The Myth of Women & Weight Training
These days, if you peek into any CrossFit box (gym), it’s not unusual to find an almost 50/50 split between the sexes. However, if you go into any standard gym chain the weights section is still a heavily male dominated area. There’s a few reasons for this, but the consistent offender is to do with the myth surrounding weight training and women, and as one female client put it “ not wanting to turn into a man…. with muscles”.
Even though we all probably know that guy at work who spends five times a week in the gym, lifting weights, but still looks like he couldn't lift a kettle, and needs to get a good meal inside of him. Reinforcing the point, that putting on lots of muscle mass properly can be no easy task for either sex, but here I will discuss some of the ideas from the strength and conditioning community regarding females and resistance training.
‘Before puberty there aren’t really many differences in height, weight, and body size between boys and girls. During puberty though oestrogen in girls increases fat deposition and breast development, whereas testosterone production in boys increases bone formation and protein synthesis. Boys have a longer growth period, and commence puberty at a later stage, therefore adult men tend to achieve greater overall stature than adult women. Meaning women tend to be lighter, and have broader hips than men, who have broader shoulders than their female counterparts (on average).’(1)
Men also tend to have larger cross sectional areas of muscle than women, more muscle fibres and more quantity of muscle. It’s important to note that these variations can differ just as much between two individual males too.
Although women have the same array of muscle fibre types as men, with both type 1 (slow twitch) and type 11 (fast twitch) and all the other subtypes (like type 11x etc), they have less of them and to be specific less fast twitch muscle fibres. Muscle fibres come in mainly two types: type 1 or slow twitch fibres used for endurance activities, and type 11 or fast twitch muscle fibres, the ones used for speed, strength, and power. Important to note that you cannot change or switch the fibre type through training, you can only change the size of the muscle fibres that are genetically given to you (NB only when considering types 1 and 11. Subtypes like 11x etc can switch).
‘Having said that, the responses of muscle fibres are more rapid after working out in women than men. Meaning that initially women are more responsive to weight training than their male counterparts, they just won’t get the same gains (muscle mass) as men do.’(2)
So the way hypertrophy (muscle growth) works is that after sufficient resistance training there is damage to the muscle fibres, in which there is an inflammatory response in the body, degradation of damaged proteins and muscle fibres, where hormonal and other signal interactions occur which involve the synthesis of new proteins that adapt the damaged muscle fibres, i.e muscle then grows back stronger and larger.
‘Testosterone is the primary hormone that is involved in muscle and tissue growth, along with growth hormone and IGF’s. Testosterone is also the primary male sex hormone and women have 15 to 20 times lower concentrations than men’ (1). Although increases in testosterone after exercise have been found in studies on men, most studies have not been able to find the same acute variations in testosterone in women. Which means that the average female will not be able to get massive or look like a man unless without the help of anabolic drugs, or a genetic predisposition.
So now, unless you have been living in a cave for the past few decades you should all of heard of the caveman diet, or paleo diet. The main argument for it, is that 2.6 million years ago was the start of the Paleolithic era and humans in this era were hunter gathers, eating seafood and lean meat, fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts & seeds. 10,000 years ago we discovered agriculture and moved out of the Paleolithic and into the Neolithic. This 10,000 year time frame represents only about 1% of the time that humans have been around, and thus our human genetic code has not adapted and does not favour a grain & dairy based modern diet and that is one of the reasons, that people who adhere to the Paleo argument believe, there’s so much disease around these days. So without discussing anymore of the diet I’m going to use Mark Rippetoe’s words and piggy back onto the Paleo idea, by discussing how ‘as humanity has developed throughout history, physical strength has become less critical to our daily existence, but no less important in our lives. Our strength, more than any other thing we possess, still determines the quality and quantity of our time in these bodies. Whereas previously our strength determined how much food we ate and how warm and dry we stayed, it now merely determines how well we function in these new surroundings we have crafted for ourselves as our culture has evolved. As the nature of our culture has changed, our relationship with physical activity has changed along with it. We previously were physically strong as a function of our continued existence in a simple physical world. Since most of us now have been freed from the necessity of personally obtaining our subsistence, physical activity is regarded as optional. But the reality of millions of years of adaptation to a ruggedly physical existence will not just go away because desks and sofas were invented’ (3). This physical world wasn’t discriminatory either, strength was needed for both sexes in animals and humans, for survival and general function. Exercise is now the thing we must do to replicate the conditions under which our bodies were created for – it makes our brain and our bodies normal and fit.
‘So the benefits that everyone can get from strength training are:
Enhanced bone strength reducing the risk of Osteoporosis.
Stronger joints that help in injury prevention
Increased functional strength for sports and daily activities
Increased lean muscle mass, and decreased body fat
Higher metabolic rate because of the increase in muscle, therefore weight loss
Improved self-esteem and confidence
Improved physical performance.
Improved flexibility (yes, it’s a myth weight training makes you inflexible)’ (2)
The truth is strength training helps reduce body fat by increasing lean muscle mass. These changes may result in a slight increase in overall body weight, since lean muscle is denser than fat. Which is why using bathroom scales isn’t often the best measurement of health!!
It is just as important for women to develop strength and be physically fit as it is for men; our biology and physiology rely on it, to keep us healthy – there are many articles out there at the moment discussing the detrimental effects of sitting and being sedentary.
But, fear not though female readers, this doesn’t mean that you have to suddenly go and queue in the overcrowded, Neanderthal dominated, weights section of the gym to fight over barbells and bench presses. There are loads of body weight exercises, kettlebells, and good personal trainers who will be able to show you exercises and create programmes that will give you the strength developments and variety you need, without the intimidation of the testosterone fuelled weights room.
(1) Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning by G. Gregory Haff & N. Travis Triplett
(2) The Science & Practise of Strength Training 2nd Ed by Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky & William J. Kraemer.
(3) Starting Strength BBT 3rd Ed by Mark Rippetoe