Women will not get big bulky muscles because they just plain don’t have the hormones to build them. It is the difference in the hormonal profile between men and women that causes their performances to also be different. There are several aspects of a woman’s performance that will different from those of a man, all of which depend on neuromuscular efficiency, and all of which are a direct result of lower testosterone levels and the effects that testosterone has on motor unit recruitment, central nervous system excitation and other neuromuscular factors.
You might now be thinking that because there are such big differences, then it must be true what the fitness industry says about the necessity of gender specific programs and exercises. This could not be further from the truth. Women may lack higher levels of testosterone, but we are built the same when you look at our body structures. We are not as different as bunnies and fish. Men and Women, however, both recruit motor units into the same patterns to cause muscle contractions…..just to different degrees. A real world example would be that physiologically, Aaron Rogers and your grandmother operate the same way, in the same sense that Labradors and Toy Poodles are both dogs.
What does this all mean? That the type of stress (i.e. training / heavy strength) will cause the best results in both men and women, only the degree of results will vary. For example, Squats work better for everybody than leg extensions, leg curls, and the Bun Blasters because of the quality of stress they produce. “Squats are performed with the same muscles by everybody, they are hard for everybody, hard enough to produce system-wide stress for everybody – and this is why they work for everybody. Men are more efficient at responding to the stress of squats in terms of elevated testosterone levels, and in this respect men can get stronger and bigger faster.” (Rippetoe) What this doesn’t mean is that women are not served well by using “less efficient” ways to produce stress on their bodies. We just wont get as strong or big as men. J
So what should we do ladies? We need to be doing barbell exercises that demand strength, balance, power, coordination, and mental focus to produce a type of stress and adaptation that is superior to either low-intensity floor exercise (or walking on the treadmill) or isolation type machine exercises (i.e. bicep curls, leg extensions). It is the stress that causes the adaptation, and the quality of the adaptation is dependent on the quality of the stress. For example, an exercise that does not involve balance cannot cause an improvement in balance. The stress on the body must target the parameters that need improvement or these parameters will not see adaptation. It is this simple fact that is ignored and/or misunderstood – by the fitness industry, and thus the value of squats, deadlifts, presses, cleans, and combinations of barbell movements with gymnastic skills and track & field skills goes unappreciated and therefore causes an incorrect education of our society.
The other unfortunate aspect is that holding businesses to these truths would complicate their businesses. It is very hard to find qualified staff to train members at optimal levels of skill and intensity. And it will continue this way as long as the standard fitness center pays minimum wage for trainers. Qualified coaches generally get paid more than fitness centers are willing to spend. All hope is not lost! This paradigm is slowly breaking down and we can thank CrossFit! As CrossFit grows and it becomes harder to ignore the results of honest work done at high intensities, the “fitness media” is taking notice. You see more stories featuring the benefits of weight training versus aerobics-only programs.
It honestly isn’t rocket science, as most things in life work in a way that you get out of an effort what you put into it. This is something that we all know, however, we still crack and are willing to believe people who tell us otherwise. We hear 20-min a day and you could look like this, or all you have to do is walk on the treadmill. Unfortunately it isn’t true and we know that because we are smart people.
To summarize my experience as a CrossFit Coach and Affiliate owner for 1 1/2 years, on top of 10+ years in the fitness industry, is that not one of the 180+ women we have trained has gotten bigger and stayed bigger. I have seen a couple women get bigger as the body begins its transformation. However, bigger is temporary. Usually lean mass increases first. Shortly thereafter, a layer of fat melts off the top of the newly acquired lean mass. As soon as that happens, the women are thrilled. For the clients that incorporate a zone/paleo approach to nutrition, the results come quickly and without fail. For those that do not make dietary changes, the process takes longer. And don’t forget that strength will have longer lasting benefits than the immediate tight ass or smaller waist. It will help you open jars, carry your own groceries, move your own furniture, stay mobile and osteoporosis free so you can enjoy a long active life! So get started and pick up some heavy weights to start making the changes that you want to see.
Want to read more about Women in CrossFit? Check out this great article Beyond the Body, you won’t regret it!