Telling women to train differently than men has been one of the biggest fitness marketing myths in the industry. There was no rhyme or reason to it other than marketers wanting to develop a category they can make tons of money. Women weren’t going into gyms so they needed another point of access. “Female” oriented gyms like Curves were then developed as safe places to workout without the “intimidation” of angry men.
The quick answer is no. Women should NOT train any differently than men. There is nothing about either sex that drastically changes the strategy going into the gym. What will definitely be a bigger factor, regardless or sex, is your individual goals.
For instance, men tend to focus on the chest, and biceps whereas women prefer working on the legs and the butt. If this were the case, then a program would definitely alter based on that preference. The approach with women vs men may also be different. For example, men generally love to push as heavy as they can to show their manliness but they sacrifice their form. On the other hand, most female clients I’ve had, showed immaculate form, but we’re afraid to push the rep range too low or go too heavy for fear of bulking up. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Men have higher testosterone levels than women. This means women will grow at a slower rate than men, and have less potential to put on huge amounts of mass like their male counterparts will. Any hugely jacked woman you see is likely taking anabolics or just has insanely great genetics. Higher levels of estrogen may also cause some extra water retention vs males. Their appetite will change throughout the month based on their menstrual cycle so this needs to be taken into account as well.
There have been studies showing women have a higher tolerance for more volume than men. So women may do better, and prefer higher rep and more frequency when training certain body parts. This doesn’t mean however, that they should shy away from lower rep, higher intensity stuff. We want to stimulate the muscle from all intensities to achieve optimal results, and training heavier doesn’t equate to looking “too bulky”.
If getting too bulky is what you are worried about just take a look at literally every guy in the gym. They will spend their ENTIRE lives trying to look too big and most will never achieve it. Keep in mind their testosterone is WAY higher than yours and they will still be struggling with this. Putting on size doesn’t happen overnight. The only women I’ve seen “bulk too quickly” wasn’t because they gained too much muscle, but that they never lost the excess body fat on their body. So they had more muscle AND more fat which of course will look “bulkier” but if they shed some of the excess body fat they would diet down to that “tone” look they are probably after.
One last thing to keep in mind is that women have naturally higher body fat levels than men. Men average around 10-15% bodyfat. If a woman were to get that lean it would be way too lean to sustain. You’d soon find your menstrual cycle is affected by it, your energy and mood overall declines, and your hormones get messed up. This happens for men too but not until they get to sub 6% body fat. The most athletic women can be somewhere between 15-19% but anywhere up to 25% is considered average for women.
At the end of the day what matters is the same advice I’d give males. Focus on compound movements that stimulate the most muscles in a given exercise. Choose a weight that allows you to do anywhere from 5-20 reps. Make sure the weight is heavy enough that you can progress within that range and not above. You don’t have to train to absolute failure, but can go 2-3 reps shy. Shoot for 2-3 full body days spread out evenly across a week hitting one exercise per muscle each time.
Be sure to check out my article on Why Every Woman Should Skip the Cardio and Begin Weight Training.