Most experienced coaches agree that in general, women and men should train with the same basic practices: similar exercises, similar progressive overload, and similar set-rep schemes. Women can deadlift, squat, box jump, sprint, and press, just like men and their performance and body composition will benefit in similar ways.
However, a close look at gender differences in response to training shows there are many subtle but significant differences in how women respond to exercise that affect their success. This article discusses 10 surprising differences in men and women’s responses to exercise so that you can achieve optimal results.
#1: Women store fat differently from men.
Women tend to have more subcutaneous fat, which is near the surface below the skin, whereas men have more visceral fat, which is located inside the body around the organs. Women also have more fat in the hip and thighs, which is known to be hard to lose because it has a high concentration of alpha receptors that inhibit fat burning. This doesn’t mean women can’t lose excess body fat from the lower body, but they will have better results with targeted training and nutrition.
#2: Women recover differently from lifting and may need distinct rest intervals.
Because fit women have reduced ATP depletion, lower blood lactate, lower glycogen depletion, and burn fat at a higher rate, they don’t need as long to recover between sets. They also don’t experience the same drop-off in power and velocity as men as they get tired.
#3: Women and men have equal strength potential.
Men tend to be stronger than women but this is because they usually have more muscle mass and naturally larger bodies. Pound for pound, women and men have equal strength per cross-sectional area of muscle, which means women have the potential to develop the same level of strength as men.
#4: Women respond differently to HIT than men.
Women have a lower power output but a tendency to push themselves harder overall. Researchers think women rely on aerobic pathways for energy production whereas men rely more on anaerobic pathways. In addition, women have demonstrated a higher rating of perceived exertion values but produce lower peak power output, which is a result of their smaller lean body mass. Apply this by using longer work intervals when sprinting (1 minute or longer) with a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio.
#5: Women burn more fat during exercise than men.
Although women naturally burn more glucose at rest, fat burning ramps up during exercise, which improves metabolic flexibility—a key trait for health and leanness. This makes exercise a must for women who want to lose body fat. Also know that because women burn more fat, they use less glycogen during exercise, which means typical recommendations for glycogen replenishment may be excessive.
#6: Women respond differently to fat loss programs from men.
Men tend to lose more body fat than women when they restrict calories and do aerobic exercise compared to women. Scientists think women don’t respond well to low calorie diets because stress hormones are elevated that promote fat storage. The solution is to avoid low-calorie diets and favor training modes that improve muscle mass because this will boost metabolic rate. Also, make stress reduction a top priority!
#7: Injury risk increases for women due to different strength ratios between muscles.
The best known strength imbalance that women have is between the hamstrings and quadriceps (stronger quads, weaker hamstrings), which can lead to poor movement patterns and chronic pain. Additionally, in one study, untrained women were found to have a strength imbalance between the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles of the calf that is not evident in men, and this can put them at greater risk of falling.
#8: Women tend to have better metabolic health.
There’s a strange paradox when you compare metabolic health between men and women. Although women tend to have about 70 percent of the muscle mass and double the body fat as men, they have significantly better blood sugar tolerance. This is partly because women have higher estrogen levels than men, which improve insulin health and the body’s ability to burn glucose.
#9: Women tend to have lower power output.
Men appear to be better able to use the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) that is involved in jumping and power moves. In one study, men jumped 11 percent higher than women after values were normalized for body mass. Scientists don’t think the difference is something to worry about and recommend that women combine strength and plyometric exercises to maximize force output and SSC use.
#10: Women aren't small men. Don’t rely on research performed on men to identify how women should train or eat.
Historically in exercise physiology, it was believed there was no difference in metabolism or muscle morphology between the sexes. This assumption has been proven very wrong. Be skeptical of advice based on research performed on men, particularly when it comes to metabolism and fat loss. Seek out research and advice based on female physiology and metabolism if you are a woman or are coaching women.