Do Women Respond to Strength Training in the Same Way as Men?

Do Women Respond to Strength Training in the Same Way as Men?Did you know at one-time strength training was believed to be inappropriate for women because they were incapable of getting stronger? Times have certainly changed! Still, beliefs change slowly when it comes to women and strength training. It wasn’t until 2000 that an Olympic weightlifting competition for women was introduced at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

Still, too few women are embracing the opportunity to increase strength and improve their body composition through strength training. Even among women who exercise regularly, less than half do any form of weight training. Surprised? Women that do exercise focus more on cardio believing it’s the best form of exercise for weight control. Most research suggests otherwise.

The Big Myth: Weight Training Will Make You Bulky

Why the reluctance to pick up a weight? For one, some women fear they’ll “bulk up” if they train with weights or do any form of heavy resistance training. That fear is unfounded for most women. Secondly, some women feel intimidated by weight training, especially if they work out at a gym. They don’t want to embarrass themselves in the weight room. That’s the beauty of working out at home! The only person who sees you is you, as you watch your form in the mirror. You’re competing against yourself.

Even women that do work with weights often use light ones and don’t increase the weight over time – so they fail to get the full benefits that strength training offers. Strength training is vital for preserving lean body mass and bone mass. Weight lifting also improves insulin sensitivity. This is important for metabolic health and weight control.

Do Women Respond to Weight Training Differently Than Men?

Women make the same adaptations to strength training as men do. Interestingly, men and women are similar in terms of strength relative to muscle mass. Where men have the advantage is they have a greater percentage of muscle mass and more total lean mass compared to a woman. That’s most apparent in terms of upper body strength. Women have significantly less muscle mass in their upper body relative to men. As a result, women have about half the upper body strength as men. The muscle mass discrepancy between men and women is smaller in the lower body. Women have about 30% less lower body strength relative to a man.

Men versus Women: The Role of Hormones in Strength Training

Men have some advantages when it comes to building muscle. For one, they have higher levels of the anabolic hormone testosterone. Women have only about a tenth of the testosterone that men do. Men that have a naturally higher testosterone level may have some advantages when it comes to building lean body mass. Still, some studies show women release more growth hormone during strength training than men. Since growth hormone is anabolic it may explain why women are able to gain muscle mass despite having a fraction of the testosterone that men do. Longer resistance training workouts using heavier weights seem to enhance growth hormone release in women the most.

Even though men and women adapt similarly to resistance training, women may have smaller gains in lean body mass due to their differing hormonal structure. Interestingly, a study looking at CAT scans in women and men showed women and men make roughly similar percentage gains in muscle through training although men have a greater absolute change because they start out with more muscle mass.

 Training Adaptations in Women versus Men

What’s clear is women adapt to weight training in a similar fashion to men. The same principles of progressive overload apply to women just as they do men. Unfortunately, some women don’t increase the intensity of their training for fear of developing large muscles. Only if a woman has high levels of testosterone, due to polycystic ovary disease or another endocrine problem, would this be a real concern.

What most women discover when they begin lifting heavy is their body fat drops and they look more defined -not bulky. The extra muscle that comes from resistance training has modest metabolism-boosting benefits making it easier to maintain a healthy weight. Strength training is a self-esteem booster and a stress reliever. It’s empowering to know you’re getting stronger and it’s essential to preserve strength and lean body mass as you age.

Women and Strength Training: The Bottom Line?

Men and women respond to strength training in similar ways. Both men and women can increase strength and build lean body mass through the principle of progressive overload. In terms of muscle hypertrophy, men and women training in a similar manner make similar percentage gains in lean body mass although men start out with more muscle.

Why is strength training so important? Women lose muscle tissue each year after the age of 30. This process accelerates after the age of 50 as testosterone levels continue to decline in women after menopause. Growth hormone levels decline with age too. Strength training and high-intensity exercise helps boost sagging growth hormone levels. Some experts also believe women need more protein in their diet to counteract muscle loss. Strength training, protein – two things you can do to stay strong and healthy as you age.



Peak Performance “Strength Training Exercises for Women”

ExRX.net “Weight Training for Specific Populations”

Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise. “Age and gender responses to strength training and detraining”

Int J Sports Med 1990;11(2):91-98.

J Strength Cond Res,10(4). (p. 256-262)

Sports Med, 35(4). (p. 339-361).

BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2013 Aug 23; 14: 253.

Medical News Today. “Keep Up Protein Intake, Dieting Postmenopausal Women Told”

Exercise Physiology. Fifth edition. McArdle, Katch, and Katch. 2001.


Related Articles By Cathe:

How Do You Know if You’re Gaining Muscle When You Strength Train?

Gender & Athletic Ability: Are Men Really Better Athletes Than Women?

Surprise! Bone and Muscle Performance Are Connected

5 Biggest Myths about Female Strength Training


Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs:

STS Strength 90 Day Workout Program

All of Cathe’s Strength & Toning Workout DVDs
Total Body Workouts
Lower Body Workouts
Upper Body Workouts


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