When it comes to physical fitness, training for women is very similar to training for men. Bottom line up front: the general training principles are exactly the same, meaning you can use the same strategies to build strength, endurance, or power—regardless of whether you’re male or female. So if your goal is to improve maximum strength, you’ll want to lift a low volume of a high percentage of your 1-rep max. However, the physiological differences between males and females lead to differences in how your body responds to physical training.
The main differences between males and females are hormone levels and oxygen-carrying capacity. Testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, promotes muscle growth in both males and females. However, normal male testosterone levels are over 4 times higher than normal female testosterone levels. So when a man exercises in a way that increases testosterone production, such as by resistance training, he’ll have a greater response to the effects of testosterone than a woman who does the same resistance training. In addition, male muscles generally have a greater cross-sectional area than female muscles. This means that the diameter of a male muscle fiber is greater than the diameter of the same female muscle fiber. Cross-sectional area is directly related to muscular strength. If a male muscle and female muscle have the same cross-sectional area, they should produce the same amount of force. Otherwise, the physiological makeup of muscles and how they work is exactly the same for both males and females.
Due to these physiological differences, men and women respond to resistance training a little differently. If you apply the same strength-training program to men and women, men will typically have greater absolute strength increases. This means the increase in weight lifted is greater. For example, a man might see an increase of 20 lbs, compared to a female increase of 15 lbs. However, females will generally have the same or greater relative strength increases. This means that the weight they lift as a percentage of their body weight or 1-rep max will be higher than that of males. For instance, if a man increases his bench press 1RM from 200 lbs to 220 lbs, he has increased his 1RM by 10%. If a female increases her bench press 1RM weight from 100 lbs to 115 lbs, she’s increased her 1RM by 15%. The man’s absolute strength increase of 20 lbs was greater than the woman’s 15-lb increase, but the woman’s 15% strength increase was greater than the man’s 10% increase.
One of the other major physiological differences between males and females is oxygen-carrying capacity. Men are able to inhale more air, and hold more in their lungs than women, mostly due to the fact that the male respiratory system is bigger than the female respiratory system. Men also have a greater blood volume, which means they’re able to transport more oxygen to their muscles. These differences also lead to some downstream effects of how efficiently men and women are able to use oxygen and how hard they need to work to breathe. However, physiological responses to aerobic exercise are similar. As men and women consistently train for several months, both their cardiac output and oxygen uptake increase. That means both men and women will pump more blood per minute, and their cells will be able to use more oxygen. For young, athletic people, the biggest difference in physiological adaptations between men and women is that the stroke volume—the amount of blood pumped with each heartbeat—increases more for men than it does for women, largely because men have bigger heart muscles than women do.
You can use the same strategies to build strength, endurance, or power—regardless of whether you’re male or female.
When designing a PT program, resistance training is especially important for women and maintaining bone health. Though osteoporosis is rare among premenopausal women, it’s much more common in female Veterans than in non-Veterans. Regular resistance training works to strengthen your bones, helping increase bone mass in adolescence and through your late teens and early 20s. Then, once you’ve reached peak bone mass around age 25 or so, it helps slow the normal age-related decline in bone mass. Your bones respond best to forces that are directed down the length of them. So for lower-body resistance training, exercises such as squats and deadlifts are great to include in your PT program. Good upper-body exercises to stress your bones include bench presses and overhead presses.
There’s a common misconception among Service Members that resistance training will automatically lead to weight gain and give you a bulky, very muscular appearance. As with most misconceptions, there’s some truth to the statement—and some myth. In order to gain weight from resistance training, you also need to eat enough calories to support gains in muscle mass. If you are eating to maintain your weight, or eating less so you lose weight, resistance training alone won’t cause you to gain weight. In the first couple of months of a new program, you might see your weight stay the same, but your body composition will improve as you lose fat mass. As long as you’re eating in a caloric deficit, you’ll start to see the numbers on the scale go down over time.
Related to weight gain, many people avoid resistance training because they don’t want to appear bulky or overly muscular. Particularly for women, as you increase muscle mass and decrease fat mass, you’ll start to see greater muscle definition. In general, women carry their body fat subcutaneously, meaning under the skin and over the muscles. As her body composition improves, her muscles appear more defined and toned, not necessarily because they’re getting much bigger, but because she’s simply decreasing the amount of fat covering them up. This is especially true in the arm and leg muscles. For men, most fat is carried viscerally, meaning in the muscles and on the internal organs. This is where the “beer belly” or “dad bod” that you’ll see with overweight men comes from. As men improve their body composition, their arms and legs might look the same, but their belly size will go down because that’s where they carry most of their fat.
When designing a physical training program, the general training principles remain the same for both men and women. The only difference is in specifically how male and female bodies respond to the training. If a woman is trying to increase her lift by a certain amount of weight (absolute load), it might take longer for her than it would for a man to increase his lift the same amount. Resistance training is also especially important for women to maintain bone mass as they age, and should be incorporated into a physical training program 2–3 times per week for optimal results.