way and women another pretty much come down to marketing.
“Everything caters to the perceptions of what men versus women want out of their training,” McCall says. Hence the ‘go heavy, get big’ language messaged to guys and the ‘get tight and toned’ nonsense messaged to women.
“Ultimately it’s about starting where you are and training towards where you want to be, whatever your sex,” adds Hamilton.
Regardless of your sex, McCall recommends working to fatigue (when you can’t do another quality rep) when strength training. That means performing multiple sets using a challenging weight. Whatever the exercise, doing this maximizes your potential for progress.
The bottom line: Every individual is highly unique—and has equally unique goals. So, how you approach strength training is about so much more than whether you’re male or female.
Of course, there are a few circumstances in which women might want to tweak their training to overcome (or take advantage of) certain female-only factors.
For example, if training for a co-ed softball league, a woman might focus strength training more on upper-body work. (Remember: Women tend to have lower levels of absolute upper-body strength than men.)
To really maximize their strength training progress, women might also consider adding an extra workout or two per week during their period and the week after, when their bodies are better equipped to recover and make gains.