The debate of male and female physical training programs has long been a topic of discussion among fitness enthusiasts. The differences in the genders are recognized, however many training programs claim to give the same results regardless of gender. It's a complicated question due to the fact that in order to see improvement in either gender, you must perform the same type of exercise.
Improvement requires stress to the system for growth. For example, to make a muscle stronger you must lift a weight that stresses and breaks down the muscle fibers enough to trigger growth (strength). To improve the health of your heart (cardiovascular) you must stress the heart and force it to work harder than what it's accustomed to to promote growth and efficiency (a lower resting heart rate).
The same goes for flexibility, in order to lengthen a muscle you need to stretch it to a point of discomfort so it will lengthen due to the stress. Stressing the muscle fibers or the heart is only triggering growth so that the human body will improve.
These are positive stressors and they are effective regardless of gender. The debate regarding gender-specific training mostly focuses on the preferences of the individual in terms of what type of exercises will be chosen to create the stress.
Let's look at an example of a male and female who had the same goal and did the exact same workout program. Rachel Rosenberger of Reno, NV had a goal to get stronger. She and her husband hired a personal trainer to work with them together.
Rachel says, "When my husband and I tried a new strength training program, we worked out with the same trainer, in the same facility, using the same machines, performing all the same exercises and followed the same schedule. The only difference was the actual weights lifted. My husband was always able to lift more weight than me. Was I training like a man? Or was my husband training like a woman?"
In reality it was neither. It was a program that worked for them regardless of gender. They performed a traditional strength training program that stressed the muscles by reaching failure at 10-12 repetitions with 2-3 sets of each exercise. After 12 weeks they both saw significant strength gains.
Although this program worked for both of them the situation might change if the goal was weight loss. Estrogen can negatively impact your ability to lose body fat. Women have more estrogen and it's also the primary hormone responsible for reproduction. It influences, among other things metabolism, brain function, glycogen storage and bone health.
Estrogen is found in fat cells and women have and need more fat. Men have less estrogen and more testosterone which assists with maintaining and building muscle mass. These differences alone can impact the efficiency of weight loss causing women to lose weight slower.
Women also have smaller frames and generally speaking have less muscle, which equates to lower metabolisms (the amount of calories your body burns to maintain itself). Women tend to be stronger in their lower bodies with weaker upper body strength in comparison to men who are stronger in their upper body and weaker in the lower body comparatively speaking.
Both genders might lose weight from a weight loss exercise program but men will lose weight faster and maintain and build more valuable muscle due to the hormonal influences.
Bill Germanakos, the winner of NBC's The Biggest Loser Season 3, was asked how men and women contestants differed on the show in terms of their exercise program and the results they achieved. Bill says, "The men and women on the Biggest Loser Ranch were all doing the same workouts.
The only differences were the weight being utilized during the resistance training workouts. All cardiovascular workouts were done together and as a team, including running, hiking, biking, spinning and more."
The women experienced less weight loss every week, however their weight loss accomplishments were measured as a percentage of their weight to make it fair. Literally, the women do the same workouts but don't lose the same amount of weight almost 100 percent of the time.
Other factors to consider were the person's diet and the effort they put forth. In an environment where almost every contestant loses weight, it became very clear to all of us that those with the cleanest and strictest diets, as well as those who worked the hardest, (man or woman) would consistently lose the most weight percentage-wise.
It was all about who was willing to work the hardest." In this example nutrition obviously plays an essential role as it does with any weight loss strategy however when the physical components are the same, men lose more weight and maintain more muscle.
In addition to hormonal differences women also experience life stages such as pregnancy and menopause. Both which effect hormones and unfortunately encourage storage of fat making it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight or lose weight.
Pregnancy causes the body to hold on to fat for use as fuel during pregnancy in case of famine. Menopause causes a drastic decrease in muscle (four times the amount prior to menopause) which impacts metabolism and bone density. All these differences will prevent women from losing the same amount of weight at the same pace even when the exercise program is the same.
There are also other differences relating to personal preferences and cultural factors that can affect the success rate of a workout program for women. Historically, women have less exposure to weight rooms and gyms at a young age.
There have been fewer women in sports and in many cases exercise is introduced later in life as a result of gaining weight. Females with little or no exposure to exercise at a young age can lack the positive association it has to energy, overall well-being and health.
Women tend to be less educated about exercise and are more likely to look for the quick fix type programs or they are most comfortable with walking or other cardiovascular activities that don't require a gym.
A lack of strength training can inhibit weight loss and also contribute to a decrease in metabolism. Of course, this is true with both genders but much more common with women. Women are more comfortable in groups and are more likely to participate with others.
Group fitness is highly successful for women due to the social interaction and emotional connections. Many women will see greater physical benefits from participating in studio classes or group fitness programs simply because they are more comfortable and ultimately more consistent.
All of these factors can influence a woman's results and motivation to continue and be successful in any fitness program. In all reality, women will get very similar results to men if they use the same training program, however many women aren't comfortable with the environment, structure or application of traditional workouts.
Workouts that show the best results for women are taught in groups; they address cardiovascular, strength and flexibility components and are taught at a location and time that creates participation and consistency.
Although there are physiological and hormonal differences affecting the outcomes of exercise programs women will still benefit significantly from programs that might come from a more male-dominant structure.
Finding the ideal fitness program for women regardless of their goal should take into consideration previous exposure to fitness, comfort level with exercise and how the program will affect other areas of her life such as short and long-term health, energy level, sleep, patience and confidence.
It's not about comparing men to women it's about personal goals, abilities, preferences and your ability to find the workout that works best for you. Women have the same abilities as men it just requires a little more patience and luckily due to differing brain structures we have more of that too!
About the Author
Natalie is the President of Population Health Consultants, a company dedicated to assisting employers and Physicians with wellness strategy and implementation. She has worked in Health Management for over 30 years and is also a Performance Coach for the world renowned Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute.
Natalie is an award winning Executive Coach, Health Coach, Personal Trainer and Sports Nutritionist who has been featured in a variety of media outlets including FitTV, Body by Jake, Shape Magazine and Prevention.