Sex Differences in Resistance Training Program Design
by Christopher Taber – PhD, CSCS, USAW 2
Should there be Resistance Training differences for each of the sexes?
It’s common knowledge that men are from Mars and women are from Venus: practically everyone knows this. But even with this difference, should we also train them differently in the gym? The short answer is: probably not. However, it is wise to take into consideration a few small programmatic alterations to assist in optimizing training for female athletes. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to examine sex related variations between men and women in designing resistance training programs.
The first examination we should make would be regarding strength characteristics. In general, women possess about 2/3 the absolute strength compared with their male counterparts. But, if we compare men and women on the basis of fat free mass and cross-sectional area of muscle, the differences between the sexes disappear indicating that muscle tissue is not sex dependent. Secondly, we can examine how females respond to strength training. A female athlete’s progression in response to training is the exact same as males, if not faster, due to the initial starting point of strength. Thirdly, if we look at intersession differences women typically fatigue slower than males and they can handle more repetitions at higher intensities than males. This may be important for long term planning of a training cycle as you may be able to plan more high intensity repetitions for females compared to males as you get closer to competition time.
So if strength and resistance training outcomes are similar between sexes, what special considerations should we make? The first may be upper body strength training. Females typically begin with lower upper body strength levels compared to males. This can be easily rectified by supplementing 1-2 upper body pressing exercises after a workout to help promote lean body mass and strength gains. The next consideration is knee health and stability. Females are more likely to tear their ACL through non-contact impacts compared to males. The variables related to ACL tear are multifactorial but modifiable variables are strength levels and neuromuscular control. The first factor is something we already target with strength training programs, mainly increasing absolute strength and improving the hamstring to quadriceps ratio through strength training and pulling exercises (Leo’s favorite). The second factor is to improve neuromuscular control through optimal landing mechanics which we can teach through plyometrics and jumping tasks.
So, in short, resistance training should look similar for males and females because adaptations are similar between the sexes. We should consider the initial upper body strength of our female athletes and add in more exercises where they are needed to help improve strength and increase lean body mass. Additionally, we should screen our athletes through jumping and landing tasks to make sure they have adequate neuromuscular control and knee stability. Finally, we should build training plans that work to improve the hamstring to quadriceps strength ratio to make sure the athlete is balanced and strong. With these considerations in mind, it is time to go train and always remember there is no substitute for strength and hard work!
Christopher Taber is an assistant professor at Sacred Heart University and head coach of the Sacred Heart weightlifting team. His research is focused on strength and power development for athletes as well as athlete monitoring and testing. Christopher coaches and competes for East Coast Gold Weightlifting team, is on staff for Totten Training Systems, and lives with his wife Lucy and his dog Marble in Connecticut. You can find more information at Atlas Human Performance.