A while ago I coached this one girl. She was a very strong woman from Spain.
Mid 30s, independent, short and good looking, with a heavy duty job too.
And even though her personal life — and thus, her diet — had ups and downs during our time together, there was one thing about this girl: she always lifted heavy and trained hard.
Well one warm summer day she was about to go and squat as her program said.
It was heavy day on her schedule.
So she loaded the bar. Approached the rack. Took the usual deep, long, stomach-filling breath and right when she was about to start her lift...
“Uhmm, excuse me Miss... That’s.... that's just too much weight for you” — He was still panting from his rushed sprint to stop my client.
“You see, you are a girl, and that weight is for men... Er, I mean. That's the weight I squat with” continued Mr. Douchy McDouche “I'm an instructor here and I have to say that women like you shouldn't train like us do...”
Well of course he thought so. Some dudes just can't handle a strong woman, can they?
At least trainer McDouche got one thing right: If you are a woman you shouldn't train like a man.
But the reasons why are far from what he (and most people) think.
So let's put the proverbial and scientific nail in this coffin once and for all now, shall we?
For starters, you can handle more
Just as for many many other things in life, you women are far better equipped to deal with a lot more than us in the gym. Let’s take a look at some facts:
- You are far more resistant to fatigue than men, and you do better training at higher reps ranges than us.
- Thanks to estrogen abundance, you can also easily handle a lot more volume in a single training session. That’s more total work because estrogen aids in recovery.
- You can (and should) train more frequently. Not only do more reps and sets, but also train each muscle more times per week because you have better nutrient delivery to your muscles so your tissue repairs faster.
- You can cope with more metabolic stress. In non-nerd, your blood pressure is lower during exercise so you get more blood and oxygen to your muscles preventing lactate accumulation. So your muscles kinda work better for a longer time under stress.
- And you don't even need as much rest as men do to complete the same amount of work in the gym!
So long story short, yeah, you women ARE designed to work out harder, longer.
In most studies referenced above, when men and women participants were matched at strength, women outperformed men in almost every aspect.
Yet, you need to play to your strengths (pun intended)
So you now know you have what we call a “work capacity” advantage compared to men (take that, trainer McDouche).
This allows you to do more than we do in the gym, but in order to make the most of this, your training program needs to leverage this in a smart way.
Your (unfair) advantage gets smaller as the weight gets higher
As you work closer to your max strength, this advantage gets significantly smaller (point for the dudes, finally).
This is because even though women's muscles have more endurance, their nervous system is less efficient in using their strength to generate force quickly.
This does NOT mean you can't lift heavy.
But it does mean that in order for truly exploiting your full potential, you need do more work with submaximal efforts. It's counter-intuitive but by working with submaximal loads, you can — and will — get stronger than if you worked only with the most weight you could lift.
You should lift slightly slow...
Since your best bet isn't on explosive strength, an optimal program for you must have a slow lifting tempo (time on each portion of the exercise) in order to exploit your endurance.
...and always squat low
For structural reasons and the fact that your hips are fairly broader than men's, the force upon your knees is greater. So in order to prevent injuries, women should always squat below parallel.
Why? As explained by Greg Nuckols, Bs in Exercise and Sports Science and powerlifting world-record holder:
“Squatting below parallel will help reduce shearing forces on the ACL as hamstring involvement increases with squat depth.”
Your stance should be broad
Again for structural reasons (broad hips), you'll leverage your strength with a slightly broader stance for squats and a sumo stance for deadlifts. This will also reduce the burden on you knees so it's a win-win.
Training your core is a must
And no, this does not mean doing Insanity-ish long ab workouts.
But it does mean incorporating heavy core training in your program for three reasons:
- You women tend to be hypermobile so you need a strong core to balance you out.
- A thicker core will allow you to increase your intra abdominal pressure to support your spine under heavy weights.
- Because abs.
And since we are on abs...
What about fat burning?
Oh yeah. Let's talk fat burning.
Alright, so first I'll address the elephant in the room.
Most fat-loss program for women suck. They don't work. Zero. Nada. Zilch.
The light weights + hours of cardio + salad only diet is not only ineffective but sets the stage for a huge deal of health issues for you in the future, without mentioning the frustration and pain of watching the scale go back to your initial weight (or more) and feeling all your effort and sacrifice has lead to nothing at all.
With that said, now let's discuss why it's so freaking hard for you ladies to lose fat, and what how you should train to overcome it.
It's not your fault
It doesn't matter what any pushy trainer may have told you in the past. Losing fat is harder for women and your hormones are to blame.
In fact, your hormones are responsible for the way fat is distributed in your body.
Fat cells are sex hormones deposits. So since you have more estrogen, you also have more fat cells in certain areas to store it (i.e. your thighs and the back of your arms). It's an evolutionary adaptation to make sure you have enough hormones available for carrying a child. Darn you evolution.
Also, you are smaller
That means your metabolism will be slightly slower too. Because of the hormones thing, you have less muscle mass overall and more fat mass for storage.
The thing is that muscle mass is responsible for most of your calorie expenditure, so your metabolism is slower than say a dude of your same size.
But there's a bright side too
Estrogen also increases the rate of glucose uptake in the muscles so during most of your menstrual cycle, you are more sensitive to insulin.
That means you can take more advantage of carbs by burning them immediately and that you'll use more fat as fuel during training.
The “C” word
The dreaded cardio.
Despite how horrible cardio can be, it's also a necessary evil, especially for women trying to lose fat.
Since you have a slower metabolism, a fat loss diet for you is going to be low in calories.
So in order to not starve you to death, to keep your hormones working properly AND to eat a balanced diet, you will need more cardio than men do to eat enough food and still create a deficit to burn the fat and get the defined body you deserve.
The trick here is finding the sweet spot where you burn fat without compromising your hormonal balance and your health.
Putting it all together
So now we know that patronizing trainers were wrong all along, how should an effective program for an intelligent and strong lady like you should look like?
Well your program should:
- Incorporate heavy lifting, with the bulk of it with submaximal loads and medium rep ranges. Not 50 nor 100.
- Have around 15% more total volume than a men's program.
- Have low rest between sets.
- Train each muscle group frequently.
- Include heavy core work.
- Incorporate both high and low intensity cardio, programmed with purpose in the “sweet spot” if you want to burn fat.
Unlock your potential
Menno Henselmans, coach and statistics science genius said on a recent article:
“Most women are intuitively aware of their strengths in the gym, but they are either repressed by society or they are told to be like men. As a result, they don’t fulfill their athletic potential.”
And you know what? He's right. So far you've been held back. Held back by patronizing, judgmental people. By d-bag trainers. By lame “fat loss” plans for women. Or maybe, you've been held back because you were training like a man.
So it's time to break free.
It's time to unlock your power.
It's time to show them what you can do. To show them they were wrong.
It's time to show them that you don't train like a man.
Not because you can't do the same.
But because you can do more.
You are a Lady Boss.
And you train like one.
Abraham Aguilera helps busy people get stronger by using science to make fitness easy. He’s the founder of Fitness Playbook where he also blogs regularly.