For those of you why don’t know, there’s an absurd amount of misinformation in the fitness industry. In few niches is that more true that training for women. I want to throw my opinion in the ring in the hopes that you, my concerned readers, will share it around and a few women will read it before buying some pink dumbbells and wasting their time.
For starters, let me give you the TL;DR of this article – 90% of a woman’s training should be just like a man’s. Allow me to elaborate on the other 10% by going through the major physical differences between men and women that affect weight training, and the impact they should have on a woman’s training program.
1. Larger Q Angle
For those of you who don’t know what a Q angle is, here’s an illustration:
The average female has a steeper Q angle than the average male, which means more valgus force on the knee during activity. In general, this fact leads to two suggestions. First, women need to really keep an eye on knee health if they’re doing a lot of running, especially if they have a broader pelvis, and thus a bigger Q angle generally (including straight running, soccer, basketball, etc.). The same amount of running has the potential to do more damage to a woman’s knee than a man’s. This isn’t to say women should never run (as the recent trend on the interweb has been), they just need to be judicious and do more corrective exercises (a great segue into…). Number two: women should focus on VMO work and always squatting below parallel. The VMO helps stabilize the knee when valgus forces are placed upon it, so strong VMOs help prevent ACL injuries for women. Terminal knee extensions (TKEs) and step-ups will help with this. Squatting below parallel will help reduce shearing forces on the ACL as hamstring involvement increases with squat depth.
So to recap: A steeper Q angle shouldn’t mean any huge changes in training for women, it just means watching running volume, making sure you squat to the depth you should be squatting anyways, and building some nasty VMOs.
2. Narrower waist
Ladies, I have some bad news. Getting a ginormous squat or deadlift usually means you won’t have the most pronounced hourglass figure on the planet (However, you’ll acquire a world-class butt in the process, so things still work out in your favor).
The two largest determinants of how much force a muscle can produce are cross-sectional area and neuromuscular efficiency. In layman’s terms, a trained woman with the same size thighs as a trained guy (assuming the same body composition) should be able to produce about as much force with her legs as the guy can. This simple formula tends to work pretty well for things like leg press or hip thrusts, but not for squats.
What accounts for this difference? Guys have thicker torsos with thicker abdominal musculature that can better support the pelvis and spine. To close this gap, ladies need to focus on “core” work even more than guys do. I’m not talking about sets of 500 crunches or buying the latest pseudo-sexual ab gadget. I’m talking breathing paused squats and front squats, farmers walks, waiters carries, and other HEAVY core work that will strengthen the transverse abdominis and thicken the obliques, allowing for better support of the pelvis and spine under heavy loading.
3. Broader hips
This isn’t true in all cases, but it is in most. In general, women tend to do better with a wider stance on squat and a sumo deadlift rather than conventional. This is true both because they have the hip mobility to get to those positions which allow them to shorten the bar path substantially, and because a wider stance means a more upright torso, helping to address the problem of having a narrower waist.
4. Fewer and smaller fast twitch fibers
In general, fast twitch fibers are the ones most prone to hypertrophy and that most contribute to maximal force output. There are two implications here for women:
1) You should train even heavier than a man (relative to your max). Since you’re already working with fewer fast twitch fibers, you need to train in such a way as to ensure you optimize the fast twitch fibers you DO have.
2) You should do more volume than a man. Since you’re going to be more reliant on your slow twitch fibers, you need to increase your training volume and include some higher rep work (10-20 reps, not 100) to get everything you can out of your slow twitch fibers.
I remember reading an interview with the Chinese weightlifting coach. When asked how he trains his female lifters, he replied that he trains them just like the men, except with about 15% more volume. Keep that in mind.
One more offshoot here to keep in mind is that since women tend to have a fiber blend that is more fatigue-resistant, they shouldn’t rely as much on rep max calculators. I’ve seen a girl squat 155×15 with a 1rm of 185. 155×15 would project a 1rm of 235-255ish. If a man can squat 185, he’s only going to get 6 or 7 reps with 155.
5. Hormonal factors
This is probably what people expected me to lead with. However, I don’t think it’s really worth dwelling on since there’s not really any proactive steps a woman can take to address it (except good ol vitamin S). However, it is worth noting that higher testosterone levels are the primary reason there’s a bigger gap between the upper body strength of men and women than lower body strength. The muscles of the shoulder girdle have more androgen receptors than any other muscle group. This means that testosterone’s anabolic effects are most potent on these muscles. As an aside, that’s the biggest reason a big chest and broad shoulders are seen as a sign of virility in men – it’s a sign the man has higher testosterone levels and is therefore probably more fertile than other guys.
If you’re a lady and have additional tips, I’m all ears! Let me know in the comments. If you’re a guy who trains women, or if you’re trying to talk a girl into doing some real training and you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!