Women have different advantages and disadvantages than men in the gym. Here’s how they can tweak their workouts to get even better results.
There are no “man exercises” or “woman exercises,” but that doesn’t mean women should train exactly like men. Although women gain relative strength and muscle at virtually the same rate as men (1), there are key differences in how women should train to get the best results.
Here are the general guidelines for women, tailored to the female body. I’ve also provided a sample workout for women so you can see how these guidelines are used.
Research shows that women can generally do more reps at a given intensity than men. So, it’s reasonable to say that women should generally perform more reps per set than men. However, this can lead to using very light weights for endless reps.
The weight you use on each set is determined by the number of reps you’re doing. Both women and men should choose a load that leaves them unable to perform any more than indicated on the workout program, but without cheating by using momentum.
But, since women have greater muscle endurance than men when using light to medium loads (2), they can benefit from doing an additional set. So, if a generic workout program calls for 3 sets of 8-12 reps, women will generally get better results by adding a fourth set.
Adding an additional set takes advantage of women’s superior muscle endurance while keeping each set’s intensity high enough to create strength adaptations.
Women recover faster after a set than men because they’re less fatigable (3). Therefore, women don’t need as much rest between sets as men. This is why many women prefer faster-paced workouts like tri-sets and circuits.
Tri-set training – doing three exercises that hit a different muscle group, performed in series – can be more effective than traditional training. It enables you to rest longer between sets of the same muscle group while maximizing training time by doing a set targeting a different muscle group.
Tri-sets are especially great for women because they allow them to keep moving, which maximizes work while still getting ample rest between sets hitting the same muscle group – important for getting the most out of each set.
Women not only recover faster than men after each set, but they also recover faster after workouts.
For example, one study of males and females involved performing the bench press three times per week for five sets at 50% to 100% of perceived five-rep max (5RM). After the program, the subjects, on three consecutive weeks, participated in two testing sessions per week: baseline session and recovery session. During the testing sessions, subjects performed an estimated 1RM bench press while resting during a 4-hour, 24-hour, or 48-hour recovery period.
Females had no differences in muscle strength, regardless of recovery time, while the males had decreases in estimated 1RM at the 4-hour and 24-hour recovery times. (4)
Interestingly, researchers looking at the bench press and squat performance found no differences between sexes in squats but did find differences in bench press performance.
The difference in upper-body recovery and performance between sexes may be because men generally have 10 times more circulating testosterone than women (5). Upper-body muscles may have more androgen receptors than lower-body muscles (6). So it’s possible that this hormonal difference might permit greater development of upper-body muscles in men compared to women.
What does this mean in practical terms? Women can hit their upper-body lifts more often throughout the week than men. So, if a woman wants to increase her numbers on a certain upper-body lift, she can hit that lift three times per week. (Men should stick to twice per week.)
The same applies to those looking to increase the size of certain upper-body muscles. Women who want bigger shoulders can hit them hard three times per week, while men should train shoulders hard twice per week.
Female bodies use less of the stretch-shortening cycle when it comes to upper-body lifting, which makes them less efficient, slower, and possibly more at risk of injury from explosive plyometric exercises.
The stretch-shortening cycle is more pronounced in men. In several studies, men demonstrated greater stretch-shortening-related power in both lower (7) and upper-body movements. (8,9)
In short, women are better off doing less plyometric volume than men. A simple way to apply this in pre-written workout programs is for women to do one less set than men of jumping, bounding, hopping exercises, or explosive upper-body lifts.
This works out nicely because the ladies can do an extra set of strength training (see number one above) while the guys do an extra set of explosive plyometric exercises.
A study involving male and female soccer players found that men have a superior ability to recover between sprints (10). Males had less drop-off in their sprint speed between subsequent sprints than women.
So, women would do best with fewer rounds of sprints than men in a given workout. Women can do a few extra sets of strength work instead since it’ll likely benefit them more anyway.
Females need to emphasize hamstring-oriented exercises like leaning lunges and RDL lunges. Why? Because women are more quad-dominant than men (11), and they tend to have weaker hamstrings (12), making them more prone to knee injury (13,14).
This doesn’t just mean going bonkers on the RDLs, 45-degree hip extensions, and other exercises that hit your glutes and hams in their lengthened range. It means incorporating some knee flexion exercises, such as machine leg curls and stability-ball leg curls two to three times per week. And anyone trying to build or strengthen hamstrings will need more than one exercise for complete development.
Here’s what a total-body workout for women might look like. This can be done in 60 minutes or less, including a warm-up.
|A2.||Cable Lateral Raise||3||20-25/side|
|A3.||Stability Ball Plate Crunch||3||12-15|
|B1.||Barbell Romanian Deadlift||3||8-12|
|B2.||Side Elbow Plank with Dumbbell Rear-Delt Flye||3||10-12/side|
|B3.||Plank with Shoulder Tap||3||20-25 sec.|
|C1.||Underhand Grip Lat Pulldown||3||10-12|
|C2.||Dumbbell Behind-The-Head Triceps Extension||3||12-15|
|C3.||NT Loop Glute Walk||3||50 sec.|
|D1.||Cable One-Arm Row with Reverse Lunge||3||12-15/side|
|D3.||Stability-Ball Hamstring Curl||3||15-20|
For these tri-sets, perform all reps of an exercise before moving to the next one. Rest no more than 30 seconds between each exercise. Once you’ve completed all three exercises, rest 1 to 2 minutes. Then do the next round.
I’m not saying that men couldn’t benefit from a workout for women or that women wouldn’t benefit from a workout for men. All I’m showing is how I tweak workouts so that women get the most out of their training, given their unique differences.
The workouts I write for women have less explosive work and more strength training. Plus, the workouts I write for men contain more work on the upper traps and arms, whereas the women’s workouts have more work for glutes and hamstrings.
- Gentil P et al. Comparison of upper body strength gains between men and women after 10 weeks of resistance training. PeerJ. 2016 Feb 11;4:e1627. PubMed.
- Maughan RJ et al. Endurance capacity of untrained males and females in isometric and dynamic muscular contractions. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1986;55(4):395-400. PubMed.
- Hunter SK. Sex differences in human fatigability: mechanisms and insight to physiological responses. Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2014 Apr;210(4):768-89. PubMed.
- Judge LW et al. The effect of recovery time on strength performance following a high-intensity bench press workout in males and females. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2010 Jun;5(2):184-96. PubMed.
- Dreyer HC et al. Resistance exercise increases leg muscle protein synthesis and mTOR signalling independent of sex. Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2010 May;199(1):71-81. PMC.
- Kadi F et al. The expression of androgen receptors in human neck and limb muscles: effects of training and self-administration of androgenic-anabolic steroids. Histochem Cell Biol. 2000 Jan;113(1):25-9. PubMed.
- Komi PV et al. EMG activity of the leg extensor muscles with special reference to mechanical efficiency in concentric and eccentric exercise. Int J Sports Med. 1987 Mar;8 Suppl 1:22-9. PubMed.
- Miyaguchi K et al. Gender difference in ability using this stretch-shortening cycle in the upper extremities. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):231-6. PubMed.
- Flanagan SD et al. The relationship between muscle action and repetition maximum on the squat and bench press in men and women. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Sep;28(9):2437-42. PubMed.
- Dent JR et al. Sex differences in acute translational repressor 4E-BP1 activity and sprint performance in response to repeated-sprint exercise in team sport athletes. J Sci Med Sport. 2015 Nov;18(6):730-6. PubMed.
- Youdas JW et al. Comparison of hamstring and quadriceps femoris electromyographic activity between men and women during a single-limb squat on both a stable and labile surface. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):105-11. PubMed.
- Kannus P et al. Peak torque occurrence in the range of motion during isokinetic extension and flexion of the knee. Int J Sports Med. Nov 1993;14(8):422-426. PubMed.
- Anderson AF et al. Correlation of anthropometric measurements, strength, anterior cruciate ligament size, and intercondylar notch characteristics to sex differences in anterior cruciate ligament tear rates. Am J Sports Med. Jan-Feb 2001;29(1):58-66. PubMed.
- Griffin LY et al. Noncontact anterior cruciate ligament injuries: risk factors and prevention strategies. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. May-Jun 2000;8(3):141-150. PubMed.
T Nation earns from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate. Read more about our policy.