“If we encourage muscle these days, why are too many muscles manly? We were all born with muscles. They don’t belong exclusively on men, any more than skin belongs exclusively on women. Isn’t it possible for femininity and physical power to coexist? Isn’t it possible that the more we embrace our bodies, the more womanly we become? Embrace your body. And find out.”
Nike Ad in
Sports Illustrated for Women, Summer 1999

Women have been participating in strength training regularly since the 1950’s. Yet the common view that lifting weights is a masculine endeavor, resulting in a more “manly” physique persists. Why? Societal views of gender roles and women’s fear of bulking up as a result of strength training have resulted in misguided approaches to the goal of achieving muscle tone and definition. Consequently, females have shied away from strength training and are therefore missing the opportunity to fully explore their physical strength.

Absolute strength differences between men and women can be best explained by physiology: hormones, body type, body size, and body composition (fat and fat-free mass). In relative terms, the strength gap between women and men is less obvious. It is well documented that as women gain strength and power, there is minimal increase in muscle size. Therefore, women should be encouraged to engage in regular strength training. A well-designed periodized program will result in increasing lean body mass, reducing body fat, increasing resting metabolic rate, maintaining bone and joint health, improving balance and coordination, increasing muscle tone and definition, and improving self-confidence.

Societal Views of Gender Roles
Our culture continues to promote primarily two ideals of beauty. The first ideal, perpetuated by the fashion industry, is a body built for clothes, creating an image as how women would like to see themselves. Clothes continue to get smaller and smaller, promoting a small, fragile, and very thin feminine physique. The second ideal is a body built for sex, a vision of women as men would like to see them. This ideal touts fleshy curves and robust breasts, best illustrated by models for Victoria’s Secret, where women possess improbable proportions. It is no wonder women are insecure about their femininity and the cultures’ view of them. What qualifies for beauty in our culture is confusing.

As women overcome these traditional gender-roles, we see an enormous growth in the level of participation in sports and exercise, helping to define a new ideal: A body built for performance. Muscles add physical substance and give women permission to take up space, thus empowering them with a new found strength. This is not a body relegated to the ranks of female athletes only, but for all women pursuing activities to promote an injury-free, healthy lifestyle.

Psychological Factors
In the trenches of the weight room, females are more anxious and overwhelmed than males, mainly due to lack of opportunity and exposure. Women can also be intimidated by the minuscule weights being used when starting a strength program. Often times, the psychological obstacles can be overcome through proper education, information, patience, and encouragement. Studies continue to show how femininity and strength can coexist. It has been reported that when women engage in strength training they have increased self-confidence, self-esteem, and a healthier relationship with their body (1, 2).

Physiological Factors
The average woman has 1/10th the level of testosterone of men, a hormone responsible for influencing strength and size gains (4). At puberty, testosterone levels increase for boys, promoting muscle development and bone growth, while estrogen influences fat storage around the thighs, hips, and breasts for girls. The larger deposition of adipose tissue also contributes to the lack of visual muscular definition in women. For a small percentage of women, a higher testosterone level will result in greater potential for strength development as well as a concomitant increase in muscle size. But generally speaking, the fear of bulking up is not warranted because of the lower levels of testosterone.

Body height and structure, muscle fiber size, genetics, nutrition, and program design also play key roles in the training response. Men’s bigger frame size supports more lean body mass and wider shoulders allow greater leverage. The differences in body composition, men’s greater amount of muscle mass and women’s higher percentage of body fat, accounts for much of the disparity in strength between the genders.

Absolute vs. Relative Strength
Women can possess between 50-60% the strength of men in the upper body and 70-85% the strength in the lower body (2, 4). Research indicates that the strength-to-lean-body-mass ratio is a more meaningful measure of strength between the sexes. Based on relative strength differences, women are about equal to men in strength, suggesting that muscle is muscle, with no gender differences. Hence, women benefit from strength training as much as men and should engage regularly to reap the rewards of a well planned out periodized program-one that manipulates volume and intensity over a specific time to enhance muscle tone, strength and power.

Benefits of Strength Training
• Increased fat-free mass and decreased percentage of body fat.
• Increased joint integrity and stability thus reducing chance of injury.
• Enhanced bone health through loading of the axial skeleton.
• Higher resting metabolic rate because of increase in muscle mass.
• Improved balance and coordination.
• Increased muscle tone and strength.
• Increased self-confidence and self-esteem.
• Improved quality of life.

Although gender roles still powerfully shape our views and perceptions, physical strength is no longer solely a male domain. Women are continuing to redefine what constitutes beauty in our culture. A strong, lean, muscular body through participation in strength training is a valued and desired outcome. Such participation helps to debunk the misconceptions, fostering a greater appreciation of strength for the present and future generations of females.

“Women and Strength Training Part II: Reshaping Your Body’s Physique through Program Design” will be discussed in an upcoming newsletter. Program variables such as load, intensity of effort, volume, frequency, exercises, and rest periods need to be considered when wanting to achieve muscular tone and definition.

1. Ebben, William P, Jensen, Randall L: Strength Training for Women: Debunking Myths That Block Opportunity, The Physician and Sportsmedicine; Vol 26(5):1998.
2. National Strength and Conditioning Association: Roundtable: Strength training and conditioning for the female athlete. NSCA Journal; Vol 7(3):10-29, 1985.
3. National Strength and Conditioning Association: Position Paper: Strength Training for Female Athletes. NSCA, Colorado Springs, 1990.
4. National Strength and Conditioning Association: Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. NSCA; 151-162, 1994.

Jane M. Taylor