The myths that exist about women’s strength training lead to a significant reduction in the benefits and effectiveness of training and the development of athletic performance. However, the fear of looking like a man in the long run through strength training is absolutely unfounded. Because without taking anabolic agents the risk is very low. Although there are physiological differences between women and men, most women are able to exercise with significantly more volume and intensity than previously thought. 1
In the last 20 years we have gained more and more knowledge that women can be trained with the same programs as men. Due to various physiological differences, we have to consider certain factors when formulating the programs. Strength training is used in more and more sports as part of athletic training. Therefore it is important to check the physiological basics and to point out certain misunderstandings. 2, 3
Not only do women have fewer muscle fibers than men, the cross-section of the fibers is also thinner. This is another reason why women cannot look like men. In addition, the feathering angle of the muscles, i.e. the angle of tension of the individual muscle fibers relative to the direction of tension, is smaller. This is because the development of strength seems to be lower for women overall than for men. 4 Furthermore, this also influences the absolute force. The average total body strength of a woman is about 60% of the total body strength of a man. 5
An important factor for the different adaptation to strength training and for the development of maximum strength is the hormone testosterone. In women, the resting concentration is 10-20x lower. 6 It is precise during puberty that we can observe this difference most clearly. However, the concentration of normal growth hormones is higher in women than in men. This could indicate a compensatory mechanism in the adaptation of muscles and connective tissue.
The fiber distribution of the musculature in men and women shows only slight differences. However, there are indications that women tend to have more type I muscle fibers, i.e. slowly twitching fibers. The density of blood vessels in the muscle is higher compared to men. This makes the blood circulation in the muscle and the supply of oxygen more efficient. Taking into account the better energetic utilization of glucose and fatty acids, it can be estimated that muscular endurance is higher and the regeneration time between two units is significantly shorter than in men. 7
NECESSITY OF STRENGTH TRAINING
If you want to improve your athletic performance, there is no way around strength training. Why is that? Maximum strength is crucial for the development of explosive strength, which is crucial to performance in many sports. The maximum power provides the basis on which we can build specific to the sport. So it is absolutely necessary not to make any compromises in the development of the maximum force.
Strength training has an effect on the whole organism. In addition to increased athletic performance, strength training also has a positive influence on bone modeling and thus reduces the risk of osteoporosis, it strengthens connective tissue and supports injury prophylaxis and reduces non-functional body fat. Because the development of fat-free body mass is extremely important for women. 8, 9
Often the training load of women is below the limit that would be necessary to achieve an adjustment of the bones, muscles, cartilage tissue, tendons or ligaments. If the intensity is too low, the training effect remains minimal. And as we can see from the physiology, women are able to train with high intensities and volumes. To activate all muscle fibers, correspondingly high resistances are necessary. There is no evidence that strength training for women is dangerous or leads to injuries more quickly. 1
The programming must be individually adapted to the needs and sports-specific requirements of both women and men. The focus should be on exercises with free weights in order to ensure an appropriate transfer to the sport. In most of today’s sports, the development of explosive strength is crucial and this is fundamentally influenced by an improvement in maximum strength.
The benefits of strength training affect the entire organism and can positively influence the body composition without greatly increasing body weight. Especially trunk exercises such as bench press, lat pulls or deadlifts should be integrated into the training program in order to develop the strength basis in the trunk. Once the foundations have been laid, the focus should be placed on the development of explosive power. Exercises from Olympic weightlifting such as Push Press, Hang Clean, Power Clean, Clean & Jerk or Snatch are suitable for this.
The objective is decisive. What’s the goal? What do you want to achieve? Progress in training must be monitored and evaluated accordingly. Only in this way can physical development be optimized.
1) W. P. Ebben & D. R. Jensen (1998). Strength training for women: Debunking myths that block opportunity. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 26(5): 87-97.
2) Fleck, S. J. & Kraemer, W. J. (2004). Desinging resistance training programs (3. Aufl.). Champaign, Il.: Human Kinetics.
3) Kraemer, W. J. (2002). Development of the off-season resistance training programs for athletes. In M. B. Mellion, W. M. Walsh, C. Madden, M. Putukian & G. L. Shelton (Hrsg.), The team physician’s handbook (S. 120-127). Philadelphia: Hanley & Belfus.
4) Daniels WL, Wright JE, Sharp DS, et al. The effect of two years’ training on aerobic power and muscle strength in male and female cadets. Aviat Space Environ Med 53: 117–121, 1982.
5) Dias RM, Cyrino ES, Salvador ES, et al. Impact of an eight-week weight training program on the muscular strength of men and women. Revista Brasileira de Medicina do Esporte 11: 213–218, 2005.
6) Roberts BM, Lavin KM, Many GM, et al. Human neuromuscular aging: Sex differences revealed at the myocellular level. Exp Gerontol 106: 116–124, 2018.
7) Albert WJ, Wrigley AT, McLean RB, Sleivert GG. Sex differences in the rate of fatigue development and recovery. Dyn Med. 2006;5:2.
8) Kraemer, W. J. & Newton, R. U. (2000). Training for muscular power. In J. Young (Hrsg.), Clinics in sports medicine (S. 341-368). Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.
9) Kraemer, W. J. & Ratamess, N. A. (2003). Endocrine responses and adaptations to strength and power training. In. P. V. Komi (Hrsg.), Strength and power in sport (S. 361-386). Oxford: IOC Medical Commission/Blackwell Science.