In the strength training realm, women have always been thought of as "inferior" to men—unable to gain strength or muscle mass as quickly.
While it’s a widely accepted sentiment (even by females themselves), dig deeper into the scientific literature, and you’ll soon realize that “You lift like a girl” isn’t truly an insult like toxic masculinity thinks it is.
But what does that mean, exactly?
Well, you’ll have to continue reading to find out. This article explores women's muscle rate gain relative to men's and other sex-related training differences.
Myth busted: Women gain relative muscle mass at the same rate when strength training
Let’s get this out of the way right from the start. Research (here, here, and here, amongst others) shows long-term, relative rates of muscle growth and strength gains to be roughly equal for men and women.
In other words: if a man gets 15% stronger post-training (compared to his baseline strength), a woman can also expect to get 15% stronger after strength training (also compared to her baseline strength). The same goes for muscle gain rates.
You're probably reeling in disbelief—and have 2 questions weighing heavily on your mind. Don't worry; we'll address them right away:
First, men often start with more muscle and strength (i.e., higher baseline levels), primarily due to higher testosterone levels. Second, and arguably, more importantly, the sad truth is that women don't strength train all that often—and even when they do, they're prone to training in a suboptimal manner. Think: lifting light weights, relying excessively on cardio, and failing to eat enough. All this translates to unrealized potential.
If higher testosterone levels equal a higher base level of muscle mass and strength levels in a man, wouldn’t that also mean they’ll experience quicker gains in both than a female? Well, here’s the shocker. While testosterone levels can affect the amount of muscle an individual starts with (i.e., when they’re in an untrained state), it doesn't impact relative rates of muscle growth. To understand why, know this: testosterone isn’t the only anabolic hormone around. Estrogen, the “female” hormone, exerts anabolic effects, too.
Interested in boosting your testosterone levels anyway? Check out this article:
Other women vs. men strength training differences
Right. So, the relative rates of muscle mass and strength gains in women and men are similar when strength training.
Does that mean women and men should follow the same training program? Not necessarily.
That's because, barring results, there is still a handful of ways women differ from men in terms of strength training.
Women have better endurance than men when lifting weights. That means, in general, they can do more reps per set at a given percentage of 1RM, do more sets with a fixed number of reps at a given percentage of 1RM, or both.
There are two primary reasons for this: 1) women tend to have a higher proportion of fatigue-resistant type I muscle fibers, and 2) women tend to have less muscle mass (so the “pump” doesn’t occlude blood vessels essential for oxygen delivery and metabolic waste clearing quite as quickly when lifting).
As mentioned multiple times in past articles, low-load training can build muscle just as effectively as heavier training when the volume is equated. Guess what? This doesn’t apply to women. Or, at least, according to this 2012 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. Here, researchers found that women training with higher loads gained significantly more muscle than those training with lower loads.
Evidence suggests that a woman's response to strength training may vary based on the menstrual cycle phase. More specifically, studies observe that women take longer to recover from training during the luteal phase (i.e., the last half) of the menstrual cycle and experience larger strength and muscle gains during the follicular phase (i.e., the first half of the cycle).
Applying all this to your training
But wait. How does the knowledge above benefit you? Well, here’s how:
? If you were born a man
Honestly, nothing much will change for you. Just make sure you’re training hard, eating well, recovering adequately, and you’ll be grand in terms of muscle growth and strength gains.
Oh, and of course, stop using the phrase, “You lift like a girl” (if you were)—you now know girls can put on muscle and gain strength just as well as you (relatively), so you have no excuse now.
P.S: Find out what “training hard”, “eating well”, and “recovering adequately” mean here:
? If you were born a woman
To optimize your strength training results, you may wish to consider tweaking your program in 4 ways:
- Increase the number of reps you do in any given training session
- Train more frequently (e.g., 5 times a week, instead of 3 times)
- Use heavier weights (your body can take it—trust us)
- Concentrate your training during the follicular phase (e.g., 5 times a week during the follicular phase, compared to 3 times a week during the luteal phase).
Note that how many times you work out a week ultimately depends on your fitness goals and lifting experience. Find out more here:
All that said, though, one thing’s worth remembering: regardless of your sex, you’d do well with a well-programmed workout routine that:
- Suits your fitness goals
- Accounts for your equipment availability
- Pushes you as and when needed (think: progressive overload)
And that’s where GymStreak comes in.
See—and feel—the difference. No matter your sex.
Chidi-Ogbolu, N., & Baar, K. (2019). Effect of Estrogen on Musculoskeletal Performance and Injury Risk. Frontiers in Physiology, 9, 1834. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.01834
Dannecker, E. A., Liu, Y., Rector, R. S., Thomas, T. R., Fillingim, R. B., & Robinson, M. E. (2012). Sex Differences in Exercise-Induced Muscle Pain and Muscle Damage. The Journal of Pain : Official Journal of the American Pain Society, 13(12), 1242–1249. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2012.09.014
How Much Do Variations in Physiological Testosterone Matter To Your Gains? (n.d.). Weightology. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://weightology.net/the-members-area/evidence-based-guides/how-much-do-variations-in-physiological-testosterone-matter-to-your-gains/
Hunter, S. K. (2014). Sex Differences in Human Fatigability: Mechanisms and Insight to Physiological Responses. Acta Physiologica (Oxford, England), 210(4), 768–789. https://doi.org/10.1111/apha.12234
Judge, L. W., & Burke, J. R. (2010). The Effect of Recovery Time on Strength Performance Following a High-Intensity Bench Press Workout in Males and Females. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 5(2), 184–196. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.5.2.184
Markofski, M. M., & Braun, W. A. (2014). Influence of menstrual cycle on indices of contraction-induced muscle damage. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(9), 2649–2656. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000429
Reis, E., Frick, U., & Schmidtbleicher, D. (1995). Frequency Variations of Strength Training Sessions Triggered by the Phases of the Menstrual Cycle. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 16(08), 545–550. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2007-973052
Schuenke, M. D., Herman, J. R., Gliders, R. M., Hagerman, F. C., Hikida, R. S., Rana, S. R., Ragg, K. E., & Staron, R. S. (2012). Early-phase muscular adaptations in response to slow-speed versus traditional resistance-training regimens. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 112(10), 3585–3595. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-012-2339-3
Staron, R. S., Karapondo, D. L., Kraemer, W. J., Fry, A. C., Gordon, S. E., Falkel, J. E., Hagerman, F. C., & Hikida, R. S. (1994). Skeletal muscle adaptations during early phase of heavy-resistance training in men and women. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md.: 1985), 76(3), 1247–1255. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.19220.127.116.117
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