Our very first article back in 2017 followed the women’s U52kg class at the World Classic Powerlifting Championships, and during this time, women’s powerlifting has been thrust even further into the media spotlight following the ongoing all-star battle between Daniella Melo and Amanda Lawrence. We want to show some more love for the women in our sport and help new lifters start their strength training journeys. We’ve put this article together to share some of the training tips that we’ve learnt along the way from coaching our athletes and delving into the academic literature.
This article sets out to look at a few of the training considerations that AFAB lifters should take into account to get the most out from their gym training sessions.
You won’t be surprised to hear that unfortunately most of the sporting content around research and reviews, strength training articles, social media content, and even anecdotal advice in gyms revolves around men. If you look into most sports science studies the chances are that the subjects will have been ‘previously-trained men aged 20-40’. Not only is this frustrating to say the least, it can also lead to gaps in learnings for anybody who isn’t represented in that demographic. While this situation remains prevalent in the literature today, the story is changing.
We’re not going to pretend that studies on the whole are now including full gender or age ranges, that other demographics such as race are even periodically referenced, or that anybody else receives even a modicum of the analysis that non-disabled AMAB athletes do, but there is a growing body of information out there. And specifically, there’s enough information out there for us to answer some of the questions that have been posed on the differences in the training protocols for male and female athletes.
We’ve highlighted key findings from the literature, which we’ve found to be consistent with the results that some of our female lifters have produced.
When designing training programmes, athletes and coaches should be aware of the level of volume (sets x reps) that female lifters are carrying out across their macrocycles. Despite what may be commonly espoused in the ‘bro’ corners of the internet and gyms, female lifters are generally better prepared for high volume lifting, more so than their male counterparts. This is largely due to the fact that on the whole, female lifters have a greater proportion of type 1 (slow twitch) muscle fibres, meaning that they generally have higher thresholds before muscular fatigue 1. This also means that female lifters generally take less time to recover from workouts 2. Oestrogen is also purported to have strong recovery effects on muscles which would also give female lifters the upper hand in that regard 3. So when you’re looking at programming, make sure to experiment in the higher rep ranges, even if you’re a powerlifter. Time-honoured general programmes such as Wendler 5/3/1 may not give female athletes the results that male lifters can often expect. See what works for your body and goals.
Intensity here is defined by the weight of the lift, i.e. % of a lifter’s 1 rep max. Traditionally, female gym goers have steered away from heavy lifting and free weights. It’s clear to see that in most gyms the men monopolise the free weight section. At the same time, many women report that they struggle to improve their strength and musculature, particularly in the upper body. Research shows us that female lifters will find it easier to increase strength and muscle mass if they opt for high intensity training over low intensity 4. So don’t be afraid to grab hold of those barbells and give the heavy work a whirl. Coupling this with the literature on volume and the biological predeterminants of female muscles (type 1 & oestrogen levels) we often see in practice that female lifters are much better equipped to carry out moderate and high rep work at greater intensities. Where male lifters would usually hit ceilings of triples when working around the 90+% mark, female athletes can generally do much more – though this then drastically drops off the closer we get to 100%, when males can generally more consistently grid out reps in the final upper percentiles. To combat this we’ve found that interspersing regular heavy singles as well as heavy holds in programmes can be good preparation for lifting maximally.
As you can imagine, the effects of your period on lifting performance vary greatly from person to person. Here are some general considerations which have been borne out by the literature. Firstly, training recovery rates have generally been found to be better at the start of the cycle. This follicular stage has also been shown as the time when the greatest strength and muscular increases take place 5. Oestrogen can play a positive role in recovery for muscle fibres. In the days leading up to the start of ovulation women can expect to feel at their strongest, have the fastest recovery, and exhibit their highest levels of muscular endurance of the month 6; so this may be a good time to programme heavy sessions or max attempts.
Testosterone, while present in female bodies, is often around 10x less than for their male counterparts. Testosterone gives males a headstart when it comes to muscle size and strength (particularly in the upper body where androgen receptors are high), but doesn’t have a significant effect when it comes to relative gains. Males on the whole will start with bigger and stronger muscles due to greater testosterone production, but when it comes to subsequently building strength, female lifters can more than bridge the gap as we’ll see below. Oestrogen has beneficial effects on muscle repair, combating osteoporosis, increasing metabolism, and contrary to popular belief it has been shown to have anabolic effects – so can also boost muscle function 3,6. We see oestrogen levels reach their peak just before the middle of the cycle 7, so again, lifters and coaches should take this into consideration for training.
We’d also like to give a thumbs up here to one of our favourite blogs Keeping Strong for putting together some great resources around the benefits of lifting during menopause. Keep your eyes peeled for their upcoming guest article for Lift Team 6.
Looking specifically at powerlifting, female bodies anecdotally tend to have the advantage of high levels of flexibility and mobility. This can be leveraged to make competition compound lifts easier. A good level of shoulder mobility will translate to lifters being able to take a closer grip on the bar when setting-up to squat, allowing for greater upper back tightness. Generally powerlifters aim to take as narrow a grip on the bar as is comfortable in order to secure the bar on the traps. If a lifter has adequate shoulder mobility to be able to take a close grip on the bar they’ll be able to reduce pressure on the elbow joints, increase upper back tightness, and expectantly increase squatting proficiency.
Conversely, in the squat increased flexibility can change the dynamics of the movement when it comes to force production out of the ‘hole’. The hole is the bottom position of the squat, where the lifter stops descending and begins the upward concentric portion of the lift. Many lifters rely on a certain amount of stiffness in the body to help fire them out of the hole, this is called the ‘Myotatic Reflex’ (stretch reflex). This is an automatic muscle contraction which activates in response to a sudden stretch within the muscle. This can be felt to produce a bouncing effect before concentric contraction. The lengthened muscles (at eccentric contraction) become stretched and try to revert back to their shortened position, this stretching creates kinetic tension which can be used by lifters to leverage explosive power. This reflex becomes less pronounced with increased flexibility, so it may be more difficult for lifters with greater levels of mobility to execute this action. In that case, in order to work on explosive power out of the hole lifters can incorporate pause squats, pin squats, and variations of tempo squats. These assistance exercises can be useful tools when not relying on hitting the hole at speed to take advantage of the stretch reflex.
Where increased flexibility can really lead to tangible increases in powerlifting performance is the bench press. The ability to create a bench ‘arch’ is a key component of competitive powerlifting which you’ll see exhibited frequently amongst elite lifters. The arch reduces the range of motion of the bench press – from the starting height to the touch point on the chest – meaning that less effort is needed to complete the movement, and thus more weight can be pressed for the same amount of work. The arch also 1) reduces the level of deltoid involvement in the movement, allowing for a greater focus of muscle activity on the stronger pectoral muscles, and 2) allows for shear forces to be negated by providing loaded anchor points in the shoulders and glutes 8. It is common to see female athletes on the world stage exploit this set-up to reduce their ROM to virtually nothing, allowing them to take on gargantuan weights.
Fear of Bulk
A common barrier for many female lifters taking up strength training is the fear that resistance training will suddenly morph them into muscle-bound monsters, this however is wildly inaccurate. The truth regarding effort in the gym is that, no matter your goal, no matter the type of training, changes take a very long time. Nobody has ever accidentally gotten big. Just ask the scores of stringer-toting teenage boys happlessly curling away in the gym mirrors – increasing muscle mass is a long and slow process. Specifically when carrying out strength training (i.e. focusing on low volume and high intensity), changes in muscle size are slow, with strength increases becoming evident ahead of muscle mass increases 9. With the myriad of programming methodologies available for coaches to choose from it’s perfectly possible to change your body in any way you see fit. Having a structured exercise programme can allow you to lose or gain weight, increase or decrease muscle tone, increase or decrease muscle mass; whatever you like. Many women attest that they want to tone up and then turn to cardio, when in reality resistance training would better serve their purposes. What won’t happen is an overnight transformation into the Incredible Hulk after you touch your first barbell.
Rate of Progression
As we touched on above, when comparing male and female muscular development, the starting points aren’t the same. In terms of absolute strength and muscle mass, barring a limited number of exceptions, males usually have a head start. What’s interesting from a training perspective is that the literature shows that progression for females is better than for males. This takes into account both relative gains and rate of progression 10,11. If the playing field were to be levelled at the beginning of training then we’d likely see male lifters fall rapidly behind female lifters 12, which is hopefully a sign of encouragement for our female lifters, and a reminder that it’s not beneficial to compare oneself to those around us.
Lots of the myths around female athletes being ‘weaker’ than males are centered around ignorance and a lack of representation in the discourse around sport. We want to highlight a handful of our favourite athletes for anyone looking for inspiration.
Meg ‘megsquats’ Gallagher is an A-lister in the world of online strength training. Her huge Youtube channel has regularly been putting out informative general and women specific content for years, following her life as an elite powerlifter and her adventures into many other areas in the sporting world.
Bonica Brown received a mention in one of our articles 4 years ago, and we’re still in awe. That’s because Bonica is the undisputed numero uno on the world powerlifting stage. Winning any championships she enters, Brown has turned the 84kg+ category into her own private show.
Joy Nnamani is also getting a repeat shoutout on our blog. The British and World record holder shot onto the scene at 22 years of age and has been swimming in gold medals ever since. With one of the best deadlifts in the world, Joy brings unparalleled excitement to any competition.
Speaking of deadlifts, next up is Kimberly Walford! Boasting a pull of over 250kg and more than 18 years of wins under her belt, Walford is an inspiration to us all. A true competitor with an insatiable fighting spirit Kim always leaves everything on the platform.
With arguably the best bench press in the world, Jen Thompson has changed the game and left all of her competitors in the dust. Nobody even comes close to Jen’s impressive numbers, and she’s still breaking records!
One to watch for the future! If this girl doesn’t inspire you we don’t know what will. Mahailya Reeves may still be a sub-junior lifter but she’s taking the lifting world by storm. Already breaking national records and gaining viral notoriety, ‘Big Ru’ is definitely a name to remember.
Heather Connor outshines most powerlifters by being able to boast a 3.2x bodyweight squat, a 1.6x bodyweight bench, and a 4.1x bodyweight deadlift! Heather’s consistent progress over the years has earned her national and world titles a plenty!
As the literature suggests, and as you already knew – women can handle a lot! Relatively speaking, more than men in most cases. Female bodies have been primed to put in some seriously big shifts! We want this to be a call to action for any of the women out there who have been hesitant to take the next steps on their strength journeys, and to think seriously about weight training. We want to provide you with as much information as possible so that you can stride into the gym with the confidence to take on the heavy work. You can conquer the gym; you were born to conquer the gym.
- Staron, R., Hagerman, F., Hikida, R., Murray, T., Hostler, D., & Crill, M. et al. (2000). Fiber Type Composition of the Vastus Lateralis Muscle of Young Men and Women. Journal Of Histochemistry & Cytochemistry, 48(5), 623-629.
- Judge, L., & Burke, J. (2010). The Effect of Recovery Time on Strength Performance Following a High-Intensity Bench Press Workout in Males and Females. International Journal Of Sports Physiology And Performance, 5(2), 184-196.
- Sarwar, R., Niclos, B., & Rutherford, O. (1996). Changes in muscle strength, relaxation rate and fatiguability during the human menstrual cycle. The Journal Of Physiology, 493(1), 267-272.
- Schuenke, M., Herman, J., Gliders, R., Hagerman, F., Hikida, R., & Rana, S. et al. (2012). Early-phase muscular adaptations in response to slow-speed versus traditional resistance-training regimens. European Journal Of Applied Physiology, 112(10), 3585-3595.
- Sung, E., Han, A., Hinrichs, T., Vorgerd, M., Manchado, C., & Platen, P. (2014). Effects of follicular versus luteal phase-based strength training in young women. Springerplus, 3(1), 668.
- Hansen, M., & Kjaer, M. (2014). Influence of Sex and Estrogen on Musculotendinous Protein Turnover at Rest and After Exercise. Exercise And Sport Sciences Reviews, 42(4), 183-192.
- Phillips, S., Sanderson, A., Birch, K., Bruce, S., & Woledge, R. (1996). Changes in maximal voluntary force of human adductor pollicis muscle during the menstrual cycle. The Journal Of Physiology, 496(2), 551-557.
- Saeterbakken, A., Mo, D., Scott, S., & Andersen, V. (2017). The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance. Journal Of Human Kinetics, 57(1), 61-71.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2019). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 51(1), 94–103.
- Ribeiro, A., Avelar, A., Schoenfeld, B., Trindade, M., Ritti-Dias, R., Altimari, L., & Cyrino, E. (2014). Effect of 16 Weeks of Resistance Training on Fatigue Resistance in Men and Women. Journal Of Human Kinetics, 42(1), 165-174.
- Kell, R. (2011). The Influence of Periodized Resistance Training on Strength Changes in Men and Women. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 25(3), 735-744.
- O’Hagan, F., Sale, D., MacDougall, J., & Garner, S. (1995). Response to Resistance Training in Young Women and Men. International Journal Of Sports Medicine, 16(05), 314-321.
If you have any feedback or information on the analysis in this piece, the related sources, or the general writing of this article please feel free to contact us. Our aim is to provide accurate and useful content to our athletes and followers – if you notice anything contrary to this, we’d like to learn how we can provide better information.