After an exhilarating week in Bangkok at the Asia Fitness Convention, I am back in Singapore nursing my DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) thanks to the longest training session I’ve ever endured, with kettlebells no less! I learned so much that I can’t wait to share with you, from new ways to address biomechanical pain to managing pelvic floor disorders through exercise to incorporating balletone, port de bras, "the Five Tibetan Rites" and primal movement into my fitness programs for clients. But, one class I found particularly fascinating addressed the differences between men and women as they relate to training, taught by Dr. Len Kravitz from the University of New Mexico. I admit, I initially bought into the whole “train like a man, look like a goddess,” hook, line and sinker. But after training both myself and other female clients and listening to Dr. Kravitz, that advice no longer makes any sense. Sure, women should never fear heavy dumbbells and can certainly hold their own in the weight room with the guys. But, the fact of the matter is, our bodies are extremely different, as well as our training outcomes. Next time you’re developing a fitness plan, consider the following for maximum benefit and injury prevention:
Men have 10 to 20 times more testosterone than the average woman. Our hormones account for major gender differences, and lower levels of testosterone in the female body prevent us from building large amounts of muscle mass. Many women are concerned that if they lift heavy weights, they’ll end up looking like a man or a female bodybuilder. The truth is, it is incredibly difficult for a woman to add lots of muscle to her frame. Many years of training, high calorie diets, supplements, the right genetics, and unfortunately, steroids, all play a big role in building the bodies of today’s female bodybuilding athletes.
The phases of your monthly cycle have an impact on your athletic performance. Initial research suggests that performance is best just after menses and worst during pre-menstruation and in the first few days of menstruation. When estrogen is at its highest, performance tends to be better and when progesterone steps in, performance decreases. This would indicate that if you’re competing, you’ll want to time it with your mid-luteal phase and late follicular phase (days 10-14 and 18-23). The impact of birth control pills on athletic performance is still up for debate. On the positive side, birth control regulates the monthly cycle, making it easier to plan for races and other competitions. On the negative side, some studies show that the pill can interfere with strength training and muscle gain.
Women have two joints that are wider than those in men: the hips and the knees. This difference makes us more susceptible to pain and injury in these areas. Our wider pelvis is designed to accommodate the fetus and gives us greater lumbar spinal curvature, which leads to more chronic back pain. The curvature of our thigh bones adds more stress to our knees in comparison to men, which is one big reason women are more susceptible to runners knee, as well as being two to eight times more likely to have an ACL injury. Core training and multi-mode training incorporating squats and lunges should be staples in every woman’s workout plan!
Women have lower bone mineral density than men. The bone tissue in our skeleton continues to grow until around age 30, when it hits what’s known as “peak bone mass.” The hormone estrogen has a big impact on our amount of bone mass. Generally speaking, if a woman has her period earlier in life and takes an estrogen-based contraceptive, she will have higher bone mass than a young woman who does not get periods due to excessive exercise or extremely low body weight. Low bone mineral density increases the risk for osteoporotic fractures; the risk increases significantly after menopause due to a lack of estrogen circulating in the body. Calcium and Vitamin D are two supplements that can be helpful in the prevention of osteoporosis.
Women have 8% to 10% more body fat than men, on average due to body composition and reproduction. Essential fat is only 3% in men and 12% in women, and in the average range, women have 25% body fat while men only have about 15%. When body fat percentage in women becomes too low, it can lead to menstrual dysfunction and increase the risk of bone injury, which is often seen in female athletes and known appropriately as the “female athlete triad” (low energy intake/disordered eating, amenorrhea, and weakening of the bones). According to Dr. Kravitz, on the upside, women have an advantage in the sport of swimming, as body fat aids in buoyancy. Women have less ‘drag’ in the water and expend about 20% less energy.
Women have 23% greater fatigue resistance than men at the same specific task and intensity. This is due in part to lower absolute muscle mass, low muscle oxygen demand, and increased blood flow to the muscle due to estrogen. What does this mean? Fit women can bang out more high volume sets and require less recovery time between sets- 60 seconds vs. 2-3 minutes for men. Women also need fewer rest days between intense workouts, in part because estrogen inhibits inflammation and decreases post-workout skeletal muscle damage. That said, women with low estrogen levels may take longer to recover and may have to work harder to increase muscle strength.
So, there you have it- maybe men and women really are from separate planets! Actually, hormones and chromosomes account for our differences. How will you use this information to tailor your training program? What other differences can you think of that impacts athletic performance? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- I'd love to hear from you!