It’s becoming more widely accepted that women should train for strength. The veil of conventional wisdom is being lifted slowly, but surely. Despite this there is still an awful lot of bad information being propagated out there in internet land. Magazines and blogs are telling women they should lift lighter weights for higher reps to “tone” their arms and legs. Women are told that training in this manner will keep them from getting “bulky”. I wish this fear of the dreaded “bulk” nonsense would just fucking stop! That isn’t true, and here’s why. A woman’s testosterone levels can range between 15-95 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dl)[1,2]. Compare this to a normal male testosterone level of 300-1,200 ng/dl [1,2]. Do you see the astronomical difference? Three hundred is normal for a man in his 70’s and he still has 3 times the amount of that of a woman on the higher end of the spectrum. This difference is a result of the testicles being the primary producer testosterone. Sorry ladies, you just don’t have the equipment. Yes, there is evidence that heavy weight training can naturally raise testosterone, but ladies, you’re not getting a 300%+ increase just from lifting heavy. You would need pharmaceuticals. These simple facts should be all the evidence that’s needed. Women can and should lift heavy weights without the fear of losing their “femininity”. You can now sleep more easily knowing your jaw line is safe.
What benefits can a woman derive from a strength-based program? How about an increased metabolism? Strength training takes longer to recover from than other types of training like running, swimming, yoga, spinning, etc. It takes longer because proper strength training produces a larger systemic stress than other activities. Not to say these other activities aren’t useful in the proper context; they just aren’t as useful for making long-lasting change to your body. I would never tell someone they couldn’t be a runner or do yoga if they enjoy participating in those activities. It just needs to be organized properly and can never truly replace the strength portion of your program. For a person who is new to a properly structured strength routine it can take 48-72 to recover. During this recovery time the metabolism is boosted because the body is constantly in the process of rebuilding what you have damaged during your workout. Muscle is our metabolic machinery. It’s active tissue that requires energy (calories) to preserve. In other words, your metabolism will increase with increased muscle mass. If you are going to keep your hard earned gains you’ll HAVE to eat more. What could be better news than that? This isn’t a license to eat shit! I’m just saying you don’t have to feel guilty about being hungry or eating an actual meal instead of a salad.
Osteoporosis and low bone mass occurs frequently in women. According to the CDC, 54% of women, age of 50-59 have low bone mass and 7% have osteoporosis. In the figure below you can see these numbers climb with every decade, reaching 67% and 35% respectively . Age-related degeneration is normal. It’s going to happen whether we like it or not, but we can certainly fight back and drastically slow this degeneration so you can live an active and healthier lifestyle to the very end. Loading the skeleton with a proper strength program has been proven to be the single most effective method of increasing bone density.
Graph, courtesy NCHS Data Brief No.93 April 2012
Sarcopenia is an age-related decrease in muscle mass and quality that can start as early as the 3rd decade. Type-2 fibers (fast twitch) are more susceptible to sarcopenia than the type-1 fibers (slow twitch). We also know that weight training, and in particular, heavier weight training has a positive effect on the type-2 fibers. So, the logical conclusion should be that weight training can slow the rate of age-related muscle loss
Parents, if you have a daughter who is or may be interested in playing sports, or a woman who is already involved in a sport, this next one is extremely important. So important that I think I would be negligent if I didn’t include it. The incidence of ACL injuries is 2-10 times higher for women . This ligament is critical for stabilizing the knee joint and is often injured during rapid pivoting or during the landing phase of a jump. One possible contributor to this is the Q-angle, or quadriceps angle. This is the angle created by the femur and thus, quadriceps, and their pull on the patella. This causes the knees to cave inwards and is known as genu valgus a.k.a knock-knee. There is some debate as to the degree, which the Q-angle plays in ACL injuries, but I think it’s worth noting.
The single largest contributor to women injuring their ACL’s is inadequate strength. Women are weaker than their male counterparts of the same body weight. When running, jumping, and cutting, a female athlete is less capable of absorbing and generating the forces to safely execute the movement.
Women don’t have the ability to recruit muscle in the same way men do. As an example, let’s say a trained male can call upon 80% of his strength to perform as task. A woman of equal training may only be able to recruit 50%. These numbers aren’t to be taken literally. They’re just here to illustrate the point. If you have a man and a woman who are running, and then need to rapidly decelerate and change direction, the male will be better able to generate the forces to more safely move his body.
So what do we do about it? We can’t do anything about the Q-angle, and we can’t do very much about our ability to recruit motor units. However, we can control our strength to a very large degree. Strength is very trainable and a strong body is harder to break. Not only will the muscles become strong, but also the tendons, cartilage and ligaments will become stronger as a result of a properly designed strength program. We can train smart and hard, and make ourselves strong enough to lower the risk factors.
Now that we’re on the same page the question becomes, “How should women train?” Answer: exactly the same as men. Women should train with basic barbell movements for exactly the same reasons men should and for the same sets and reps when first starting. Women will adapt through the same process as men, but the difference is the rate and extent of adaptation. A man will gain strength faster than a woman on the exact same program, but that doesn’t mean a woman can’t or shouldn’t use the same program.
If the goal is to become strong-er then we must look for the best way to do it. An effective strength program consists of the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press. Chin-ups &/or pull-ups should be added at some point, and the power clean is highly beneficial, although not an absolute necessity. These movements work large amounts of muscle mass over a long effective range of motion, which enable you to get as strong as possible for as long as possible. All other movements are less desirable because they compromise on one or more of the criteria for performing them.
A perfect example is a half-squat. Even though a person can lift more weight in a half-squat, range of motion has been shortened to do so. The shortened range of motion prevents the hamstrings from contributing their share of the work. If they aren’t contributing they aren’t being stressed. If they aren’t being stressed they can’t recover and adapt. Furthermore, the load will have to be distributed throughout the other structures. The quads will have to take up a larger portion of the work, and this will place excessive stress on the quadriceps tendon.
Sets of 5 reps have stood the test of time as the best developer of strength. Sets of 5 have enough weight to add strength while also remaining light enough to maintain technique. The volume of work that can be accumulated with sets of 5’s will also have a positive effect on mass, which will improve a person’s leverages. Repetition ranges other than 5 will eventually be used, but right off the bat, 5’s are the best. Women will need to move to 4-5 sets of 3 reps at some point. Yes, you read that correctly, and I know what you’re thinking, “that’s WAY too heavy”. No, it actually isn’t. Just as it was stated a few paragraphs ago, women are unable to recruit motor units (muscle) as efficiently as men. This means that even if a female is lifting a weight that feels extremely heavy to them, they still have lots of muscle not being used. Women simply can’t access as much of their muscle as a man can. For this reason a heavier weight must be used to get a similar neurological stimulation. The heavier weight forces the central nervous system to recruit a greater number of motor units. Simply put, you’ll never work to your full potential if you abide by the more commonly prescribed rep ranges of 8-15
What have we learned?
The body and performance you desire requires dedicated strength training
Women should use basic barbell movements just as men
Sets of 5 reps work at first, but 3’s need to be used when progress stalls
There’s no need to worry about getting bulky
Being strong will help protect you from injuries and age-related issues
I hope I’ve convinced you to put down the 2 lb. dumbbells and pick the barbell. Even if you’re still skeptical, what do you have to lose by trying?
About the Author:
Scott Acosta is a Starting Strength Coach, USA Powerlifting Coach, Westside Barbell Strength Coach, and competitive powerlifter.
Scott’s best competition lifts are a 540 lb. squat, 391 lb. bench press, and 606 lb. deadlift in the 231 lb. men’s open weight class.
Amy Dixon. What is the Normal Range of Testosterone for a Woman? Live Strong. Available at http://www.livestrong.com/article/239396-what-is-the-normal-range-of-testosterone-for-a-woman/ Accessed September 4, 2016.
Medline Plus. Medical Encyclopedia. Testosterone. Available at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003707.htm Accessed September 4, 2016
Anne C. Looker, Ph.D.; Lori G. Borrud, Ph.D.; Bess Dawson-Hughes, M.D.; John A. Shepherd, Ph.D.; and Nicole C. Wright, Ph.D. Osteoporosis or Low Bone Mass at the Femur Neck or Spine in Older Adults: United States, 2005-2008. Center for Disease Control. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db93.htm Accessed September 4, 2016
Timothy E. Hewett, PhD. Why Women Have an Increased Risk of ACL Injury. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Available at http://www.aaos.org/AAOSNow/2010/Nov/research/research3/?ssopc=1 Accessed September 4, 2016