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Are There Differences in Training Women compared to Men?
I think that all of us understand that there are differences. However it’s not as big as you would think. There is around a 10% difference in training men and women, but adherence to this 10% is crucial for maximal gains. This article will pertain to strength training in general. The principles that we are going to discuss will work for general strength, powerlifting, weightlifting, or the strength and conditioning of a female for any sport.
I am going to touch on the science first, and then I will go over my experience with coaching some of the best women athletes in the country. When you put the two together, you get a powerful answer. Coaching women is a very rewarding job for most coaches because you are a small part of empowering women. You are teaching them that anything is possible, and they don’t have to fit some stereotype to be considered a beautiful woman. Women are also very receptive to their coaches in general as long as there is trust in the relationship. This makes it really easy to get women strong.
Let’s start with the science. The two biggest differences in men and women that need to be considered are:
• Muscle fiber types
• Sex Hormones
Women have fewer fast twitch fibers than men. All and all that’s not a totally bad thing. Type I fibers are the ones with more mitochondria and aerobic enzymes making them much more efficient at glucose and fatty acid oxidation. Along with their greater capillary density they are machines at burning up carbs. They can also recover faster with the increased oxygen. Therefore they can work harder.
Normally I will train my women with somewhere between 10-20% more volume than my men athletes. I will also train them closer to their one rep maxes to maximize what Type II fibers are there. Due to the oxidative nature of Type I fibers females will naturally have the muscular endurance to work closer to their one-rep maxes for more repetitions than men. Men have more of a one pop and then stop muscle fiber makeup.
I have seen women hit 90% of their 1-repetition maxes for 7-10 repetitions. A guy will normally never come close to that. Women can work up to 90% almost daily like a guy would work up to 80%. However each woman is still different, so a balance between volume and intensity must be established. You will still want to hit that high repetition hypertrophy zone to maximize their Type I muscle fiber makeup. I have found waves to work really well for women like:
Squats 3 sets of (2-3 reps at 88+% and 5-10 reps at 60-80%) looking something like:
Set 1 (85% x 3)
Set 2 (65% x 10)
Set 3 88% x 3
Set 4 68% x 10
Set 5 90% x 2-3
Set 6 70% x 10
A wave like this will get the Type I and Type II fibers. Women are interesting creatures, but with a well thought out plan they can get strong. The cool thing is that they will steadily get strong for a long time. Let’s look at their hormones for this conclusion.
Obviously men have a higher testosterone level than women, and of course that is the biggest reason why men are stronger and hold more muscle mass than women. Women of course also produce more estrogen, which isn’t all that bad. Normal amounts of Estrogen in women are shown to increase insulin sensitivity. That’s a good thing because that will allow insulin to be used for all of its anabolic effects and none of its negative effects. If one’s body is insulin sensitive, insulin becomes an efficient transport system for glucose from carbohydrates to the muscles instead of being stored as fat. Therefore carbohydrates can be used more efficiently. Being insulin sensitive will also increase protein synthesis by increasing amino acid uptake by the muscles and decreasing the amino acid (from muscle) being oxidized and stored as a reserve fuel source.
Women might not have the muscle building hormone, testosterone, but their estrogen works to make them superior to men metabolically. There is one more thing for women to consider. They might not have the huge surge of testosterone that men get, but they also don’t have to worry about the huge decrease that men receive either. That means women can continue to get stronger for a lot longer than men.
A man will peak with their testosterone somewhere between 20-25 years old. Their testosterone will then decrease every year from that point on. A woman’s testosterone peaks around the same time, but doesn’t really change significantly throughout most of their life. I know several powerlifting women well into their forties that are still setting world records like: Sioux-z Hartwig-Gary, Priscilla Ribic, and Liane Blyn. If you are a woman, you can’t really use age as an excuse. Most women simply stop because of family or career choices.
The main issue with menopause is the decrease in estrogen, which can cause some problems. This can cause bone density issues, insulin resistance, loss of muscle mass, and depression. A lot of this is countered when women go on insulin replacement therapy. However if they choose not tom there are supplements that they can take. They will probably need to supplement with vitamin D and calcium to prevent bone loss, and a change in diet might be considered if they become insulin resistant. A few changes in lifestyle and a woman can continue on her strength-training journey. A trip to the endocrinologist might be a good idea to make sure optimal levels of testosterone and estrogen are maintained.
Another thing to consider when training women is their menstrual cycle. Things change pretty drastically, and it’s important to note those changes in a woman’s program. Here’s the way it works:
A woman’s cycle begins the moment they finish menstruating. This part of their cycle comes along with increases in estrogen, normal progesterone levels, and an average body temperature. They will be the strongest during this phase lasting fourteen days ending with ovulation. The high estrogen levels make them highly insulin sensitive, so carbs are the fuel. This is the time to get strong with long high volume sessions.
Ovulation occurs around day 14 with peak estrogen levels and progesterone starts to increase. Studies have shown that females have about 11% higher contractile forces during this phase, so it’s time to max out. However you will want to keep the volume down because increased estrogen can affect collagen metabolism and neuromuscular control. All of this can make a female more susceptible to injury.
After ovulation a female enters the luteal phase. Estrogen will start to decrease, progesterone will increase, and body temperature will increase. This makes it a good time to drop the intensity, drop the carbs, and focus on getting lean. You will burn body fat faster, but you will be weaker during this point. You will also fatigue faster during this period. It’s a good idea to switch to fats for energy, since estrogen is tanked. The decrease in estrogen will make females more insulin resistant, so carbs aren’t the best choice during this phase.
Simply planning ahead will make programming and nutrition choices work a lot better for females if they simply plan for each phase. Programming should look a like this: work hard and heavy at the beginning, max out in the middle, and burn some fat while decreasing volume towards the end.
Well that’s the science behind training women. It’s complex, but knowing a few facts can really improve a females program. In my experience, coaching women is so much easier than coaching men. Women listen better and work harder. There are probably some social reasons for this respect, but honestly that is out of my scope of practice. It’s easier to get improvements for women, and that’s probably because they are coachable.
The only challenging side in my experience is dealing with the emotions. Some women like Rebecca Gerdon seem to deal with their emotions like a Navy Seal or something. She was always happy when I was coaching her. Others are a daily guessing game. A good coach has to be able to deal with those fluctuations. The key is being able to get them to see what is logical and what is emotion. An athlete or trainee can let emotions send them for a loop. You can come in one day, have a bad day, and think that your training is ruined. Logically it’s just the end of the luteal phase, so you are supposed to be weak. It’s just hard to see that logic sometimes.
It’s a coach’s job to form a relationship that is honest and trustworthy. Then a coach can help the female athlete see the truth because she trusts him or her. I coach several females, and for the most part I love it. However there are a few relationships that need constant nurturing, and that can be a real challenge. It’s those challenges that remind me why I love coaching. I love the puzzles. I love to solve puzzles. My puzzles just happen to be human puzzles.
Look I am not a female. I am just regurgitating the literature that I found and giving my experience having coached hundreds of females. I would love to hear from you women and anyone that might lend some expert advice or insight. Please comment below or ask me any questions. This is a topic that I care about, so discussion is welcome.
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