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Why women should NOT train like men

Warum Frauen NICHT wie Männer trainieren sollten

We've all heard the argument that women train in the same way as men. Well, that's not true.

Sure, if women want to make radical changes to their bodies, they should work on getting strong and building muscle and stay away from stepper classes and prolonged aerobic exercise...just like men. However, when it comes to building the exercise program and the actual exercise choices, there is a list of things women need to consider to get stronger, improve their bodies and stay injury free.

Training for body development

When it comes to sculpting the body for the competition stage or simply looking better, women have slightly different needs than men. Men naturally want to look broad and develop a muscular chest and broad latissimus. If you suggest this look to a woman, she will probably run away and never touch a barbell again. Women generally want good shoulders, arms, calves, abs and legs, as well as a shapely butt.

Men don't need to do a lot of isolation training to develop a great body. If they focus on getting strong using the big three basic exercises then they will generally get good results, but many women find it hard to pull and push hard and they often become arm dominant in these exercises.

This is the reason I recommend more isolation training for women - especially for the upper body. For example, I will incorporate two arm days per week into the training plan. Since women have smaller muscles, they can train them in isolation more often without having to worry about longer recovery periods.

Here are some general points regarding areas of interest for most women:

Calves

Women should train their calves 4 days per week in both vertical planes. A great pair of calves looks great on stage or in a dress and will help make large quadriceps and leg flexors look more proportionate.

Shoulders

The most noticeable thing about a woman's chest shouldn't be a big pair of pecs. I don't think I'm being sexist when I say that 90% of women wouldn't be too happy if you told them they had great pecs.

Instead, women should do heavy pressing movements primarily with dumbbells (more shoulder stability and activation) in addition to more frequent isolation training for their shoulders. Men usually isolate their pecs with variations of crossover cable pulls, the butterfly machine and descending sets of pressing exercises, while women should skip all of these and instead perform more shoulder isolation exercises or bodyweight exercises with high repetitions.

Abdominal muscles

Men can build great abs with heavy squats and heavy deadlifts alone. Women can achieve a good base shape with these exercises, but they still need isolation training for this area. They should therefore integrate a heavy ab day and a volume ab day into their program, where the abdominal muscles are trained at the end of each upper body training session. These can be trained in the form of triple sets or supersets with other muscle groups.

Gluteus

If you perform squats or train legs three to four times a week, you will automatically build up a great gluteus. However, it's still a good idea to incorporate a few bodyweight glute bridges into your warm-up and emphasize pushing off the floor with the outside of the feet during squats for better glute activation.

Creating a training plan for women

Most men use either three full body workouts or two upper body and two lower body workout days as part of a split program, while bodybuilders tend to train each muscle group once a week. Women can cope with a higher training frequency and can recover better, which is why I like to start each training session with a lower body exercise.

Different goals will obviously decide different types of workout programs, but for women who just want to look good, build strength and stay healthy, something like the following would work great:

  • Day 1: Heavy squats, 1-2 x push/pull *, isolation training / fat burning circuit
  • Day 2: Single leg exercise, 1-2 x push/pull, isolation training / fat burning circuit
  • Day 3: Heavy deadlift, 1-2 x push/pull, isolation training / fat burning circuit

* Either 1 to 2 push and pull exercises in the form of individual sets or 1 to 2 push and pull exercises as a superset

Examples of heavy squat day exercises include traditional squats, box squats, box front squats, wide stance squats, etc.

Examples of pressing exercises include overhead presses, close grip dips and Arnold presses, while examples of pulling exercises include lat pulldowns, pull-ups, upright rows with dumbbells and deadlifts.

Examples of heavy deadlift day exercises include trap bar deadlifts, rack pulls, straight leg deadlifts and traditional deadlifts.

A 4 or 5 day split might look like this:

  • Day 1: Heavy squats, single leg, leg flexor/gluteus focused workout, isolation training.
  • Day 2: Single-leg, quadriceps-focused training, push/pull, isolation training
  • Day 3: Deadlift, quadriceps-focused training, isolation training
  • Day 4: Single leg, leg flexor/gluteus focused training, push/pull, isolation training
  • Day 5: Sprint training, strongwoman training (tire flipping, battle ropes, sled pulls, sled pushes), isolation training for lagging muscle groups, walking, mobility training

The key aspects of any training session are to train the lower body first and finish the workout with some type of isolation exercises or circuits. The quadriceps, leg flexors and gluteus are trained frequently throughout the week but with different intensities and movement patterns.

Strength for women - the three major basic exercises

1 - Squats

Volume and intensity are crucial for developing strength in squats. Most men respond well to a high volume or high intensity program, but women respond better to a mix of high volume and high intensity, while at the same time they will not suffer from recovery issues as much as men.

Unlike men, when testing their maximum weight, women don't usually exceed the 95%+ mark of their predicted 1RM unless they have just started training. For example, a woman could easily perform 4 to 5 repetitions at 80 kilograms and then fail a repetition at 85 if her predicted maximum weight for a repetition was 90 kilograms. Women tend to either be able to perform a repetition with ease or not. They don't seem to be able to force repetitions with their last ounce of strength like men. However, this "deficiency" allows women to train more often at high intensities without having to worry about overtraining or CNS overload.

Women also benefit from training squats, bench presses and deadlifts more frequently than men. A woman could train squats at 90%+ of her maximum weight for 3 to 4 weeks in a row, whereas a man would typically reach his maximum performance after 2 to 3 weeks and then need a recovery period.

Women also need a heavy weight on their back for psychological reasons. Men tend to be rather unfazed by a heavy bar on their shoulders, while women often fail when attempting a heavy weight as they are not used to the feeling of a heavy bar with a weight close to their maximum weight.

I therefore like to use a conjugate system with my clients in combination with volume on dynamic days and additional supportive training. As they become more experienced, this becomes less of a problem if they have never used a maximum weight in a competition or strength test before.

2 - Bench press

Women often don't have the same chest muscles as men and need to rely more on their triceps, shoulders and back. For this reason, strong triceps and good mobility are key for women to perform well on the bench press.

Developing a big arch using mobility training (back, ankles, hip flexors and shoulders) will reduce the amount of work the chest has to do and shift more load to the triceps and shoulders. The downside of this is that women tend to be more prone to shoulder injuries. This is where preventative training, good supportive training and adequate shoulder warm-up are crucial.

I also recommend a slightly tighter grip to my strength athletes to isolate the triceps more. Elbow position is also very important in conjunction with wrist position and general posture.

3 - Deadlift

Of the three major foundational exercises, deadlifts are the exercise that is most similar for both genders in terms of the way I would incorporate them into the training program. However, for women, I tend to use sumo deadlifts rather than conventional deadlifts, which is especially true for smaller women.

Women are generally smaller than men and performing sumo deadlifts allows them to use this to their advantage as they only need to move the bar up a shorter distance compared to conventional deadlifts. Sumo style deadlifts are also more balanced in terms of the muscle groups that are used simultaneously.

Women generally don't seem to be particularly strong in one specific area and tend to be strong throughout the range of motion rather than having one muscle group that stands out. Conventional deadlifts emphasize the hamstrings and lower back more, making it necessary for an exerciser to be stronger in these areas.

Injuries

Due to biomechanical factors, women are more prone to injury in certain areas. For example, women are more likely to suffer anterior cruciate ligament injuries than men. Part of the problem is that women often have an excessive pelvic tilt and a slight valgus position of the knees, which basically means that their knees point inwards.

This increases their risk of osteoarthritis in the knees (wear and tear of the joint) and the risk of other knee problems, such as anterior cruciate ligament injuries and knee pain.

Women also often suffer from problems with patellar guidance due to tightness around the hips and slow or inactive gluteus or leg flexors. A lot of women walk around in high heels for long periods of time. This puts more stress on the quadriceps and doesn't allow the gluteus and leg flexors to work as much as they should during simple activities like climbing stairs, standing and running.

As a result, women should perform squats more often with flat shoes and do more hip flexibility training during their warm-up, while doing some additional gluteus and hamstring exercises during their leg workouts. This will help prevent some of the most common complaints of knee pain and back pain in women, which are usually the result of too much forward pelvic tilt, weak hamstrings and tight hips.

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