The effects of weight training extend to multiple aspects of our health: muscle mass, body composition, bone density, strength, biomechanical health, hormonal effects, psychological effects and cardiac health benefits. The challenge is to realise that women may profit from the positive outcomes associated with properly structured and progressive weight training.
What must be understood first and foremost is that weight training for women is not a separate science to that of males. The principles of lever arms, time under tension, progressive overload and intelligent programme design apply just as equally to women as they do to men.
Of course, there are some differences, but not so much that they require a radically different approach. Based on personal experience and the relevant literature, it is clear that focusing on the ‘principle of individual difference’ is more relevant than focusing on gender differences per se.
Many studies have shown women to be weaker than men. Lloyd Laubach reviewed nine studies in 1976 and came to the conclusion that women have, on average, 63% of men’s total strength.1 Indeed, if a 60kg woman was compared in strength to a 60kg man (both being trained subjects), the male would test stronger. However, if the test is based on a cross-sectional area of muscle, the differences in strength seem to disappear – females have the same potential for strength development if strength in the genders is compared per cross-sectional area of muscle.2 Simply put, women have the same potential to get stronger as their male counterparts if they train using correct protocols.3
One of the biggest concerns that women have when it comes to the subject of weight training is the fear of bulking up. The fact is that women who train naturally have a very limited potential to develop a large increase of muscle bulk.
In his 30 plus years spent training genetically gifted females of Olympic calibre, strength coach Charles Poliquin has stated that he typically sees a gain of about 4kg of muscle with a corresponding reduction in fat mass and overall girth reduction.
The benefits of good quality mass
In the bodybuilding culture, the holy grail of progress is good quality mass. Unbeknown to most women, they actually want the same thing – except ladies call it toning up. Tissue types cannot morph into other tissue types. What can and does happen every day (when you are training and eating correctly) is the phenomenon of developing increased lean body mass with concurrent fat loss.
Do women have the capacity to build muscle? Based on the research, the answer is a resounding yes. In a paper published in the NSCA Journal, multiple studies are cited that show clearly that weight training in women causes “a reduction in fat weight, an increase in lean weight and either no change or only a slight increase in total body weight. All demonstrated significant increases in strength and in most cases these changes were associated with no change or a decrease in lower-body girths and only minimal increases in upper-body limb girth.”4
Benefits of weight training for women
> Can result in positive changes in self-concept and self-esteem4
> Alleviates symptoms of depression5
> Improves insulin sensitivity6
> Burns up to an estimated 50 extra calories a day at rest for every 1lb of muscle gained7
> Reduces the risk of osteoporosis as it may provide greater bone growth stimulus than endurance-type sports8
- Laubach (1976), Comparative muscular strength of men and women, Aviat Space Environ Med, 47(5):534-542.
- Ikai M, Fukunago T (1968), Calculation of muscle strength per unit cross sectional area of human muscle by means of ultrasonic measurement, Int Z Angew Physiol, 26:26-32.
- Staron RS et al (1990), Muscle hypertrophy and fast fiber type conversions in heavy resistance-trained women.
- Strength training for female athletes; a position paper, Part 1, NSCA Journal, 11(4).
- Doyne EJ, Ossip-Klein DJ, Bowman ED, Osborn KM, McDougall-Wilson IB and Neimeyer IB (1987), Running versus weight lifting in the treatment of depression, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
- Cuff et al (2003), Effective exercise modality to reduce insulin resistance in women with type II diabetes, Diabetes Care, 26(11).
- In his book Life Fit, America's leading epidemiologist Ralph Paffenbarger MD makes the following statement regarding the effects of muscle gain and metabolic change: "Indeed, when you replace 10 pounds of fat with 10 pounds of muscle, your weight remains the same, but you can expect to expend 500 or more additional kilocalories each day at rest."
- Heinonen A et al (1993), Bone mineral density of female athletes in different sports, Journal of Bone and Mineral, 23(1):1-14.
Clare Rooney is a former competitive athlete who, just six weeks after taking up Olympic weightlifting, broke all the division’s records. She is a personal trainer based in Ireland. www.clarerooney.com
This feature was first printed in the April/May 2012 issue of Fitpro Network magazine.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Fitness Professionals Ltd or Virtual Magazine. Consult a qualified health or fitness professional before making changes to your diet or exercise.