When It Comes to Gym Gains, Science Says Training Should Differ For Men & Women

I feel very comfortable calling myself a runner. It’s been my go-to hobby for more than a decade. And, I’ve made a career writing about the research behind the sport. 

I do not feel comfortable calling myself a weight lifter. Even though, in that same time frame I have found myself in the gym once or twice weekly stumbling my way around the equipment. 

I know, as you probably do, that building total body strength is beneficial for runners in improving running economy and preventing injuries. One time I asked my brother, who lifts weights exclusively, what I needed to do to start seeing some results. I’d never felt any stronger after years of strength training. His answer: lift heavier, more often.

It was insultingly simple.

Listening to the vague advice, next time I went into the gym I picked up some heavier weights. I left with a pulled muscle, unable to return for weeks. 

Years later, I found a routine that works for me. The Stronglifts app has helped me incorporate progressive overload. It doesn’t take much time away from running–the reason why I want to get stronger in the first place.

For the first time, I am seeing results. But ultimately, I had to figure out what worked for me. I couldn’t do what my brother was doing. I couldn’t do what my husband was doing. 

A new study shows there might be a physiological reason why women and men respond to strength training differently. 

Young fitness woman is exercising with barbell in gym on strength training for women.

Summary of the Research

  • Women should aim for 72 weekly weight lifting sets in order to build muscle mass and strength.
  • Women have a higher fatigue tolerance and recover quicker while strength training.
  • Women are underrepresented in resistance training research.

Open up any health and wellness magazine and you’ll see all sorts of advice on how to build strength. Women should read those articles with a discerning eye. As the authors of a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research point out, women are woefully underrepresented in research pertaining to resistance training. And, other types of exercise, too, but we’ll stick with this one topic for now). 

The researchers took it upon themselves to conduct a meta-analysis of the existing research involving women. They ultimately found that women respond to resistance training under different conditions than what is broadly recommended. 

For example, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends men and women complete 1-3 sets of 8-12 reps at 70-85% max effort, two to three times per week.

But because women experience neuromuscular fatigue and perception of effort differently (take all the female ultrarunners crushing it right now as confirmation), this emerging research shows evidence that women may need higher training volumes to experience improvements in muscle strength and mass (hypertrophy). 

How the Study Was Conducted

The researchers ultimately examined 40 published studies on resistance training. There was a total of 1,312 healthy women between the ages of 18 and 35. The training interventions they examined had to last more than four weeks minimum. The statistical analysis looked at changes to body composition, muscle hypertrophy, strength, and power. 

What Researchers Found

In order to increase lean muscle mass and improve muscle strength and size, women needed more weekly sessions at a higher volume.

According to the study authors, women have a higher fatigue tolerance and faster recovery capacity than men, which might indicate why we need to push ourselves more to achieve results. On the whole, the authors recommended an increased volume of moderate-to-high intensity resistance training for women to see muscle gains

Here is exactly how the researchers recommend women train (note how this differs from the generic advice from ACSM):

Aim for three full-body workouts per week with 8 exercises in each workout at 3 sets each. 

The studies they looked at included exercise interventions on varying timeframes, but the median was 10 weeks. 

Related: The Comprehensive Guide to Strength Training for Runners

How This Impacts Your Running

Reading this research, I realized that some of the points the scientists were making were adaptations that I’ve incorporated into my own routine and maybe that’s why I’m finally seeing progress. While the app I mentioned above only includes three exercises per workout, I’ve added in core work in-between sets because I’ve found myself getting antsy on the long 3 minute rest it recommends.

It’s worth noting that this study had a lot of limitations because, as noted, there isn’t a ton of research on women specifically. It didn’t examine, for example, all the different types of training that runners might benefit from. We recently looked at research that compared how different types of resistance training could improve running economy. Plyometrics was one promising way for runners to build strength that wasn’t considered in this study on women. 

Also of note: Where the women were in their menstrual cycle was not taken into consideration, which could play a factor in how they responded to the training. There is a lot unknown about how the menstrual cycle affects female athletes. 

While science catches up to us, I hope you feel free to break away from guidelines that don’t work for you and find what will ultimately make you a stronger runner.

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