Woman doing dumbbell bent-over row in gym

Debunked: four weight training myths about women

One of the most pervasive myths in the health and fitness industry is that weight training is only for people on a mission to bulk up and look ripped. Add to that the cultural stereotypes of what femininity means, and we’ve got many women avoiding this excellent training methodology.

These misconceptions couldn’t be further from the truth. An intelligently designed weight training program would help you to reduce fat, tone muscles, increase bone density, and improve coordination, balance, and athleticism—traits necessary for being fit and healthy.

Let’s debunk a few myths that stop some women from weight training. We will also look at some ways in which women’s weight training can differ from men’s weight training, as based on their frequently differing goals.

Myth 1: Weight training makes women look bulky like men

It’s a fundamental misunderstanding to think that you can start weight training and put on tons of muscle mass overnight. Your body needs consistent effort over a prolonged period of time for any substantial muscle mass or strength gains to occur.

When the body is subjected to the stimuli of weight training, it slowly adapts by increasing metabolism and muscle growth. Many factors influence this process, including the number of sets and reps per exercise, the amount of weight lifted, and the length of time rested between sets. The manipulation of all three of these (and some other) variables essentially dictates the results you’ll receive from weight training, such as increased strength, muscle growth, and/or muscular endurance.

Additionally, women generally have far less testosterone than men do. Testosterone is the hormone primarily responsible for increased muscle mass and strength in men. It’s improbable that you’ll end up putting on male-like amounts of muscle mass without the use of exogenous testosterone, even if you trained as intensely as possible. In the case that you did put on an unwanted amount of muscle mass, it will not persist without lots of continued training.

Myth 2: Cardio alone is enough to achieve your ideal body composition

Cardiorespiratory exercise alone is not enough to help you attain the body you’ve always dreamed of. This notion is based on the fact that cardio is efficient at burning calories and accelerating weight loss. While this is true, the vast majority of weight loss is dependent on your diet, as no amount of cardio can make up for consuming an excessive amount of calories. In other words, cardio isn’t necessary for weight loss; eating in a caloric deficit is.

While doing cardio and losing weight may improve your physical look, it is unlikely that you’ll be left with the shape you’ve always dreamed of. This is because losing weight only helps to reveal the definition of the muscles underneath; it doesn’t improve upon what is already there.

To achieve the best shape and body composition, both weight loss and muscle gain are essential. The weight training element is necessary for developing and improving the areas of your body that are most important to you. By building muscle mass in these areas, certain features will appear far more prominent than before.

Myth 3: Using light weights and high reps is the best combo for women

How much weight you use and how many reps you perform depend on which muscle property you wish to develop (endurance, muscle, strength, or power). High reps with light weights develop muscle endurance—that is, the ability of the muscle to continue contracting against resistance for prolonged periods of time. High reps and light weights do not build much, if any, muscle. You can learn how to develop each of the four properties in the Weight Training Guide, in How many sets and reps should you do?

Light weights with high reps develop endurance because they mainly recruit type 1 (or slow-twitch) muscle fibers. These fibers are more efficient than type 2 (fast-twitch) muscle fibers are at using oxygen to produce energy, so they can sustain more consecutive contractions.

All beginner weight training programs start with light weights and high reps to build the foundation of endurance and promote neuromuscular adaptation (physiological adaptations of the neuromuscular system that improve muscle-fiber recruitment and optimize the use of existing muscle mass). However, if you want to build muscle, which is essential if you want to develop shape, you must progress to a muscle-building program. The programming recommendations for building muscle are explained below.

Myth 4: Women must follow different programming rules

This myth is partly true.

Male and female bodies are very similar, and the programming is identical when the objective is the same. For example, for muscle growth, whether male or female, the recommendations are:

  • 3 to 6 sets per exercise
  • 6 to 12 reps per set
  • Heavy weights (67% to 85% of one-repetition maximum)
  • 30 to 90 seconds rest between sets
  • Training tempo of 2:2:3

However, men and women often have different goals, so programs do have to be adapted to match those desired results.

Common questions we get from women include:

  • How do I get rid of banana rolls?
  • How do I avoid getting bulky?
  • How do I tone my inner thighs?
  • How do I grow my glutes/outer thighs?

In contrast, common questions we get from men include:

  • How do I maximize muscle growth?
  • How do I build strength?
  • How do I boost power?
  • How do I grow my chest/arms/back/shoulders?

There are other differences between men and women as well, and these have to be taken into consideration when designing a training program. For example, women often want to grow glutes without growing quads, whereas men strive for both glute and quad development.

These are the reasons why we have separate training programs for men and women on this website. Different exercises are prescribed to meet the different needs of different people.

For example, whereas we prescribe the dumbbell lunge in some programs for men, we prescribe the forward-leaning dumbbell lunge for women. The former places more emphasis on the quads, whereas the latter places more emphasis on the glutes.

Of course, all programs are balanced. For example, because there’s more emphasis on the glutes for women, there’s also more emphasis on the antagonistic muscles (i.e. the hip flexors). This is important because the natural muscle-strength balance ratio between the hip extensors and hip flexors is about 1:1. We’d never prescribe exercises that would disrupt the body’s natural balance (at least, we always try not to do so!).

To learn more about how the training programs were designed and to try one of the programs, see the Overview of women’s weight training programs.

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