Should women and men train differently?

Active women working out

This is a good question and the answer largely depends on your definition of “different”. The common belief for men is to increase strength through resistance training, while women predominantly engage in cardiovascular exercise. This is a tunnel vision strategy that will not maximize the full potential of either gender. Adjusting training to your preferred energy system, or supposed genetically specific muscle fiber disposition, is not an ideal approach in developing exercise strategy either. Such variables play a more evident role during an analysis of an on-going physical routine. However, should not be the foundation principles of your protocol.

Different training styles, versus different exercises, versus different overload variables, will all yield different results. And the combination of all these “different” actions further overlaps physical stimuli generating even more specific adaptations. As far as the training goes, studies have shown that anything men can do, women can do the same, and do it for longer periods. Even though women tend to use more fat during exercise, they also use glucose for ATP resynthesis. As men use sugar for fuel, they also use fat during and post physical bouts. Women have and utilize their appropriate distribution of fast twitch (type II) during exercise, following the size principle; and recruiting fast motor units (MUs) as exercise session goes on. Due to body differences, men are capable of greater strength and power outputs. However, women’s developed fat metabolism allows extended physical performance at relatively high intensities for longer durations.

Gender, age, ethnicity, and genetics are just some of the factors affecting adaptability to training, hormonal levels, and substrate (glucose and fat) metabolism. As much as each person is unique, he/she has more commonalities with the rest of general population. In the end, we are much the same and little different from each other. To answer the above question, yes, such interpretation should be considered when structuring training routines.

Gender, Intensity, and Fatigue

Both men and women have the same strength potential. Women have about 55 percent of the upper body strength and approximately 75 percent of lower body strength of men. Thus, possessing smaller stature with less absolute strength. However, utilizing strength training principles comprised of compound (multi-joint) lifts will result in improved performance and body composition (greater lean body mass and lower body fat) in either gender.

Muscle mass, with different proportion of fast to slow twitch fiber count, should reflect in the variables within progressive overload of each exercise. Knowing and working within your personal strength capacities generates adaptations specific to each person while minimizing risk for injury. Intensity needs to be balanced with overall volume (number of repetitions and rest periods) as men and women respond differently to high-intensity, strength, and endurance styles of training. Due to the preference for fat oxidation through aerobic pathways, women’s system pushes harder than men’s during high-intensity training while hitting a smoother stride during endurance or long duration physical activity. As glucose is used to resynthesize ATP through both anaerobic and aerobic respiration, men rapidly produce force during high intensities; as long as such efforts are short-term or consist of significant recovery periods between sets.

As men are capable of quickly generating strength and power, their muscular system fatigues easily. Muscle fatigue is an on-going research endeavor with contributing factors related to:
greater concentration of fast twitch (aka fatigable) fibers production of metabolite byproducts (ammonia (NH4+), inorganic phosphates (Pi), lactate, hydrogen ions (H+)) depletion of glycogen reserves

Women deplete their glycogen storage 25 percent less than men during anaerobic respiration. Also, oxidative respiration produces fewer byproducts, improves blood flow fuelling muscle fibers with greater fatigue resistant (slow twitch) distribution. These physiological adaptations allow women to set themselves apart in not only endurance style exercises, where they outperform men, but also in recovery rates. On average, women need less rest between exercise sets to recover before engaging in near full efforts of force production. The rest periods between training session are also shorter for women, as their bodies are able to generate almost full pre-training energy levels in less time compared to men.

Final Thoughts

Both men and women produce energy in order to support body actions during rest and exercise. There is difference in body composition between sexes, with men having more muscle mass and women possessing more fat mass. Due to physiological evolution, women tend to favor fat metabolism as a preferred method of producing energy during physical activity. With bigger muscles, men utilize more glucose through anaerobic and aerobic pathways to resynthesize ATP during exercise.

Larger muscles in men are capable of quickly producing significant force within short time spans. Women’s physiology allows physical exertion for a longer length of time while recovering faster from accumulated fatigue.

Strength training comprised of compound lifts should be the foundation of training protocols for both sexes. Throughout exercise design, considerations should be given to intensity, volume and frequency in order to maximize on specific dispositions and potentials within both genders. Please click the link below to learn more about our gender specific Periodized Training Protocols for Men and Women.

Source: Science and strength
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