Women Training: Key Differences and Strategies

Written by the Boostcamp staff
Mar 15,2023 | 20 min read 86

What are some of the best exercises for women to include in their training regimen?

Some of the best exercises for women to include in their training regimen are squats, lunges, deadlifts, push-ups, and rows. These exercises target multiple muscle groups and help build strength, improve posture, and increase overall fitness levels.

Amanda Dvorak - Fitness & Powerlifting Writer | Last modified on March 15th, 2023

Whether it’s due to societal pressures to look a certain way or just not being knowledgeable about how the female body works, many gym-goers wonder if females should train differently than males to achieve their fitness goals.

Spoiler alert: they don’t have to. However, there are many differences between women’s and men’s genetic makeups that determine how they respond to training. Those differences can influence how a woman may want to structure her workout routine.

In this article, I’ll discuss:

  • How the physiological differences between men and women affect their training

  • Why women should train differently than men

  • Whether or not training the same way as men can make women bulky

  • Training programs in the Boostcamp app that are tailored to females

Do Women Need To Train Differently Than Men?

There are many training differences between men and women, but they’re likely not what you think they are.

For example, there are no gender-specific exercises. Women may be more drawn to certain types of exercise, such as group fitness classes or cardio-based exercises. But this is largely perpetuated by society’s (often ridiculous) ideals of how women should look and not because they are physically incapable of lifting heavy weights, which men are more likely to do.

Similarly, some workout programs may be more suited for women because they emphasize areas women are more likely to want to target, such as the glutes. But there’s no reason a woman couldn’t follow the same strength training program as a man if she knew it would help her reach her goals.

Of course, due to physiological differences, women and men will experience different results even if they follow the same routine. Men have more testosterone, so they can gain and maintain muscle mass more easily. They can also typically lift more weight and generate more force and power when resistance training, which can improve their endurance. (1) However, both women and men can benefit from incorporating gym workouts into their fitness routine for weight loss and overall health.

Conversely, women can better tolerate longer bouts of physical activity. Studies suggest this is because women have more slow-twitch muscle fibers, the ones responsible for more prolonged, slower movements. (2) Some researchers also speculate that women are more efficient at burning fat, which can help them sustain their activities once their bodies have depleted their carbohydrate stores.

However, if you’re a woman, this doesn’t mean you should feel forced to do cardio-only exercises if you don’t enjoy them or they don’t suit your goals. If you want to get strong and build muscle, you can follow a full body workout training program a man may follow, including an abs workout. You just have to manage your expectations and understand that, due to biology, you likely won’t see the same results.

Now, all that said, healthy women do have certain advantages over men when it comes to working out and may want to adjust their training accordingly. Let’s get into more of that below.

8 Reasons Women Should Train Differently Than Men

1. Women Can Recover Faster

Research has repeatedly shown that women in the gym can recover faster than men, both after full workout sessions and between sets when lifting weights. (4) Part of this is because in the gym, women tend to be weaker than men. They don’t lift as heavy and, therefore, don’t exert as much energy as their male counterparts. It makes sense, then, that their recovery times would be shorter.

As mentioned above, women also have more slow-twitch muscle fibers. These muscle fibers fatigue at a slower rate than fast-twitch muscle fibers, the ones used for quicker or more powerful movements, such as sprints and lifting heavy weights. Therefore, women's workouts don’t need as much recovery time between sets or as many rest days per week to maintain their core strength. However, incorporating an upper body workout into their routine can help women build strength and improve overall fitness.

It’s important to note that much of this information is also relative. For example, most people lifting three-pound dumbbells would be able to recover faster than someone lifting 25- or 30-pound dumbbells, regardless of gender.

As another example, let’s say a man and a woman both back squatted 200 pounds for three reps. For the man, this is 60% of his one rep max. But for the woman, it’s 85% of her one rep max. The male lifter would be able to recover faster because he has greater maximal strength, and 200 pounds is a lower-intensity lift for him.

On the other hand, suppose these hypothetical male and female lifters were following a program that called for back squats at an RPE (rate of perceived exertion) of 7. The male athlete would still lift more weight because he has greater overall strength than the female athlete. Even though the perceived effort is the same, the man would need more recovery time because he’s lifting a heavier weight that requires more energy to move.

2. Women Can Handle More Volume Than Men

Because women tend to lift lighter weights than men, they generate less power output. This means they need more volume to achieve the same muscle-building stimulus as a man who lifts heavier weights. Therefore, women's workouts can be more beneficial if they are doing more sets and reps if their goal is to build more muscle.

But aside from being able to do more work because the overall intensity of that work is lower, there may be some scientific reasons why women in the gym can handle more training volume.

Women have higher concentrations of estrogen, the hormone responsible for reproductive health. Estrogen may protect against muscle damage, meaning lifting weights may not induce the same amount of damage to the muscle fibers in women as it does in men. (5) Therefore, women can complete more work in a single strength training session because their muscles don’t fatigue as much.

3. Women Can Handle Higher-Intensity Training Better

In addition to protecting against muscle damage, estrogen also helps glucose (the sugar in the blood) travel to the muscles faster. (6) This is also partly why women can recover faster than men, and it suggests that women can better manage training at higher intensities.

Let’s say a woman training does a set of two back squats at 90% of her one rep max, for example. The demanding nature of this set signals the need for more energy in the body. In turn, glucose levels increase, allowing the body to recover faster. The female lifter is then better prepared to complete another set of back squats at the same intensity.

Women training can use this to their advantage when trying to get stronger because more time spent lifting heavier weights means better strength outcomes.

4. Women Are More Quad- and Hip-Dominant

Women’s quads and hips tend to be stronger than the hamstrings and other muscle groups at the back of the body. Because of this, women tend to activate their quads more during lower body exercises. This can lead to muscular imbalances and injuries. In fact, women training are more likely than men to tear their ACL due to an overreliance on their quads and less power output from their hamstrings. (7)

As such, women should adjust their training to focus more on the hamstrings, glutes, and other posterior muscle groups. This doesn’t mean they should completely forgo exercises like back squats, especially if they plan to compete in powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting. But they should add more posterior chain exercises like hip thrusts, lying leg curls, good mornings, and Romanian deadlifts to balance out the front and back muscle groups.

5. Women Are More Flexible Than Men

Women tend to have better flexibility than men, so they may not have to focus quite as much on stretching or mobility. These activities have benefits, such as improved blood flow to the muscles and better ranges of motion. But it may not be necessary for women to do activities like yoga very frequently.

Why are women more flexible than men, anyway? There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, higher estrogen and lower testosterone concentrations mean less muscle mass, and muscle mass can limit flexibility. This is especially true if lifters don’t train through full ranges of motion when lifting weights because the body can adapt to this limited mobility.

Women also have wider hips than men, leading to greater flexibility in the pelvic region. (8)

6. Women Have Less Upper Body Strength

Studies have shown that women’s upper body strength in relation to their body weight is much lower than men’s. (9) Researchers believe this is because women tend to have lower proportions of lean tissue in their upper bodies, and lean tissue is contractile tissue that allows the muscles to move more efficiently.

Therefore, women can benefit from adding more upper body work into their routines. Exercises like bench presses, overhead presses, bicep curls, tricep extensions, pull-ups, and bent-over rows can all help women strengthen and add muscle mass to their upper bodies.

Adding a dedicated push day to a workout program is also an excellent way to strengthen the upper body muscles.

7. Women Experience Less Metabolic Stress When Training

Women tend to have lower arterial blood pressure when working out, meaning their bodies are more efficient at pumping blood and oxygen to the muscles. (10) Therefore, they can better tolerate longer training sessions.

Research also suggests that women may experience less lactic acid build-up, and thus, less post-workout soreness. (11) This soreness can sometimes sideline athletes until it subsides, but women can work out more frequently without being impacted by it as much.

8. Women Have Menstrual Cycles

There is conflicting scientific data on whether or not the menstrual cycle can affect women’s training. (12) But many anecdotal reports suggest that women feel more tired and sluggish around their cycles, which impacts the amount of energy they have for their workouts. Some women also feel weaker in the days leading up to the start of their cycle, making weights that are usually easily manageable feel like max-effort lifts.

On the other hand, some women don’t feel any different and don’t notice any significant changes in energy or strength levels during their cycles.

Because this is so individual, it’s important to evaluate how you feel and adjust your training based on your own needs. For example, if you know you feel more fatigued leading up to your cycle, you may want to deload and reduce your training intensity and volume for a few days.

Can Women Get Bulky From Strength Training?

One of the main reasons women don’t train the same way as men (meaning lifting weights and strength training, which most people traditionally view as male-dominated exercises) is that they are afraid to get bulky. “Bulky” typically refers to a broad back, large and defined arms, and muscular legs. However, the myth that women can easily achieve this type of body from lifting weights is just that — a myth.

For women to gain huge amounts of muscle mass, they have to train a lot, eat a lot, and possibly even take performance-enhancing drugs. Women just don’t have enough testosterone to gain the same levels of muscle mass as men. For the vast majority of women, strength training a few days a week will not add a significant amount of bulk to their frames.

“Bulky” is a subjective term, anyway. The physique that one woman considers bulky may be another woman’s goal. As long as your workouts help you achieve the physique you want, and you enjoy them, you shouldn’t let your gender hold you back from doing what you like.

Best Training Programs for Women in the Boostcamp App

While women can follow whatever training program aligns with their strength and physique goals, the Boostcamp app has several female-oriented routines that take all of the above factors into consideration.

  • TSA Beginner Program by Bryce Lewis - This is a beginner powerlifting program with nine and 13-week cycles specifically geared toward women. The programs call for slightly higher percentages and RPEs (rate of perceived exertion) based on the research discussed above showing women can better tolerate higher-intensity training. They require four training days per week, with each workout taking about 60 minutes.

  • Strong Curves: Bootyful Beginners by Bret Contreras - While this program focuses on building the glutes, there are also plenty of upper body exercises and additional lower body movements to help you develop a well-rounded physique. The program is eight weeks long and requires three workouts per week that take about 45 minutes to complete.

  • Bikini Body by Menno Henselmans - This program is ideal for women who want the physique of a female bikini competitor but don’t want to compete. It’s designed to help you achieve a shapely lower body while losing body fat from all over. It only requires two days of training per week. However, you can make it three by moving up the first workout of the second week and then following a three-day schedule moving forward.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Should Men and Women Exercise Differently?

Men and women should exercise differently because their physiological differences affect how they respond to training. Women are better able to tolerate more volume and higher training intensities, so they can perform more reps and sets at higher percentages of their one rep maxes. They also recover faster, so they can handle higher training frequencies.

Should Women Do More Reps Than Men?

Women should do more reps than men for a few reasons. They can recover better due to higher amounts of estrogen (which helps prevent muscle fiber damage) and slow-twitch muscle fibers (which fatigue more slowly than fast-twitch muscle fibers). Because women also tend to lift lighter weights, they need more volume to achieve a similar muscle-building stimulus as men who lift heavier weights.

Does Gender Affect Training?

Yes, gender can affect training. Research has shown that women can handle more volume, require less recovery time, and tolerate higher training intensities better than men due to having higher estrogen levels. For these reasons, women may want to follow training programs that call for more sets and reps and have more training days.

Do Men Train Harder Than Women?

Men do and don’t train harder than women. They usually lift heavier weights, so they exert more energy and produce more power output than women. But because women can recover faster in between sets and handle more volume, they can end up doing more overall work than men. Women are also better at training with percentages closer to their one rep maxes, which means they may train at a higher relative intensity than men.

Final Thoughts

There’s nothing wrong with a woman following the same workout program as a man. So, if you’re a female whose considering starting a strength training routine, don’t be afraid to venture into the weight room. And don’t be scared to push the intensity with your workouts and lift heavy weights (as long as you can safely handle them, of course) — you’ll likely be able to complete more work and recover faster than the men in the gym with you!

References

1. Jones MT, Jagim AR, Haff GG, Carr PJ, Martin J, Oliver JM. Greater Strength Drives Difference in Power between Sexes in the Conventional Deadlift Exercise. Sports (Basel). 2016 Aug 5;4(3):43. doi: 10.3390/sports4030043. PMID: 29910289; PMCID: PMC5968884.

2. Haizlip KM, Harrison BC, Leinwand LA. Sex-based differences in skeletal muscle kinetics and fiber-type composition. Physiology (Bethesda). 2015 Jan;30(1):30-9. doi: 10.1152/physiol.00024.2014. PMID: 25559153; PMCID: PMC4285578.

3. Chrzanowski-Smith, O. J., Edinburgh, R. M., Thomas, M. P., Hengist, A., Williams, S., Betts, J. A., & Gonzalez, J. T. (2021). Determinants of Peak Fat Oxidation Rates During Cycling in Healthy Men and Women, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 31(3), 227-235. Retrieved Mar 14, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2020-0262

4. Fulco CS, Rock PB, Muza SR, Lammi E, Cymerman A, Butterfield G, Moore LG, Braun B, Lewis SF. Slower fatigue and faster recovery of the adductor pollicis muscle in women matched for strength with men. Acta Physiol Scand. 1999 Nov;167(3):233-9. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-201x.1999.00613.x. PMID: 10606825.

5. Tiidus PM. Benefits of estrogen replacement for skeletal muscle mass and function in post-menopausal females: evidence from human and animal studies. Eurasian J Med. 2011 Aug;43(2):109-14. doi: 10.5152/eajm.2011.24. PMID: 25610174; PMCID: PMC4261347.

6. Gorres BK, Bomhoff GL, Morris JK, Geiger PC. In vivo stimulation of oestrogen receptor α increases insulin-stimulated skeletal muscle glucose uptake. J Physiol. 2011 Apr 15;589(Pt 8):2041-54. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2010.199018. Epub 2011 Feb 21. PMID: 21486807; PMCID: PMC3090602.

7. The female ACL: Why is it more prone to injury? J Orthop. 2016 Mar 24;13(2):A1-4. doi: 10.1016/S0972-978X(16)00023-4. PMID: 27053841; PMCID: PMC4805849.

8. Smith, Francis W. M.D., F.R.C.R.*; Smith, Pamela A. B.Sc.†. Musculoskeletal Differences Between Males and Females. Sports Medicine and Arthroscopy Review 10(1):p 98-100, March 2002.

9. Miller, A.E.J., MacDougall, J.D., Tarnopolsky, M.A. et al. Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics. Europ. J. Appl. Physiol. 66, 254–262 (1993). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00235103

10. Sandra K. Hunter, Ashley Critchlow, In-Sik Shin, Roger M. Enoka. Men are more fatigable than strength-matched women when performing intermittent submaximal contractions. Journal of Applied Physiology 2004 96:6, 2125-2132

11. Hafen PS, Vehrs PR. Sex-Related Differences in the Maximal Lactate Steady State. Sports. 2018; 6(4):154. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports6040154

12. Janse de Jonge XA. Effects of the menstrual cycle on exercise performance. Sports Med. 2003;33(11):833-51. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200333110-00004. PMID: 12959622.

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