So the days when women were the exotics in the gym are definitely over. According to a 2019 survey by Allensbach Market and Advertising Media Analysis, a sensational 46 percent of all German gym members are female. - And yet there is still a lot of uncertainty about one crucial question: do women need to train differently than men?
An end to cardio-only training
For decades, the typical female gym member was seen primarily in one section of the gym: the cardio area. Most women signed up for the gym seemingly exclusively to spend hours on the stepper or Stairmaster. To burn calories, to lose fat, to lose weight, to "tone up" and for body sculpting. Strength training on machines or even free weights was reserved for men - the fear of uncontrolled growth of unwanted, unfeminine muscle mountains was too great.
Fortunately, today more and more women are realizing that pure cardio training does not lead to the dream body of the fitness models. If you only do endurance sports, you won't get any closer to the beautiful buttocks and toned arms of the models on the magazine cover; instead, you'll be actively working on a lean, emaciated look.
The basis for toning and body shaping is nothing more than building muscle while reducing body fat. And that requires, for both women and men, training with weights!
Women, do it like the men: Go for the iron!
The training goals of men and women are often different. While men go to the gym to gain weight and build muscle, female exercisers usually aim for a lean body with, at most, slightly visible muscle attachments. And yet, both sexes are advised to follow the same approach.
Progressive training with weights
Women should also focus on progressive weight training. This means that the demands in training should be continuously increased: Higher weights, more repetitions with the same weight, shorter rests, etc. This is the only way to stimulate the muscle to adapt and thus grow. If you always work through the same training plan without increasing the demands, you may still see success as a beginner, but you will quickly stagnate.
Don't be afraid of heavy weights!
Unfortunately, many fitness trainers still write their female clients training plans with flyweights that then have to be moved for 20 repetitions. Yet women can also train heavy with a clear conscience.
The idea that light weights and high repetitions build lean muscles, while heavy training builds huge muscle masses, is unfounded: Women's naturally low testosterone and high estrogen levels are guaranteed to prevent uncontrolled muscle growth. So even training with heavy weights and sets between 5 and 10 repetitions leads to a beautiful athletic body, which certainly always remains female.
And don't be afraid of the (bar) dumbbell!
Training with free weights, especially the barbell, still intimidates many women. It's true that machines are a great way to build some basic strength and develop a feel for the body, especially for complete newcomers to weight training. Even for advanced athletes, machines can always be incorporated into the training schedule to work muscles in isolation.
In the long term, however, free weights should form the basis of training. Dumbbell and barbell training is more efficient because the exercises challenge the body holistically and train coordination in addition to muscle strength. It is also more fun!
While many men perform a so-called "disco-pumper workout" in which only the upper body is trained, many women do exactly the opposite and focus mainly on legs and buttocks. Training the torso is often limited to a few abdominal exercises. After all, thick biceps, a broad back or even visible pectoral muscles are to be avoided at all costs!
Regardless of gender and goal, a balanced strength training program should always be aimed for, in which all parts of the body are given equal consideration. Neglecting or even completely omitting a muscle group is unhealthy and can lead to postural damage and signs of wear and tear in the long term. And after all, both men and women are concerned not only with their beach figure, but also with a healthy body.
But wait: there are differences!
In its basic features, the training of women should not differ from that of men. Nevertheless, there are some physiological differences between the sexes that should be taken into account when designing workouts.
Women are particularly persistent
Women tend to have a particularly high proportion of type 1 muscle fibers. These muscles, also called "red muscle fibers," are less good at generating force and executing fast, explosive movements. Instead, they are particularly enduring and recover quickly. This means for women:
- Set breaks can be kept shorter.
- Weights can be chosen higher than for men, relative to maximum strength. Example: A man can be pushed hard with 5 repetitions with 80% of the maximum weight he can move for one repetition. A woman can often still do 5 reps well with 90% of her maximum weight.
- Instead of a highly split training plan, a full-body workout is recommended in which each muscle group is trained several times a week within one session. Thanks to their good recovery, women are often fully fit again after only 24 to 48 hours!
Women are more flexible
... and that is both a blessing and a curse. Women's higher estrogen levels make for more mobile joints - helpful for exercises like squats, which require good mobility in the hips and ankles.
However, with greater mobility comes reduced stability. If this is compounded by poor body control, the susceptibility to injury increases massively. Women should therefore pay particular attention to controlled movement during training. Additional stabilizing exercises and strengthening of the abdominal muscles and lower back are also important.
Strong legs - weak upper body
Legs and buttocks are naturally stronger than the upper body in almost all women, even without training. All the more fatal that many female gym-goers still focus on the lower body.
It's clear: society's ideal of beauty encourages abdominal-leg butt training rather than biceps curls and bench presses. However, many women are simply dissatisfied with the appearance of their legs and try to counteract this by excessive strength training. This is often caused by fat distribution, which is also gender-typical, with a concentration on the thighs and buttocks. And fat loss can only be controlled by good nutrition. - Strength exercises do not lead to local fat loss!
Conclusion on training for women
Basically, women can and should train just like men: With free weights, moderate to heavy loads, steady increase of the training load and always holistically, that means considering really every muscle group. Due to the female hormonal balance, strength training designed in this way does not lead to excessive muscle growth, but rather to a slim, athletic figure, which should correspond to the ideal expectations of most women.
Nevertheless, there are subtle differences between men and women: Thanks to their muscle structure, women can regenerate more quickly from exertion and therefore train at a higher frequency and with shorter set breaks. Women are more mobile than men and should therefore perform strengthening and stability exercises to prevent injuries. Because women are almost always stronger in the lower body than in the shoulders, arms and back, classic abdominal-leg butt training is suboptimal.