Should men and women train differently?

Posted on Posted in Training Guides

This story was originally written for ABC News Online and Life Matters

When it comes to exercise, modern-day women are showing men a thing or two about being strong and fit.

And it's not only elite athletes — there are just as many female weekend warriors and hard-core gym devotees as males.

There are important physical and physiological differences between the two sexes, such as hormones, the amount of muscle we naturally carry and base-level strength.

So does that mean we need to train differently?

The short answer is no.

Ladies can hit it just as hard as men during exercise — however, there are a few tweaks they can make to get more out of their workouts.

Your structure counts

In general, no exercise or training method is off-limits to ladies, unless they're injured or it doesn't work for them structurally. But that also applies to men.

 

Having said that, how certain exercises are performed will be determined by the structure of your pelvis and how loose or tight your ligaments are. And often these factors are influenced by your gender.

For instance, the pelvis shape that is most common in women tends to result in an over-arch in the lower back, says health scientist and personal trainer Claire Norgate.

This is a posture known as lumbar lordosis, where your pelvis is tilted too far forward. It's a very common condition in women — and it can cause pain through increased pressure on your spine.

Many strength-training exercises can accentuate lordosis. But you don't have to avoid them. You just need to ensure you're doing them with the correct posture (try to position your hips so they are in the same line as your rib cage).

If an over-arched back is a problem for you, prioritise strengthening your hamstrings, do plenty of hip extension exercises and build a strong core. These exercises will help tilt your pelvis back into a more neutral position.

Flexible joints

For example, if you're very flexible (hypermobile), it means the ligaments surrounding your joints are loose, putting the joints at risk of damage.

"That means you might have to decrease how far you go into certain exercises, to protect your hips, shoulders and knees."

While lordosis and hypermobile joints are far more common in women, it's important to know that men can experience them too.

And ladies, oestrogen acts like an anti-inflammatory, so you might not feel injuries as quickly as you should. If you do feel aches and pains from exercise, don't ignore them.

Core strength isn't just for girls

Now that women aren't afraid of the barbell, blokes could benefit from stepping into a few classes that are usually the domain of ladies, such as Pilates.

As well as strengthening the "core" (the muscles supporting your torso), Pilates improves posture and coordination, and also develops often-neglected muscle groups, including one many men never think about — the sling of muscles at the base of the pelvis, known as the pelvic floor.

There's evidence it can improve erectile dysfunction, which affects one in five men over 40, according to Andrology Australia.

Both men and women can also build pelvic floor strength with exercises you can do at home on your own.

Can women bulk up?

Many women worry that weight training will leave them resembling a female Arnold Schwarzenegger. So they either avoid it altogether, or stick with dumbbells so light they barely break a sweat.

"That's borne out of a misunderstanding of muscle physiology, where the belief is that if you lift heavy weights you'll bulk up, and if you lift lighter weights for more repetitions you won't," explains sports scientist Tony Boutagy.

"That has well and truly been proven wrong.

And to be brutally honest, if you're not working your muscles to exhaustion, you're not getting maximum value from a strength training workout.

Women's lower testosterone levels will limit the muscle bulk they will gain.

Dr Boutagy also points out women rarely train as much as men to lay down enough muscle tissue.

"Plus, they aren't consuming enough calories and don't eat the large amount of quality protein throughout the day to build muscle that size," he says.

"Lifting heavy weights will not make women look like masculine female body-builders who train every day and take steroids."

Everyone wants to be "toned", but what most people don't realise is that tone is actually muscle that's only covered with a modest amount of fat.

Strength battle of the sexes

Seeing as there aren't significant differences between the two sexes when it comes to training, does that mean women can get as strong and fast as the blokes?

Unfortunately no, according to Dr Boutagy.

"Everything that makes a good endurance athlete, such as VO2 max [the ability for your heart, muscles and lungs to use oxygen during exercise] and lactate threshold [how long you can exercise at high intensity], is more pronounced in males than females," he says.

 

Women can get really strong, but their smaller skeleton and muscle mass, loose joints and lower testosterone generally prevent them from being able to build man-size strength.

Ms Norgate agrees: "Even a man who's the same height as a woman will be stronger because he'll have slightly bigger bones."

Women also naturally have 30 per cent less upper-body muscle mass than men on average, she says.

"We aren't designed to do super-heavy physical tasks. Our bodies are designed to push a baby out," Ms Norgate says.

"So we sacrifice our muscle mass and strength to be flexible."

Of course, there are no absolutes — some men will be hypermobile and have low testosterone, which means they struggle to build lots of muscle.

On the other hand, some women will be short and naturally have more testosterone, so they can build more muscle and strength than the average female.

Although those women are rare, that doesn't mean all women shouldn't try to become as strong as they can.

Apart from helping preserve your muscle mass and bones, it's a fantastic weight management tool and many people also find getting stronger incredibly empowering.

But then again, the same goes for guys.

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