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Why training women is not the same as training ‘small men’

When it comes to the best way to exercise, men and women usually have very different goals and capabilities. Each gender experiences vast differences in mental health, physical performance, hormonal changes and lifestyles factors, which is why it is important to find a fitness professional who takes these into consideration and creates a tailored exercise program specifically for you. As a woman, taking the time to focus on your health and fitness (especially your pelvic floor!) can have long-term benefits both physically and mentally. 

By Caroline Molloy, Founder - Sassifit

As a female coach who also predominantly trains women, it really bugs me when I hear some coaches say that training women is essentially the same as training ‘small men’. I mean really?? Are we really so oblivious to the differences between men and women that we can’t understand that you as a woman would need to be trained differently?

For starters, you are not ‘people’. You are a person. Even for those of us who tend to train special populations or niches such as athletes, pre and postnatal women, weight lifters etc. We are still training an individual every time we are face to face with a client. So the training program that is written for you should always reflect that.

I want to discuss a few different factors that may affect women specifically to address how important it is to train you as a woman and not as a small man.

Firstly and most obviously, women have a menstrual cycle every month. Now it is important to note that every woman is different and every woman’s menstrual cycle will, therefore, be different. The research is inconclusive when it comes to adapting training cycles to menstrual cycles. What that means is, some women will feel totally crap around the week or days before their period is due. This is known as PMS and women who tend to really notice PMS will know what I am talking about here. Other conditions such as endometriosis can also really affect how a woman is able to train at certain times of their cycle. A good coach will be able to adapt your training program to suit this. It’s called periodisation and it basically means that you will be doing lower reps and weights at this part of your menstrual cycle and building your weights/reps up towards the last weeks of your menstrual cycle when you are feeling stronger and no longer have a period or PMS.

For many women, this is not an issue and periodisation is not needed, but this is why you should always communicate with your trainer how, or whether you are affected by your menstrual cycle so it can be taken into account.

There may however be other issues that are more important.

The most significant factors affecting women amongst the general population today are:
Sleep (or lack thereof)
Energy (or lack thereof)
Stress (job, money, family, pandemic…)

Now I am not suggesting that men don’t also have these stressors in their lives. However, research tells us that women predominantly put themselves last in all these areas, particularly once they become mothers, and it also tells us that they carry the mental load of all these factors more than men.

So your training programming must take these factors into account. A good trainer will discuss these issues with you and get a good overall picture of your stressors before writing you a training program.

The last few factors that specifically relate to women are bone density, nutrition and pelvic health. Again, men can also be affected by these to some degree, but women are significantly more likely to have issues relating to these topics.

Exercise plays an important role in bone density for women. Between the ages of 0-25 we are in our bone growth stage. For women between the ages of 25-35 we have a plateau in bone density and it is a really important time to be exercising to increase our peak bone density. Because, after the age of 35 all the way up to menopause we have a slow decrease in bone density. So the higher our peak is the more we have to work with. After menopause there is a much faster decrease in bone density and exercise becomes extremely important. The best types of exercises for bone density are high impact exercise, weight-bearing and resistance training. All women should have a combination of these types of exercises in their programs.

Nutrition plays a bigger role when it comes to energy and exercise than most women realise. Because we live in a culture that reveres thinness, we are all impacted by what we call ‘diet culture’. Now it is very important to understand that it is virtually impossible to be oblivious to diet culture. It is everywhere, from the models and actors we are shown on TV to the influencers on social media. When we are only shown one type of body to be worthy, we will aspire to, or hold the belief that this is the body we should have. Even if that is an unconscious bias. A US study found that 74.5% of women had a negative view of their body shape and size and that two thirds of those women were on some form of diet at the time of the study. Australian studies show similar results with body dissatisfaction and diet history.

Disordered eating and eating disorders are a spectrum of behaviours from clinically diagnosed conditions such as anorexia and bulimia to disordered eating behaviours such as; an obsession with weight, chronic eating, caloric restriction, fear or anxiety around food, compensation, eg. making up for what you have eaten by exercising or restricting, body image concerns.

Some of these may sound very common but it is important to recognise that these types of behaviours can be extremely damaging to your mental as well as physical health. Weight cycling for example, which is yo-yo dieting, has shown to lead to an increase in inflammation in the body, a negative impact on heart health as well as an increased risk of obesity. Restricting your diet has been proven time and again not to work. When you don’t eat well, you have less energy, you have less strength and you feel worse which makes it harder to exercise or do everyday tasks. A good trainer will help you work on rebuilding your relationship with food. They won’t push restrictive diets or perpetuate the myth that thinness is healthier than fitness.

Finally, pelvic health has a huge influence on exercise for women, however it is probably the least talked about issue of them all! Pelvic health is the term used to describe the health and function of our pelvic floor muscles. These are the muscles that form the base of our deep stabilising system or our ‘core’. Now, many women train their ‘core’. Ab workouts and 6 packs coming to mind specifically. But if you don’t train or talk about your pelvic health you are leaving out the most important muscle. The pelvic floor supports the pelvic organs. It is responsible for both bladder and bowel continence. There are many factors that can affect pelvic health and cause incontinence in women. Pregnancy, birth, ageing, nutrition, hormones and conditions such as endometriosis, but also exercise! Runners, athletes and active women are one of the most affected groups outside of pregnant women! Due to this being so common but also such a taboo topic, many women will allow their fear of their pelvic floor dysfunction to hold them back from exercise. A good trainer will discuss this topic with you. They will factor this into your programming and through modified training, connection breath and referring you to a suitable pelvic health physio they will help you to rebuild your strength as well as your confidence so you can exercise without the fear of your pelvic floor letting you down.

If you are still with me after all that, I hope that this helps you when you are thinking about how exercise fits into your life. As women we are so much more than a ‘mum’, a ‘girlfriend’ or a ‘wife’. We are whole functioning human beings and we are complex and our bodies are doing, being and thinking so many different things all at the one time. We deserve to have a training program designed that takes our uniqueness into account. Not one that follows what all the boys are doing and not one that looks the same as everyone else’s.