Why Women Need Weights More Than Men
When I was 15 I started participating in fitness classes. The instructor who taught me was really into weight training. What's more, she was a woman in her late 40's, early 50's who competed in Body Building. She was a huge influence on my early career into fitness. I knew nothing then of the differences women faced. She had 4 children and had twins in her 40's. She would have gone through the menopause whilst she was teaching us . She was phenomenal and a fantastic role model to have - Not once did I see age or indeed being female as a barrier to strength training.
I dipped in and out of doing weights throughout my career as I explored a variety of different sports and fitness regimes. Despite the fact that I loved the way weights made me feel and had amassed a huge amount of knowledge on strength training - I wasn't always engaged in it. - Whilst my body loved it, my mind was always looking to try something new. The benefits of strength training, specifically for women were not known. There was no research on women's training. - it was based (and still is) on a male model. Most women shied away, unless it was dressed up in a class environment such as Body Pump or Body Max classes.
In my mid 30's, around the time I first got pregnant, I trained as a Pilates teacher - This worked really well with being a mum and my business focus on pre and postnatal women. . Everything in the naughties was about Pilates and The core - This worked so well with my target audience. - It was what everyone wanted. AND HERE IN LIES THE MOST IMPORTANT MESSAGE. - Perhaps not all we actually need? This also meant that personally, as I went from being pregnant to peri-menopausal, I was focusing on muscular endurance and not muscular strength.
So what does muscular endurance, v muscular strength actually mean? Well to understand it we have to look at what makes up a muscle. What's so fascinating about this is when you look closely - women's muscle make up is entirely different to mens...
This is a slide from one of my lectures in the strength training programme and it's showing how our muscles consist of bundles of fibres, surrounded by more tissue & nerves, all playing a vital role in the function of your muscles. Without going into too much detail, just reading this slide should explain a little of how we now know our muscles have multiple functions. The main structure to concern yourself with here however are the Myofibril proteins that consists of two different fibre types - Myosin and Actin. - and it's the crossing of these fibres that gives the muscle its contractile ability. Pull out the Myosin fibres and this is where we see a predominant difference in muscle fibre type. We use to think there were just 3 different Myosin fibre types - Type I - which is known as slow twitch and Type IIa and Type IIx which are known as fast twitch. We now know that in different parts of the body these myosin fibres vary and we also have a lot of hybrid fibres, containing both fast and slow. To explain the difference between men and women - we can focus just on the 3 types...
As the names suggest these muscle fibre types have different roles - Type I are resistant to fatigue, are 'oxidative' - ie powered by oxygen transfer which is why long prolonged exercise, where oxygen uptake is increased, promotes this muscle fibre type. These muscle fibres are predominantly used for ENDURANCE. Type IIa and IIx are both driven predominantly by glycolysis. Glycolysis is the use of glycogen - energy stored in the muscle. As it's in short supply, it can only power your muscles for short periods of time. Type IIa uses a combination of oxygen and glycogen - which means those fibre types, whilst having fast contractile ability can last a little bit longer (60 - 90 seconds) than Type IIx which have the fastest ability to contract but literally for only a few seconds.
So the different muscle fibre types enable us to move either longer & slower or faster but for only very short periods of time. And we know that training either way can cause a shift in your muscle fibre type. We are still discovering more how this is happening - It's incredibly interesting science, especially as we discover more how this has knock on effects on other organs of the body from our gut to brain and more. It's what though gets me so excited about how exercise can literally change, not only our muscle make up but also our entire system, making us healthier and more resistant to disease.
So here is the thing - WOMEN ARE , AS A RULE - PREDOMINANT IN SLOW TWITCH MUSCLE FIBRE, MEN MORE IN FAST TWITCH. We always use to believe the difference in our strength was purely down to the fact that men simply have more muscle than women and women have more fat. I look into this in a lot more detail in my lectures on my programme and the implications of that in terms of fat metabolism. - which again we do differently to men.
The key take home here though is that there is a reason why women favour more endurance based activities - we are bloody good at it! And, despite having a lot less muscle than men, it's been shown in ultra long cycling events that women can cross the finish line in the same times as men.
There is however another significant difference and that is in how are muscle health is maintained. Hormones play a huge part in this - Women's muscle health being primarily influenced by estrogen for the majority of our lives and mens being primarily influenced by testosterone. Women also have the added factor of having huge fluctuations in hormone levels...
There are 3 distinct points at which our hormones rise and fall -
1) Through Our Monthly Cycle
2) From Pregnancy to Postnatal
3) From Peri to Post Menopause.
This is not significant to just one time period - ie menopause . How are body's change, month to month, year from year, pregnancy to post and beyond matters. Where you are now - where ever that is! Matters in terms of where you are going. Understanding where you have been can help you to understand where you are going and what you need to do to optimise your health - THIS IS INCREDIBLY EMPOWERING!
Because women tend to be dominant in type I muscle fibre, because we are REALLY good at doing the endurance stuff, to elicit more change in muscle health, we need to do more power type training. There is a huge amounts of evidence on why this is good for us - for our brains - it increases something called BDNF - brain-derived neurotrophic factor as well as improving blood flow and reducing inflammation to the brain. BDNF is linked to improved memory and learning. We also have evidence that more power type strength training elicits greater changes (this includes jump training as well as strength training) in bone remodelling. Muscle mass decreases approximately 3–8% per decade after the age of 30 and this rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60.
If we want to control diseases such as Osteoporosis and Dementia we HAVE to look after our muscles.
Strength training is the only way you can do this successfully at any age! It really is your golden ticket to not only better health but also greater confidence, not forgetting all the aesthetic benefits that come along with it.
It can be tricky to navigate, it does require dedication but it is possible and it is so very worth it. It's potentially the kindest, the most powerful, the most significant thing you can do for both your physical and mental health and I'm here to help you do it.
I am going to doing my lecture/workshop session "Why women need weights more than men" - online and exclusively for members of The Strong Sisterhood. Join the Strong sisterhood here and look out for dates!
If you want my help now - you can join my Strength Training Programme for just £227 for 4 months or £65 per month. It will enable anyone, where ever you are starting from, to discover weight training and feel confident to enter the gym or train at home with optimum benefits.
I also teach my STRONG class every Thursday live at 6.15am (available for 24 hrs). You can trial a class for free or join my on demand programmes (first week is free) to gain access any time.
I didn't focus on strength training at critical points in my life when perhaps I should have and which, if I had, my health would be better now. BUT the point is, I am doing it now and I am, despite being 7 years post menopause, feeling fitter and stronger than I ever have.
Whatever life stage you are at, it's never too late to start.
Sending you Strong vibes...
Jane 💪🏽 ❤️