Do Women Need to Train Differently Than Men?

In episode 4 of hybrid unlimited, Molly Galbraith talked about some similarities and differences between women and men when it comes to strength training. She referenced a meta-analysis, performed by Greg Nuckols, that revealed some surprising data. Let’s go over those results…

Before we begin, remember that a metanalysis is essentially a study of studies. It pools the results of many studies into a single large study. Any random effects or biases present in one study shouldn’t affect the final result. Through the magic of a statistical model, we put a bunch of individual study data and out pops a summarized result that gives us more statistical power and more confidence in the results.

The results for this one were somewhat surprising..

It turns out, according to the data, women gain relative strength and muscle mass at rates virtually identical to men. Women sometimes seem gain relative strength faster than men. Some of this effect could be explained by the fact that “untrained” women in the studies were relatively less trained than similarly untrained men. The term “untrained” necessarily doesn't mean that everyone starts at the same baseline. Women in the studies might have less sports experience and traditionally women's sports don't involve the same amount of upper body work. So when they started training, they had more “room” to gain relative strength, especially in the upper body.

However, from strength sport competition data it does seem that very highly trained women seem to continue to gain strength deeper into their training careers, closing the gap on similarly competitive men. At the moment we don't have a good understanding of this possible female enhanced strength development effect. What we do have is another example of where science challenges conventional wisdom.

This above data suggests that not only do women not need “remedial” strength programs, but they might respond to identical strength programs better than men in many cases. But women are not identical to men. So how are they different? If most differences can be explained by differences in body weight and lean mass, what’s actually important?

There are a few things that make women different than men….

  1. Women generally can do more reps at a given percentage of 1RM, all else being equal.
  2. Women often recover from equivalent training faster than men, which may be related to point 1. It also may be related to the fact that higher estrogen levels can protect against muscle damage. 
  3. Women seem not to gain the same amount of muscle in response to light load training (20-30). Again this might be related to a higher percentage of oxidative fibers or some differences in muscle recruitment. At low loads, it becomes tough to fatigue the large hypertrophy sensitive non-oxidative fibers if you have to do so much work with oxidative fibers.
  4. Women have a menstrual cycle. There is a lot of conflicting data on menstruation and training. Some evidence suggests that training can be enhanced if synchronized with menstrual cycle phases. The problem here is different women have very different experiences with their cycles. There is so much variation between women, that these “within group” differences are more meaningful than changes over the cycle. Once you know yourself as an athlete, the menstrual cycle is more or less likely to be particularly important. If it is, we can use how we feel on a given day during the cycle to regulate training. If we know how we will feel on a given day, we can plan training accordingly. The current best recommendations regarding training through the cycle are individualized, as where a woman is in her cycle could be one of many things that have the potential to influence training on a given day.


Women are not a different species than men, but women are also not just “small men”. Most of the people who exercise happen to have two X chromosomes, but there is a gap in the understanding of how women respond to training. Whether you are a female, you train females, or maybe you just know a female or two, it's important to consider how gender might (or might not) influence training.

The good news is, despite relatively small differences, the fundamentals of training are the same.

Women may not be small men, but we are people too, and we deserve confidence through strength.



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