One of the things we’re most proud of at Kenzai is that year after year, we see an even 50/50 balance in our user base between males and females. After all, our mission is to design world class programs for all humans to get in shape, and it seems to be working for both sexes.
However, we field a lot of questions about how the same fitness program can possibly work for both men and women. Today we’ll look at some of the most frequently asked questions women ask us, and get some clarity on the way the two sexes shape up differently.
[If you’re wondering how all this fits in with a modern understanding of sex and gender, read this short piece explaining the basics of sex and bimodal distribution.]
DO WOMEN NEED TO DO DIFFERENT EXERCISES THAN MEN?
We all have quadriceps, glutes, biceps, triceps pectoral muscles. The exact size and shape of those muscles will depend on your sex and genetics. But they’re all there. All the same lines of tissue connecting to the same bones.
Every person will look and feel better when their legs, arms, back, and core are strong. Something like a squat or push-up is blind to your sex. The target muscles will be stimulated and the body will respond by strengthening the area under stress. A few night’s sleep and you’ve got new, strong tissue which will serve you well in your daily life. This holds no matter what your sex!
There aren’t any exercises which target a woman's muscles any better than a man’s muscles. There will be variations in how far apart the legs are, how much resistance, or the range of motion, but those variations are true even within sexes.
Sure, but, clearly, a man will get more out of a push-up than a woman, right?
IS IT EVEN WORTH A WOMAN DOING EXERCISES LIKE PUSH-UPS?
Men have on average 40% more upper body strength, and 33% more lower body strength than women. This is thanks to having larger frames and thicker bones, and most of all, a whopping 20 times the testosterone. Testosterone and other growth hormones are the main driver of men’s size and ability to build new muscle. So in this sense, yes, a man does get “more” out of strength training than a woman.
However, let’s consider the gorilla, which is 4 to 10 times stronger than the strongest adult man. This too, is thanks to their hormone profile, which allows gorillas to have unbelievable strength without needing to do any special training. It’s estimated a gorilla can bench press 1800 kg (4000 lbs), but you don’t see them waiting at the gym for their turn at the bench rack.
Looking at how easy it is for a gorilla to gain and maintain muscle, why would a human, even a male that has muscle-building advantages, even bother training at all? They’ll never be as strong as even the weakest gorilla!
In this example, comparing yourself to other bodies with different hormone profiles is a strange reason to get demotivated. You’re not a gorilla, so why should it bother you that they’re stronger? The same is true for women questioning whether they should try to build muscle even though they won’t get as much as quickly as men. You’ve got your one and only body, and it feels SO good when that body is strong and capable!
SHOULDN'T WOMEN FOCUS ON THE LOWER BODY WHERE THEY HAVE MORE MUSCLE TO WORK WITH?
Our philosophy is just the opposite. Your body functions best when you’re a harmonious system with few weak links. Women do tend to hold more muscle in their lower body, which has led to the popularity of leg and glute over-training that you see on so many Instagram fitness pages. But for a healthy body, you get better results spending time working on your lagging areas.
If anyone needs to spend more time on the lower body, it’s men. And if women want to devote more time to a certain area, the upper body and core would get better results in terms of overall fitness.
But the smart play is to work all parts of the body in equal measure, without favoring your leading or lagging body parts. This gives you the harmonious physique of a vibrant athletic person. This is especially effective if you’re doing bodyweight based fitness where your body is getting to move and lift itself. In our experience, that produces the most stable, sustainable, and pleasing physiques. This is how we design our Kenzai Body programs.
WHY DO MEN SEEM TO GET RESULTS SO MUCH FASTER THAN WOMEN?
We’ve had many couples who start their training together, following similar clean eating plans (scaled for body size and shape) and identical workouts. The man will often zoom ahead of the woman, dropping fat, adding muscle tone in just a few weeks. This creates a lot of tension and accusations that our programs are “built for men.” It’s an understandable frustration. Here are the factors that create this situation.
Estrogen is one of the helper hormone groups for fat storage. When a woman is looking to lose fat, she’ll have a natural braking action on the fat loss because estrogen creates more resistance to sudden shifts in fat mass. Women will experience this as the fact that their fat is more “stubborn” than men’s. We often see that women will have longer plateaus to pass through in their fat loss journey. BUT, with diet and exercise, the fat will go. Patience will beat estrogen.
As discussed above, men have a “free” 8-10% more muscle mass than women. Unlike fat, muscle is metabolically active. To hold a gram of muscle on your body requires energy, even if you’re not doing anything particularly active. If a man and woman are sitting on the sofa watching the same movie, by the end of the 2 hours the man will have burned more energy than the woman, thanks to the extra muscle mass burning through calories even while passive.
This effect can be greatly accelerated if a man starts exercising and eating right. He’s simultaneously adding new grams of muscle, which will burn even more calories, while dropping body fat due to a less stubborn hormonal profile (thanks to low estrogen levels).
Connected with the extra muscle a man carries is the higher basal metabolic rate (BMR) of the male body. Men tend to run at a higher body temperature and use more energy to maintain their systems. This difference isn’t much, perhaps less than 100 calories a day, but it’s another “free” caloric expenditure that the male will get and the female will not.
Women get the last laugh however, as it’s theorized that this higher BMR is what leads to shorter life expectancy for men. They’re running their engines hotter and faster, which shortens the life of the machine!
All of this makes it sound like a woman has no chance of changing, but rest assured that the laws of thermodynamics are very much intact and if a woman eats well and exercises, she WILL start to see body fat drop and muscle tone increase. We often see that in a 3 month program, women will feel as if they’re changing slowly for the first 2 months, then see big differences in the 3rd and final month.
HOW CAN A WOMAN AVOID GETTING BULKY?
The dreaded “bulk” is a reason so many women never give strength training an honest shot. Here’s our take on the problem.
Muscle is quite dense and compact. When you think of a bulky person your brain might go to a bodybuilder with massive bulging muscles, but to get that amount of hypertrophy requires years of training usually boosted by steroid and hormone supplementation. It’s not the kind of thing that a person does on accident. So you can rule out that kind of effect from normal training. With rational, body weight based exercise your muscles won’t become overly large!
When most women have had a bad experience feeling bulky, it’s because they start building muscle without paying enough attention to nutrition. If you’re carrying some body fat and then add muscle tissue underneath it, the visual effect isn’t one of tone but of bulk. If you want to avoid that you should focus first and foremost on getting your food right. As you lose body fat, those compact, elegant lines of muscle will start revealing themselves.
Another thing we often see is that a woman will have a strong workout and get a good healthy pump in the muscles. She’ll then check the mirror and be unenthused to see bulging muscles where she wants lithe, long lines. Oh no, it’s the bulkiness she didn’t want! The reality is that very few people will ever see you in this pumped state. When muscle isn’t actively working, it doesn’t require extra oxygen and will “deflate” to a more pleasing size and shape as bloodflow returns to normal. When you’re walking casually down the street, those muscles which were bulging in the mirror after your workout will just be attractive flashes of tone and shadow as you move, telling the world that you’re fit and healthy.
Finally there ARE women who for genetic and hormonal reasons will put on muscle quickly. For this situation, there are two solutions.
- Reduce the amount of resistance training in the week, work with light weights, and spend more time on endurance activities which will slim down musculature.
- Embrace your body and lean into your muscular physique. Strong is beautiful, and very much on trend these days.
ARE THERE ISSUES THAT WOMEN NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WHEN THEY START A FITNESS PROGRAM?
This article has emphasized that women are just as capable of getting great results as men. But women DO have different bodies than men, and that leads to some unique issues that the guys don’t have to worry about.
Yes, it’s hormones again. The female reproductive system is complicated, and to work its way through its monthly cycle requires dozens of hormones to be upshifted and downshifted at different times of the month.
This simplified chart shows just two hormones in a monthly cycle. There are many more at play.
This means that a female trainee will have to contend with more variability in their strength, energy, and mood during a serious fitness effort. It’s a tired joke to talk about how women crave certain foods at different times of the month, but these cravings come from a very real hormonal starting point. Female trainees should be aware that these tough days are baked into the cake, and when a bad day crops up, not to get too sidelined or downhearted over it. Just get it right tomorrow!
And men reading this, when a female is dealing with these issues, be kind, supportive, and thoughtful. If YOU had to go through such strong hormonal tides each month you would probably fare much worse.
In general, women have more pliable tendons and ligaments, and more range of motion in their joints. This is why women excel at activities which emphasize these points, such as yoga, gymnastics, and dance.
When strength training, women should take extra care that they’re not loading up joints with excess weight at the extreme ranges of motion. For example, when doing a barbell squat, a female might be able to drop quite deeply into the motion thanks to a wider pelvis and more flexible hips and achilles tendons. But on the way up, all of those joints will be dealing with a heavy load from a highly compromised position. This leads to joint strain and tears.
If you’re a flexible woman, when lifting weights, stop before you reach your maximum range of motion to protect yourself.
This doesn’t mean strength training isn’t for you, in fact it’s a great way to fortify vulnerable joints and insure yourself against injury.
Carrying a child is a miraculous feat, but very taxing on the female body. There are three areas in particular that will cause issues for women.
Pregnancy stretches and weakens the criss-cross musculature at the bottom of the pelvis. This sometimes results in involuntary urination during exercise. This problem can be fixed with the correct training methods.
As the womb enlarges, pressure is put on the abs. This can stretch out the thin connective tissue and leave a gap in between the center line of the abs. This problem can get worse if doing heavy weight bearing exercise that puts internal pressure on the abdomen. This too can be repaired with correct training methods.
During pregnancy the spine will accommodate the extra mass of the womb by taking on a deeper, sharper lumbar curve. This deep curve often sticks around for years, creating back pain (not helped by having a new baby in the house!). Be wary of heavy lifts if you have a deep lumbar curve. A pinched nerve could sideline you for years. Creating a strong core and practicing good posture will help rejuvenate the spine.
In all of these cases, the danger is most acute during serious weight training. Again, this is an excellent argument for body weight based workouts as a woman’s first step into serious fitness training.
We hope this has answered some of your questions. The bottom line is that men and women do have different responses to workout and diet, but that the underlying training methods are the same.
In fact, when a program is pitched as male or female-oriented, it can often be a red flag. These types of plans will usually emphasize the area of the body that the sex is naturally gifted in (for example, the upper or lower body) and gloss over the sex’s weak point. This leads to an unbalanced physique that’s less pleasing to look at and less comfortable to live in. Fix the weak links in your chain. Don’t just keep polishing the strong links!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder