The answer to that question is yes and no. This column will explain the reasons why.
For generations women have been perceived as being the weaker sex. But it is simply not true. Strength and speed are not a monopoly of the male gender. Women and men have the same capability to develop strength and speed. Relative to fat-free body mass, women have nearly the same strength as men. If one were to take the same muscle unit from a woman and a man and put it in an identical artificial environment with the same growth media and the same stimulation, the muscles would grow at the same rate. However, in the body the hormonal and metabolic environment varies between men and women. Women have smaller muscle fibers and ordinarily have less overall muscle mass. Nevertheless, women are gaining in rate of competitive performance on a par with men in both speed and strength.
There really are no specific gender-oriented strength training programs. Generally, what works for men also works for women. As mentioned previously, women have a similar biological ability to develop strength as men do, but will not acquire the same muscle mass due to hormonal differences. Nevertheless, women will derive the same benefits from most exercises that men do.
However, gender differences exist in the response to strength training and there are several biomechanical issues to consider for many movements. We will examine the hormonal and physiological responses of women to strength training and also biomechanical issues and how they relate to training programs.
Hormones and the Body
The sex hormones largely contribute to the various gender differences in most physiological responses to training. Although both genders produce both testosterone and estrogen hormones, the relative ratios are significantly different. Men normally produce higher levels (approximately 10 times that of women) of testosterone and lower levels of estrogen. Women produce the opposite. Most of the professional female bodybuilders that grace the pages of muscle magazines, gain their extreme muscle mass with the aid of supplemental anabolic/androgenic steroids. Federally classified as Schedule II drugs, their usage carries legal ramifications as well as potential physiological side effects.
Adolescent females begin to secrete larger amounts of estrogen shortly at puberty, which has a significant impact on body growth. The pelvis widens, breasts form, and the body begins to lay down body fat. Estrogen also increases the rate of bone growth, which halts within two to four years after the onset of puberty. Consequently, the female adolescent grows rapidly for a few years after puberty and then stops growing.
On the contrary, although testosterone secretion in men stops at birth, it resumes at puberty. The young male has a longer growth period and attains greater height. The higher rate of testosterone in young men produces increased muscle mass and bone compared to women. As well, men develop broader shoulders, narrower hips and greater chest girth. Men also tend to deposit their body fat in the abdominal and back area whereas women carry their body fat on their hips and thighs.
Although both testosterone and estrogen are anabolic (promoting the process where smaller units build bigger units in the body), testosterone is primarily responsible for increases in muscle tissue hypertrophy. This, however, does not mean that the female has little or no ability to gain muscle mass and strength. Although weight training for women has been historically disfavored because of its supposed masculinizing effects, it is now well recognized as valuable in developing strength and overall fitness.
Muscle and Strength
In terms of contractile characteristics and the ability to produce force, muscle is identical in both males and females. The differences that exist in strength levels are primarily a function of total muscle mass. Only 24 percent of the typical female body is muscle mass, whereas the male is 40 percent muscle mass.
Strength of the lower female body is similar to men’s when relative to body weight and lean body mass. Men are stronger in the upper extremities due to their greater development of muscle mass in that area. Because of this and the fact that a female typically use the muscle mass in her lower body to a much greater degree then she uses the muscle mass of her upper body, the female is seldom as strong in absolute measurements as the male.
The major issue in regards to physiology and women in strength training is the reproduction cycle. While there is little data to show that continuing an exercise program after becoming pregnant is harmful (although the intensity may have to be decreased), there is some debate as to whether pregnancy is a good time to begin anything but the mildest exercise program. Considering the stress that a new exercise program can cause by itself, starting an intensive training program after becoming pregnant is usually considered a poor idea.
Because of the hormonal effects of pregnancy, especially towards the end, movements requiring very large joint ranges of motion (such as deep squats) are contraindicated. The effects of hormones such as relaxin are to increase joint and ligament laxity, which can increase the risk of injury during certain movements. Obviously, pregnant women should not continue to perform exercises that cause them pain during pregnancy.
Various hormone levels constantly change during a woman’s menstruation cycle. While many studies that measured physiological responses of the menstrual cycle in women during exercise found no performance changes, any changes most likely depend on the individual and her specific conditions. Some women suffer more from cramping, PMS, or heavy bleeding than others and this may impact their performance.
Several coaches suggest their female athletes log their menstrual cycle and associated physical and emotional states. They can also chart their exercise and athletic performance to establish strongest and best training days and when they are impaired. This will facilitate modifying a training schedule by planning for strenuous sessions and peak training and when rest is needed.
Factors that can be altered are volume (number and duration of repetitions), intensity (speed and load), and difficulty (skill level and injury risk). Nutritional considerations should also be factored to optimize recovery and fuel stores. Considering that testosterone peaks around ovulation, it may be beneficial to plan for peak strength training loads at this time.
Anatomical and Orthopedic Concerns
Women have a higher incidence of postural and orthopedic issues. The main anatomical structural difference in the female is that the pelvis is wider in comparison to the males. The female frame is broader, more tilted, and is designed to accommodate child bearing. Many women also have postural problems that can impact their movements. This and other issues will be discussed.
Ideally, the quadricep muscle would pull directly upwards on the patella (kneecap). However, since the upper leg attaches to the lower leg at an angle, it does not. The difference between the straight line of pull and the actual line of pull of the quads on the patella is referred to as the ‘Q-angle.’ As a consequence of having wider hips, women typically have a greater Q-angle than men, which may predispose them to incorrect tracking of the patella and knee problems. A woman with a wide pelvis or hips may find a narrow stance squat uncomfortable and put increased stress though the joints. Thus, women should be sure their knees track over the second largest toe to avoid negative knee stresses.
Females also tend to have a weaker vastus medialis (the inner muscle of the quads) than males. However, strengthening the muscles, ligaments and tendons surrounding the knee joint will provide the extra stability that the female needs.
Women may have problems with bar comfort during squats because of less overall upper-body strength and lower-trap mass.
Joint laxity occurs in women more than men due to hormonal differences. Some studies report a higher incidence of injuries in female athletes during the premenstrual cycle possibly due to the hormone relaxin. Therefore, some movements such as deep squats may be problematic at certain times during the menstrual cycle.
Postural considerations should be assessed before embarking on a weight-training program to avoid injuries. An anterior pelvic tilt from childbearing or poor postural habits should be corrected by improving the tension relationships in the low back and the abdominal muscles.
Another postural factor is hyperlordosis (exaggerated inward curve of the low back) that is commonly seen in women who routinely wear high-heeled shoes. The calf muscles often shorten and pull the knee into hyperextension with an anterior pelvic tilt as an adaptation to wearing high heels. If this posture is not corrected, some movements could cause injuries due to muscle imbalances.
Some women who have had Cesarean section childbirth or surgeries often lose the ability to tense and maintain a tight abdominal musculature. This capability is crucial during many movements such as the squat and deadlift as it supports the low back musculature and is core to maintaining correct form. The trainee must relearn the ability to adequately contract the abdominal muscles to perform movements safely.
While there are really very few gender differences in specifically training the low back, women should be encouraged to train their low back in addition to their abdominal musculature to achieve a balance of low back and abdominal strength.
Surprisingly, those women who wear high-heeled shoes often have chronically tight low back musculature and would benefit from stretching these muscles and conditioning their abdominal musculature. In contrast, many women have a tendency to overdo abdominal exercises while neglecting their low back. This can ultimately lead to strength imbalances in the low back and hypertonic abdominal musculature, which contribute to low back strain. Women should be encouraged to include low back and abdominal training and using full range of motion in their overall core-conditioning program to correct postural problems.
Other than hormonal, postural and reproductive issues, the physical differences between men and women are not significant enough that women should train differently than men. It is important for the athlete and coach to remember that all athletes are individuals and may respond differently. Just as with men, woman wishing to learn weight-training movements should first be assessed for posture, muscle imbalances, joint stability, flexibility and hormonal status. Thereupon, a competent instructor should teach proper technique. Adherence to precise execution of the movement should be the utmost priority rather than weight. If the weight training is performed correctly, it is one of the most valuable and safe exercises for strength and conditioning for women as well as men.