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Weight training considerations for females

UK BNBF competition 2011In this article I would like to discuss some points to consider for females when training with weights / resistance. Some issues like ‘bulking up’, ‘getting manly’, ‘injuries’, ‘excess protein’ are all topics of interest and concern. I will try to tackle a few of these issues and more here.

Bulking up / hypertrophy:
It is unlikely that a hormonally normal female will add a lot of  bulky muscle with weight training. The normal physiological change is to add some density and strength but normally not bulky muscle, depending on the training method. It is difficult enough for males to add bulk and we have the added benefit of more anabolic testosterone. However some women can indeed add some bulk if they have a higher level of steroid hormones like DHEA than others. Also if they eat and train to increase hypertrophy (size) via sarcoplasmic methods.

These sarcoplasmic hypertrophy methods are the same for males and females and involve increasing the size of muscle cell via the uptake of fluid (sarcoplasm) and non contractile proteins. Think of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy as pumping up / filling the muscle. The basic principles that add this possibly unwanted showy, bulky muscle involve the following:

-Increased tension time for the muscle – longer slower sets
-Moderate loads – roughly 8-12rep range (or more)
-Moderate force production – roughly up to – 75% of the maximum lift (IRM)
-Increased volume – more work / sets
-Incomplete rest between sets
-Steroids!
-Glycogen and protein

Summed up nicely by Brett Contreras as ‘tension, metabolic stress and muscle fibre damage’.

If we translate that to a very basic shoulder workout it may look like this:
Military press: 5 sets, 10-12 reps, 65% of max, slow tempo, keep tension throughout, rest 45-60s

This can lead to hypertrophy in females especially if, as mentioned she is predisposed to adding muscle by naturally (or unnaturally) high levels of androgens. So if there is a concern about ‘bulking up’ it may be best to avoid this kind of ‘pumping up body building’ training. To clear up any confusion I will give an example of a program that will not add bulk but will increase strength, efficient dense muscle and athletic performance at the end of the article.

High heels:
Poor ankle flexibility often caused by wearing high heels are a major problem for some women. It means that the ankle is constantly in a planter flexion (foot pointing downwards) position which all to often leads to a shortening of the calf and soleus muscle. This in turn causes poor range and compensatory movements normally by rounding the back or heels coming off the floor when attempting full squats. Because these shoes are so unhealthy for posture I would advise, flat shoes at work and bare feet at home. Keep the high heels close by but only wear them if needed. A thorough warm up of both the calf (straight leg wall stretches) and soleus (bent leg wall stretches) are a good idea prior to any serious full range weight training. High heels also shorten the lumber muscles by causing an excess lower back arch. Nice to look at but not structurally correct!

Q angle:
Because females have wider hips, the angle that the thigh bone (femur) makes from hip to knee  joint (Q angle) is more acute. This can lead to the knee collapsing in under load and causing unnecessary strain and injury. Although this can happen and is a consideration, simply by progressively overloading the legs with good form will ensure this is not a problem. Most new trainees respond well to split squats (static lunge). By giving the front knee a point like a pole to reach for and ensuring the knee travels outside that point we can strengthen the muscles around the knee joint as well as stretching out the rear hip flexors. This will help achieve structural balance prior to loading up with more basic movements like squats, if capable.

Hamstrings and glutes can also be quite weak in females (and males) often causes by ineffective training methods. So firing the glutes and hamstrings via hypers, reverse hypers, glute bridges, single leg  dead lifts, side lunges, good-mornings etc especially if new to training with weights will pay dividends in the long run. Weak hamstrings compared to quads can pull the knee in a dysfunctional movement pattern causing wear and injury in the long run. Therefore train the posterior muscle groups diligently.

Recovery:
Research and experience suggest that women recover quicker and can handle more volume of training then men. Therefore train more often if you require and have the time and inclination.

Mental edge:
In my experience females seem to be able to handle the painful aspect of some forms of  training better than men. Obviously not in every case but it is certainly something that I have noticed time and again. This is probably a gender thing, child birth etc! To that end, when a woman is conditioned to training and her goals warrant it, she should include arduous training that produces high levels of lactic acid. She should not spare the horses and as the saying goes ‘give it some welly’!

Nutrition:
It seems that women find the thought of eating a good quality high fat and protein diet quite daunting initially. But contrary to some male opinions, women are also humans and as such will benefit from eating as nature intended! Therefore eating high protein and fats with copious vegetables will improve everything, especially training gains in all humans…even females! Females often have carb cravings more then males. This can be due to hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle as well as a lifelong ‘carb habit’. The sooner excess carbs are reduced to a more natural level and provided from a natural source the better from every angle especially body composition and health.

Menstrual cycle:
As the hormones involved in the menstrual cycle ebbs and flows so too does the female endocrine profile, changing from estrogen dominant to progesterone dominate as the cycle progresses. Estrogen dominance for example can have an effect on training drive and mood, as well as body composition, fluid retention and can effect blood sugar levels. Couple these with the associated issues around menstruation and being a bloke has its merits! When females are more progesterone dominant during the second half of the cycle they are more adept at using fats as fuel.

Mind set:
Often women are incorrectly encouraged to do light weights and lots of cardio as opposed to more robust and effective training because of media, social prejudices and misinformation. To break out of this mind set is very difficult for some. But if the idea that training cleverly and progressively increasing resistant or speed or both are embraced, then an efficient, strong, lean and athlete body shortly follows without excess bulk!

Program:
Here is a possible program that will improve strength, neural efficiency and body composition. The use of heavy loads or explosive movements causes improved motor unit recruitment, coordination and myofibril increases. These factors, if programmed correctly and with a prepared person will increase all of the above without adding unwanted ‘pumped up’ muscle. Women, lift heavy or explosively…or both

SER

EXERCISE

SETS / REPS

LOAD

TEMPO

REST

A1

Hip thrusters, bar (shoulders elevated)

5×3-5

4-6 RM

21X2

30s

A1

3x Hang power clean (+1 Jerk)

5×3:1

5-6 RM

X2X2

120s +

B1

Split Squat

4×4-6each

4-6 RM

3111

10-30s

B2

Chins

4×4-6

4-6 RM

3111

10-30s

B3

Dips

4×4-6

4-6 RM

31X2

10-30s

B4

Trap bar dead lift (full extension)

4×6-8

8-10 RM

31X1

120s

D1

Hanging Toes to bar

1-2x ?

2010

30s

D2

Bar Landmine (arms straight)

1-2x 8-10total

10-12RM

21X1

60s

E1

Rower 500m

1x 500m

max

Max

optional

Summery
-Females will benefit hugely from weight training at all ages.
-Some woman can in fact add bulky muscle but really only if they are hormonally set up (naturally or via steroids) for it and train specifically to increase sarcoplasmic (pumped) muscle hypertrophy. The standard 8-12 rep range which is the most common is the driver for this kind of muscle growth as well as even higher / light reps (body pump any one)! Aiming more towards a strength / power (lower reps and heavier weight, or speed of contraction) style of training will be preferable to those that do not wish to bulk up but want to improve everything else. Remember also that strength is the key basic ingredient for all athletic endeavour for all humans.
-It is difficult to add bulk if carbs are reduced.
-Pay attention to footwear, we are animals and are supposed to be cutting around in bare feet. Therefore any elevation at the heels can lead to imbalances and inflexibility.
-Strengthen the legs especially the inner quad (VMO) prior to doing powerful plyometric type jumps / hops etc to offset the gender specific issue of knee collapsing inwards. Strong glutes and hamstrings will always improve performance, appearance and structural balance.
-Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy 8-12+ slow reps with high volume increases muscles size quicker than myofibril hypertrophy.