Female physiology is incredibly complex. In fact, it is so complex that many reputable male trainers avoid working with ladies. The intricacies associated with changes in female body composition has been a perplexing phenomenon since the age of time, even dumbfounding much of the scientific world.
This post will aim to outline the biological mechanisms behind the enigmatic female body, while providing rationale for the best approach to training for improvements in body composition.
Why Are Females’ Bodies Seemingly So Complex?
This is probably a preconceived notion for the ladies reading this but men really do have it much easier from a body composition perspective. Almost every research paper shows smaller effect sizes in both weight loss and fat for women, when compared to their male counterparts.
Ultimately, it boils down to the capacity to procreate and the concomitant menstrual cycle. A few key changes that should be considered in a eumenorrheic (i.e. normal menstruation) female:
- Women have a greater amount of estradiol and testosterone during the follicular phase compared to the luteal phase, and thus can handle higher training loads during this period
- Women are also more insulin sensitive and less prone to water retention during the follicular phase, so carbohydrates are generally better tolerated
Irrespective of the menstrual cycle, females are far more resistant to changes in homeostasis than males. By this I mean that the female body will fight back harder in response to stressors such as exercise and changes in diet. Again, this is due to the complex biological mechanisms underpinning female physiology (wired to facilitate survival of the human race); the menstrual cycle only compounds these compensations that aim to maintain homeostasis.
Moreover, the extent to which women experience ‘period’ symptoms varies tremendously; some females cannot differentiate between the stages that they may be in at any given time, whereas others will experience significant alterations in mood, water retention (which will mask fat loss efforts), appetite, energy and so on.
Females’ Training & Diet Should Be Periodised (Pun Not Intended :P)
In light of the above, most females will respond best to periodising their training and eating in accordance with what stage they are in. Without delving to deep into the finer details of specific programming, here are a few principles that I would advise implementing to feel, look and perform better:
- Training during the follicular phase should be relatively higher volume, higher intensity; conversely, lower the volume and intensity during your luteal phase, perhaps even incorporating more steady state cardiovascular exercise (like brisk walking). Strive to hit PBs during the follicular phase, and see the luteal period as more of a ‘maintenance’ phase to avoid being disheartened with potentially poor performances. This study very much supports the idea of training periodisation for females, showing greater gains made in strength and muscle.
- Since metabolism and insulin sensitivity plunges during the luteal phase, and we are reducing our overall training volume, calories need to be cut. The reduction in calories should come almost exclusively from carbohydrates. For example, a 60kg female’s rest day may differ by 300-500 calories (75-125g of carbohydrates) between the follicular and luteal phases. *This is an example, only – take it for what its worth.
Much research also suggests that females preferentially utilise intra-muscular fatty acids during exercise, when compared to men. In other words, women are better at what we call ‘carbohydrate-sparing’. As such, fat should comprise a higher proportion of a female’s diet, and I generally programme for my female clients in this manner.
Since females possess a fraction of the testosterone that males do, they usually lack the absolute intensity males are able to train with. This is a major reason, besides their propensity for fat substrate utilisation, why females tend to respond better to higher volume schemes when training with weights. Ladies generally require greater total reps/sets in order to achieve the same relative work output as men, at any given perceived exertion. I am not advocating muscular endurance rep targets (i.e. 15+), but a 4-8 rep goal I will often prescribe for a male in the gym would usually translate into 6-12 for the ladies. This is obviously dependent on the exercise and other variables, but just another example to illustrate my point.
While I am by no means a Crossfit aficionado, I do believe certain principles derived from this sport are favourable for women’s physiques. The elite female crossfitters train compound barbell movements with high intensity, relatively high volumes in short time-frames, capitalising on fat oxidation while building lean muscle. You don’t have to join a crossfit box, but take some of these principles and incorporate them in to your own training. The major downfall with crossfit is that it doesn’t really consider long-term programming; the workouts are random and thus don’t allow the individual to progressively overload exercises in a meaningful way. It is exercise, as opposed to training.
The majority of females gravitate to exercise modalities like yoga because, naturally, they are good it. Females have much more lax joints than males, so it is relatively easy. I think yoga is fantastic, both for the mind and one’s mobility, but adding a few ‘heavy’ strength training days a week on top of this will render profound improvements; for health, improved body composition, confidence to name but a handful of associated benefits.
I understand stepping in the gym is right outside the comfort zone of most women, and this is exactly why you should commence a proper weight training regime. The research to support strength training for women is simply irrefutable.