When it comes to women and their fitness goals, most tend to focus solely on fat loss, causing muscle mass—a topic that is often stereotypically associated with men—to take a backseat. As we’ve written in a piece before about being skinny-fat, women are also more likely to focus on fat loss due to most mainstream diet and fitness advice. This false information is essentially a prescription for becoming skinny-fat or a healthy illusion with unhealthy body composition.
The true measure of body composition transformation for any gender is two-fold: focus on training/eating to reduce body fat and to gain lean body mass development (described in our guide to body composition.) This begs the question—as a woman, is there something different that you need to do in order to make positive healthy changes in your body composition? Realistically, there isn’t a right answer. First, there’s genetics to consider. Second, each woman has their own body composition goals. As always, eating habits and dietary preferences will influence the rate at which you accomplish your body composition goals.
We’ve uncovered some common insights from recent health and fitness studies that can truly help any woman who wants to feel healthier and stronger successfully do so, and show them how. In this article, you’ll learn several important gender differences between men and women in terms of anatomy and physiology, and how these differences can impact your fitness and nutrition decisions. Let’s get into it!
What Makes a Woman’s Body Different?
Here are some of the key similarities/differences between men and women’s bodies.
1. Women can gain the same relative amount of muscle mass as men.
If you’re like most women, you’re curious about whether doing the same routine as the men in your CrossFit class will give you the same results. On average, baseline muscle mass in men is 36% greater than in women. In terms of muscle distribution, women tend to have less upper body muscle mass compared to men.
Men have a slight genetic advantage over women because of their higher baseline muscle mass, particularly in the upper body. However, that doesn’t mean that women will gain less muscle mass than men, despite lifting the same amount of weights.
When men and women exercise for the same amount of time, they can accomplish the same amount of gains in muscle mass. While the increase in size was similar between men and women in the study, the relative strength of women actually increased more than men because they were starting with smaller overall body size.
In addition, it’s worth noting that muscle mass gain may be more affected by individual variations in terms of sensitivity of resistance training responses rather than gender differences.
What This Means For Women:
It’s possible to gain as much muscle mass as men, but it may take more work on your end because of your slightly lower baseline muscle mass. However, if you’re worried about getting too big, it’s also unlikely to happen due to differences in testosterone (we’ll cover that later,) and how you train.
2. Women’s bodies tend to metabolize fat and carbs better than men.
It’s a well-established fact that the more muscle mass you have, the more calories (and fat mass) your body can metabolize over time. With that said, it’s easy to assume that men have the advantage because their baseline muscle mass is a third more than women, but that is not the case.
As discussed in this review article, gender differences can impact carbohydrate metabolism. In short, women tend to use up their carbohydrates for energy during resting and recovery states, but turn to fat for energy during submaximal exercise (less than the maximum of which an individual is capable) more so than men. But where does this high metabolic flexibility come from?
The aforementioned article stated that it may have to do with higher estrogen levels in females. Estrogen can help the body burn more carbs, particularly during the follicular phase (first half of the menstrual cycle) when estrogen levels tend to reach their peak.
The difference in the ability to metabolize glucose (carb) and fat also has to do with gender differences in body fat distribution patterns. Men tend to store extra calories as fat mass in and around the organs, also known as visceral fat, and in their abdominal region, also called android fat distribution. Women’s bodies are more likely to store extra calories as subcutaneous fat in their hips, legs, and buttocks, otherwise known as gynoid fat distribution.
The unfortunate news for men is that visceral fat accumulation may be associated with reduced insulin sensitivity and the progression of diabetes. As a result of body fat distribution, men’s bodies are less responsive to rising blood sugar levels while women’s bodies are more sensitive to insulin due to less visceral fat mass deposits.
Finally, the same review on the differences between carb metabolism between guys and gals revealed that when eating isocaloric (same amount of calories), high-carb diets (increasing from 55% to 75% over the duration of the study), glycogen (stored glucose) concentrations in the body only increased in men and there were no changes in women.
Researchers suggested that these findings possibly indicate that the excess carbohydrates and calories consumed by female participants may be utilized more efficiently as fuel, instead of being stored as body fat mass for future use, as in the male participants.
What This Means for Women:
If you’re exercising regularly, don’t be afraid of carb or fat intake unless there is a medical reason to avoid them (say you’ve been advised to go low-carb by your doctor.) Your body needs both, in addition to protein, to enhance your workout benefits. In the same stroke, make sure you are eating the right types of fat that will enhance the body composition changes you are looking for. Most important of them all, don’t starve yourself! You are only going to drive yourself into starvation mode, which tells your body to burn fewer calories (known as adaptive thermogenesis.) If you’re working out, that’s all the more reason for you to eat more protein to gain muscle mass.
3. Research evidence reveals that women may have a higher distribution of type I muscle fibers and lower distribution of type II muscle fibers (which, in turn, are more prevalent in men.)
Slow-twitch muscles, or type 1 muscle fibers, are extremely useful in long-endurance activities such as distance running. These same muscle fibers are also the first ones to be activated during any type of exercise. On the contrary, fast-twitch muscle fibers or type 2 fibers are activated when you’re performing powerful or explosive bursts of movements such as sprinting.
What This Means for Women:
Due to these muscle-fiber differences, it seems like men are likely to excel in training involving explosive, powerful routines. However, this study on the effect of a six-month resistance training between older men and women concluded that women can gain more muscle mass using a total body strength training program versus men. For this reason, changing up your routine may allow for greater muscle mass growth–mix it up with a variety of resistance and strength routines.
4. Men and women have different proportions of sex hormones in their bodies.
When you hear the words “estrogen” and “testosterone,” you’re likely going to associate the former with women and the latter with men, and with good reason. Differences in muscle mass and fat between men and women can be traced back to the beginning. Both males and females start puberty at about 80% lean body mass. By the end of puberty, females reduce their lean body mass 70-75% due to a surge in estrogen, and males increase to 90% due to an increase in testosterone levels.
As a result, males gain more muscle mass, and females gain more adipose (fat) tissue or essential fat. The increase in essential fat in women is the body’s way of preparing for pregnancy and breastfeeding.
What This Means for Women:
Most of the time, we assume women have a harder time gaining muscle mass than men since women do not produce as much testosterone. However, research reveals that although men exhibit faster muscle results to strength training than do women, the difference is small. As noted in the study we linked in Point #1, it’s possible for men and women to accomplish the same amount of gains in muscle mass when doing the same routine.
Putting It All Together
In a nutshell, if you’re a woman who wants to improve her body composition, the key points to remember are:
- Women can make as many muscle gains as men.
- While protein gets a lot of attention as a body composition-changer, don’t be afraid of carbs and dietary fat. All the work you put into the gym may be fruitless if you don’t stick to a solid meal plan with the right balance of macros.
- You are likely to see positive body composition changes with higher load volume (and less explosive tempo) paired with shorter rest periods when weight training.
- Even if you lift weights or perform resistance training, you might find it difficult to gain muscle mass if you’re on birth control pills or near the perimenopausal stage/or officially on menopause. Keep in mind that hormonal changes might affect your progress and don’t lose hope if you don’t see changes right away.
While keeping all of these facts in mind, it’s important to remember that when your body is forced to constantly do new things, accomplishing your desired body composition outcomes are just around the corner.
Women and Weights: The Benefits of Strength Training
Improved Body Composition
Many women are on a journey to improve their body composition and to achieve their overall fitness goals. However, the uncertainty surrounding strength training, a proven workout that proves major benefits to the body composition of both men and women, is all but false. Myths and misconceptions about strength training may encourage women to dismiss any training involving weights or resistance. However, if you understand the benefits and expectations that come with strength training, it can be a great way for women to manage their health and get in shape.
Strength training is, above all, a balance. Running on the treadmill 4 days a week may help you lose body fat, but without adding on muscle, it won’t give you that toned look.
Utilizing some form of resistance is a much better approach than focusing only on cardio if your goal is to achieve a toned, healthy physique. Research shows that adding resistance training as part of your workout routine is a proven method for increasing Lean Body Mass and reducing body fat for women.
Aside from improving your body composition by increasing Lean Body Mass, there are several other benefits of strength training in addition to muscle growth and looking fitter.
Healthier Bones and Joints
Women who don’t exercise can lose anywhere from 3 to 8% of their muscle mass each decade as a result of inactivity. Studies show that doing strength training can promote bone development, reduce lower back pain, and reverse several skeletal muscle aging factors.
Strength training is not only good for your muscles, it can help ease the pain in your joints and keep you from preventing bone loss.
If you’re looking for a way to chill out and relieve some stress and anxiety, try lifting weights! There’s a strong correlation between resistance training and stress reduction/anxiety. According to research, resistance training at a low-to-moderate intensity (<70% 1 repetition maximum)is best for reducing anxiety.
Improved Body Image
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of resistance training is that it can also help you feel better about yourself. According to one study, weight training is associated with “significant improvements in several dimensions of body image, health-related quality of life, and physical activity behaviors, satisfaction, and comfort.”
Three Commons Myths About Women and Strength Training
Myth #1: Weightlifting Causes Women To “Look Bulky”
Many women think resistance training leads to bad weight gain and a “bulky look.” Yes, strength training may cause you to gain weight. In fact, you can probably count on it. But that’s perfectly okay. If the gains you experience are gains in Lean Body Mass, this means your weight can stay the same, or even increase, but you will look more lean and toned.
Muscle is denser than fat, meaning it takes up less space on your body. By losing fat and gaining muscle, you can stay the same weight–or even gain some–but actually be slimmer than you were before. Think of weight training as an investment that pays serious dividends down the road. The more muscle you have, the more calories (and fat) your body can burn over time.
“Healthy” is not a number on the scale—it’s how you look and feel. So don’t think in terms of what you want to lose and focus more on what you want to gain, both physically and emotionally. Etch this thought deep into your brain: as long as you’re noticing positive changes in how you look and feel, that arbitrary number on the scale doesn’t make a bit of difference. In fact, it’s likely to lead you astray.
Myth #2: Lifting Huge and Heavy is Required
When you see people squatting an unbelievable amount of weight, it can be intimidating.
The good news is that lifting heavy with low reps is just one style of strength training, but if you’re just trying to tone up it’s not necessary.
A study on women found that regardless of what the training style was–heavy lifting with low reps or low weights with high reps–strength and muscle gains occurred.
This means you don’t have to deadlift two times your bodyweight or curl dumbbells the size of your head in order to reap benefits. Strength training at whatever level you’re comfortable with yields positive results.
Myth #3: You Can Be Too Old to Weight Train
“Sarcopenia” is the gradual loss of muscle mass that begins for most women after age 35. Contrary to popular belief, this decline in muscle mass and strength is not a result of the aging process; rather, it’s due to inactivity.
However, current dogma around resistance training among elderly women has been a barrier. Researchers Stuart Phillips and Richard Winett wrote:
“Few would argue that some form of resistance training should not be part of a complete exercise program; however, the bulk of literature on the cardio-protective effects of aerobic exercise has continued to make this form of exercise preeminent and the central focus of many physical activity guidelines in Canada, the United States, and many other countries.”
Studies show that resistance training is the best way to prevent and reverse the loss of muscle for older adults. For women, in particular, resistance training is an effective long-term strategy to preserve muscle and positive changes in body composition.
The science is clear: improving your muscle mass is something anyone can (and should) do.
How Many Resistance Workouts Do You Need A Week?
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend 2 or more days per week of total body resistance workouts that work all major muscle groups alternating between the lower body (legs, hips, back, abdomen) and upper body (chest, shoulders, and arms) for all adults.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says adults over 65 should follow these same guidelines unless you have a chronic condition (heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes). In these cases, ask your doctor what types and amounts of activity are safe.
For postmenopausal women, researchers recommend doing resistance and weight-bearing based workouts three days a week (on alternate days).
If you’re just starting out, add one workout a week that uses resistance bands and light dumbbells and work your way up from there.
Keep This in Mind
Remember that how you frame your exercise goals is important. Don’t think in terms of what you want to lose, but focus on what you want to gain, both physically and emotionally.
If you set a goal of gaining Lean Body Mass instead of losing weight, you’ll be able to measure the results of your resistance training efforts in terms of lean mass gained instead of pounds lost, which can be quite empowering because it relieves you from caring about what the scale says about your body weight.
Setting body composition goals is a good place to start. Once you’ve done that, work with a certified personal trainer at a local fitness center to show you how to perform resistance training exercises, like the dumbbell squat variations, with proper form. Make functional strength training a part of your lifestyle, and you will experience noticeable results in how you look and feel.
A Diet and Exercise Regimen Works
Now that you’ve picked up the dumbbells, it’s important to remember that getting yourself in your desired shape is a full package. Achieving your fitness goals means meshing your nutritional intake with your daily workouts.
It’s natural for people to want shortcuts–you only need to be on the internet for a few minutes before you find the latest fad diet/juice cleanse/detox that claims to be the “one weird rule” that will unlock the key to fat loss. Shortcuts and “life hacks” offer the promise of fantastic results without having to put in the hard work.
The age-old advice for fitness–diet and exercise–is always going to be the most reliable and consistent way to reach your fitness goals. Part of that age-old advice is to consume enough dietary protein. The common misconception is believing that eating too much protein is going to make people “bulk up”. This isn’t true, and this leads to a misunderstanding about this essential nutrient and the overall need for muscle mass. If your muscles are a house, protein is the bricks, a necessary component in healthy body composition.
When women say they want to be toned, they are actually saying they want to improve their body composition by reducing their fat mass and increasing their Lean Body Mass. Protein plays an important role in both of those aspects and in achieving a fit look.
The Benefits of Protein
Protein is one of the most essential components of muscle development, bone density, muscle mass, and lean tissue—and that’s just the beginning. In truth, protein is necessary for all your body’s physiological functions. Today, while many people who care about health know protein matters, most don’t understand how or why. Part of that is because there are so many misconceptions about this vital building block, especially in the fitness and weight loss worlds.
Protein is indeed a vital aspect to achieving a healthy body, but possibly not in the ways you’ve thought, or on its own. Getting control over our body composition has many factors; strength training, protein intake, and an overall understanding of the differences between being a man or a woman. Overall, we want to obtain a handle on our expectations and fitness goals that we can accurately achieve.
Protein and Your Muscle Growth
To reach a goal of becoming and looking toned, developing a lean body composition is essential. You want a composition that is characterized by sufficient development of muscle mass and low amounts of fat mass: a kind of happy medium between a bulky bodybuilder and a skinny-fat person.
In order to develop a lean body composition, you have to develop your Lean Body Mass. To do so, you need to do some type of weight or resistance training. But in order to be successful, your body needs nutrients to grow: carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and most importantly: protein.
In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers compared the muscle development of three groups of athletes on the same exercise regimen, but different levels of protein intake. One group was given less than the daily recommended amount (1.4g/kg of body weight), one group the recommended level (1.8g/kg of body weight), and one group over the daily recommended level (>2.0kg/ of body weight.)
The researchers found no recorded benefit in strength or body composition changes in the group that exceeded the recommended amount of protein needed for strength training. They found that 0.8–0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight was sufficient to see favorable changes in body composition.
Getting the protein you need to develop your Lean Body Mass isn’t actually very hard, but you do need to be aware of your nutritional requirements. If your dietary choices include lots of fruits and vegetables, that’s great! But if you’re not supplementing enough protein in your diet, you can easily have several days where you don’t meet your protein requirements.
Protein and Your Metabolism
Developing your body through strength training and proper nutritional consumption has an added bonus: increasing your metabolism. It’s an extra benefit that can help you shed fat, one of the main reasons that people set out to achieve when they get on a diet and exercise plan.
The muscle that you can grow and develop through exercise is called Skeletal Muscle Mass. Skeletal Muscle Mass is also the largest component of your Lean Body Mass. That’s important because, as research has shown, increased Lean Body Mass leads to increases in Basal Metabolic Rate–what you probably refer to as your “metabolism.”
Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the total number of calories that your body requires to maintain its Lean Body Mass at rest, and an increase in your BMR adds to the total number of calories your body burns in a day.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, you need to burn more calories than you eat to lose fat mass. Assuming that your total caloric needs for the day are 2,500 calories and you eat exactly 2,500 calories to match, that’s called being in a “caloric balance.” Through proper nutrition and exercise, you increase your Lean Body Mass over the course of several months, and your BMR increases by 250 calories as a result. Your body will require 2,750 calories to maintain your weight. Provided that you maintain your diet at 2,500 calories, that metabolism increase of 250 calories becomes a -250 caloric deficit, which, if you can maintain this through a proper diet and exercise regimen, can lead to you losing fat.
As a woman, it’s important to understand that each body and being is different, requiring different routines and schedules that are crafted to each person’s own fitness needs. Regardless of stereotypical assumptions, there is nothing that is out of reach for a woman. Whether it be weight lifting, strength training, or protein intake, understanding what that looks like in a female body can bring an empowering way to alter unfulfilling fitness regimens.
Bulking up on knowledge can lead to an increased understanding of the female body composition, a lifelong asset to creating a fitness regimen that works for you.