Should women train differently from men? I get this question all of the time. Normally what this really means is “I don’t want to look like a dude, so that means that I shouldn’t train like one…Right?” That is a complicated question. Here is the good news ladies, you will not likely ever look like a guy. You just don’t have the hormone responses to exercise that a guy does. We will get into that in a moment. But for that same reason, you will respond best to a slightly different style of exercise than a guy.
But before we get into the details, I need to state a clause:
-If you have wide hips and narrow shoulders you can workout like a mad woman and you will not likely put on a lot of upper body muscle (but you will lean down and likely loose weight). You will put on some muscle in you legs and hips (but again you will lean down).
-If you have narrow hips and wide shoulders, you will respond “better” to exercise as it will be easier for you to put on muscle and lean down than most women. It is most notable in your ability to add upper body muscle. That being said, it is still highly unlikely that you are the one in 100,000 women that can indeed build muscle as well as a man (without a bit of “hormonal help”, meaning a massive dose of steroids).
Okay, lets get to the good stuff. Men and women both have a hormone response to exercise and to some extent it is to different types of exercise. I am going to focus primarily on women for this post. Women can temporarily increase their Human Growth Hormone levels by about 100% for approximately 6 hours after a workout if they do the right workout. This increase is where you get the most benefit from your exercise. For 99% of women, that means that you lean down considerably while adding small amounts of muscle. To put things into perspective a man can get an 800% increase in Human Growth Hormone Levels and a 75% increase in testosterone (which is about 10-15 times higher at baseline than yours and you get no increase). This is why men have a far greater ability to build muscle than women. Interestingly, women actually have their greatest response in middle age (must be nice, we peak at 18-20). Think about it, how many times have you seen a 45 year old soccer mom that looks great and is kicking some 20 year old’s tail in the gym. Often enough to be noticeable if you are paying attention. Most of the time we just shrug it off as more discipline and dedication. That is part of it, but the other part is double the hormone response, which means double the improvement, and that means double the motivation.
Now you just have to do the work, which leads me to my next point. What kind of work, and how much? The good news is that the primary stimulator of this response is Blood Lactate, or lactic acid in the blood. That is also the bad news. The simple version is that high intensity work causes lactic acid to build up in the muscle. As that approaches toxic limits the body will begin to remove it from the muscle to process it systemically (blood lactate) and if needed will begin to off load it in the stomach to vent it (regurgitate). So why did I say that it was also the bad news? You have to work a lot of muscle at one time (exercises like squats and deadlifts performed for 10 sets of 10 produce the best results), and do a lot of it. There are two ways to do this but both have to be intense. For example, you could do multiple sets of 10 at a 10 rm on squats (about 45-60 seconds and heavy enough to keep you from going over 60 seconds) or you could run 300-400 meters as fast as you can (again 45-60 seconds at a speed that you can’t sustain longer than 60 seconds) multiple times. 1 set will not build up enough to cause significant blood lactate increases, and if your rest is over about 90 seconds you will begin to buffer it out forcing you to do even more sets to accomplish your goal. This is why large exercises performed in a circuit are beneficial for weight loss. For example you could do 30 yards of lunges, 30 squat jumps, 30 push-ups, 10 chin-ups, run 100 meters rest 1 minute and repeat 6 times. Or you could do 10 sets of 10 on squats. If you wanted to lean down you would do the circuit If you wanted to lean down and put on a little muscle you would do the squats (a typical women trying to put on muscle is lucky to add 3-4 pounds of muscle per year which is barely noticeable if spread over the entire body as it would be with this type of work). There are a number of combinations that you can use but they should be goal derived.
The next trick is not to undermine it with a poor diet. Your workout and diet should work together, but they can easily work against each other. For example carbohydrates in excessive amounts, will increase your insulin. When your insulin is high it blocks the growth hormone receptors at the cellular level, meaning lots of growth hormone and nothing for it to do. So it is very important to eat the appropriate amount of carbs for your body and activity level. This amount can vary greatly from one person to another but is 60-90 grams per day on average. It is also important for you to eat adequate protein as the growth hormone is made of amino acids which must be eaten to sustain optimal levels of the hormone. The most important times for you to eat protein are immediately post workout (research suggests that 30 min pre-training is good as well) and about 30 minutes before bed as post workout and night time is when your growth hormone is highest and most responsive to amino acid loading. A glutamine (5-15 grams) drink during the workout will help as well. I know that many of you think that you shouldn’t eat before bed, but what you eat is the important part. Cookies will make you a fat insomniac that pees all night. Turkey will make you sleep like a baby and help you lean down (and not pee all night…test it for 2 weeks- meat and veggies for dinner, no fruit or sweets and 4 ounces of turkey or cottage cheese 30 minutes before bed, you should notice progressively improved sleep in the second week). As a note, you do not produce urine in a deep sleep, and growth hormone helps induce deep sleep.
So ladies, put all of this together and in a few weeks you should see the beginnings of a leaner, healthier, more rested, more energetic you. Most will not start to plateau until 8-14 weeks and that is where some more advanced workouts progressions come into play.