Do Women Need to Train Differently than Men?
Since I began training in 2002, I’ve worked with clients of all types, ranging from kids who have never touched a weight to professional athletes to everyone in between. As I’ve gotten better and more well known in the industry, higher-level clients have come to seek me out, and that includes models, actors, and even a very healthy number of other trainers. Things have changed a bit over the last 9 years.
However, despite where on the spectrum of athleticism and training experience they’ve fallen, on thing has remained pretty constant over the past decade is this: the vast majority of my clients have been women.
I’m not sure why. It could be because women in genera are more likely to hire a trainer, and perhaps the fairer sex is therefore over-presented in the client base of nearly every trainer.
Perhaps it’s the area I work in, or that most of my business has been referral, and women seem to take word of mouth a bit more seriously than men.
While I can’t say for certain why the majority of my clients have been women, I can say that I’ve come to regard myself as an expert in training women, and—perhaps more importantly—recognize and address the concerns many when have about training.
And that’s what I’ll attempt to do in this post…but we’re not going to cover some things you might be thinking.
I have to believe that most people reading are aware that women don’t immediately get “bulky” from training with weights.
I know that you’re educated enough to know that you don’t have the same physiology as a guy, so you aren’t going to turn into she-hulk. I refuse to believe that anyone reading my blog still feels that being a “cardio queen” is the key to the body you want.
I consider those battles won and over, and outside of the lip service paid above, I won’t touch on them overmuch.
That said, we’re going to cover some information that’s relevant to people who know the basics and want to know how train outside of that.
This is a question that I’ve answered several thousand of times over the course of my career—and to be honest, it’s a question I’ve been getting A LOT lately. (I know who’s to blame for that, but more on that tomorrow).
So, let me just answer you and put it to bed.
Certainly, it’s true, in the most basic sense of the word; however, simple answers to complicated questions very rarely help anyone, and so we must look closely.
The more accurate answer is: “It really depends.”
Which leads me into my point…
And so, to lead into some information, while women certainly don’t “need” to train differently than man, there are numerous reasons that women can—and, often, should—train differently than men.
Look, before people start jumping on me, here’s my concession statement: yes, women and men can train pretty much the same way and achieve their goals. In fact, I’d say that men and women can and should be doing about 90% of things the same way.
Which means, that the only need to be doing about 10% of things differently. Doesn’t seem like much, but as the old saying goes, the Devil’s in the details, right?
One of the things we’ve seen with fat loss programming is that making changes to just 10% of the program can increase results dramatically – if that’s the case, is it really so unreasonable that would apply to gender specific training? I think not.
Here’s the real deal: I believe that ALL training should be goal dependent, and therefore all programs should be designed with that goal in mind. I mean, for starters, I don’t advise that people try to turn Final Phase Fat Loss into a mass gaining program—and you have no idea how often people ask me how to do that.
I’ve designed countless specialization programs for a number of bodybuilding programs, because I simply believe that if you want big arms, you need a program designed just for that.
I’m going to discuss the main reasons why, and cover the differences in program that I tend to favor in order to help women construct their sexiest body.
We’ve all got the same parts (I’m talking muscles, not genitals) but we don’t all want them to look the same way. Which means that when we’re looking at programming for women, we have to take into account how they want the finished product to look. Here are the top three muscle groups that improper training can negatively affect from a visual standpoint.
I’ll preface this by saying that I happen to love chicks with muscular, athletic legs. I dig it when a girl has big quads or a nice split along the side of her leg delineating the hamstring/quad region. Soccer players and gymnasts, I’m your guy.
That said, most women don’t like this, and they certainly don’t want it. In fact, despite having explained my love of legs to my clients over the years, they remain stubborn and ardently opposed to the idea that “big” legs can be sexy.
Well, I submit the following as evidence to the contrary:
ALL THAT SAID, it’s their body, not mine, and it’s my job to find ways to help them get into great shape without building up big legs.
While I covered that women don’t get “huge” just from lifting weights, all muscle will respond to weight training with a mild hypertrophic response, and given the way jeans are cut today, even adding a ¼ inch to a clients thighs can be devastating. (Ever have a model call you up and berate you for rendering her $400 Helmut Lang jeans useless? Not a good day).
Here’s one of the exercises I avoid for women: the forward lunges. While I don’t want to encourage too much favoritism or demonize the forward lunge, it must be said that there are certain exercises that put TOO much emphasis on some muscles.
For lunges, we go back, not forward.
Forward lunges place a lot more emphasis on the section of the quadriceps at the base of the knee—most specifically the vastus medialus—especially eccentric emphasis. Think about it: when you lunge forward, your lead leg has to “catch” your entire body weight and stop/absorb your momentum, and the muscles around the knee will do the majority of the work.
Conversely, when you lunge backwards, your glutes get a lot more work (on both the moving and non-moving leg) and the section of the quads that run up and down the length of the femur (rectus femoris) get a bit more work.
By favoring reverse lunges over forward, you can still build strength and definition.
As you can see, Flavia doesn’t have scrawny chicken legs, but neither does she have a problem shopping for jeans.
Her legs look great and there is even definition between the muscles, but you don’t see the outer thigh development or any “overhang” over huge vastus medialis around her knee.
Instead, she looks strong, but very feminine. (Obviously, the enhanced femininity may be due, in part, to the high heels. Just sayin’)
Again, while I happen to think our friend in the “squat” picture I posted above looks hella-sexy, Flavia’s legs are more in line with what the majority of my female clients would like to attain.
And, to reiterate, a big part of that is replacing forward lunges with reverse lunges the majority of the time.
To illustrate a contrast, let’s swing things back over to the guys for a second.
As you can tell, I think the the opposite is true for men.
Which is to say, guys tend to do well with forward lunges—for those same reasons. Forward lunges are great for developing the musculature around the knee, which peaks out from the bottom of shorts and just looks more impressive. As guys tend to want “sick wheels,” and tend to worry a bit less about this is the way to go.
It’s important to have exercise variety, and forward lunges are a great exercise. Training the muscle aroudn the knee is important, as long as we don’t over-emphasize it. Most good programs will have a few sets of forward lunges.
Overall, for women who want strong, shapely legs and a nice but without building up lots of quad muscle, it’s often a good idea to use reverse lunges in place of forward lunges fairly frequently.
Another area where men and women should differ their training somewhat is the midsection.
Certain abdominal exercises are better than others, and we’ve all got favorites—I’m not asking you to abandon any.
Instead of thinking about which exercises to do, I’d rather talk about how to do them. In this case, I’m talking about loading.
The simple fact of the matter is, with very few exceptions, I don’t think women should be doing weighed abdominal work—especially with any high level of volume.
In fact, I’ll take a step further and say that women should avoid high volume abdominal training overall, at least with dynamic movements.
You see, like any other muscle, if you subject your rectus abdominal muscle to heavy load and/or high volume, you’ve got a recipe for muscle growth—that is, it’ll make your abs thicker and more developed.
For guys, this isn’t so bad. A thick set of abs can help you look leaner by popping your abs out a bit even when you’re not shredded.
So, why doesn’t this apply to women?
Well, because it really only happens when you’re about 10% or below. Women—even lean women—are almost never that lean.
Here’s the thing: having thick or overdeveloped abs is a huge problem for the female physique. When a woman is in very lean condition, it won’t make much of a difference. You may even see a bit more of the linea alba, which is the mid-line of your abs.
Here’s a picture of Britney Spears, who has incredibly thick abs from too much (incorrect) abdominal training:
She doesn’t look bad, of course. In fact, a lot of people maintain that this is the best Britney ever looked. While I am partial to her original school girl look, it’s hard to disagree. Even though her waist is a bit blocky, overall she’s still got sex appeal. However, this look only works because she’s so damn lean.
Well, then you have thick abs with fat on TOP of them, and the result is something like this:
While I certainly don’t mean to pick on Britney, I think her physique teaches us a valuable lesson. There IS too much of a good thing; and in this case, that thing is abdominal development.
The moral of the story is that thick abs lead to a physique that will ONLY look good if you’re below 14% bodyfat (as an estimate), and that’s something that is murderously difficult to maintain.
For women, I don’t advise doing any weighted abdominal work. Additionally, I also prefer not to do much in the way of dynamic work (exercises that move you through a range of motion). Oh, sure, a few sets of crunches a week is fine, and you might even get something out of it. However, I prefer focus on stability exercises like Palloff presses, and rocking planks.
Make these movements the mainstays of your abdominal training, and you’ll be able to develop a strong, lean, sexy core without having to worry about overdevelopment.
As I mentioned, I think that 90% of things that women do, men should do, and vice versa. I think men and women should train the following muscles pretty much the same way:
I could write more about all of these, but I think it’s obvious that a sexy back looks great in a dress, and sculpted shoulders are all the rage in Hollywood.
NOTE – you may notice I left “triceps” off that list. I have an entire blog post forthcoming on the tricky triceps for women. Enough comments and you’ll get it!
We’ll talk more about all of this in the coming days, as Women’s Fitness Week continues here are RFS.
As I mentioned above, I think we’re all past the phobias about women and weight training, and I hope this post has served to drive home that women en masse SHOULD be training with weights.
Like I said, there’s a lot of carryover between male and female training. It’s the little differences that can go a long way to getting you towards your goal. After all, the Devil’s in the details.
PLUS – if you’re looking for a brand new fitness plan JUST for women, check out Flavia’s program, CURVALICIOUS
It’s designed to hit every part of your body, and has a special workout just for shapely legs. Mmmmm.