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It is quite obvious that men and women are physically different, but does it impact training? Could you use the same training plan as your friend or partner if you are a different gender? Are there real training differences between men and women? To answer this, we will look at some of the unique differences such as hormones, body composition, and muscles.
It is worth noting that part of the training routine differences between men and women could be also because of a gap in training goals. We will admit that this is a broad generalization that may not apply to all.
With that being said, it is quite common that men train for muscle gain and strength. Women tend to be more concerned about weight, body shape, and general fitness level. Another main factor of performance differences will obviously come from the size and body composition, not gender.
Let’s look at some of the physical differences between men and women that might have some impact.
Differences in Body Composition and Body Shape
We will look closer at the muscle differences between men and women later on, but in general, women tend to have less muscle mass. On average women have about 2/3 the total muscle mass of men with similar body size.
Women also tend to have more body fat, around 14 to 24% of their body composition for someone who is fit or athletic while for men it is around 6 to 17% (read more about fat percentages depending on your fitness level here). There are also differences in the way fat is stored in the body depending on gender.
Men tend to have fat stored around the abdomen. Women usually store more between the muscles and the skin around the hips and thighs. This shows in body shape, which is why we often use the term “pear” shape for women’s bodies.
Fat stored around the abdomen can be partly stored around the organs. This type of fat, called visceral fat, tends to get broken down and released into the blood more easily. Too much visceral fat can create health challenges, such as a higher risk for type 2 diabetes or stroke. Having more visceral fat can also increase the body’s insulin resistance, which makes it harder for the metabolism to get rid of fat in general.
Generally speaking, women tend to have a metabolic advantage over men. However, due to the higher general fat content, it can often feel as though it is harder for women to “lose weight” when compared to men.
Muscle Differences Between Men and Women
The first important factor worth noting is that for similar body mass, men tend to have more muscle mass overall. Women tend to have more fat in their body composition. This may sound unfair, but it is deep-rooted in our ancestral survival DNA.
The way the muscles are distributed in the body is also different depending on gender. Men tend to have more muscles in their upper body, while women have more in the lower body.
The most notable muscle difference is that women tend to have more fibers in their muscles, specifically Type 1 fiber, as well as denser capillaries.
On a physical level, because of various chemical processes happening in the body when working out, this means that women tend to use more fat than men do for exercising with similar intensity.
Men on the other hand will usually have better performances on short, high-intensity bursts of effort, but will take longer to recover.
As we discussed above, women tend to have about 2/3 of the muscle mass than men have. This can be explained by men’s higher testosterone levels, which is around 10 times higher than females. Women on the other hand have higher estrogen levels, which is responsible for some advantages in metabolism.
Muscles have estrogen receptors and scientific research shows that they play a role in muscle efficiency. This means that women’s higher levels of estrogen could be an underlying reason for higher strength in muscles as women age. It’s well known that testosterone declines in men as they age. This results in loss of muscle mass. Estrogen also lowers with age, however at a slower rate than testosterone decline. Estrogen is also believed to increase the collagen content of connective tissues, therefore improving muscle recovery amongst other things.
With the gap in testosterone levels and muscle mass distribution between genders, it also means that women will not get as bulky and big as men when doing weight training. Muscle development will be slower unless women supplement with testosterone – which is rarely the case. Here is a great article about how to deal with avoiding muscle loss as you age.
Another difference with hormones is that women have to deal with changes in hormone levels during their monthly cycle. This means that generally, women tend to feel stronger and perform well during the first half of their cycle when estrogen is at its highest level. In the second half, fatigue and other symptoms of hormone decrease can impact performance.
Nutrition Differences Between Men and Women
We know that nutrition is a key part of muscle gain and general fitness levels. Should there be a difference in the way males and females approach good nutrition for fitness?
Differences discussed above regarding hormones and fat storage have some consequences in the way men and women metabolize food.
First of all, because of size and overall muscle mass, the necessary daily intake of calories is usually lower for women.
Women also tend to burn fat ‘better’. As we have seen, women have a higher fat percentage in their body composition so their body tends to use fat more as an energy source. Research tends to show that women respond better to high fat and low carb diet than the opposite (check out this article on EMHs Low Carb diet plan).
Finally, it seems that women do not need as much protein as men for several reasons. They burn less protein after meals and generally have less lean body mass than men of similar weight. So their protein intake should be somehow lower than for men.
These are, of course, general findings through research and can vary from one person to another. If you are considering making important changes in your diet, we recommend that you consult with a health practitioner first.
Should There Be Training Differences Between Men and Women?
Gender differences are not huge when it comes to performance and training.
Does this mean that there should be differences in training for men and women? The short answer is: not really.
From these metabolic differences, there are not huge gaps in body composition, muscle development, or other factors that should drastically change the training routine between men and women.
If you are following a similar routine, the results may be slightly different because of the way muscles and fat are built and stored differently between men and women.
For similar weight training, women will not gain as much muscle mass as men. This debunks the common misunderstanding that weight training will make a woman bulky or muscle-bound!
When it comes to training, women’s muscles are more fatigue-resistant and have a shorter recovery time. This means that women can, in theory, do more reps or push for longer. They also have a shorter recovery time, and benefit from those extra reps.
The differences in muscle mass and distribution in the body affect visible response to exercise. For example, it is usually harder for women to achieve visible abs. This is due to their body composition and lower overall muscle mass.
But overall, despite some metabolic differences between men and women, they should not be massive differences between training routines for males and females. The differences generally lie in the fact that the fitness goals might be different. Most of the training routines can be used and applied by all. General misconceptions such as women lifting weights will look like men, or that yoga and Pilates are only for women, are simply not correct.
The bottom line is that exercise and training are good for all and you should not be worried about following a specific gender fitness routine.
Focus on building a routine that works for you and stick to it! If you are not sure where to start, you can take a look at our article about building a workout plan.
If you have a specific fitness goal, then discussing with your health practitioner and/or your fitness coach should help you define a plan that will help you achieve the fitness level or body shape that you want.