Skip to content

Strength training for women

Krafttraining Für Frauen

A brief overview...

  • Women can perform sets of 5 repetitions with a weight closer to 1RM than men. Women can perform more repetitions using a higher percentage of their maximum weight than men.
  • Women can perform more eccentric training (negative repetitions) when fatigued. Even after reaching concentric muscle failure, women can continue to perform negative repetitions.
  • Women can set personal bests with less than perfect technique. Even using less than optimal form, women can complete 1RM repetitions.
  • Women need less rest between sets. Women can recover faster between sets than men.
  • Women can train heavier more often than men. They get less muscle soreness, they recover faster and they cope better with more frequent training stress.

If you need to be told that women are physiologically different from men when it comes to strength training, then you've either never trained men and women, or you weren't paying attention while you were doing it. A 1RM (maximum weight for one repetition) repetition performed by a woman is different from a 1RM repetition performed by a man. And women can train with a higher percentage of their 1RM weight than men. And there are other differences too.

Men vs. women: Heavy training

Women can perform sets of 5 repetitions with a much higher percentage of their 1RM weight than men.

Most women can perform 5 repetitions of bench presses with only 2 to 3 kilos below their maximum weight for one repetition. A woman with a maximum weight of 50 kilos on the bench can usually perform 5 reps at 47.5%, which is 95% of her 1RM weight.

In contrast, men generally train at 85 to 87% of their 1RM weight when performing sets of 5 repetitions. A man who can bench press 175 kilos can usually perform three repetitions with 157.5 kilos and 5 repetitions with 150 kilos. This is not because women have the fictional quality known as 'strength endurance'. Nor is it because they are "very efficient at using their strength." Rather, it's because the 1RM weight for women is not the same kind of limit for an exercise as it is for men. So if a woman performs 5 reps with a weight that is closer to the 1RM weight, then the 1RM weight is to blame. In competitions, there is therefore not much leeway for women between the first and their third attempt. This is the reason why Olympic weightlifting moved to one kilogram increases between attempts after Olympic weightlifting for women was added as a new discipline at the Olympics.

Even after concentric muscle failure, a woman can maintain eccentric control of a weight

I decided, with my developing awareness of this phenomenon, to experiment with an incline bench press with a woman from my gym. Kay was quite strong and had been training for several months. I loaded the bar with 32.5 kilos and had her perform her set. She completed 6 repetitions under her own power and reached muscle failure on the 7th repetition. I helped her up on the seventh repetition and told her to lower the bar in a controlled manner (the eccentric repetition). Kay performed 13 more repetitions under eccentric control, reaching a total repetition count of 20 repetitions. Later that week, she reported only mild muscle soreness and was ready to train again. In a similar situation, a male exerciser might have completed 2 more repetitions and may still have been able to hold the weight isometrically. But no man can do 13 controlled negative repetitions after muscle failure. A set of 5 or 6 repetitions produces sufficient exhaustion to severely limit further muscular effort in a man. This is not the case for a woman. Even after reaching the point of muscle failure on a set, women continue to have the ability to produce eccentric force well beyond the point at which a male exerciser would reach the point of eccentric muscle failure.

Women can perform a max repetition on squats, presses or deadlifts with less than perfect technique, something that men cannot do once they are past the beginner stage.

Check it out for yourself. Youtube is full of videos of female exercisers setting personal bests or records with sloppier form than men can, even if it takes a trained eye to spot the problems. Heavy squats must be performed in a vertical line over the center of the foot for efficiency of balance and leverage. Despite this, women are setting new records even though their technique could be better. Men would fail attempts with a similar degree of technical error. Women can perform heavier weights with a lower reliance on technical perfection than men, who must increase their mechanical efficiency as the weights get heavier. Women should do this, but men must.

Some speculation about women

1 - Women tend to be more mobile than men

Joint range of motion is related to the ability to relax muscles in a state of stretch. There are significantly more immobile men than women.
Could it be that this phenomenon is related to the lower number of motor units recruited at any given time?

2 - Women suffer significantly less delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) than men

Delayed onset muscle soreness is associated with eccentric loading in people who are not adapted to it. Muscle soreness passes more quickly in women and interferes less with training than it does in men. This could be attributed to either a lower voluntary intensity or inherent differences in the quality of the eccentric load experienced by women. A woman's ability to exercise eccentrically well beyond concentric muscle failure is indicative of both a lack of exhaustion from the preceding concentric work, as well as a lack of exhaustion during the concentric work itself. It is very likely that a woman is not able to work hard enough against the resistance of the weight to achieve a muscular response pattern more typical of men.

So how can these observations be explained?

It's obvious that testosterone is involved, but what does it do that explains this particular aspect of gender dimorphism? Testosterone has pronounced effects on neuromuscular efficiency. And neuromuscular efficiency is the primary physical difference between men and women. It is responsible for the differences in strength with similar muscle mass and all the factors mentioned above.

1RM: The difference between men and women

A 1RM weight is theoretically synonymous with maximal recruitment of motor units and an indicator of your motor nervous system's ability to recruit a maximum number of contractile components of the muscle - and therefore a maximum amount of muscle mass - during a muscular effort. A 1RM is basically a combination of your neurological and muscular ability to produce a demonstration of your maximum capacity force by recruiting a very large number of motor units. Most authorities in the field recognize that true 100% motor unit recruitment is impossible, with 95 to 98% being considered estimates of the upper limit of neuromuscular efficiency. This efficiency unfortunately decreases with age. And it also varies depending on genetic factors and gender. This explains the large gap between average athletic performance and athletic performance at an elite level, between the performance of young and older athletes, and between the athletic performance of men and women. In most sports, athletic ability depends on strength. The ability to explosively release force is the ability to contract a large number of motor units in a very short period of time and is another way of describing neuromuscular efficiency.

If men can recruit 98% of their motor units in a 1RM contraction, women are only able to recruit a smaller percentage at the same relative effort - perhaps 90%, perhaps 85% or perhaps less. Essentially, a 1RM weight for a man and a woman corresponds to two different neuromuscular events.

The role of hormones

Human athletic capacity is determined by genetic factors. The genetically controlled aspects are influenced by anthropometry, which determines the efficiency of leverage in mechanical force production. For example, a long tibia and a short femur are associated with sprinting efficiency. Height often determines the sport in which an athlete can perform best. Basketball, American football and equestrian sports are obvious examples of sports where anthropometrics play a crucial role.

Explosive and neuromuscular efficiency are associated with the quality of the tissue of the nerves, the quality of the nerve/muscle interface and the contractile characteristics of the sarcomere proteins. The ratio of type I to type II muscle fibers is invariable and this, along with neurological tissue limitations (think of how hard it is to heal a damaged nerve), represents a significant bottleneck. I'm really sorry, but it's not possible to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. In addition to this, all of these variable characteristics are subject to hormonal regulation. Every system that influences human physical development is dependent on the hormonal environment in which it develops and in which it functions. Men and women and old and young people have different hormonal environments in terms of both development and function.

A man who has been bathed in testosterone since birth will reflect the effects of this in every system of his body from neuromuscular to behavioral systems, just as a woman's physical systems will reflect the absence of testosterone. This means that women who use androgenic and anabolic steroids can compensate for some - but not all - of these differences. And there is a large variance in the ability of these systems to respond to their specific hormonal environment. This variance is so extensive that much of the reason for this enormous variance is not yet known. What we do know is that every aspect of physical development is focused through the lens of hormonal levels into an individual expression that is dependent on gender, all other genetically determined characteristics, and the physical environment in which that development occurs. To save ourselves time, we will simply refer to this complex concept as "genetic factors" for short.

Vertical jumps from a standing position

The average vertical jump height for women is about 35 centimeters. It is very difficult to find a record - there is a 75 centimeter jump that was measured at the Nebraska Track and Field Championships in 2002. In contrast, the average vertical jump height for men is 56 centimeters and a 117 cm jump was measured at an NFL championship. The average and maximum jump height of women is therefore in the range of 64% of the corresponding values for men. The standing vertical jump test is a good measure of genetic explosive ability, as it measures the ability to accelerate one's body mass to achieve sufficient momentum to move the body upward a measured distance after force is no longer applied to the ground. Since the force production that generates this acceleration must occur within a short period of time, the height of the jump is a very precise measure of the ability to recruit a large amount of motor units within a short period of time, which in other words is the ability to perform an explosive movement. Increasing strength helps but does not affect this ability by more than 10 to 15% because the weight you are moving is your own body weight, which is quite light compared to the weight used by strong athletes in squats. When building muscle mass, force production must increase sufficiently to compensate for the increase in body weight, but absolute force production is not the limiting factor in vertical jumps, but rather the immediate recruitment for a submaximal contraction. For this reason, vertical jump height is a good test of "genetic predispositions" and a fairly good way to determine an athlete's genotype. It responds only minimally to training, as the movement is not particularly technical and there is no way to cheat if the observer of the test is paying close attention. A youngster who tests his vertical jump height at a squat weight of 45 kilos and later retakes the test after increasing his squat weight to 150 kilos will show little improvement in his vertical jump height - perhaps 15% - because the quality being tested is not absolute strength but the ability to recruit motor units. For the same reason, some very strong powerlifters do not achieve a great vertical jump height from a standing position.

The relatively limited ability to improve neuromuscular efficiency can be demonstrated by testing vertical jump height over an extended period of time. Apart from a large reduction in body fat, improvement in vertical jump height in men under the most optimal possible conditions is limited to perhaps 20% and is usually only 10 to 15%. Most women, due to their inherently less efficient neuromuscular efficiency, show very small improvements of perhaps 5% or no improvement at all. Strength coaches all agree that you can't greatly improve vertical jump height and that with the small improvements possible, strength gains are the primary factor.

And why would you want to improve your results anyway? The test is designed to determine your natural explosive capacity - not your ability to manipulate the test. It shows the differences between the 30s and the 91s, not the ability to go from 66 to 76.

Ronda Rousey can kick your skinny ass, but...

Sex obviously determines most of the hormonal milieu and sex is of course an obvious aspect of genetics. But variations in individual sex hormone receptor efficiency are also a significant determinant of hormonal response. Two young men of the same height and weight, and perhaps even identical testosterone levels, will have different physical capacities. In general, a younger man will have greater neuromuscular efficiency than an older man, and in general, a man will have greater neuromuscular efficiency than a woman.

The difference between natural born athletes - the explosive guys with a vertical jump height of 91 centimeters or more - and their less blessed brethren is quite pronounced. An explosive athlete, who by definition recruits more motor units and therefore more muscle mass for a contraction, achieves a different training stimulus from that contraction than an athlete who recruits less muscle mass. This explains why less talented athletes cannot benefit from the same training program that produces world-class performance in athletes with better genetics. The Bulgarian weightlifting team may be able to train only snatches, deadlifts and presses and front squats and nothing else. This may be enough training for them as they train more muscles at a higher capacity with each exercise - simply because they are who they are. Your narrow butt, on the other hand, will probably need squats, deadlifts and heavy presses if you want to have any chance of keeping up with them in a competition. There are also examples of genetically blessed older athletes who are better than less talented younger athletes and there are also gifted women who are better than the average man and especially older men - Ronda Rousey can kick my skinny butt and yours too. However, the difference between the sexes remains the most profound predictor of absolute physical capacity.

For the same reason that the average man cannot achieve the level of neuromuscular efficiency of a genetically blessed man, even with a lot of training, the average woman cannot perform beyond the trained capacity of the average man.

Applications of this knowledge for female strength athletes

We need to consider what we know about the differences between the neuromuscular efficiency of men and women, understand the implications for training and plan training accordingly.

A 1RM weight for a woman is a different neuromuscular event than for a man A 1RM weight for women may only represent 85 to 90% of muscle fiber recruitment - perhaps less or more depending on individual differences. If this is the case, then even a 5RM weight is a different neuromuscular event, a different load and therefore a different training stimulus. It is relatively lighter than a man's 5RM weight, which means that 3 sets of 5 reps is not the same training load for men and women.

After the first few months of training, "heavy" sets of 5 reps may not be heavy enough for women to drive the load/recovery/adaptation cycle in the same way as men. For this reason, the productive training stress that a man can produce with sets of 5 reps may need to be produced with relatively heavier weights, such as sets of 3 reps. Volume can be maintained with more sets and 5 sets of 3 repetitions are successfully used to drive strength adaptations in women more than sets of 5 repetitions.

5 sets of 3 repetitions work well for women and such training works quite well over a long period of time

Sets of 10 repetitions are just as useless for women trying to get stronger as 20 repetitions are for men. Any weight that a male exerciser can do 20 reps with is not heavy - even if it may feel that way at the end of a set. If strength production is strength, then a weight that requires such submaximal strength production that you can perform 20 reps with that weight is not heavy enough to drive strength adaptation over a significant period of time. For women, sets of 10 reps are a similar waste of time after the first few weeks of training if their goal is to get stronger. Sets of 5 reps are not much better as these are simply not heavy enough either. Sets of 3 or maybe even 2 reps are necessary to get close enough to a weight heavy enough to drive strength adaptations. In fact, practical experience has shown that 5 sets of 3 repetitions work just as well and for just as long for women as 3 sets of 5 repetitions do for men. While men will reach a plateau after a few weeks with sets of 3 repetitions, women can train productively for months with this "relatively heavier weight, but in reality just as heavy for them".

Women can train heavier more often than men

Women get less muscle soreness, recover faster from training and cope better with more frequent training stress than men, as their training stress is relatively lower compared to men's training stress. Heavy sets of 3 repetitions for 4 to 5 sets 3 days a week with no light days may be necessary to produce strength gains in more advanced female strength athletes. Such a training plan would kill most men, but is necessary for most women. Women can also deadlift more often than men and need to do so to progress. Most men cannot recover sufficiently from more frequent heavy deadlift training, and most men cannot handle multiple sets of heavy deadlifts as part of a training session. Women, on the other hand, need both the heavy volume and the high intensity of multiple heavy sets of 3 repetitions.

Women need less rest between sets than men

5 sets of heavy squats can require a somewhat advanced male exerciser to rest 15 minutes between sets, which can add up to a very long training session if other exercises are performed. Women, on the other hand, recover more quickly between sets, which are not as demanding for them as they are for men. This should be kept in mind - especially when you consider the need for more heavy workouts per week and women's ability to do more work in a shorter period of time

Women are more likely to get away with sloppy technique, but should still strive for perfection

Although women's heavy weight training technique can be sloppier than men's without affecting performance as much as men's, it should still be as perfect as possible for obvious reasons. Just because a movement can be performed with an inefficient movement of the bar doesn't mean the trainer doesn't need to worry about technique. If you can't teach your trainees near-perfect technique, then you're not a competent trainer, even if you may be able to hide your incompetence behind the performances of particularly talented female strength athletes.

Women are different - and amazing

What we know for sure is that women respond differently to the stresses of weight training because they produce a different quality of training stress from which they must recover and through which they must force adaptations. The adaptation curve looks different to men, but still points upwards, as is the case for all people exposed to adaptive stress. We are still learning more about this. Keep this in mind and we will learn together.

By Mark Rippetoe

Previous article The definitive guide to preventing muscle loss