Women and Resistance Training: 

But will I end up looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger?

It is a common perception that if a female touches a barbell she will stack on muscle mass and end up looking like a man. This perception is slowly changing but I still get the occasional comment from my female clients and friends that they don’t want to push too hard in their resistance training program (or refuse to lift a heavy object at all) as they don’t want to end up big and bulky. Men and women were designed very differently (thank god). Physically, men and women are not the same, and adapt very differently to resistance training. But what factors contribute to this?

Genetics

The genetic make up affecting skeletal muscle development of men and women are very different. The individual muscle fibres of both sexes have a similar strength output, yet the cross-sectional area of skeletal muscle is much larger in men (i.e. they have more of it), contributing to why men have greater strength than women. Another genetic factor is the distribution of muscle mass on the body. Women were not designed to have powerful upper body strength and have a smaller proportion of lean muscle tissue located in the upper limbs. This is why the greatest difference in strength between men and women can be seen in the upper body. So ladies don’t be frightened, you won’t grow bodybuilder, hulk-like, vein-popping biceps. It just won’t happen.

Hormones

Testosterone, the male sex hormone, is produced by both men and women, although men produce almost 10 times as much. Testosterone increases the rate of protein synthesis and inhibits protein degradation in muscle tissues i.e. it promotes muscle growth and stops muscle breakdown. It also increases bone density and strength. This is largely why men are stronger, capable of building greater amounts of lean muscle mass and respond quicker to resistance training than women.


In a nutshell, women cannot rapidly grow muscle mass like men. We are not equipped with the adequate hormones and genetic factors to do so. A study was performed at Ohio University (article below) studying the effects of resistance training on muscle hypertrophy and changes in muscle fiber types of the leg muscles of women. It consisted of 24 women training their lower body twice a week over a 24-week training block using a 6-8RM (adequate to produce strength and hypertrophy gains). While the women showed increases in muscle tissue, they also saw a decrease in body fat percentages. The net result was no change in thigh girth measurements. So even when using heavy strength training protocols, there were no increases in size observed. This is a perfect example of how women respond to strength training. We don’t easily increase in size, although the increase in lean muscle tissue we do produce provides us with a shapely, athletic figure.


Weight training is highly beneficial to both men and women and should be included as part of a healthy lifestyle. Weight training not only provides body composition benefits to women, but has numerous health benefits including decreasing the risk of osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and diabetes. It is an effective weight loss tool, as weight training not only increases energy expenditure during your workout, but hours and even days after. It improves sleep quality, stress levels and overall boosts your metabolism. Being stronger and fitter means improved functional performance in everyday life. So ladies, dust the cobwebs off your dumbells or venture into the free weight room at the gym, because nothing beats being the only friend that can carry the heavy groceries up the stairs in one go right? Keep following The Results Room facebook page for more of my tips, tricks, insights and research on all things health and fitness.


 

Staron, R. S., Malicky, E. S., Leonardi, M. J., Falkel, J. E. Hagerman, F. C. & Dudley, G. A. (1990). Muscle Hypertrophy and Fast Fiber Type Conversions in Heavy Resistance-trained Women. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 60(1), 71-79.